Features 26 Oct 2017

Industry Insight: Team Honda Racing's Paul Free

Outgoing team owner on his decision to exit racing at the end of 2017.

The news that Team Honda Racing and Motologic would be ceasing operations at the end of the 2017 season came as a significant upset to the sport last month, as we say goodbye to one of the premier teams that has ever competed in the Australian Superbike Championship. A former factory racer himself with international experience, team principal Paul Free has seen it all over more than two decades as a rider, team manager and team owner, making his decision to exit racing altogether at the end of this year even more surprising. The fact is, competing at the level Free’s Team Honda Racing outfit has since its formation takes a vast amount of resources and it’s supremely challenging to maintain the level of backing required year in, year out. CycleOnline.com.au contacted Free to get his take on the team’s closure, his history with Honda and the future from a personal standpoint.

Image: Alex Gobert (Foremost Media).

Thanks for the interview this afternoon. Tell us about the decision, in general terms, to end your involvement in the factory Honda road race team.

It wasn’t a decision that was taken lightly. We looked over what we were doing, how we were doing it, where we were going and what we could possibly do over quite fair few months to come to the decision that we did. So it took a lot of working out of how we could continue, but right at the moment, racing for us at Motologic just wasn’t a viable option. We needed to increase our sponsorship considerably and it just didn’t look like it was a viable option – we decided that closing it down and getting out of it at the moment and having a break was probably the most sensible option. We’ve given enough of ourselves and my family to this sport and industry, we sort of couldn’t give anymore without putting ourselves in a vulnerable position personally. I’ve said to a number of people that if Motologic was successful business outside of racing that was generating an income so that racing could be a hobby, then that would be doable with Honda for as long as they wanted to do it, but Motologic is a small business based in the industry, a service provider to the industry. I need the racing operation the create an income for us and where we’re at the moment, that’s just not possible. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it’s one we’ve had to come to and deal with.

Confirmation came in September that you would be effectively closing the doors of Team Honda Racing and Motologic, so what was it like competing in the last few races and knowing that aspect of it was coming to an end?

Look, for me personally, it was very, very difficult. I know my staff and riders must’ve known something was going on, because there was a period there where I knew where we were going, and I obviously couldn’t say anything to anyone. That was very, very difficult and definitely affected the way I operated or behaved. I did get to the point of informing the riders before Honda made the announcement and it was still difficult, probably for the first test and race we went to once the guys knew. It was case of sitting down at Sydney Motorsport Park and saying this is what’s happening, we all know it, we need to reset, get our minds on the job and keep the wheels turning as normally. It’s still difficult, I think we still kept our level of focus and kept the team at a high level.

On the outside, the achievements of the organisation on-track have been evident, but it’s a tough time in terms of attracting and maintaining sponsorship at the moment. I know you are one of the few who have tried various strategies over the years and with considerable success, but it’s hard to make that dollar amount stack up to the expectation and the size of the program that you have been running. It’s just a hard thing to balance out at this point in time, isn’t it?

It is very, very difficult right at the moment. In saying what I said before, we’re still competing in supercross even though superbikes are finished. I’ve still got Adelaide, the big Sydney event and the last round to go – we still have a long way to go. In answer to your question right now, yes, sponsorship in my time with Honda has never more difficult in my view. Scrounging around and seeing small numbers of sponsorship isn’t hard, but when it takes hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars to run an operation like this, like I said before, I’ve never seen it harder than what it is now. Talking to a lot of different business owners and various ties in business, I’ve started to formulate my own idea of where or why it’s so hard and where that extra cash has gone from people who have dropped money in the sport in the past, that money has just dried up. A medium size business who’s an enthusiast doesn’t have that cash, so then that cash isn’t being injected into the sport. It’s a very difficult time.

Image: Alex Gobert (Foremost Media).

What’s it been like operating the ASBK team as well as Honda’s official motocross and supercross team over the past two seasons? That’s a massive commitment in itself, adding nearly 20 events to Team Honda Racing’s schedule alone.

Yeah, it’s been extremely taxing. The road team has been operating together as a unit with the same staff and with my wife Laura organising all the travel, accommodation and stuff. That team is so self sufficient, it’s actually a pleasure and very easy to operate – that’s not talking the financial side of it. It’s an easy team to manage and operate, plus having good riders like we’ve had in the last couple of years have made it very easy – they fit in, they don’t question flights if it’s a bit of an unusual time to save some money here and there, they’ve just been a pleasure to work with. The motocross team, because it’s new like a new business, it takes a lot of time and energy to build that structure that’s required to make it ultimately successful. I know we didn’t hit the mark over the years we’ve had that contract with Honda – we’ve come close – but I know we haven’t hit the mark. People say it takes three to five years to establish a business, to get a successful business running smoothly. We’ve been running the motocross team for two years and I think if it was to continue, we would see real success in the not so distant future. Success doesn’t just happen, it comes from a lot of hard work, dedication and a very, very well-oiled and structured team that work together and understand each other.

