/Behind the scenes with Johan Stigefelt

Behind the scenes with Johan Stigefelt

Johan Stigefelt, team manager of the Caterham Airasia Moto2 team, took some time out of his busy Indianapolis race weekend to answer our questions about his racing career, his work as team manager and the future of road racing in Sweden.

David Boda: Let’s start with your own racing background. What got you into motorcycles and racing?

Johan Stigefelt: It was through my father, who had raced himself, and my brother who was racing at the time. I was with my brother when he was riding and that inspired me. I grew up in Anderstorp [the town that hosts the Anderstorp racetrack-DB] it was always interesting when they held GP-races there in the 80s.

DB: What did you ride as a kid?

JS: I started riding when I was three years old. Afterwards I had a lot of different small motocross bikes. I never really got into motocross, which I regret a little bit. I started getting really interested when I was 16 and got my first 125cc, an Aprilia Futura. I rode it both on the road and on the racetrack. I took my licence with that bike and rode my first 125cc standard race.

DB: You have raced a lot of different bikes, 250cc, Supersport 600 and even a MotoGP-bike from the 500-era. Which one was the most fun to ride and why?

JS: The 250cc was the best one to ride. It was an incredible feeling to ride a 250cc with its light weight and good power output. I would say it’s the optimal race bike. The most fun was the incredible corner speeds. The 500 I rode wasn’t exactly a hit, but it worked well a couple of times and it had an incredible amount of power.

DB: When you look back at your career, in which series do you feel you had the most competitive package?

JS: During my six years in 250cc and 500cc I had one year with a good package. It was the 2000 season with Honda. It was going really well and the future looked bright. Unfortunately I had a very bad injury that year and it ruined my chances of getting a factory ride for 2001. My best results came in 2006 in Supersport. It was a fun year and I was riding well then. Finishing eighth in the Supersport World Championship that year was the highlight of my career.

DB: You became a Swedish 125 champion in 1994 and you ended your racing career in 2006 in Supersport. What brought upon the decision to quit and do you miss racing?

JS: I had a good year and my team was growing, so I decided to quit while I was still in a good shape. It was a tough decision, but I didn’t have time to train as much as before, and that could be risky, and for my team the future looked bright. I don’t regret my decision today.

DB: Are you still riding, and if so, do you ride on the road or do you stick to a few laps around the track every now and then?  

JS: I do ride track days sometimes. Me and my brother have a company together, SBK ONE, where we build track day bikes and race bikes for Swedish and other Nordic riders. We go to Spain once a year and ride there. It is really good fun and I still have the speed.

The situation in Sweden and the Nordics      

DB: The only Swede to win a championship in the top series is the late Kent Andersson (he came second in the 250cc championship in 1969 and then claimed back to back 125cc world championship titles in 1973 and 1974). None of the guys you raced in the Swedish national championship went on to the highest level. For example, Freddy Papunen “only” managed to get to the German series and Jimmy Lindström raced in the Endurance World Championships. What is lacking for taking that final step into the MotoGP-series?

JS: It’s hard to say why there aren’t more Swedes that have managed to get to Moto3, Moto2 or MotoGP. We clearly had riders who were fast, but that doesn’t matter that much if you don’t have the right connections or a budget you can bring with you. Pretty much everybody who rides in Moto3 or Moto2 have, one way or the other, paid their way in. So you have to sacrifice and work hard on the sponsor bit if you want to get anywhere, and I think a lot of people haven’t done that well enough. The question is how much you want to succeed and where. I had many opportunities to ride in Sweden, Germany or in the US when I was on top, but I chose GP because it’s the biggest and the best that you can do. Even if it meant that I couldn’t win, it still gave me more than anything else I’ve ever done.

DB: At the moment we have riders like Alexander Lundh who was in SBK last year, Filip Backlund in BSB Superstock 1000, Lukas Ockelfelt, who is taking a sabbatical because of financial problems, Cristoffer Bergman in CEV Moto2 and Jesper Hubner who rides in the SBK European Junior Cup. Do you think any of them can make it all the way to the MotoGP-series or World Superbike? Are there any other young talents out there that you think can be names for the future?

JS: Right now the outlook is pretty dark. We must find somebody who can get into Red Bull Rookies or something similar. Build from the ground up. Unfortunately I don’t see that many positives in the ones who have been around for a while. It is for example incredibly hard to adjust to Moto2 for the ones who come from Stock 1000 or similar categories. If I saw somebody that had the potential and the right backing, then I would of course help out as much as I could.

