Ten Kate Honda stepped onto the world racing scene back in the late nineties in World Supersport. The steadily build their team over the years and in 2001, took their first World Supersport title. They haven't lost one since.
In 2004 they stepped up to the World Superbike class and have amassed an impressive record of wins including a championship with James Toseland last year.
The man behind Ten Kate's rise to power is Ronald Ten Kate. The Dutchman has managed the team from the beginning and has built up a technical team that has no equal in privateer superbike racing. In talking to Ronald what is impressive is that he is truly a 'people' person, one who understands the human element better than most in motorsport. Of all the people I've met in racing he is at the top when it comes to man part of the man/machine equation.
Could you explain your relationship with Honda and what resources they make available to you?
Basically we are a local dealer from Holland going racing. That's what I keep telling people. In reality we do have a Honda dealership back home, our whole start was from there. We picked up racing 15 years ago just as a small sponsorship to a local team. And then Gerrit (Ronald's cousin), team boss and owner of the dealership wanted to improve the knowledge of the people in his workshop. He says 'okay we're going to build the bikes ourselves for the racing team, I want to be more involved with it just to improve the knowledge of the guys in the dealership working with us.' And then we just got carried away with it.
It was too much fun! We could share the passion for it. At first it was like a hobby after hours when the shop was closed. 6 o'clock we went home to have a bit of food, 7 o'clock everyone was there again. We would build and work on the race bikes and go racing on the weekends. Then at a certain point we were noticed by Honda Europe, who had their own racing program which was successful sometimes, sometimes not so successful. So back in 2001 they made the decision to work with us and our efforts have been boosted forward.
Now we have the official backing of Honda Motor Europe , plus direct relation with HRC and Honda Motor R&D. So it's a lot of sharing of information, a lot of parts coming, lot of development stuff for us to test; but we still have some quite some freedom on what we do with the bike. The bikes are built in Holland in our workshop and we do the tuning ourselves. So work on cylinder heads, et cetera, that is done in house with us.
So it seems like Honda's original superbike concept was to lease full-on HRC bikes then teams would just race them. But they seemed to have switched to more of a hybrid program, is that what you guys have spearheaded for Honda?
Yeah, and that's also the way we like to work because all of my crew here they don't want be just fitters, they want to think about things, they want to improve bikes constantly and that has become one of our strengths. And also what we are racing we are selling. We have about 60 full racing bikes that we sell overseas and to our customers so that's a big operation as well. So that is one of the businesses we are in. So yeah there's a bit of development with what we do in here and of course there is a small delay in getting the parts to our customer teams. Again we usually tell the customers 'you're slipstreaming with us'.
This year with the all-new Fireblade it kind of got to you guys late, you weren't able to do a lot of testing in the off-season. I believe you only did one test. How were you able to make up so much ground so quickly?
Well it all depends on what bike you are getting. What is the original bike like and actually speaking it took awhile for Honda to deliver the bikes out to all the racing teams. But I'm actually happy that they kept on working on it to improve it and make it better. Because when the bike came to us and we put it on the dyno and took it all apart immediately we knew this was kind of a jewel. In its genes it is really a proper racing bike, it is a proper superbike. You just need to bolt on some accessories and it's very easy to go fast with this bike.
How is the engine tuning program coming with the 1000RR?
Well the engine in stock trim is quite a bit faster. Also the new concept with bore and stroke is quite a bit better for racing since it allows for more revs. So it's easy especially with the power and the torque there. And I think at the beginning of the season we were taking it step by step, we really wanted to see that we made a reliable engine there, so we were not stretching too much. So step by step we've come up. And by now I think we have one of the fastest bikes our there. And there's a little bit more to come *smiles*.
Well then. One thing that's kind of interesting when you have a team with several riders with different backgrounds like you have, is the different needs the riders have for their bikes. Can you explain the differences between your three riders and what they need from the setup to feel comfortable and go fast?
With Carlos Checa who comes from a Moto GP style where everything is quite solid and rock hard we can see that again here. So he is on a very stiff swingarm. He is also running a very hard shock absorber, he really wants to be fully connected to it. He wants no movement at all in the back. Front...between all the riders there really is not so much difference to be honest.
