Ben Spies Interview
MODERATOR: Welcome, everyone, to this teleconference with Yamaha American MotoGP star Ben Spies. Ben, as everyone on this call knows, earned the first podium finish of his MotoGP career last Sunday at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, finishing third on the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 machine. It was a heck of a ride, for anybody who saw it.
Ben started seventh and just rode his way right up through the pack and made the pass for the podium position there on the final lap. It was a stirring, stirring ride. The podium came in just his ninth career start in MotoGP. Ben will compete this weekend at the legendary TT Assen in Assen, Netherlands, and he’s also going to be riding here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Aug. 27-29 in the Red Bull Indianapolis GP. Ben, thanks a lot for joining us and taking the time today.
BEN SPIES: Yeah, thanks for having me.
MODERATOR: Ben, has it sunk in yet that you’re on the podium at this point. Is this pretty much where you thought you’d be on your progression in the class this year, or is it earlier or later than you thought?
SPIES: It’s definitely earlier. And it hasn’t quite sunk in yet because, obviously, after England Sunday, we went straight down to London and flew here to Assen, and we’re right back in it this weekend. It’s kind of a good thing to keep in a rhythm and try to keep some confidence going. But my goal every race this year was to be in the top 10. Top fives would be a race win for me, so finishing on the podium was a big confidence booster. It leads into an important couple weeks of racing for us. And it came at a real good part of the season as far as going to tracks that I do know. I’m feeling pretty comfortable.
MATTHEW MILES: Can you describe your pass on Nicky Hayden?
SPIES: Yeah. We tried one in the beginning of the last lap and didn’t get it done. And then I was going on the back straightaway, and we go into a fast right-hander, fast left-hander that leads into a hairpin. My plan was to get as close as I could going off the back straightaway so when we went into the third turn, the tight right-hander, that I would be able to kind of slingshot and pass on the inside and kind of do a block pass. But Nicky saw, obviously, that I was there when I tried to pass him earlier in the lap. But he was definitely riding a little defensive but also trying to catch second place. Off the back straightaway, he just got in a little too hot, and luckily I was close enough where I could capitalize on it. If I’d have been another bike length or two behind, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything. But we were able to sneak by on the inside, and I didn’t have to do my planned pass, which was going to be two corners later. And it worked out for us. It was just one of those last-lap, everybody was on the limit. He made a small mistake, and we were just close enough to be there for it.
MILES: Were you at all surprised that you were in that position?
SPIES: Yes and no. We saw that we had pretty good pace on the weekend. But we were a little bit down on top speed. So I was worried that if I didn’t get off the line in a good position, it was going to be hard to pass people. But we passed Simoncelli and Pedrosa, and I could see we were closing on the podium spots. So once we did that and I saw that I could run the pace of those guys, I tried to save my tires as much as I could. And then be there for any mistakes or try to make some passes. And then with a few laps to go, we got past De Puniet and was set up in fourth place. I saw that I had some strong spots, and they had some strong spots. But we were able to get up in there. And honestly after qualifying seventh and having the crash on Saturday, I didn’t think a podium was possible. I thought a fifth or a sixth place was possible. But we just rode as hard as we could and made good passes, had good lap times and was consistent, and was able to get on the box.
AARON FRANK: Was there ever any serious conversation about your substituting for Valentino Rossi on the factory bike, or was that entirely speculation?
SPIES: It was a little more speculation than what it actually was. I think Yamaha, I was probably one of the choices to do it, and they probably would have liked me to do it if it was possible. But in the end, the way the rule is, it doesn’t matter really what they wanted to do. It was impossible. I think a lot of people were kind of making it a bigger deal than it really was. A couple days after the fact, we knew it was impossible. There was no way for me to do it. And I just kind of set on my own thing, just did all my stuff I needed to do. And that was it. There wasn’t much that could be done. Yeah, we just kind of laid it to rest.
FRANK: Does having Valentino out of the picture change your strategies or plans for the next rounds in any way?
SPIES: No, not at all. We have the same package we did before. It’s just one less rider in the championship. It’s a bad thing for the championship and a bad thing for Yamaha. But I really obviously wasn’t racing Valentino and Jorge yet, anyways. So it doesn’t really change the fact for me. And anyways, Lorenzo has been the guy to beat all year long. It’s sad that it’s one less guy on the grid. But I really haven’t been in a race with him, anyways, or close enough to race with him. So my game plan’s just been the same of learning and trying to get as good a finishes as we can. But for me, him being in the championship doesn’t affect really what I’ve been trying to do.
