Sport is war without the shooting, wrote George Orwell. MotoGP paddock perennial Carlo Pernat is the living emodiment of Orwell’s words
MotoGP’s most famous septuagenarian is Carmelo Ezpeleta, CEO of MotoGP rights-holder Dorna, but the Spaniard isn’t half as much fun to talk to as Carlo Pernat, one of the paddock’s most colourful characters, who celebrates his 70th birthday in August.
Pernat has been plying his trade – team management and rider management – since the 1980s. He shows little sign of slowing down and is always easy to find in the paddock, behind blackout shades and a haze of cigarette smoke. The Italian has worked for Aprilia, Ducati, Cagiva and Gilera, and has been personal manager to Max Biaggi, Loris Capirossi, Marco Simoncelli and Andrea Iannone.
He is the living embodiment of the Machiavellian racing personality, a connoisseur of paddock politics, wheeling and dealing and artful dodging. And he’s not ashamed to admit it.
After all, isn’t that what sport is all about: war without the shooting?
Pernat always shoots from the hip, which has won him friends and enemies throughout his career. His willingness to speak his mind and damn the consequences has made him a regular talking head on Italian TV, where his unkempt appearance makes a welcome contrast to the pumped and preened presenters.
In 2008 Pernat seemed to have found his perfect protégé in Simoncelli, who graduated to MotoGP in 2010 after winning the 250cc world championship. The pair seemed almost like father and son: scruffy, funny, always mucking about.
“Marco’s father wanted to me to work with them,” recalls Pernat. “In fact I had already decided I wanted to work with Marco, so if he hadn’t chosen me, I would have chosen him.”
Pernat has fond memories of a road trip he took with Simoncelli following the 2011 United States Grand Prix. “We went into Colorado: me, Marco, his family and a few friends in several cars. It was a beautiful trip. But Marco wanted to me to stop smoking, so he got into my luggage and destroyed all my cigarettes. I hadn’t smoked for half a day and I wanted to kill him!
“Driving along the highway he overtook me in his car, with cigarettes hanging from both his ears and both his nostrils. He was a normal guy – he amused himself and he amused everyone around him. He was friendly, no bullshit, but when he was on a racetrack, he attacked!”
Three months later Simoncelli was dead, killed at the Malaysian GP. Not surprisingly, Pernat quit the paddock. “We lost a lot with Marco,” he says. “I don’t know if he could have won the MotoGP title but for sure he would have tried to win and for sure the people loved him.”
However, a few months later Pernat was back in the paddock, like a moth to the flame, to look after another mercurial character, Iannone. He recently split with the Italian and next year will be a part of MV Agusta’s return to Grand Prix racing, in the Moto2 class.
Pernat has spent much of his career fighting for the Italian motorcycle industry, sometimes fighting clean, sometimes dirty. In the 1980s he worked for Cagiva, a new brand operating out of the old Aermacchi factory. In 1985 Cagiva was trying to win its first world championship, in motocross. The title fight with Honda went down to the final round in Salta, northern Argentina. Petrol quality would be a problem, so the big teams imported their own fuel.
“Like a mafia man, I paid the people at the customs, so they gave us our gasoline but they didn’t give Honda their gasoline,” Pernat chuckles. “When we arrived in Salta, we had gasoline and Honda didn’t. So the FIM [Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme] asked me to sell some of my gasoline to Honda. I said, ‘Sure, no problem, the cost is $200 per litre.’ Honda said that was impossible.
“Okay, I said, but I made you an offer. In the race they broke their engines and we won the race, so Cagiva won its first world title. On the Monday, Honda’s gasoline arrived!”
Two years later Pernat made Cagiva a force to be reckoned with in Grand Prix racing by signing American Randy Mamola, who had won races for Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha. The contract was thrashed out in typical Pernat style.
“Eighty per cent of the contract was okay, but Mamola’s manager wanted more money. I knew he liked grappa, so we got him drunk and he signed.”
Pernat later moved to Aprilia, another nascent Italian factory, which since 1987 has won 294 Grands Prix, making it bike racing’s third most successful brand after Honda and Yamaha. At Aprilia he guided Valentino Rossi, Capirossi and Biaggi to world titles, even though he never got much sleep.
“There was a lot of sex, drugs and rock and roll during those times. But to me, this is motorcycling! People buy motorcycles to be free, to do whatever they want!”