If we look to Kiyonari, where Carlos is full-on hard, hard, hard, with Kiyonari it is the other way around. The softest swingarm available, shock absorber almost what we call rain setting, so we're actually scratching our head how to make a rain setting for this guy. So really soft, he prefers to have a lot of feeling, a lot of movement in the back there.
Kenan Sofuoglu is more in between them. He is also still learning the bike, learning to ride superbike so one day we'll see him switch to maybe Kiyonari's style or what I expect to be more towards Checa's style, the harder side of things. He's a little bit of inbetween boy, but for sure it's a big, big difference.
In the beginning when we take James Toseland and James Toseland's settings as the middle point, far off to the hard side is Carlos, far off to the soft side is Kiyonari and somewhere around James Toseland's settings is where Sofuoglu is at the moment.
So there really is not one magic setting or one place where you really have to be, it seems like the ball park for the machine we have here is quite a big range.
You've been able to select a lot of excellent riders throughout Ten Kate's tenure in world level racing and sometimes they were guys that some people had written off or someone who was an unknown. What has been the key to your success in selecting the right riders?
Well what we always say when I am sitting down with a rider together with Gerrit, 'I'm just having a conversation with them and Gerrit is looking at the eyes'. He wants to see the fire in the eyes. And when he sees it, he sees it and when it's not there, it's not there. But to be honest we just speak a lot with the riders, we also have a typical way of work where teamwork is high priority with us. We also want to have riders who fit in the team well. So we've got big, egocentric selfish people, they wouldn't fit in so well, so we're also looking for riders that could fit in with us, who could work with us, who are also open to work in the way we do.
So like 'oh I used to work like this for the past two three years...', no, no, no he must fit in our program and I think it goes back to the beginning of our racing when we did already make some fast bikes but we had no funding, no budget whatsoever. We were constantly looking to fast riders that nobody knew. Because they were more cost-effective for us. If you take the proven guy or wanna try to buy the champion of course you have to spend a lot of money, which we didn't have. So we were pushed to look constantly around everywhere in Europe and even the world for this guy that nobody knows but check out what he is doing.
Also with the sales of all the customer machines that we do so around 60 on a yearly basis, we have a lot of info from all championships all over Europe where we do speak with the teams and we see the result list, when all of a sudden week by week we see a certain name always there, that we might wanna check out. So when we go over there or one of our engineers goes over to that championship to help our racing team there they're also checking out the new kid on th block.
Are their any guys in the American championship that have caught your eye?
*Smiles--long pause* There is a young guy around. He's below 20.
Coming into 2007 there were rumors of you guys thinking about starting a Moto GP team but the finances didn't work. Is that something you're thinking about doing in the next couple of years?
It is definitely not a dream that we are chasing, but it could fit in our racing program very very well. If we could be present in all of those classes. We also run a junior stock class for youngsters from 16 to 23 years old, so it's really like a training program within the FGSport Superbike racing series. So you could take kids from 16 years old, bring them through the junior stocks, then bring them to World Supersport, World Superbike, then at the end of the day bring them to Moto GP. It would be the ideal way for us.
Like I say, we're not chasing our dream. We're not pushing constantly to make it happen, but it would be a very nice team to have. But if we go there, we want to have the freedom to work on the bike and that seems to be in Moto GP a little bit different. Where it's only polishing the bike. And we want to polish, but inside the engine.
Only thing I want to say about the championship we are currently in, this is where we have grown over the past years, this where we're also perfectly happy, and also the future is looking very bright for superbike racing It's very competitive, it's very nice racing...crowds are going up. TV is more and more interested in showing us all around the world. So yeah we are where we are now but if it happens it happens.
Is there anything you have to say to American fans, particularly Honda fans who are following you guys?
It's really good to be back in America, [it] brings back some good memories from Laguna Seca where we had the double with Chris Vermeulen back in 2004. So that's really nice to be here.
Also I want to credit American Honda big time. We just started the weekend but they've been a big help for us, explaining to us about this track, showing us the data, helping us to move forward. We are going to work more and more closely together to share information and to make things better both in America and with us.