Interview: Alberto Puig On The Asia Talent Cup And Developing Young Rider Talent

Alberto Puig has a knack for discovering and nurturing talent. From the point he was forced to retire from racing due to injury, the former 500cc rider has been involved in finding and bringing on new young riders. He has been involved in one way or another with many of the current riders in MotoGP, and more than one world champion. Though he is best known for being the man behind Dani Pedrosa, Puig has also discovered and supported Casey Stoner, Toni Elias, Bradley Smith, Leon Camier, Chaz Davies, Julian Simon, Joan Lascorz, Efren Vazquez and many more. Puig was one of the key figures behind the MotoGP Academy and the Red Bull Rookies, which continues to fill the ranks of MotoGP's three classes.

So it was a natural choice for Dorna to turn to Puig when they needed help to run the Asia Talent Cup, a series set up to bring on talent from Japan and other parts of Southeast Asia. Dorna and Honda have set up the series together, and Puig's strong ties to both organizations made him the best man for the job. The fact that he is no longer so closely involved with Dani Pedrosa meant he had more free time on his hands to get involved in the Asia Talent Cup. 

With Asia being an absolutely vital market for both Dorna and the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers, we were keen to learn more. Scott Jones spoke to Alberto Puig at Austin, where he gave us a fascinating insight into the series, his role in it, and how it came about.

Scott Jones: Where did the idea for the Asia Talent Cup come from?

Alberto Puig: Dorna and Honda were thinking a lot about the Asian markets. Dorna is the organizer and Honda is the supplier, and they are making a lot of effort to support the series. Both understand that the Asian market has to grow. So [the project] is a combination of both companies.

SJ: And when did you get involved?

AP: They had the idea and then, since I’m not following Dani with the [Repsol Honda] team, I had some more time. I had experience in the past with the Movistar Cup, which was also Dorna and Honda, in the late 1990s. So when they asked me about this I said, ok, I want to do it. I know [people at] Dorna but I also have a long history with Honda. So for me it was a perfect combination of companies.

SJ: What is your role, exactly?

AP: Well, I take care of basically everything. I organized the Winter program, I manage all the preparation for the season, then you have to go to the races, put the riders together… The business side, the marketing, and such things, are run by Dorna. But I take care of the technical things, organization of the mechanics, machines, and so on.

SJ: How much one-on-one with the riders do you do?

AP: I try to do a lot. The problem is the languages are all different. The Japanese riders are learning [English], but with the Malaysian, Thai, Chinese riders it’s basically zero. So communication is very difficult.

SJ: Do you have translators for these riders?

AP: We have some translators, from Thailand, also from Malaysia, but for example for Chinese we have no translator. It’s really not easy. For the Japanese it’s better, because they understand a little. We ask them to improve and they are improving, so that is good.

SJ: You personally have a long history of working with young riders. What is it about working with young riders that interests you?

AP: Well, I don’t know why I do it! [laughs] When I stopped racing, Dorna asked me if I could help them improve the potential of some riders, so I said ok. I started back in 1997, so I’ve had an interest since then. I get along well with kids, we understand each other.

SJ: But do you enjoy working with young riders?

AP: When you are working with young riders, you see how they progress. When you are working with superstar riders, you see nothing like this because they already know everything. And they are not so grateful, not so thankful to you. They are important guys and it’s a different story.

SJ: What do you see with this group of young riders? Are they excited to be a part of the Asia Talent Cup?

AP: In Asia, never before has someone done this, and it’s good that Dorna and Honda are supporting this series. But it’s true that they [the riders] don’t have a really good racing background. Of course the Japanese guys have more experience. Because even though in Japan, they don’t have super good riders right now, they have a very big background of racing. The most important companies are there. And in the past, [Japanese riders] were strong. It’s a very important country for this - as when we were racing at Suzuka, in the 1980s, for example. Now it looks like [Japan] is trying to get back to that, which is good.

But Malaysia, China, at this moment they are at least one step behind. It’s true that they are trying. The kids are trying, and if we can create a good championship with a good environment, maybe it’s a reference for the future. This is our target, to try to have some good Asian riders in the coming years here in MotoGP. On the other hand, it’s a big help for them because racing is expensive, so this [series] is important.

The non-Japanese riders have not so much opportunity to race, and they don’t have the culture. In Japan you have many tracks, the companies are there, Honda is there, and they create a lot of opportunities to promote racing. In the other countries it’s not the same.

But it’s also true that, I think because of the [country’s] history, the Japanese riders are more disciplined. You tell them something and they try to do it, always. The other ones… They still don’t understand the system.

But we try to treat them all the same. And this is the key point of the Cup. Everybody with the same equipment, they must show potential. If, at the end of the day, the Japanese are faster, it is what it is.

SJ: You started off with 108 riders (at the Sepang Selection Event), how did you get to 22 riders?

