CW Interview: Yamaha Motor Italia World Superbike Team Manager Massimo Meregalli

After more than 20 years of trying, Yamaha won its first World Superbike title with American Ben Spies.

#

" width=

" src=

Few are aware that Yamaha was the first Japanese factory to officially enter World Superbike. In the late 1980s, a team managed by Davide Brivio, currently team manager for the Fiat Yamaha MotoGP effort, fielded a budget-effort FZ750 with motocrosser-turned-roadracer Fabrizio Pirovano, who twice finished in the WSB runner-up position. But the factory squad didn't arrive until 1995, when a team composed of Colin Edwards and Yasutomo Nagai showed up at the start of the season with black-and-red-liveried YZF750s branded solely as Yamaha Racing Team. When Ben Spies and the Yamaha Motor Italia team arrived in Portimão, Portugal, for the final WSB round of 2009, Yamaha was the only Japanese manufacturer that had not yet won the title. That was a frustrating fact for team manager Massimo Meregalli, himself an ex-Yamaha WSB rider between 1991 and 2000, when the team was still managed by Brivio.

Why do you think Yamaha was the last Japanese manufacturer to win the WSB title?

That's a difficult question. Surely, it was down to performance. I guess V-Twins were always at an advantage in relation to inline-Fours. It's true that Honda and Kawasaki won, and even Suzuki, when the rules went to 1000cc. There were virtually no works teams, in my opinion, when Suzuki won, so the championship was a little easier. But in Honda's case, and Kawasaki with Scott Russell, it was a real world championship—very competitive. I feel behind it all were the regulations; that always made things difficult for Yamaha.

How did Belgarda become the official Yamaha team?

At a certain point, while we were in Supersport, the new regulations for the four-cylinder 1000cc class and the Pirelli control tire came, and Yamaha realized some good results could be had, even without Japanese support. At the time, Yamaha Europe felt it was important to return to WSB to help bike sales. After that, each year we got a little more support from Japan, especially after 2006, when they really started to give us a hand. At the moment, we are not entirely a works team; there's no total support from Japan. But what there is surely is better than nothing!

Is Yamaha more interested in MotoGP?

Yes, the reason being that is the top class in bike racing, and Yamaha is not a giant like Honda. Decisions had to be made, and they decided to concentrate on MotoGP. But little by little, we are getting some help. This year all the more so because the R1 is a new bike; it was important for them to make it look good. Unfortunately, we had some snags at the beginning, which was to be expected, but we had to try lots of new stuff and did not have enough experience, as there was no data whatsoever on the bike.

Did Noriyuki Haga's departure end up as a blessing in disguise?

Yes, it ended up being a dream come true, one that we had been pursuing for some time and, this time, thanks to Ben Spies, we did it. When Nori decided to defect to Ducati, it was hard for us to stomach, because we enjoyed a good relationship with him. Such is life! He said he wanted to experiment with something new, and he thought he might have success with Ducati. Luckily, his replacement showed himself to be very capable.

What was it like to work with Ben?

Ben never ever gives up. He's a great guy, 100 percent professional, fully committed, demands a lot of himself and leaves nothing untried. I had never seen such determination in a rider. He arrived at the final round totally determined and told me straight off that we were going to do here like at Miller—win both legs! It all went according to plan. He managed the practice sessions very well and, in the race, he paced himself, but if it had been absolutely necessary, he could have won both legs. Did you expect domination—14 wins, 11 poles and lap records? From the first day that Ben rode for us, after the last race of 2008, he was turning equal times to Haga. On the second day, with a less powerful bike, he went even faster. So, we realized that we had something special, that he was very fast. Of course, we still did not expect to win 14 races. In truth, that first time when I went on the track to see him go around, he was so fast that he scared me!

On the other hand, Spies' teammate, Tom Sykes, had a season to forget.

I guess having a teammate like Ben would be hard on anyone. On the other hand, Tom only had one year of experience in Superbike, and all the tracks were new to him. All that conspired to make it hard for Tom. But he occasionally showed that he can be very fast, so I feel next year his results will improve.

Did the Japanese start to show interest when they saw Ben's results?

Unfortunately, no. But it was a tough year on the economy front—a crisis year—and their priority was MotoGP. Besides, our package was great; it may not have been the fastest off the line or the most powerful, but it was a rideable package.

Now, you've got your star, only to lose him to MotoGP.

Yes, but it was to be expected. I had hoped he might stay with us one more year, but it's fair. He'll be 26 this year, and soon it will be too late; he could not wait. It's difficult for me to gauge how well he will do; I almost never watch MotoGP. I feel that, in time, a rider like him could do well in MotoGP.

Now, you have James Toseland and Cal Crutchlow.

Yes, we are getting two worthy riders. I'm sorry to see Ben go to MotoGP, but it is important to me that he's staying on at Yamaha. For sure, seeing how he went this year, Crutchlow will be very fast off the bat. As for James, I see a lot of determination in him. Unfortunately, the results he had in MotoGP were, well, he feels he has to demonstrate that his bad results were not all through his fault. I feel sure he'll do well on our team. Our bike is very physical; it will suit the way he rides.