Everything was new to Ben Spies when he landed at London's Heathrow Airport. New country, new motorcycle, new suspension, new tires, new brakes, new electronics, new competition. A little more than a week earlier, Spies was chosen to replace the injured Loris Capirossi on the Rizla Suzuki GSV-R800 in the British Grand Prix at the notoriously tricky Donington Park circuit. The MotoGP field has among its 18 permanent riders 11 world champions; all of them know every inch of Donington, wet or dry. Spies' total MotoGP experience consisted of riding the '07-version GSV-R for approximately 35 laps around the Spanish Valencia circuit. That was fun-this was serious. Spies would be, as he put it, "thrown in the deep end with no floaties."
With Capirossi sidelined, Spies had the full attention of crew chief Stuart Shenton. Shenton was former World 500 Grand Prix champion (and Spies' mentor) Kevin Schwantz's crew chief through the glory years and came highly recommended.
"The big thing is when you're starting off with something-I think being thrown into the deep end like this weekend, where everything's so new-is just keeping it all in check so you don't go off and get lost," Shenton says. They used Capirossi's baseline settings. "So we made a couple little changes which have made a difference for him. But as for trying to make him supercomfortable and trying to answer all the questions at once, heading not where you want to be is one of the problems that could happen. We've still got a practice session left, so we could still screw that up."
"Honestly, I really like it," Spies says after finishing his first MotoGP practice 18th and last, 2.828 seconds off leader Casey Stoner on the Marlboro Ducati. "It's easy to learn the layout, but there's a couple little tricky spots that just take laps around here. It'd be a completely different story if I was on my Superbike or something around here and would able to be a lot more comfortable. But we're trying to learn the bike and the new track, and it's a little tricky. So I think we're doing OK.
"I'm not usually in this position of being this far back. But timewise and what's competitive, I don't think we're really that far off. We're pretty competitive. If we can drop another second we're going to be right in there with a bunch of people to race."
There was no working memory of the bike he rode at Valencia. And it felt nothing like his Rockstar Makita Suzuki GSX-R1000. "It's hard," he says of adapting to the GSV-R800. "You've got carbon brakes. The [Ohlins] suspension is obviously different from what I've ever been on." The Yoshimura Suzuki AMA team uses Showa. The Bridgestone tires "are a completely different feel, too" from his AMA Dunlops. "So you put everything together and you can't name one thing that's really the hard thing. The brakes really aren't the biggest issue. It's just the total package being so night-and-day is what's difficult. Not that it doesn't work or it doesn't work great, but it's just so different, it's hard to adapt. But I think we're doing a fairly OK job with it, and I think we're going to keep going with it."
Shenton is impressed with, among other things, Spies' braking ability. "It isn't perfect yet, but for a bloke who's just coming and getting used to carbon brakes and trying to find the limit of the front tire and stuff where you're stopping it here, it's not damn bad," Shenton says. Spies is very close to Rizla Suzuki's Chris Vermeulen "in all areas. For a guy who's had to come along and just jump on it, he's very close. And I don't think we're going to get a dry session this afternoon, so it'd be just knocking the last few corners off that and closing the gap in a few places."