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.
Schwantz on… Marc Marquez
I think Marc, as Pedrosa's rookie teammate, is going to have a season like Rossi, even though they're at different ends of their careers. I think there'll be a circuit or two where Marquez will dominate. The important thing for him is to not dig himself a big hole by making any typical rookie mistakes in the first few rounds. Make sure you score good points, and not do anything silly. Then start turning up the pace.
Marquez should learn from Rossi's first year of 500cc. In the first three races of the season, Rossi went crash-crash-11th, and scored just five points. Over those same three races, Kenny Roberts Jr. scored sixth-first-second – which was 55 points. So Vale dropped 50 points to Junior right there…and at the end of the season, he lost the title to him by 49. See what I mean? Being smart as a rookie is crucial.
Schwantz on… Cal Crutchlow
Cal Crutchlow is in an interesting situation on the Tech 3 Yamaha. Your position in a satellite team is to do your best to beat the factory team, and don't worry about helping anyone but yourself. Cal's got to think, “I haven't quite got the equipment that Lorenzo and Rossi have, but that's going to make it that much sweeter when I manage to beat them.” And I think that's what you saw in that last test at Jerez, when he went quickest. When time's short, the weather's iffy he can wrestle that thing around and he's thinking, “I can do a few more things with my bike than Jorge can with his or Dani can with his.” He's not going to be far off, and maybe when Rossi has an off weekend, when he's not right there with Pedrosa and Lorenzo, Cal's going to want to prove to Yamaha, “Hey, you put the wrong guy on that factory bike!”
But he's gotta be smart, too. I saw a quote from him early last year saying, “If I was on a factory bike I'd be winning races.” And I wrote somewhere, “You're on a satellite bike and you've not got a podium finish, so don't even talk about that yet. Show me some consistency at the back of that top three, and then you can make that assumption.”
He read it, and he called me, and asked, “What do you mean by that?” and I said, “Cal, you're not even a podium finisher yet. No way you can say a factory bike will make you win races.” He came back and said that someone had wrongly attributed it to him. Anyway, we had a good genuine chat, and he was a very real guy, and at the end he admitted, “You're right, how could I be saying that?” And of course, he did then get a couple of podium finishes in the second half of the season.
The thing is, Cal reminds me a bit of myself – ride that sonofabitch as hard as you can go – and it's so easy for people with our mindset to think, “Hey, if I can get this close enough to the top bikes' pace, I can make the difference,” and so you just quit working on improving the bike. That's a trap that so many riders can fall into. How a rider should think is: “Hey, we didn't have a perfect bike last weekend, let's get it closer to perfect this weekend.” If you make even a small breakthrough that means you can ride it easier, then you can go faster on it without being on the edge so much.
And, anyway, you should want to test to improve your own experience and performance. I remember hearing Kenny Roberts Jr. saying once: “I'm not going testing; you don't have any new parts to test!” I'm like, “Oh, so you're the freakin' perfect machine, are you? You don't need to test yourself?” I can't understand a rider who gets a chance to ride his grand prix bike and says no. It's so short-sighted. Whether it's wet, whether it's drying… I don't care. You're always going to be testing in a condition that at some point in the season is going to confront you, so why not make yourself better prepared for that condition.
Anyway, my point is that Cal can still be using this opportunity to work on improving himself and his bike, keeping himself sharp for when the big opportunity does arrive.
Schwantz on… potential podium finishers
Stefan Bradl [LCR Honda] is absolutely someone who I think we can see on podiums this year. I think he did a great job last year, and then everyone started bragging on him just after midseason and he started making mistakes. But I watched him test in Austin last month, and then we went to dinner and I was listening to what he had to say. That kid is a sponge, soaking everything up, listening to everyone on the team so that he can take as much knowledge as possible into his second season. I look for big things from him, and if anything happened to one of the factory Honda guys, I wouldn't be surprised to see Stefan subbing for them.
And talking of satellite Honda teams, Gresini put a good bike together so I think Alvaro Bautista is going to be knocking on the door of the podium quite regularly, especially in those Spanish races where he goes so fast.
Schwantz on… Claiming Rule Teams class
My take on the CRT bikes is that it's a completely separate race to MotoGP and it does not get enough attention from TV, from the media, from anyone. I think those teams need to be allowed to do a lot more to their machines to get them up nearer the MotoGP bikes in terms of pace. They need to be allowed to run any tire they want – Bridgestone, Dunlop, Michelin, Avon – whatever. Then you'd have, say, Michelin developing a softer tire that allows a CRT bike to run up among those prototypes for the first eight laps or so. If they all start on the same or similar equipment, that's never going to happen. Let them play with the big teams and then there's a chance of them scoring a surprise result.