AP: Basically we made the test with under-powered machines. It wasn’t a racing bike, it was a scooter. But we thought this was good because this is what they are used to riding in Asia, on the streets. We were looking for lap times, but also we were looking for [other things], how they acted, their background, their motivation, interest for the sport. So we came up with the 22 riders.

SJ: And you wanted to include riders from each of the countries, right? You didn’t want to have all Japanese riders.

AP: Well, if you ask me personally, I would take only the fastest riders. I don’t care if they’re from the same country. But from an Image point of view, for the Cup, of course we understand that we have to try to make it a bit equal for all countries, no? But then again, if you have six or seven Japanese riders who are fast, you have to bring them into the Cup.

SJ: You have one female rider, who is also the oldest one. (Thai rider Muklada Sarapuech, 20 years old)

AP: Yes, and she’s super fast.

SJ: Did you have many female riders in the original 108?

AP: We had three. She (Sarapuech) was clearly the fastest. {Ed. Sarapuech qualified 3rd in Qatar, 0.106 behind pole-sitter and race winner Yuta Date, set a Fastest Lap, and battled for the lead until being knocked off at the start of the final lap.)

SJ: Sarapuech is the oldest. The youngest, Ayumu Sasaki, is still 13. He won’t turn 14 until October. I think he got 3rd in Qatar, yes?

AP: Yes, this guy, Sasaki, is not so bad. [smiles] He got a very bad start, he ran wide, but then he started to move up in the race and finished 3rd.

SJ: So given that age difference, from 20 to 13, do you see the older riders helping the younger ones, talking to each other?

AP: I don’t think they can, because Malaysian and Japanese are totally different [languages]. But the kids are getting along quite well. We try to make a group that respects each other, but then they have to race like animals on the track. But I don’t want to see people in the box who are not nice to each other. They have to be fair, but then, on track they have to be completely aggressive and wild. They have to show their potential.

SJ: Let’s talk about the machine a bit. How different is your bike from the Moto3 bikes?

AP: Our machine is the best bike you can have [for this type of series] because it’s standard. And when you have a standard bike you have no problem! It’s perfect. It’s a Honda NSF250, and it’s exactly how we receive it out of the crate. We don’t make any changes. Ok, we changed the exhaust pipe, only because there is a sponsor there. But it’s completely different from a Moto3 bike that is racing here (at CotA). It’s basic, basic, basic. But we understand that for this type of series, this is what we need. We don’t need to be very fast on the lap time. We need the riders to show potential on the bike as it is. So the bike is a completely standard machine and it’s clearly different power from the [Moto3] bikes here.

SJ: Do the riders use the same bike each race?

AP: Yes.

SJ: The series is six events in five countries, with two events at Sepang. How important is popularity among local fans as far as the series continuing on for multiple seasons? Is one of the goals to attract lots of people to the races?

AP: I think what’s more important is that the guys who want to race know about this championship. As for popularity, you can’t expect a Cup to have super popularity. The popularity is in MotoGP, in the world championships. For a Cup, popularity, I don’t know. But for the riders is Asia who want to be riders in the future, they know that if they come to this series, they have the possibility to come to GPs. If they come here and they do good, then they have the chance to come to a [GP] team, do more and more, and then they can reach their dream.

SJ: So we have the Asia Talent Cup, and the Red Bull Rookies for young European riders. In 2008 we had the U.S Red Bull Rookies. Do you think the time is right to try again with such a series for young American riders?

AP: Well, that’s not my responsibility, and I don’t know the situation with Dorna and the USA. I mean, America has always been a very good country for riders. But it’s true that in the past years, it’s not the same. Why, I don’t know. Because also in Japan many years ago they had very good riders. And now, for the past years they struggle a bit. But in America it’s a big, big problem, because in the 1980s Americans were the kings. But then suddenly they disappear, I think in that period Schwantz was the last one?

But I really don’t know. I’m not following that from here. Sure, America could do it, because it’s a rich country that has possibilities. The questions is if they want to support young kids.

SJ: If it happened, would you be interested to be involved?

AP: [laughs] Well at the moment I’m quite busy with this series, so… For this series Dorna and Honda decided to do it and I happened to be [available]. For America, it’s always a very important country, this is clear. Always, for the development of the sport, the more possibilities of good riders around the world is good. And I’m sure any manufacturer would think the same, no?

SJ: What do you think about the future of the Asia Talent Cup? Would you like to see it continue for two more season, three more, or indefinitely to continue developing your Asian riders?

AP: Again, this is not my responsibility - these are two companies that are partners in this series. Of course the problem is to try to get some young riders into this championship here, in MotoGP, in the future. Of course you need some years to prepare the riders. And maybe, in two or three years we’ll see this. We’ll have to see if we get some riders, or if this was a loss of time and money. Because in the end you have to consider also this. Sometimes you try very very hard to make something, but you see that you cannot improve. So I don’t know. I hope that we can find some good riders, but it’s not easy. This is reality.