We’ve spoken in detail about this off the record and have also posted some features on the team’s history recently, but on a personal level if you could narrow it down, what would be the biggest highlight in your time at the helm of the race team?

If I started through the years, obviously all the championships we’ve won, at the time, seem really, really special. The World Supersport race we won with Josh [Brookes] in 2004, that was really special – that was something, that had never been achieved as a wildcard. We were lucky and Josh did a brilliant job. In 2008 when the new Fireblade came out, we took it to the track and Glenn [Allerton] won – he qualified on pole and won at Mallala – that was so special. To send a replica trophy to the factory in Japan and get a photo back of the leading staff that developed the CBR1000RR with the trophy at the head office, that was cool, that was really cool. Going on from there, 2014 was special, having Wayne [Maxwell], Jamie [Stauffer], Josh Hook and then Troy [Herfoss] also joining team, we finished first, second and third in the ASC championship – that was special and a really fun year. 2015 with Troy and a championship, 2016 again with Troy and a championship, even this year – every year there’s been some high aspects that are a lot of fun. As long as you’re having fun and enjoying what you’re doing, then I think you’re on a winner.

What would be the best bike you’ve ever worked with, considering the different eras?

That’s a big one to ask. I think when the 2003 CBR600RR first came out, that bike was so, so good. I think this current 2017 model Fireblade is definitely by far the best looking bike, that is a great looking race bike, even though ultimately, we haven’t had the ultimate success that we had with some of the other models. Like I said, with Glenn in 2008 and I think even in 2004 when the CBR1000RR was first introduced – I think we had immediate success back then with that brand new bike with Adam Fergusson. To pin-point the best, it’s hard to say.

Image: Alex Gobert (Foremost Media).

It seems like you guys were always able to extract the most out of bikes that weren’t so successful internationally, especially some of the Fireblades from year to year.

Yeah, and in terms of winning championships, yeah. I honestly think a team and a motorcycle are only as good as – and I’ve always said, suspension is only as good as the people that are working in it – and not to belt my own chest, but collectively with Shaun [Clarke] and some of the other techs I’ve had over the years, they have all been exceptional techs working in all areas of the motorcycle and getting the most out of it, while working with the riders to get the most out of the whole package. I think we’ve achieved that with the Honda CBR1000RR and we’ve generally got the best out of it. I will go to say that in other countries, they may not have the same short circuits that we have and experience here, which definitely helps when you have a bike that is lacking in some areas. But to make up on the strengths of the chassis and the suspension component of the motorcycle, maybe we’ve been a bit lucky in Australia with that aspect and some of the short circuits we experience. I don’t know, but I do know we’ve had some very, very special bikes over the years with various riders and techs combined together.

Can you say any one rider stood out above the others? I know that must be a bit of a tricky question to answer!

It’s very, very difficult to answer that question. I will say a number of riders have had their huge strengths. I’ll go back as far as Adam Fergusson – an amazing motorcycle rider and he was just amazing what he could do on a motorcycle – and he was a big feller compared to his competitors. Josh Brookes, amazing. I don’t know, it’s a very difficult one that, there’s been some really talented guys, Glenn Allerton – when Glenn’s on, no one is going to beat him. Wayne, he’s another exceptional motorbike rider, Jamie for all the years we had him – he was so, so good at his peak and even in the last race Jamie competed with us at the grand prix at the end of 2016 he was right there in the mix. And Troy Herfoss, what can I say? He’s been amazing as well. I wouldn’t like to pick just one.

And finally, what’s next for Paul Free once supercross is complete?

Pack everything up and try to sell everything out of here – we’re just trying to get that all sorted now. We’ve been here for 10 years at the workshop and you accumulate a lot of stuff over that time, so we’re busy packing up and trying to get everything sold. We’re closing the doors at Christmas, I’ve made our landlord and owner of the building aware that we’ll be out at Christmas time, so we’ll work through that now right through to then. I’m currently trying to sell my house here in Melbourne and after Christmas we’re looking to move up to the Gold Coast area. So just completely start fresh, it might sound a bit scary or crazy to some people, but I just figure if I’m going to start with a new job and do something different, I may as well start it somewhere I want to live – the Gold Coast looks pretty appealing to me, so somewhere in that back area of the Gold Coast looks real good.