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."
Of Spies' contention that the GSV-R isn't much faster than his Superbike, Shenton agrees. "We're making more than 220 horsepower. An American Superbike's probably 210-plus, 215. I think horsepower-wise you're probably not talking a lot of difference, but in torque delivery there's probably a lot of difference."
Spies finished the day 17th fastest, putting Alice Team's Sylvain Guintoli behind him.
Due to the lack of dry practice...
Due to the lack of dry practice time, it wasn't until halfway through the race that Spies finally became somewhat comfortable pushing the GSV-R800's Bridgestone tires.
Spies (11) luckily avoided...
Spies (11) luckily avoided getting caught up in James Toseland's high-side crash in the first corner of the British GP. Fellow American John Hopkins (21, partially obscured) wasn't so lucky and almost had to take to the grass to evade the falling British rider.
Spies was surprised at how...
Spies was surprised at how well known he was in England. The HJC helmet he would wear in the race was auctioned off at the Riders for Health event for $5600.
"I'm feeling about 70 percent on the bike now, but I don't know how much faster we're going to go," Spies admits. "But I'm just starting to push it, and I'm not even spinning the thing anywhere. It's not even moving. There's a lot of time to go. It's not near what I'm used to hanging it out, but I just don't want to really do anything too stupid at this stage."
What Spies thought he needed was less electronics. "I told them I could turn some stuff down. I need some more feel, you know."
When he awoke in his paddock motor home on Saturday morning, it was raining. Not hard, but hard enough to know that today would be an adventure. The Donington Park surface is legendary for its unpredictability. Situated in the flight path of the East Midlands Airport, the track has been dogged with the false belief that it suffers from being misted with fuel. So prevalent is the belief that the track CEO said it was nonsense in a statement issued on the GP weekend.
In the morning practice session Spies finished 10th, tucked between Rossi and Vermeulen. The surface everyone said was so lethal was "10 times better than Road America," where he won a wet race last year by 11 seconds. "I rode at Road America a couple of weeks ago and that place is an ice rink. It was good, and I'll just try to pick up the pace a little more this afternoon and see if we can have a decent qualifying and try to qualify in the top 12 or somewhere in there." Spies saw the rain as both an opportunity and an equalizer. "I was thinking I get to learn another bike in the rain and tires in the rain, too," he says. "I think from my lack of track knowledge, because you can't ride the bike 100 percent, I figured it would be a little more even playing ground."
Although Spies had heard horror...
Although Spies had heard horror stories regarding how treacherous Donington's pavement became when wet, he considered the overall grip far superior to any track he'd raced on in the USA.
Early in the race Spies dices...
Early in the race Spies dices it up with San Carlo Honda Gresini's Alex De Angelis (15), LCR Honda's Randy DePuniet (14) and Marlboro Ducati's Marco Melandri (33).
Although Rizla Suzuki team...
Although Rizla Suzuki team manager Paul Denning (left) and the rest of the Rizla Suzuki MotoGP crew were very happy with Spies' performance, the Texan still wished he could've done better.
In the lone afternoon qualifying session he was eighth, just in front of Repsol Honda's Dani Pedrosa. He did the time on a race tire. Most impressive was that he'd made it through his first two days without making a single mistake, with no off-track excursions or crashes. Repsol Honda's Nicky Hayden feels vindicated.
"After yesterday I was a little bit worried that maybe I opened my mouth too much when I sat here and told everybody how he was going to surprise people, this and that, but today he came through," Hayden says.
Bridgestone's race manager Hiroshi Yamada was equally impressed, though he and Spies were reluctant to say too much because of Spies' ties to Dunlop in the U.S., "but I was very impressed with his result today. In wet conditions, I believe he doesn't have so much experience in the USA." He adds, "Especially this track is very difficult to ride in the wet conditions. Many riders crash in the wet conditions. And in this situation I think he was very, very good." Wet or dry, Spies would be entering his first grand prix with one day's experience in either condition. His preference was wet.
"I'm starting to get comfortable now. Now that the pace got slowed down it was easy to really learn the track and get comfortable, and hopefully that'll transfer to the dry. But like I said, it's going to be tough. In the dry, that's where really knowing the track helps out a lot more. That's where we're lacking. But at least we showed we're a little more even now. We were up there and we're in a good position. So hopefully we can continue that and do pretty good tomorrow."
The traction control on the MotoGP machines varies greatly from bike to bike and rider to rider. Ducati Marlboro's Casey Stoner is the current master, loads of electronics allowing him to go wide open on the throttle early in the corner. Fiat Yamaha's Valentino Rossi likes more control, as does Repsol Honda's Nicky Hayden. What Spies never had time to do was "get comfortable with the bike, with the electronics, and whacking the throttle wide open." Crew chief Shenton says each rider dictates his own comfort level with the electronics, which are vastly improved from when Spies last rode it. "We didn't have a dedicated spin control system last year," revealed Shenton.
