Yamaha Europe Racing: Q&A with Koerkamp

Superbike & Motocross

Yamaha can claim to be one of the most iconic brands in motorbike racing with a rich history both on and off-road. Most of the greatest riders in the sport have at one time or another ridden a Yamaha and gone on to victory, adding to the Japanese manufacturer’s racing success.

Ensuring the top level teams of today remain competitive and continue to upkeep this reputation is no easy task. Insider caught up with the man entrusted with the lion’s share of this responsibility…. Yamaha Motor Europe’s Racing Manager Laurens Klein Koerkamp

Can you briefly outline for us the main responsibilities as a Racing Manager for Yamaha?

Laurens Klein Koerkamp says: My role mainly consists of three legs, firstly and most importantly is racing operations, focusing on World Superbike, Motocross and other team support. Then there is the second leg which is racing kit parts, so apart from racing activities I take care of the road racing kit parts European support, technical support and all ordering information goes through me to all the Yamaha distributors. Then there is a third leg which is racing communications, I perform a supporting role in all team and sponsor activities and facilitate racing pr.

How many race teams are under your control?

Laurens Klein Koerkamp says: By far the most important is the Yamaha Sterilgarda World Superbike Team, this is the biggest team budget wise for me, and in terms of impact and market exposure as well. A lot of attention also goes to the off-road Yamaha Monster Energy teams. Together with our partner Rinaldi in Italy we have one team that is directly controlled by us, The Yamaha Monster Energy MX Team, and then we are also supporting two more Monster Energy teams; The Yamaha Monster Energy Ricci Motocross Team and The Yamaha Gariboldi Monster Energy Team.

Sterilgarda and Monster Energy are major brands, is there a very commercial side to your business?

Laurens Klein Koerkamp says: For any racing activity what has to be the most important is a good racing result, we need to be able to fight for and win world championships. To be able to do that you need an adequate budget. What is painfully clear in these tougher recession times is that it’s more and more difficult to find budget. Fortunately for us with our good racing results in the last few years our sponsorship income is fairly healthy compared to some in the racing world. We need that to be able to push our development and testing and special parts. Without sponsors such as Sterilgarda and Monster Energy Yamaha would still be involved in racing activities but perhaps to a lesser scale than today. We don’t see these brands as sponsors though, I’m very happy to say they are partners with us, sharing a passion and working together as much as possible for exposure of both our brands and the racing itself.

As you say, the most important focus is on winning. The right rider is key to this success, how do you find them?

Laurens Klein Koerkamp says: We are following quite a few championships to see what’s going on with new talent. I am very fortunate in this area of road racing; I work very closely with Yamaha Sterilgarda Superbike Team Manager Massimo Meregalli, who has a great understanding of what makes a good potential rider for us. I also worked a lot with last year’s World Supersport Team Manager Wilco Zeelenberg and the Rinaldi brothers who are very well informed on young talent in the off road world. These relationships are essential for me. It’s not just about being able to see a rider going fast on track; I think you need a very expert view which comes from ex-riders like Meregalli and Zeelenberg. I think this is my biggest strength in this area, this network around me.

We also work closely with other country distributors, so in the case of Ben Spies for example, we were following his riding but we were also able to speak a lot with Yamaha USA who were able to keep us up to date. We don’t just look at the big world championships, we also check out the European Superstock championships, seeing if there are any possibilities with the younger riders to bring up. We also look at the national championships, British Superbike for example where we picked up both Tom Sykes and Cal Crutchlow. When you’re watching a rider it’s not just the race wins to consider, you also need to take a step back and look at the team, is the rider really good or is he helped by a bike that is extremely good and well run team, it’s important to know the background. One of the tricks is to really understand why a rider has a good result.

How many riders are you following at the moment?

Laurens Klein Koerkamp says: I would say there are probably maybe six to eight young riders we are currently following that we have some ideas about, at the end of the year maybe two or three of them will be out of the picture as they didn’t make the progress we expected. We have good relationships with technicians and mechanics in the paddocks to be able to hear how the riders feedback technically to their teams. This can be tricky in the Superstock classes where you can’t change a lot on the bike, a rider who has a good result may not have any experience in setting up a bike, but if he’s ridden at a national level before in Supersport or Superbike then you can find out his understanding in that area.

