Monday, May 21

WHAT'S UP WITH BEN SPIES?


By MICHAEL ESDAILE

What’s up with Ben Spies this year? That’s a common question and as is so often the case in motor sport, there is no one correct answer, but I'd hazard a guess that he is feeling just a little less than fully confident right now.

And with good reason, as I shall attempt to explain.

While there are those out there in the weird world of internet ‘forums’ who are claiming the Texan is a failure, they do not say by whose measure.

Consider this. Spies came into the MotoGP Championship after winning the Superbike World Championship at his first attempt, on the revised Yamaha YZF-R1, the bike with the cross-plane crankshaft that gave the in-line four cylinder engine the same firing intervals as a 90 degree V4 with 180 degree offset crankpins.

Prior to that Spies had scored three hard-fought AMA Superbike Championships on a Yoshimura Suzuki GSX-R1000 with a conventional crankshaft. On Dunlop tyres and on tracks he was familiar with. And he had to beat the ferociously competitive Mat Mladin to do it.

So not only was the Yamaha he raced in the Superbike World Championship completely new, so were all the race tracks in the series– bar Miller Motorsports Park in the USA. He also had to get used to racing on Pirelli tyres.

There’s more: the Texan was afraid of flying, so he based himself in northern Italy, another unfamiliar environment.

Yet he won a staggering total of 14 races in his first attempt at the SWC series.

Then he moved to MotoGP with the French Tech 3 team. Once again he had to learn new tracks on an unfamiliar bike, on Bridgestone tyres that he reported gave a completely different feeling to anything he had yet raced on.

His first experience with the Bridgestone control tyres was in the final race of 2009 when he was provided a factory Yamaha YFR-M1 for the Valencia race. He qualified ninth, 1.2 seconds off pole-sitter Casey Stoner, and finished seventh in the race, 37 seconds behind race winner Dani Pedrosa.

In an interview with English Motor Cycle News (MCN), Spies said to get used to the Bridgestones “I just need more laps on newer tyres. That feeling of bringing them up to temperature I was getting more comfortable with at Valencia. It takes time and every time I put a new set on the bike, every time my second and third lap were coming quicker, but not as quick as I would like. Getting them to the right operating temperature is key and once they get there I’ve got to turn my brain on and stick it right in there. That is hard when you feel them move around a little bit. It’s not difficult but different and it’s an important part of it because you’ve got to get off the start line and be ready to go with those guys if you want a chance.”

Spies said he knew that to be successful in MotoGP he had to be prepared to go hard even when the tyres were not yet up to their optimum temperature and he said he had to get used to the way the tyres felt at that point because all the other riders had already developed that feel.

He added that when the tyre grip dropped off a little, “that’s more of the feeling I’m used to. I need to shut my eyes a few times and try and run it off the track in a few corners and see what happens. I just need more trust from the tyres.”

Remember, this was at the end of 2009.

By the end the 2010 season the Texan was Rookie of the Year, beating out the great Italian hope, the late Marco Simoncelli for that honour. Not only that, in finishing sixth in the title chase and scoring two podium finishes, he beat the vastly more experienced Nicky Hayden, who at that stage had completed eight seasons in MotoGP.

By the end of the 2011 season Spies had scored his first MotoGP race win, at Assen, and was on the podium on three other occasions. Those were the highlights. The low points were crashing out of the races at Jerez, Estoril and Silverstone, then crashing at high speed in qualifying at Phillip Island. He didn’t break any bones in that one but he went down hard and was too battered and bruised to be able to ride the following day.

At Malaysia a week later he was still feeling the effects of that 260 km/h get-off in Australia which had resulted in a concussion and tearing of the soft tissue around the rib area. After two further crashes in practice at Sepang, he and Yamaha management decided it would be wise to withdraw from the race and concentrate on being fit for the final race of the year at Valencia.

A rugby team coach would have spelled a player with a concussion, not let him climb onto a 300+ km/h land-based missile and expected him to get back out there

As it turned out, the Malaysian race was called off after two laps due to the tragic death of Marco Simoncelli, Spies’ sparring partner from the previous year.

Showing real steel, Spies overcame all that and in tricky conditions took the lead from Casey Stoner at Valencia and was looking on target to score his second win of the season. But Stoner had other ideas. The Aussie got on the gas hard and early in the final corner, and pipped Spies right on the line in the final race of the year.

Despite the set-backs, Spies finished fifth in the title chase, once again with more points than Hayden and Simoncelli, and also ahead of Valentino Rossi.

I would hardly call that a failure.

Yet in an interview with the blog site twowheels.com in mid-January, Yamaha Factory Racing MotoGP team principal Lin Jarvis clearly indicated that Spies’ factory ride was up for grabs.

