Kevin Schwantz needs no introduction, but he's going to get one because…well, just because. Synonymous with Suzuki and that famous No. 34, Schwantz won his eighth ever 500cc Grand Prix which was the opening round of his first full season in 1988. From 1989 to 1994, he never finished the championship outside the top four, and the zenith of his achievement was winning the 1993 World Championship. He retired from racing after three rounds of the 1995 championship, having accumulated 25 wins, which puts him seventh in the all-time 500cc/MotoGP winners list. As a mark of respect, the FIM then officially retired the No. 34.
Schwantz set up the Schwantz School to create “more confident and safer riders” on the road, and this is based at Indianapolis Motor Speedway [www.schwantzschool.com]. He's also been an adviser for up-and-coming bike racers, played a pivotal role in bringing MotoGP to the Circuit of The Americas in his home state of Texas and his deep love of the sport means that he keeps his finger on the pulse of bike racing at all levels. He was therefore the ideal guy to ask for opinions on the front-runners and other talking points heading into the 2013 MotoGP season.
Schwantz on…Ben Spies
I'm not sure exactly what happened with Ben Spies last year, because we didn't have a lot of communication. The year before, I spent a couple of weeks with him and learned what was making him tick, but in 2012 I get the feeling that the little mechanical problems, the issue with his helmet, getting outrun by his teammate… it all built up and dragged him down. Now if one of the few people you're getting beaten by is Jorge Lorenzo, it's important to remember that Lorenzo beats everybody a lot of the time! But I know Ben well enough to be aware that stuff does get inside his head and can detune him from grabbing the opportunities when they come up.
We know how good Ben can be when he's confident and when he's got his head wrapped up in his riding and his training and his diet, but he's one of those guys that needs everything – everything except bike setup – to be all in line for him to give 100 percent. He needs to be riding 100 miles a day on his bicycle, he needs to be training really hard. I don't think he needs to train nearly as hard as he does in order to be a great motorcycle racer, but he needs it mentally in order to feel much better prepared than anyone else out there. So when he got beat up a bit with injuries and wasn't able to train so much, everything went in a big downward spiral. If you then add bad luck and mechanicals, your head's gonna drop.
There were a whole bunch of things that kept him out of contention last year, so I don't think his performance was as bad as it looked, though. If Ben could just understand that, “Hey, I got beat by the guy who won the World Championship,” then he shouldn't be too hard on himself. Lorenzo was on fire pretty much all season and so if Ben can get over that, he should be OK.
Now he's with a satellite Ducati team, he has a lot of work ahead of him to try and improve that bike but, Andrea Doviozo and Andrea Iannone were at least making progress in testing, getting within a second of the pace in Spain and Malaysia in the winter tests. I think it may help Ben that there's less pressure on him with the second Ducati team and, as an American, I hope he's quickest of the four Ducatis and that he'll lead the technical development and improvement.
There's a whole a bunch of “ifs” around him, but remember in AMA we wondered if he would find a way to beat Mat Mladin? Then he did, and then did it again, so we know how mentally tough Ben can be, and he's got to get back to that. In his case, a lot of that comes through physical fitness, so if he's favoring a shoulder, it will be tough for him at first.
Schwantz on…Nicky Hayden
Another American on a Ducati, a works one, is our 2006 World Champion, Nicky Hayden. This is his 11th season in MotoGP, and his fifth at Ducati, so as a rider he should know what he wants from his bike and be able to communicate that to the team. He rode Hondas that were maybe starting to head in a Dani Pedrosa-development direction, even when he won his championship, so I think Nicky can ride just about anything and do well. I honestly haven't worked with him within a team to know whether or not he can give the team what they need in terms of direction.
What Nicky and all riders have to be able to do is come into the pits, tell the engineers what the bike's not doing, where it's letting them down, and what they'd like for it to do, and then let the engineers who are the specialists fix it. So you can tell them, “There's no feeling from the front tire,” or, “In the middle of the corner I'm having to get out of the gas so it will continue to turn,” or “It won't let me get on the gas early enough from the apex.” It's basic stuff. It could just be a problem with the Bridgestones: everyone says they struggle to know what it is they need to do to get that front tire loaded up and keep it at temperature.