You can watch Race 1 of the Asia Talent Cup below, or watch it on Youtube:

Comments

blocked by Dorna

Great article. Really interesting. Got towards the end thinking it would be good to see how the race looked. Chuffed to see the embedded video. Then got an error message. Dorna have blocked video on this site, try watching it on you tube. You've won awards for reporting on motogp, and nurture a precious fan base to Dorna's advantage. Might be worth contacting them to see if they can lift the block? Their short sightedness amazes me yet again.

Total votes: 26

well done...

well done interesting interview held my attention to the end. I wish he would look at young American riders...

Total votes: 11

If Aoyama and Nakagami is any

If Aoyama and Nakagami is any indication, Japan still has plent of talent in the wings. If anything I would like to more japanese riders in the premier class and given more priority for factory rides as they were in the past.

@bemer2six

As an american fan I would like to see more talent, but given the way AMA have been spiraling down its incredibly hard to find credible/competitive young talent aside from Cameron. If anything its quite a shame for our sport, even Spies and Rainey lemented this:

http://www.crash.net/motogp/interview/202289/1/wayne-rainey-qa.html

http://www.crash.net/motogp/interview/203348/1/ben-spies-qa-part-1.html

Total votes: 15

Typing error?

"It’s a very important country for this - as when we were racing at Suzuki, in the 1908s, for example."

Is this a mistake? 1980s maybe? Or am I completely wrong here?

Total votes: 11

Corrected

Well spotted. Alberto Puig certainly isn't old enough to have been racing 106 years ago! Corrected now.

Total votes: 19

Malaysian Translators ?

Is the article (or Alberto) confusing Malaysia with Indonesia ? Most Malaysians speak some English, why would he need translators ? I am Indonesian and I know English is more a problem here, to the point that translators might be needed.

SE Asia is a huge untapped market though so it's good that Dorna and motorsports is looking to grow in this region

Total votes: 24

Maybe because only 1 rider from Indonesia?

When I go to the Asia Talent Cup website, there are 6 (Japan), 5 (Malaysia), 2 (Thailand), 1 (Indonesia), 1 (China) riders. Either he lump the Indonesian into Malaysian or the Indonesian rider happens to speak English or he simply forgot.
It is still strange though if the Malaysian doesn't speak or at least understand English.
What is strange is that not even a single mention about Indonesia. Even if Indonesia only have 1 rider participating, surely their market is one of the largest for bike racing. Maybe the talent is harder to find? I'm not saying that there is lack of talent from Indonesia, is just that not enough support for bike racing there for the talents to rise.

Total votes: 9

Money problems ?

Indonesia with a population of 250 million is a huge market, however I am guessing it will take a hefty capital outlay to be able to participate in serious motorsports. The most popular class of bike in Indonesia is the cheap 'motor bebek' or underbone class which is a huge step down from even a proper 125cc racing bike, it takes nurturing and training to be able to competitive in the 'proper' racing classes, and I think not enough sponsorship money has been invested.

Total votes: 5

young talent

never been a fan of Puig, and have speculated many times that he did more harm to Danni than good, however that may well be a completely wrong impression, as he seems more interested in nurturing young talent than personal kudos. Speaking of up and coming young talent, I'm still eagerly awaiting the promised analysis of the two junior races at Austin...

"There were two more races at COTA, providing fantastic fun for the viewers. Both the Moto3 and Moto2 racers saw popular young riders winning, but that is a story for another day."

Total votes: 11

Thanks for comments!

Thanks for reading this interview and for the comments, everyone. I'd like to add a few a bits in response to comments above.

First, the ATC website is not up to date when it comes to the rider list. I do not have an accurate roster, but during the conversation, Alberto pointed out that some of the kids have gone and some others have joined the squad since that version of the roster was posted. 

Over the past couple of years I've had a fair amount of face to face time with Alberto and would like to say that in person he is quite different from how I perceived him before then. He is dead serious about racing, of course, but otherwise has a good sense of humor and laughs if there's a reason to. Personally I regret that he is not following the Repsol Honda team this season, but his involvement with the ATC is good luck for that series and those kids.

Regarding young American riders, I usually hear people criticize the dire state of the AMA program rather than observing that several young American riders have competed, and succeeded, in the Red Bull Rookies. Since the series began in 2007, J.D. Beach and Jake Gagne have WON (in 2008 amd 2010, respectively), and Joe Roberts has been competing there since 2011. I'd like to know why Jake Gagne isn't in the GP paddock, as he certainly proved he has the ability to compete on European tracks with riders trained in the CEV etc. Perhaps we should be looking at U.S.-based support for American riders in GP racing rather than just the shoddy state of the AMA series and the training it fails to provide.

Finally, I encourage you to watch the ATC race on YouTube. It's fantastic, especially now that you have some background about the series and the kids involved. I can't wait for the next round. (FYI, May 11 at Sentul, Indonesia)

Total votes: 5

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