JIM RACE: How much of what you learned in 2008 you can carry forward to this year’s race at Indy?
SPIES: It does. I know the layout of the track, so that’s a big deal. Obviously, when I was there we did have some dry time, and I did a test there. The race there was pretty treacherous conditions. But yeah, it’s another track that I at least know going to. It’s big. I won’t have to learn the track. I haven’t been there for a couple of years, but I still know the basis of it and look forward to going there. It’s a U.S. round. It’s going to be one of our biggest two races of the year, so I’m definitely looking forward to it.
FRANK: How’s your ankle?
SPIES: It’s good. Just doing the physio stuff. It’s getting better. It’s one of those things that just takes a long time to heal. It’s one of the smaller deals in the ankle. But on the bike, it’s not a big deal. It doesn’t affect anything while I’m riding. I’m able to do enough training or what I do to be good on the bike. So it’s not too much of a problem.
RACE: At Silverstone, both you and Colin were pretty vocal about some issues you were having with the M1. If you can be specific, is there a top list of three things that you can change to where you’re currently toward the other bikes on the grid?
SPIES: That’s a hard one to answer just because different bikes suit different tracks. The main thing is we’re just a little down on speed. But that’s obvious. You don’t have to do a whole lot of complaining about it. We can just see it on the top speed charts. But where it’s lacking in that, it makes up, the chassis really good. The bike handles really well. Sometimes when we’re kind of getting in a race with some other guys, it’s hard to do what you want to do on the bike because lacking that little bit of speed. But I couldn’t really put my finger on the three things I’d want to change. A little more power, but I’m sure it’s coming. They know, and they’re working as hard as they can. So we’ll see what they bring.
RACE: Coming out of QP, did you guys find something in warm-up that actually gave you the confidence to run at the front?
SPIES: No. Warm-up went pretty well for us. I think we were sixth- or seventh-quickest in warm-up, but we were also on used tires from the day before. So I knew we were pretty good, and I knew the guys who were ahead of us in warm-up, a couple of them were on new tires. So I figured we had pretty good pace, and what I was hoping for was a good start. And that was pretty much it. I knew if I had a good start, we had the pace to run around fifth or sixth. Once the race got going, the last 10 laps the lap times kept getting faster and faster, and the bike was working better and better. And it all came good in the end.
TOM WERA: You downplay the effects of maximum speed, but at Silverstone the stats show Pedrosa had a top speed of nearly 324 km/h, and you and Colin both had a top speed of 315, 314. It’s pretty significant. Can that be overcome? Are you on equipment that you think, if you knew the track and had more experience, would be able to be up front on a more regular basis?
SPIES: It’s hard to know. I don’t know when I’m on the very limit of the bike. I felt like I was running good at Silverstone. But obviously when everything comes together, I’m sure the package can be on the podium. The top speed looks bad, but I think it stems a little bit more just from acceleration off the corner, which gets you the mile an hour at the end of the straightaway. The top speed of the bike actually isn’t so bad. It’s just getting off the corner. What the package is really capable of? The only way to know is by jumping on a full factory bike that’s winning races and feeling what differences there are. That’s a hard one to answer. At Silverstone, I felt like I was getting the most out of me and pretty much the limit of the bike, but you don’t know what would happen if Lorenzo jumped on the bike, either. With better equipment, the lap times and the results are always easier. But I feel the package we’ve got is very good. We just need a little bit more acceleration off the corner. But Lorenzo, he wasn’t the fastest top speed, either, but was quicker than us. Like I said, they know this. They need to work on some stuff, and I’m sure they are. It can’t be that bad. It’s winning the championship by a pretty good margin right now.
WERA: The statistics also show after Silverstone that you’re leading the Rookie of the Year classification. Is that one of your stated goals this year, to beat Simoncelli, Barbera and the rest of that group?
SPIES: Not at all. A lot of people are making that comparison and also the top American comparison. Right now for me, I’ve got my own goals and kind of my own game plan of what I need to be doing and the learning curve I need to be doing. The thing is, we’re a little bit of a handicap to both of them. The Americans have a lot more experience than me in the MotoGP class, and the rookies have a lot more experience knowing the tracks, in general, and knowing where they’re going when they get there. For me, I’m really not setting any goals of trying to top any crazy charts. We’re just trying to progress and get better every weekend, and I think we’ve been doing a decent job at that.
WERA: Any comments on Yoshikawa in for Rossi, that news that came out today?