But Nicky's riding well. If you look at last year, he and Valentino Rossi were pretty much the same speed. Vale got some better race results because there were a couple of occasions where he made some great moves early in a race but, in terms of pace, Nick was there. He does still have all his ability, he hasn't lost his edge. When he first saw Rossi beating him by a half second or three-quarters of a second, first thing he did was trim it back to a tenth or two.
Schwantz on…Valentino Rossi
Rossi himself is heading back to the factory Yamaha to join Lorenzo and everyone's asking, “Has he still got it?” My own opinion on Rossi is that he may not have it every weekend, but I have absolutely no doubt that there are gonna be places this year where he'll qualify well, be at the front every practice session and when those two Spanish guys, Lorenzo and Pedrosa, will be too busy focusing on each other and Rossi will make them pay! I have concern that Valentino will find that form every race, because he wasn't able to find that on the Ducati, so I doubt his consistency more than his outright speed.
You don't win nine world championships – seven MotoGP titles! – by being a slouch and just getting lucky. He could have stayed at Ducati, taken the easy road home to retirement, and gone and driven Audi sports cars. Vale is a driven man, he likes the challenge, he's still really motivated; just three podium finishes in two years has lit a fire under that guy, and I promise you he'll win some grands prix this year. Like they say, form is temporary, class is permanent.
Schwantz on…Jorge Lorenzo vs. Dani Pedrosa
The champion, Lorenzo, I think, has the all-around game, some of it learned from racing Rossi when they were teammates. Jorge continues to impress me with his consistency, his ability to go out and race at a level which none of us can appreciate how fast it is, but still have the maturity to deal with the days when he's beaten. Second half of last year, for example, when Pedrosa was passing him or outrunning him, Jorge has that ability to think, “Hey, I just can't do it today,” and backs away from the edge, so he gets on the podium. He finished first or second at all but two races last year!
If you asked me who's going to win the championship this year, I'd say Honda has the momentum at the moment, Pedrosa having the second half of the 2012 season like he did, winning six out of eight races. But I think maybe that goes out the window at the first race, and those two guys are butting heads all year. I think the title will ultimately come down to Pedrosa vs Lorenzo, and you can flip a coin as to which of them will get it. I say Lorenzo is the man, he's got the confidence of being No. 1, his second championship, so he's the guy they've got to take it from.
I've been a critic of Dani Pedrosa for some time; he's blazing fast but has a hard time finding the consistency when the pressure's on. When the pressure is all off of him, watch out, because he will be one of the fastest guys, weekend in, weekend out, in all conditions, and that last point is something he really mastered last year. The full wet, the drying track, the dry line but wet off line… he found a way to win in all the conditions. And what Shuhei Nakamoto, the Honda boss, said about it being now or never has put a bit of fear in Dani, and he's going to put a whole lot more thought into his racing. He's not going to lead by 10sec in the wet and then crash out.
I admit that sort of message from Nakamoto could also be a bad thing, too and it's up to Dani to not let it be that way. A lot of us – and I do include myself in this – go really fast when we don't have any pressure, and a lot of us have thought that about Dani. But if someone says something that you read and it sticks in your head, make it work for you, not against you.
I had a moment like that: journalist Mat Oxley wrote at the end of the 1992 season that I might be past my sell-by date. And I thought, “**** that mother******,” and any time I didn't want to go run or go ride or train, I just thought about Mat, and thought, “I'm going to take what he said and ram it straight down his throat.” So Dani needs to take that negative comment from Nakamoto and use it as motivation. Instead of crying about it, let it light a fire under him.
And that attitude is important off-track, too. In the past, Dani's always been quite sensitive and Alberto Puig [Pedrosa's manager] has tried to toughen him up. He's told him: “This year you're gonna fight all your own battles and I'm not stepping in when you and journalists have a row, or when you and one of the riders have a conflict.” And you know, Pedrosa can respond to that. You do not have a second-half to a season like he had last year – winning six of the last eight grands prix, by being soft or easy to pick on. He may be one of the smallest guys in the paddock, but he's also one of the toughest.