Dirt: This comes as a bit of a shock to most people, can you tell us about the situation? Basically a lot of people will be asking why?
Martin Whiteley: It’s a difficult question to answer with a single sound bite. The factors are numerous and with a company as big as Honda, the players are as well. Essentially since the start of the World Team in 2004, Honda has been assessing the potential of a production version of the RN01. This has been done through various means, and often gave rise to rumours of a production bike. In the end the decision was taken, outside of HRC, that the market was just too small to achieve profitability and production ideas were scrapped. They further argued that if production was not to be realised in the short term, then racing should also be terminated. The hardware development was actually finished, and once that was done, the focus was turned towards production. When they realised that the profitability wasn’t there (and that’s a key factor, if not the deciding factor, in any new product development in business) the project had reached its end. The race results and titles are there, and Honda learned a great deal from the bicycle industry, but they have judged it's time to stop. I personally feel though that this is just the end of a chapter, but not the end of the story. However, for now, there will be no Honda bikes for sale, anywhere. All the team bikes go to Japan and are compacted as per HRC policy on prototypes.
Were you and the riders surprised by the decision or is this something you have known about for some time?
The riders were very surprised. I was told well before the Worlds but needed to keep everyone focused on the task at hand and get through the Worlds and Maribor. Greg was informed after he broke his shoulder. He and I have a reliable relationship where I can share things in confidence with him and know it won’t go any further. It also helped to have someone to discuss this with. There was a very small chance that it may have changed, that chance was given to me as a 1% possibility, so in reality I knew it was done. As for all the speculation about Matti “getting out in time” or knowing of this in advance, this is patently false. It was always my intention that Matti move onto his own program in 2008. We talked about it at the end of 2006, that the 2007 season would be his launching pad into a new team. I had Brendan on board as his replacement. Brendan was a 23 Degrees rider while Greg and Matti were HRC in effect (though still signed through our company), so we always planned Brendan would replace Matti and we maintain a two rider team. It’s just coincidental the timing of the respective public announcements look like they were linked, but work was going on behind the scenes for Matti well in advance of any knowledge I had about Honda’s departure.
Do you know if this was Honda’s plan from the start?
No, I don’t know that for sure. It was clear to me though that the first two years were really an exercise in engineering, and then later the idea of commercial production started to become more prominent in the emails. But I don’t think there was a set 4 year timetable or anything like that. In fact, it was almost year to year in our case.
The main man, Martin Whiteley
In all the press release, etc., that I have read it all seems very amicable, but there must be a part of you that is pretty annoyed and frustrated about the whole situation. The team, including yourself, the mechanics and the riders have put an awful lot in this.
No bullshit here. The guys we work with at HRC and the R&D department are the greatest. The team working on the RN01 in Japan were devastated when they heard the news from upper management, but they know this can happen. I am extremely loyal to the guys in Japan that got this off the ground and made it happen. I’m a realist and I know that no program in racing is guaranteed. It’s a tricky business to be involved in, so you’re always developing a plan B, just in case. Of course we all went “that sucks” but at the same time, you can’t be annoyed at a company that gave you a special and unique opportunity. We were privileged to work on this program, and that’s the feeling I get from all my crew.
What do you think Honda will do with the knowledge that they gained from this project?Honda is a company that is constantly testing, improving and developing…not just products, but their staff as well. The engineers that worked on this project were tested in new ways and so in that way, I’m sure it was very valuable to the company. Like I said before though, I really don’t think that this is the end of the story, but don’t hold your breath either. The next chapter won’t be written tomorrow.
Do you feel that Honda may view the project as a failure?
Not at all. From a racing point of view, two major titles, World Championship medals, more than a handful of World Cup race wins, in fact, we finished every single race we started, with every athlete. Even ones with broken shoulders! We had a World Cup podium success rate of more than 84% over the 4 years. Those bikes were the most reliable on the circuit, and Honda’s ability to seek new technology in new sports, and make a success of it from the word go, well that’s nowhere near failure in my opinion.
Do you think that Honda got out of the program what they were after?
For the most part yes, but there is always more to be learned, as there is in anything.
I am sure that you won’t be able to tell us this, but what kind of investment did Honda put in? How much money?
I wouldn’t know. If you’re asking me about the whole RN01 project over 5 years, well it would have to be millions, but I don’t know how many. Our team was often applauded for being the most professional out there, but I can honestly say that’s a testament to our staff and riders, not cash. Our budget was in no way the biggest out there.
And the riders?. Matti has moved on, but what about Greg and Brendan? How has this affected them and what will they be doing next? Do they have bikes and teams already lined up?
There will be absolutely no problem in that area. Expect announcements in November.
Do they feel let down in any way? In fact do you feel let down by the situation?
I think it’s hardest for Brendan. Walking into the program and getting used to the new bike and all that that entails, and then now being faced with something new for 2008. The thing with Brendan is that he’s not one to whinge and will always find the positive in anything, and our talk last night was excellent. I have complete faith in ‘Dog’, and he will continue his rise.
The team brought a level of professionalism to the sport that hasn’t been seen for some time. What do you think we can all learn from this?
I learned a great deal from working with an outfit like HRC. They have the most amazing race programs on the planet and their attention to detail is astounding. So a lot of what I have learned as a service provider to HRC will be reflected in anything else I do from now on. I liked the Formula 1 feel to how we approached rider support. Rider enters the tent and is immediately attended to by personal mechanic, suspension technician, brake technician and Honda engineer; debrief…then the rider relaxes in the lounge while the work gets done. I will aim to replicate that in any future team I’m involved in. It saves time, increases rider confidence and results in minimal mechanical issues on the race course.
What do you think it will mean for the sport, the fact that Honda have left? There seems to now be a void that needs filling.
I’ve seen some narrowed minded comments on forums where people don’t see the big picture. They just think Honda came in, raped the sport for all they could get out of it, and then left. Absolutely rubbish. They invested huge amounts with no guarantees of a return, helped the careers of many people and it could be argued brought added credibility to our sport. My father often used to say to us, “you’re judged by the company that you keep”. Seeing names like Honda and Nissan in our sport is a big deal.
What do you think the team has brought to mountain biking?
Aside from the obvious like a gearbox that won a World Cup race at its first attempt, there are the out of industry benefits. The media that exposed downhill racing to a brand new audience was huge. We did articles for Vanity Fair, GQ, Sports Illustrated, T3, Stuff and similar magazines, lots of mainstream TV, and even had Formula 1 attention in Lisbon. All that exposes all of us to a wider audience and it was possible through Honda’s power of dreams vision, and the excitement their participation with the RN01 created. I know in my case it has changed the way I will run any future teams, and hopefully other teams also gain from it.
What do you think the lasting impression will be of the Honda team?
It’s hard to look into the future, but in the same way that Sunn Chipie and Volvo Cannondale are reference points for quality race teams of the past, I would hope that Team G Cross Honda has a similar legacy. I was always astounded at the public interest in our tech area at the races, even 4 years on, and I think that speaks volumes for laying the foundations of an impressionable legacy. It was an amazing ride, for all of us, and I can’t wait for the next team that comes along to have a similar or greater impact.
So there you have it, the full lo-down direct from the main man. From my point of view the Honda team will be sorely missed. From the intrigue that surrounded the bikes to the exotic array of mechanics that were flown in from around the world…there were just so many good things about the Honda team. I guess it is still exciting to see what happens next to the riders, and in fact I am getting pretty excited at the prospect of seeing Brendan and Greg in new colours and on new bikes. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Dirtmag.co.uk would like to take this opportunity to thank Martin Whiteley for giving us the scoop.