“Except for his victory at Assen, Ben’s results have been disappointing and I’m sure he’s also be disappointed and dissatisfied,” Jarvis said. “ I hope that this year he’ll be able to do better and be more consistent as he clearly has the potential. Being consistent is everything. Casey won ten races so he’s consistent, but Jorge was always there. Apart from a couple of errors he was always ahead and if did not win he was second or third. That’s what’s you have to do. You need luck and preparation, not make mistakes and be focused. Those are the things that Ben clearly has to work on this season.”

“I hope to see Andrea improving constantly and right behind Ben. I hope to have three of our riders in the top six and that will count for 2013,” said Jarvis. “I know Andrea’s intentions and it is obvious that the best way to show your potential to Yamaha is riding a Yamaha. We’ve seen what he can do on a Honda but how can you compare the two? I understand his motivation, but I also think this will encourage Ben, who in turn with or without Andrea must show greater potential in order to keep their place in the factory team in 2013. So I hope that there will be more than one race win. This is a competitive world, we are here to win. ”

Nicky Hayden for one will be thankful none of the bosses at Honda had that attitude or he would have been given his marching orders before he won the 2006 World Championship. After three seasons on the most successful MotoGP bike of all time, Hayden had just one win to his name when he started the 2006 season. Another who is clearly not judged in this way is Valentino Rossi at Ducati. Millions of Euro, a raft of changes to the motorcycle and not a single race win.

Jarvis' comments allied with encouraging results from Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso on the Tech 3 Yamahas in pre-season testing saw sections of the English motorcycle press quick to offer Crutchlow as a candidate for Spies’ ride, and the Italian press got behind Dovizioso.

How Spies handled this is hard to know. He is very quiet, unassuming character off the bike. But you can bet it felt like a kick in the guts that would have hurt almost as much as the muscles that were torn in his rib cage in that big Phillip Island crash.

At this year’s opening MotoGP round at Qatar, Spies was clearly struggling while the other three Yamaha men were looking strong. While their bikes handled as if on rails, Spies’s bike was twitchy. He went down twice in practice when the front wheel ‘tucked’, something the other three Yamahas never looked in danger of.

In the warm-up for the race, Spies said the bike was suddenly chattering badly. Massimo Meregalli, Yamaha Factory Racing Team Director, explained “the chatter suddenly appeared on Ben’s bike in warm-up and we couldn’t solve it before the race. We’re not sure why it was yet but the engineers will work on it and we will try to ensure we have the problem solved by Jerez.”

It turned out the sub-frame on Spies’ bike was cracked.

He finished 11th, 56 seconds behind his team-mate, who won the race.

Things got no better for Spies at Jerez. Once again he finished in 11th place.

“I don’t really know what happened,” he said. “I got off to a pretty good start but after that I didn’t have a good feeling with the bike. It was a pretty pathetic race really for me. I’ve apologized to the team and we’ve had a long meeting about what I was feeling with the bike. I just wasn’t comfortable. I rode as hard as I could but the speed just wasn’t there. We need to find something because we can see the Yamahas are working well but my feeling with the bike is not great.”

Already there were people saying Spies had lost his confidence and was in a crisis.

But at Estorial Spies appeared to be coming good, qualifying fifth fastest then he had some problems in the race and finished eighth.

“This is actually the first time in three years that I’ve finished a race here,” Spies said. “As I told the team, I made four or five big mistakes during the race, they cost me time and places. It was a rough race but I’m continuing to build my confidence. I don’t enjoy Estoril so I’m happy to have finished. Now we go to Le Mans which is a great event with an amazing crowd but another track I don’t love so much! I’m happy with the bike and its performance so we’ll continue to build my confidence and improve the results.”

It didn’t happen: Spies qualified sixth at Le Mans but finished 16th after almost crashing when his Yamaha fish-tailed violently off the line. It seemed the electronic launch control failed to activate and in the process of recovering from that, Spies was filled in with water and spray from the bikes that shot ahead of him.

“I had quite a lot of water coming in through my helmet and couldn’t see much on the first five laps. I hoped it would get better but I couldn’t see anything and decided to come in because I need to see where I am going. I knew the race was gone by then so went back out to try and get some data and get better working with the bike in the rain.”

Spies is mentally tough – anyone who shared garage space with Mat Mladin and was regularly beating him had to be.

But even Spies can be forgiven for having a loss of confidence when he is in a team that wants to send him out to race after he has been concussed, apparently cannot set his bike up properly and sends him out to race on a motorcycle with a cracked rear sub-frame.

I mean, would that make YOU confident?