When Mat met Mark

What can Formula 1 learn from MotoGP? Where will 2017 take both sports? And what does John McGuinness have in common with Michael Schumacher’s dad? We asked Mark Hughes and Mat Oxley to thrash out some answers

Mat Exciting times for Formula 1, Mark. Let’s start by talking about the new rules. In a nutshell what do they mean?

Mark They’re a redrawing of the aero, basically. The intention was to give maybe a 20 per cent increase in downforce, but as ever the aerodynamicists are cleverer than the rule makers and even by midway through last year teams were predicting a 30-40 per cent increase. 

Mat Why don’t they just get rid of 90 per cent of the aero, because then you could actually race each other, couldn’t you? You could get close and there’d be no dirty air..

Mark Or make it about drag reduction rather than downforce generation, so that you would have a relevance to the road car industry and fuel consumption. That would need an entire root-and-branch culture change through the sport. Why have the wings been taken off MotoGP bikes?

Mat First, safety. Although nobody got hurt by them, it’s just something else to get snagged up on. You can imagine two guys coming into a 100mph corner, one going under the other guy, getting caught up on his wing, and then sitting the other guy up and sending him off. Also, the dirty air from the Ducati, which had the best wings, lifted the front of a drafting bike so the steering starts going.

Mark How much performance were they adding?

Mat Very little. It was a way to get more downforce to keep the front down after they went to unified software with reduced wheelie control. So a tiny, tiny performance increase. And Marc Márquez
says if you come out of a corner behind a guy with wings you’re not getting that downforce, so he’s got the advantage. It’s just spreading
the field out. 

Mark That’s a Formula 1 phenomenon as well. If you took Lorenzo, Rossi, Márquez, how much difference is there in individual styles and how much do you think the difference is more between their bikes than between them?

Mat The two extremes are Márquez and Lorenzo. Marquez just looks like he’s out of control – he’s all over the bike, just twisting this way and that and making it all work, whereas Lorenzo, you don’t even see him move. It probably is something about the bikes they ride, but it’s also probably where they came from, because Lorenzo came from 250s, very lightweight 250 two-strokes where it’s all about momentum and smoothness. Marquez came from Moto2. Not a lot of power, quite heavy, so you’re fighting, them. The racing was very close and very physical. So I think that’s a big part of where their styles came from. 

But at the same time their styles do suit those two bikes – or they did. The Honda is very much a point-and-squirt bike; you just dive in the corners, get it turned and get it out, whereas the Yamaha is more of a getting-the-corner-speed, momentum kind of bike.

Mark Where does the Ducati fit into that?

Mat Well, I think they’ve been going more towards cornering speed, so I think it’s going to work really well for Lorenzo. He could win the first race, because the Ducati has always gone really well at Losail and always has done. But I wanted to ask you
about post-Bernie F1.

Mark Yes, interesting times, in the medium term, at least. In the short term you’re not going to see a great deal of difference. But I think behind the scenes, you’re going to see a bit of a fight probably from the circuits, or a core of the circuits, to take advantage of the fact that the ownership is new and the hosting fee deals weren’t negotiated with Liberty, but through Bernie. 

Mat And the hosting fees are huge – £10  million up to £50 million at some places, right? 

Mark Yeah … China pays the most. And they all want the fees reduced. Longer term, I think the sport’s in much better hands than it was; we no longer have a private equity company as the majority shareholder. We have someone who’s actually investing in it for the sake of the business, rather than the sake of their business. So what sort of owner is Dorna?

Mat Well they’re a private equity concern, owned by Bridgepoint. The problem was that FIM [the governing body] basically sold its birthright to the manufacturers in the early ’90s. But Dorna has managed to wrestle back control, by bullying and fighting with the factories over years and years to try to reduce costs, make the grid tighter and encourage new manufactures with the unified software and stuff. So I think they’ve done an amazing job, I think the racing is fantastic at the moment, and that’s largely because of what they’ve done.

Mark Is it a given that Márquez will be the man to beat?

Mat Yeah, but I think Vinales will be there. I think Vinales could win the title. He’s the real deal, definitely. He’s the best guy since Márquez. And Márquez … as Cal Crutchlow says, he’s got these cat-like reactions, he just somehow works that front tyre – he’s losing the front, but somehow he still gets around the corner. 

Mark Did Lorenzo and Rossi have to be separated, or were there some bad feelings when they were team-mates?

Mat They hated each other. From thevery beginning.

Mark So is that why they’re no longer together?

Mat Largely. I mean Rossi left, because basically he said, ‘Yamaha – it’s me or him.’ Yamaha was thinking, ‘Well, you’re 32 or 33’ or whatever he was then ‘and Lorenzo is 21, so see you later.’ Lorenzo, is very like Max Biaggi, he’s very cocky and has a swagger. He tries to be polite and everything, but you can tell he’s just very cocky, just like Biaggi was appallingly cocky, just really unpleasant. 

Rossi is totally different. He is a hippy like his dad – a multi-trillionaire hippy, but all the same. You know, he has this little army of friends around him, who would go anywhere with him for the adventure, and they would die for him probably. Whereas you look at Lorenzo, he has different people every year or two; they come and go, just like servants basically. 