Ben Spies was one of your most successful rider choices in recent years, how confident where you when you hired him?

Laurens Klein Koerkamp says: We were quite convinced that Ben was capable of being in the top three last year. At the beginning of the season we were pretty convinced we were going to get good results so we decided to take an insurance out against bonuses which obviously paid off well! Having him become World Superbike champion in his first year is something that you hope for but it’s not something that comes so easily!

It was the first year of the new crossplane crankshaft YZF-R1 last year; Ben’s results were a double vindication for you. How important was it for you to be able to deliver that level of success for the brand on their flagship motorcycle?

Laurens Klein Koerkamp says: It’s easy when you live in the racing world to focus on the result and that’s it. However racing has to be beneficial for Yamaha as a whole, there are three reasons why we are competing in the World Superbike Championship; one is the technical development, it’s essential for Yamaha to go racing for this. Secondly is the model image benefit, which is very important. The third reason is to bring through talent in the Yamaha family. You can see that with Ben and also with Cal. We brought Cal into world Supersport to win the title which we achieved, then the plan was to bring him up to world superbikes, which we have done, and maybe there is another level to go. Racing is a direct link to the production bike; we won so many titles last year with the R1, the World Endurance Championship and countless national championships, which is testimony to its abilities and also of the technicians here and in Japan who developed the bike.

Recession and the global credit crunch have had their impact on racing, what’s your view on the next two years?

Laurens Klein Koerkamp says: I think it’s going to be ok in a couple of years, but in the end of 2008 I said that the big hit would be in 2010 not 2009 because all the contracts had been done already for last year. Very few manufacturers opted to break agreements so they stayed in for the previous season. This year we’ve seen that a lot of manufacturers have changed their strategies like Yamaha, we decided to withdraw from Supersport and focus on our Superbike activity. There are fewer starters in Supersport now, and also in the Superstock 600, you can see there are less sponsors and less money available for teams to go racing. It’s going to be interesting to see how things are at the end of this year but I think it’s going to be 2012 before it’s reasonably healthy again in the racing world.

How do you think World Superbike could be more financially effective in this climate?

Laurens Klein Koerkamp says: Even before the crisis, back in the good times we were looking at ways to save costs in Superbike racing and also in Motocross. Whilst it is important to look at ways to save money with development and prototypes you can’t restrict this too much or you halt development. One of the biggest costs for us as a race team is to race overseas, so we need to be clever about where we race, going to countries that are interesting for us as manufacturers, potentially places with markets that have the potential to be bigger in the future.

Which countries would you put forward as potentially interesting to race in?

Laurens Klein Koerkamp says: I think provided there is the logistical support there to cope with us racing then in principle Indonesia, Brazil, Asia are all interesting places to go. It’s also important for us not to forget about Eastern Europe although we have one race in Brno. Who knows, when they have a proper circuit we might be racing in Russia one day.

You’ve worked with Superbike team manager Massimo Meregalli, better known as Maio, for some time, you must have a lot of confidence in him?

Laurens Klein Koerkamp says: It’s easy to have confidence in Maio, I knew him when he was a rider with Yamaha, then he started to work in the Supersport 600 team following that. He has always been very close to the riders in the team but also stays close to the technical focus and direction. He has a good working relationship with Yamaha in Japan which is also key to success in his role. He has a lot of experience with our technical suppliers and sponsors in Italy and he knows both the racing world and the Yamaha world really well inside and out.

You’ve now been with Yamaha for 19 years, from your start to your current position as Racing Manager, how would someone get to be in your job?

Laurens Klein Koerkamp says: My route wasn’t a standard route; I worked initially in the product planning division, which was very helpful as you get to know all the procedures for developing new bikes which was useful for understanding technical development. You get a lot of insight into how the engineers think. Most importantly is to work for Yamaha first! You need to have a lot of passion for the brand and racing, but also to be able to separate that and understand that racing is a business, you have to separate your fan approach from your business approach. Unfortunately this means that sometimes you have to be not so nice to people!

If you weren’t working in motorcycle racing where do you think you would be?

Laurens Klein Koerkamp says: That’s a difficult one because since I was young I wanted to work in the motorcycle racing world. I think probably something still sitting in the middle between sports and marketing and technical…if not in automotive then maybe in another sports world that has those three elements in it.