Sunday's race would be dry. This wasn't good news, but Spies accepted it. The plan was to settle in and not "do anything stupid with these guys in their championship, but I'm definitely going to try and hook on with them and race."
Spies' fastest lap was his 21st, a time he essentially matched two laps from the end of the 30-lap race. He finished 14th, less than a second out of 13th, and earned his first two MotoGP Championship points.
It was a definite trial by...
It was a definite trial by fire for Spies, as he had to adapt to a new motorcycle, tires, racing circuit, competition and crew. Here he debriefs with the Rizla Suzuki crew after his first wet practice session on Saturday.
Spies' crew chief for the...
Spies' crew chief for the weekend was GP veteran Stuart Shenton, who was also crew chief for Kevin Schwantz during the Lucky Strike Suzuki 500GP era.
In his motor home afterwards, Spies tried to make sense of it. He felt he should have done better, but on a dry track it would've been difficult. "Towards the end of the race-the result I'm not happy with it-I don't know what other people's opinions are, but I think towards the end of the race it was good. I thought we did pretty good. And the times I was doing, the guys I could see, basically up to 10th, I was catching on the last 12 laps pretty big."
"He was a bit flat, really, with the result, but we were really, really chuffed with the job he did," Rizla Suzuki team manager Paul Denning says." We had to look at the context of the whole weekend in terms of the weather condition, new track, new bike; the list goes on. Coming off two hours riding in the rain and such a slippery surface and having to go straight out in these dry conditions, but with this kind of wind, and go faster than you've gone before. He did 30 flat during the race, right at the end.
"And basically he's pleased with the second half of the race. Once he got a feel for the bike moving around a little bit and could start to generate a little bit of spin and understand how that works, and he felt the first half of the race for him was just getting to know the bike in the dry a little bit, then the second half he could start to push. You'd probably have to check, but lap 18 through lap 30, his lap times were good enough for 10th, 11th place, which was a fantastic first run on the bike."
The critical moment for Spies came mid-race in the left-hand Coppice Corner when he first slid the rear. "I was like, OK-I finally figured out how the traction control works on the bike. It's just different from [my superbike]. Just a different feeling. If you look at my last split where I sucked all weekend, it was getting even with everybody, the guys at least I was racing with. I knew how it was going to spin and how it was going to react, and I think riding in the rain helped that a little bit. Now that I think about it, I'm pretty damn happy with the times. I know we can do it. Just need more track time and that's all there is to it." Spies never did find the limit of the front tire.
"I know if we suited up and put on new tires we could definitely do 29s now and we'd be in the top 10. Honestly, I'm happy with it. But for me the race was lost in the first half of the race. And that's where the lack of experience definitely didn't help. I don't know what other people's opinions are, but I think for all the amount of track time and the last half of the race it definitely showed I was getting more comfortable with the bike and the track. If we raced tomorrow we'd definitely have a top-10 bike and a top-10 rider for sure."
At Laguna, Spies raced for...
At Laguna, Spies raced for a while with fellow AMA Superbike rider and good friend Jamie Hacking, who was also doing double duty on the Kawasaki ZX-RR MotoGP bike and his Monster Kawasaki ZX-10R superbike. Hacking finished in 11th place in his cameo ride in place of the injured John Hopkins.
Laguna Seca will be a better judge of his potential. With two more days of testing and on a track where he's had great success, Spies will be more relaxed, more confident. The race marks the start of the summer break, a time traditionally filled with contract negotiations. Spies is more resolute than ever to leave the AMA Superbike Championship. Like many others he's a vocal opponent of the new technical rules, class format and safety stand of the Daytona Motorsports Group.
"I've been told not to say much, but I really don't even care," he says back in the Alpinestars hospitality unit. "It's just ridiculous. I feel bad for my buddies that do race there. I wish they could all leave; it's gotten that bad. There's tracks where we can't ride in the rain, and there's tracks where we can. That needs to be understood. And then the rules that are being changed are a lot of . . . pretty much everybody I know doesn't really agree with them. That's another thing. But it's the safety thing that's completely blown me away. I don't even understand that, really." Of being asked to race in the rain on the horribly slick Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Spies made this offer to DMG CEO Roger Edmondson: "Tell homeboy to get on the back of my bike."
Needless to say, Spies will...
Needless to say, Spies will be at the top of many MotoGP teams' shopping lists for the '09 season after impressing many at the British and USA GPs.
Where will Spies end up? Finding a spot in the GP paddock could be tricky. Rizla Suzuki has Vermeulen under contract for next year and seems likely to keep Capirossi. Schwantz has tried for a few years to get Suzuki to field a third bike, so far with no success. Spies could end up replacing Anthony West at Kawasaki.
Whatever the options, Spies realizes time is short. "I thought I was young until I saw all those little kids on the 125s," the 23-year-old Spies says. The podium for Sunday's 125cc race will be the youngest ever: two 15-year-olds and a 20-year-old. "The fact is, if I want to do something over here I need to be over here as early as I can. Not that World Superbike's not bad, but this is definitely my first option and where I want to be, and we'll try to get that achieved."