DB: In an interview with Crash.net, Mika Kallio said that it is very tough for Finish and Nordic riders to put together a team with good mechanics and a sufficient budget so that they can compete in the international series. That is why he started Kallio Racing, which aims to help young talents onto the bigger scene. Do you have similar plans to help Swedish talents in the future?

JS: I’ve already done that with my own team in Supersport 600. I helped Robin Harms [Danish rider, currently racing in BSB Pirelli National Superstock 1000 – DB] to reach a great success and also Tatu Lauslehto [Finish rider, currently racing in the German IDM Supersport series]. Unfortunately there were no Swedes that I felt were right at the time. I can help with my experience and with my contacts, but as I mentioned earlier, I must see that somebody has the will to go in a 100 percent and I can’t see that at the moment.

DB: According to Mika it is also a big disadvantage to come from a country that has a relatively small motorcycle market. He questions Dorna’s interest when it comes to riders from smaller countries. Have you also experienced this?

JS: Yes I have. It wasn’t easy to come into the series when I was riding. At that time it was even harder because there was a committee that approved riders, and you had to have some results from other international championships in the locker for them to let you in. These days, practically anybody can ride if they bring along a large sum of money.

DB: Are you still involved with Alex Schacht (Danish rider currently riding in Superstock 1000 FIM Cup)?

JS: No, Alex is a rider with great talent and we did pretty well with him in Superstock 600. Then I had to be involved in other projects and Alex moved on. We gave some help to Alex and SBK ONE built his bikes, so we did a fairly big venture with him.

DB: A lot of American and Australian GP-riders grow up on flat tracks and dirt tracks, like Kenny Roberts, Nicky Hayden or Casey Stoner. Could it be an idea to search for potential Swedish road racing talents within speedway and motocross?

JS: Yes, for sure. It would be really interesting to see how a speedway rider would fare. The fact that we have brakes and also turn to the right isn’t such a big factor. Many of the current riders in Moto3, Moto2 and MotoGP ride a lot of flat track. Rossi has a nice track near his home, although it is more like a road racing track, but with a gravel surface that, together with street tires, provides less grip. It is good training.

The team and the MotoGP-series

DB: What are your main tasks as team manager?

JS: I run the team and report to the boss. I handle all the daily tasks and organize everything from schedules, travel, bookings, to contacts with sponsors, budgets and so on.

DB: What are the advantages with you having raced yourself ? Are there any disadvantages as well?

JS: The advantage is that the riders have more trust in my opinions. I have a better relationship with them and I can also spot when they need help out on track. The disadvantage can be that I build a kind of “buddy”-relationship with them, when instead I should be, and am, their boss. It can be hard when you have to make tough decisions that affect them.

DB: What are the biggest differences between being a team manager for a Moto2 team compared to a Moto3 team.

JS: There isn’t a big difference between running a team in Moto2, Moto3 or MotoGP. The principle is the same, it’s just the size of the team, the organisation and the budget you have at your disposal that differs.

DB: Do you think you would still be in Superbikes and Supersport, if you would not have run into financial problems with Stiggy Racing Honda? Would you return with a team if the financial circumstances were in place?

JS: No, I will never run my own team again. The risks are too big and it’s way too hard to build it up from scratch. All teams base their budgets on sponsors or drivers that pay. If something goes wrong, you’re the one taking the hit. And it costs a lot, financially, but also personally, because there are so many emotions and tough journeys, and so on. You sacrifice a lot on a personal level when you do what I do. Family and friends are the ones that suffer, that’s probably the most negative side of this business.

DB: How much backing do you have from Caterham and AirAsia?         

JS: Well, the owner of both companies is Tony Fernandes, so almost all of the backing comes from them. We have smaller sponsors and some technical partners, but 90 percent of the budget is from Caterham and AirAsia.

DB: What is the average cost of running a Moto2 team for one season? How does it compare to Superbike and Supersport?

JS: A top level Moto2 team costs around 2 million Euros per season. An average Moto2 team is somewhat less, around 1.5 million, but there are some teams that manage it on around 1 million Euros as well. It’s just a question of what results you aim to achieve and of the status of your team. Superbike is approximately the same, but Supersport is much less expensive.

DB: What are the pros and cons with the Suter chassis compared to the Kalex chassis.