SPIES: You hear through the grapevine of what’s happening for a while now. So I knew pretty much right after Rossi’s crash that it wasn’t going to be me, so for me it wasn’t a big concern. I don’t personally know him, but maybe he’ll do some development, maybe they’ll learn some stuff. It’s important to have somebody on the bike. But we’re concentrating as much as we can on my stuff and the team, me and Colin, and that’s all we can do.
MILES: Ben, are you and crew chief Tom Houseworth working any differently this season than in years past?
SPIES: No. It’s kind of just like it was last year and even back in the Yosh days. I talk with him when you come in. We talk with the suspension technician, and then there’s always a Japanese engineer. We shoot a lot of ideas through everybody, and that’s pretty much it. But when I come in, I mainly talk with him. We try to keep things consistent, which is important. Pretty much we’re doing the same stuff we did last year just because even though it’s a different bike, it’s new tracks, a new bike for me, in general, just like it was last year. But how we work together, the way we work, it’s pretty much the same as it’s always been.
MILES: Do you feel you’ll have enough engines this year?
SPIES: Yeah. For me, I haven’t had any problem with that. We’ve been good on mileage, and I’m sure the factory is happy with what we’ve been doing. As of right now, the only bad thing when stuff like you have a couple of crashes, the bike gets laid over on the side of the engine, you can easily write an engine off that has low mileage on it. But we’ve been lucky with the couple crashes I’ve had. I know for me, where I’m at in the season, it’s not an issue at all.
MODERATOR: Ben, talk about how much Colin has helped you this year with your learning curve. The fact that your teammate is a friend, a fellow Texan, a guy you’ve known for a long time. How much has that helped you this year in your development?
SPIES: It’s made a big deal. Just from having somebody to talk to, somebody that obviously thinks a lot like you, we’re from the States. It’s made my transition a lot easier, pretty much in every way. A lot of the problems we’ve had with the bike, we’re both had the same problems. When we’ve had strengths, we both had the same strengths. So even though we have quite a bit different riding style, we agree on a lot of the stuff when it comes to set up the bike. We do a lot of talking, and at the end of the day, we sometimes share information that would make the other person do a faster lap. At the end of the day, we’re on two different career paths, and we’re trying to make the package of our bike better. And if it makes us fight with each other a little bit more but it gets us two or three positions up in the charts, that helps at the end of the day. We work as close as we can and hang out a lot, talk a lot, have dinner, and it’s made my transition a lot easier.
RACE: Last year, obviously very different bikes than what you’re running now, you missed out on Race 2. But you took Race 1 by a hair over Nori at Assen. What are your thoughts for this weekend?
SPIES: I really like this track a lot. We obviously won Race 1 last year in pretty good fashion. Race 2, I ended it with pretty good fashion. I like the track a lot. I like the people out here. Nice people. I’ve watched this track for years, back in the Schwantz-Rainey battles. I’ve got a lot of good memories of just watching the track, and last year was great. I enjoy it a lot. I’m looking forward to it. I think the bike’s going to work fairly well, and I’m ready to ride tomorrow.
DEAN ADAMS: The Rossi situation, with him being out of the championship, the upside has to be the chance of an American winning at Laguna Seca, winning at Indy, obviously has improved greatly. Do you agree, and can you talk about the importance to win at the last round.
SPIES: Yeah, it’s funny that you’re the last question, actually. But I look forward to it. It’s one of those things that you’ve got to be realistic with when you set out to race on Sunday at Indy or Laguna. If you’re half a second off the pace, if you sit there crash trying to win, you’re just basically being an idiot. You’ve got no chance with it. If you’re a couple of tenths off and you’re there, home race, you’ve got to go for it. With Rossi not being there, honestly Lorenzo has been the guy this year, even when Rossi was here. He’s been the guy they’ve got to figure out to try to beat. Even if Rossi’s not there, I still think it’s as tough, if not more tough, with Lorenzo being there. If we go Sunday morning, Saturday, we have good pace and we’re at Indy and Laguna … If we’re here at Assen and we’ve got good pace, we try to get the best result we can. If you’ve got a shot at winning or podium, you always try to do it. But at the home race at Laguna or Indy, if we’ve got good pace that’s battling or close to the front, you can guarantee that it’s going to be … you never want to say crash or win, but there’s not going to be anything left on the table. Yeah, I’ll ride that race like it’s my championship of the year race. Realistically, we’re not fighting for a championship this year, and you want to get a good result for your home fans. It’s not a crash or win, but I’ll ride that race like it’s the last race of the season. But if we’re a second off the pace going into the race, you’ve got to know the limit. I’m looking forward to it, though. I like Laguna and Indy a lot. I think the bike’s going to be really good. I think we’ll have a really good setup when we get there, and I look forward to it.