That would also give Bridgestone a reason to continue to develop instead of sitting back and saying, “Dani makes his tire work; don't know what your problem is!” Plus, from a practical angle, it's sensible to have another manufacturer in there to cover your backside in the worst-case scenario if Bridgestone decides to quit. A second manufacturer who's already building tires of the right spec for these bikes can then hopefully just step up production to cover the whole prototype field.
There are other things that I'd do to help the CRT bikes' pace – maybe allow more aero work, for example. But anyway, I just feel that something has got to be done, for the sake of the teams themselves and also the fans because, apart from Valencia at the end of last year, the gap between CRTs and prototypes was two or three seconds per lap and that's no good. It's kinda funny but sad to hear people brag, “Oh we got 24 bikes this year,” and you think, “Yeah, but you still only got five that are competitive.”
Schwantz on… CRT riders
I don't see a major shift in power – it will be between Aspar's Randy de Puniet and Aleix Espargaro, not just because of the team's strength but because they're also the best riders in CRT and they've got a lot of experience at this level. There may be new guys in the class who surprise us, but it's hard to cause surprises: the Bridgestones make these bikes a pretty unique beast and trying to make those tires work is not easy. Blake Young [second in AMA Pro SuperBike championship last year] tested that bike for a total of five days at Austin and I still don't think he figured out what that front tire needs to get temperature into it, to keep temperature in it and how to get that bike turning like he needs it.
It would be nice to have something to offer national-level riders for MotoGPs in their home country, so they can come in and be a wild card. Anyone who ever gets a one-off ride in a MotoGP bike or a CRT bike will say at the end of the event, “Man, I still don't know what that front tire's gonna do.” Have Bridgestone built a tire that 90 percent of mortals just can't understand? I don't know. When I did that test in '06, it was on Bridgestones but everyone had their own stuff; it wasn't yet a spec tire.
Schwantz on… Colin Edwards
Well, we started talking about the Americans, and Colin Edwards is our man in the CRT class, and I just don't think his heart's in it anymore. You can tell a lot from his demeanor in interviews. He's one of a few riders out there who are riding because they're getting paid to do it. In my opinion, you should race for free and race to win, and when you win, that's how you make your money. Colin is 39 and he has a family. Man, if I'd won a couple of World Superbike titles a decade ago, and now I was on a bike that, if I'm lucky, will only allow me to slide into the top 10, I'd pack up and go fishing. This can't be fun for him at this stage after a strong career in World Superbikes. There's so much to lose and nothing to gain…not on-track, anyway.
When we were flying home from the Japanese Grand Prix in 1995, Wayne Rainey said to me: “Kevin, if you don't get off that bike, you're gonna get hurt. You're not having fun and you're not focused on trying to go as fast as you can. You're riding around looking at all the unsafe aspects of the tracks.” And I thought, “Dammit, he's right. How can he tell?” Anyway, that got me thinking back to when I started, when I said to myself that I'd quit when it wasn't fun anymore. And I realized I'd reached that point and, boom, that was it. All over.
Schwantz on… America's MotoGP struggle
I don't think having three grands prix is that big a deal for America, because we don't have any Americans at the front of the class right now. We have two kids in Red Bull Rookies' Cup, and PJ Jacobsen is racing in British Superbikes. Otherwise, we have no riders racing internationally at a world championship level except Spies, Hayden and Edwards. We need excitement throughout all the classes, we need kids on Moto3, Moto2 and Superbikes, SuperStock, and so on.
That's what made the U.S. Grand Prix at Laguna Seca so special. There were a handful of American riders who could win it and there was a 90 percent chance we were going to win it. It used to be a case of, “Which American's gonna win?” and then it became, “Is an American gonna win?” and now it's almost, “Where might the one or two Americans finish this weekend?” That's depressing. That doesn't mean I think less of Ben or Nicky or Colin: but manufacturers have not done a good job of rounding up our talents here in the U.S.. My opinion is that an American leading races and winning races is going to create more excitement for the motorcycle industry here in the U.S. than having three MotoGP races.
And I tell you, the industry needs that excitement right now. The national race scene is dwindling – not helped by the TV package – and we've got to change that, because it's having a knock-on effect. I'm not saying we could quite get back to how bike sales were before 2008, but having American riders on the podium in grand prix road racing would improve things ten-fold. It's a rider-driven thing, a personality-driven thing. That's what I was going to do as promoter for the Austin MotoGP race – take some of the money and plow it into getting wild card entries for American racers. We've got to change how things are currently.
Anyway, thanks for reading. I'll catch up with you here, midseason.
• Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinSchwantz
Photos: Red Bull, Ducati Corse, Yamaha MotoGP, Monster