JS: Suter can be harder to set up. With the Kalex, many riders can go relatively fast right away. But to reach that final step to compete at the top, is equally hard with the Kalex. There is no difference between them in that aspect. For me personally, Suter or Kalex, it’s all the same.

DB: Do Josh Herrin and Johann Zarco get along? How much information exchange is there between the two sides of the garage?

JS: Yes, they get along okay. Zarco can’t really take advantage of Josh’s data so that’s a bit of a shame. But Josh on the other hand can get a lot from Zarco. We check and compare data between every practice session and at the end of the day. There are no secrets between our riders.

DB: Why haven’t things really fallen into place for Zarco this season? Should he not be higher up considering his performances last year?

JS: Yes, he should. I think he puts a bit too much pressure on himself. There are times when he rides really well, but we hope to get even more out of him, now, when we go into the second part of the season. He is incredibly talented, but we have had some bad luck, and we haven’t really hit the mark as we hoped. At the same time, we are a new team, so one must take that into consideration. We had to learn a lot, and that is something we can take advantage of now.

DB: A little side note, did you manage to save anything from Zarco’s bike that burst into flames at Sachsenring?

JS: Yes, it wasn’t as bad as it looked. The chassis and the swing was okay and these are the expensive parts.

DB: Why do riders that come from Supersport and Superbike have such a hard time in the MotoGP-classes? Is it an issue of adjusting to the bikes, and is that the reason behind Herrin’s struggles?

JS: You can’t compare a standard bike to a GP-bike. That’s the reason why the factory teams never sign somebody directly from Superbike or a standard class. They have to go through Moto3, Moto2 and so on. The tires and the chassis are much stiffer and they require a completely different riding style.

DB: There as been some rumours about Jack Miller skipping Moto2 and going straight into MotoGP. How do you view such a move? Is it a step too far for a Moto3-rider?

JS: Yes, it seems like Jack could be doing that. It’s a big step, but I think it will suit his riding style. They see a future for him in MotoGP and Honda has a contract for him, so it’s probably a long term thing.

DB: Your old teammate Anthony West said in an interview with Crash.net, that it is possible to bend the rules a little in Moto2. For example, he heard of people using lighter oil in qualifying and then draining it before an inspection. He also said that he heard of someone who managed to hack the ECU to gain some extra speed. Furthermore, he added that in the early days of the series, the engine allocation wasn’t as random as it should have been. Do you agree with him? Have you heard of these things or experienced them first hand?

JS: I don’t know anything about that. I don’t think it is correct. The organisation is very stern when it comes to the rules and they check all the data after each session. There are huge fines handed out if you do anything illegal.

Caterham and the future

DB: I read an interview with you on Bikesocial where you said that Caterhams plan is to enter the MotoGP-category within two or three years. Is that time frame still in place?

JS: Right now we are focusing on Moto2. We must learn more as a team and build on that. The goal is MotoGP, but only if we have factory bikes. A lot of things must fall into place to make it happen.

DB: How much help do you get from Caterhams car racing department? Are there any R&D that are profitable for both parties?

JS: Our base is the same as the F1 team, and we had a lot of help from them when we were starting out. It’s an incredibly large factory, so we could also use a lot of other things, for example coating, graphics, administration and so on. Now, with the F1 team sold, we won’t be using them anymore. But there are a few people that worked within the F1 design team, that had also worked with motorcycles, and we still work with them.

DB: How does it look contractually for Herrin and Zarco for 2015?

JS: We have options on both riders, but we haven’t prolonged for the time being. It looks like we will continue with Zarco, but it will be tough for Herrin unless he makes big progress soon.

Finally

DB: Who do you think will win Moto3?

JS: Jack Miller.

DB: Who will win Moto2?

JS: I’m hoping for Zarco, but if it isn’t going to be him, it’s going to be Kallio.

DB: Will Marc take the MotoGP title and can he win all of the races?

JS: I think he will take the championship, but I don’t think he will win all of the races.

David Boda has been working as a journalist for about 12 years, but has been following MotoGP since the ‪Rainey, Gardner, Doohan, and ‪Kevin Schwantz‬ -era, the latter being his first MotoGP hero. Later, he couldn’t resist the charm of a a young Valentino Rossi and he hasn’t missed a race since Rossi stepped up to the 500-class. When David isn’t writing on his My thoughts about 2 wheels blog , he can be found roaming around on Twitter.