So they really did hate each other, and the first year they were together at Yamaha they had a wall down the middle of the garage, because Rossi was on Bridgestone and Lorenzo was on Michelin, so both tyre companies said we don’t want to see the other’s crew. But when it went to a single tyre supply the wall stayed. 

I think Rossi will be a lot happier this year – and he’s a bit older now, too. 

Mark Has he lost a few tenths, would you say, from his peak?

Mat No. He won two races last year; he was running at the front in a lot of them, even though the Yamaha had huge problems because he couldn’t overcome the lack of front grip like Márquez could on the Honda. Márquez could just sling it in and then drop the bike on its side, whereas Rossi needed that front tyre to get it all the way around the corner and it just wasn’t there. 

Mark But do you think Márquez could have done that on the Yamaha?

Mat Yeah. I think he probably could.

Mark In Formula 1 I don’t think that the driver ever has that same influence. I think the traits are pretty much defined by the car, and, yes, there are some drivers who have the knack or the style who can work around a particular tyre or a particular car characteristic better than another one, but it’s never the defining thing that says this guy will be faster than that guy. It’s always defined by the car, or the tyre. 

* * *

Mark Let’s talk about the competitive picture, what we’re expecting to see.

Mat Presumably Hamilton will walk it, won’t he? Or will it all depend on the rules?

Mark There’s no question that Hamilton’s favourite. Renault on the engine side has caught up to Mercedes. They made big gains last year, probably within a couple of tenths on lap time. The hope is that they get somewhere close to parity and make it a Red Bull vs Mercedes contest, maybe even Ferrari as well if they don’t mess up. The other thing is that the reset of the aero regulations just
might favour one more than another. Let’s hope for at least two competitive teams, but three would be fantastic. 

Mat You still get quite a lot of mechanical failures in F1, don’t you? 

Mark Well, certainly Mercedes will, but they’re probably pushing it harder than the customer teams.

Mat The cars are under incredible stress, aren’t they? A motorbike is under much less strain.

Mark Yes, and you’ve got four engines lasting the season. Red Bull has arguably the strongest driver line-up, I think, in Ricciardo and Verstappen, although McLaren might argue for Alonso and Vandoorne. The Belgian is a bit like your guy Vinales, he’s going to be mega. And if we’ve got a Red Bull within a tenth of a second of a Merc, it’s definitely game on. I don’t think there’s going to be a night-and-day difference between Rosberg and Bottas, and it’s not necessarily a fourth season of Mercedes dominance. 

Mat How much do they spend? Do people know, is it just a wild guess?

Mark Budget? Top budgets – order of high 200s, low 300s. Million.

Mat MotoGP is really weird. No one knows how much anybody’s paid, no one knows how much it costs to run a team. At a completely wild guess, including all the R&D and everything, Honda might be on 30 million. There’s just no money in it. Suzuki’s sponsor is its oil company; it doesn’t have an outside sponsor.

Mark Is that good?

Mat No. There’s just never been any money in motorcycle racing. In the Anglo-Saxon world motorbikes are seen as dangerous, horrible things. So none of your blue-chip companies are interested. And it seems to me companies would rather spend five million for a sticker on an endplate of an F1 car.

Mark Can you access the paddock as a fan? 

Mat It’s all barcodes and blips. But at some races, like Misano, there are thousands of people in the paddock. I think it’s great when there’s just crowds of people milling around, it’s fantastic. But the whole sponsor thing has sort of shifted: the team has to have a huge hospitality unit, and the sponsor wants to bring 50 corporate guests to every race. And also a lot of the teams now make money from these passes so it’s become a bit of a revenue source. Which is great, but I’d much rather have a paddock full of fans that want to be there, rather than corporate guests. 

But if you look at the motorcycle market globally, it’s probably … what, five per cent of cars? So, there’s just no money in it, and it hasn’t got that social cachet that Formula 1 has.

Mark Wouldn’t you be concerned if suddenly all that changed and it started attracting the big money? 

Mat Would I be concerned?

Mark Yeah, would you be concerned about it polluting the sport?

Mat It’s all already very corporate, it’s just the amount of money is very small. But yeah, it obviously could get worse.

Mark It’s interesting that the sport – car racing – is rooted in money. But if you look at a few of the most recently dominant drivers – Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher, say – they’re all from pretty humble backgrounds.

Mat Didn’t Schumacher’s dad own a kart circuit?

Mark He worked at the local kart track. 

Mat It wasn’t his, then.

Mark He was a bricklayer.

Mat Oh really, wow. That’s what John McGuinness was. That was his first proper job. And what about Alonso’s?

Mark Alonso’s dad worked in the quarries as an explosives guy. And Lewis’s dad was IT for British Rail.

Mat Yes, that’s interesting. Is that a hunger thing, do you think?

Mark Yes, I think it is. Lewis sometimes used that as a little wind-up on Rosberg, because Rosberg had a more privileged background. And I’m sure that it was a psychological wind-up, but I think there was some truth in it. I think you probably do learn to dig deeper when you have to keep winning at a very early age to continue. And I don’t think that will change this year.