Following his stunning title success in his Superbike World Championship rookie season, Ben Spies' arrival in MotoGP this year was greeted with huge excitement.
He told AUTOSPORT how he felt about his year so far, how he has accepted the limitations of being on a satellite bike with Tech 3 Yamaha, and how he sees the rest of 2010 panning out.
Q. What do you make of Silverstone?
Ben Spies: Right now I still like Donington [Park] a lot, but it's a cool layout. It's got a lot of potential. It's kind of bumpy but it's a fun track, it's fast, it's wide. Quite a lot of passing opportunities. I think it will make for good racing.
Q. Some of the other riders have said the bumps are an issue. Do you think they are, or is the problem not as bad as they've suggested?
BS: No, the problem is where they are – pretty bad spots, where you're really under a lot of load and on the throttle. If the bike gets upset it could be pretty ugly, pretty quick. But saying that, it is the same for everybody.
But definitely if the track was repaved it could be a nine, nine and a half [out of 10] but right now it's a seven just because of the pavement. If it was all the same pavement and smooth, it would be a blast. The problem is there's three different types of pavement. But it's not the worst track by any means. It's fun, for sure, but the bumps are definitely a bit of an issue.
Q. Fifth quickest in practice – is that promising or too early to say?
BS: A lot of sessions this year we've been between fourth and seventh, so I think it's pretty fair to say that's close but it's also very early. Being a new track, some bikes probably hit it on the head a little bit better for the first session, some didn't.
I feel like we can make our bike better, so we'll just have to see. We're a little bit down on top speed, which is an issue here. There's not one big straight, but there's three little ones, so we're definitely on the back foot right there. But since it's got a lot of momentum, it helps us out in that department, too, so it's kind of give and take. But I think we'll be OK.
Q. Does coming to a new track give you an advantage because you're at the same starting point as everyone else in the field? Or do you still feel you have a lot to learn?
BS: I've still got a lot to learn, for sure. Right now being on a satellite bike, you really have to do the best you can but also compare with Colin [Edwards], because he was very strong last year and the bike was closer to the factory bike. Now this year our bikes are a little bit further away from the factory bikes.
But at the end of the day you've got to give it as much as you can and then also see where he's at, and make sure you feel a little bit better about the situation – if you're not quite there and your teammate's not. That's kind of where we're at.
Q. Is there a specific area where you guys lose out to the factory bikes?
BS: Well that's why it's a factory bike. If I was in the factory team and I knew that the satellite bike was the exact same as my bike, what's the point of riding on the factory bike? A factory bike always has something special, and it should. What it has, I don't know. I'm pretty sure in every department it's got something. How much that turns into over a lap time, I don't know – it could be one tenth, it could be eight tenths.
I'm not blind to the fact – I don't think I could jump on [Jorge] Lorenzo's bike and be the same speed as him. I think if I got on his bike or Valentino [Rossi]'s bike, my lap time would improve, but I don't think it's going to be within me. So you've got to understand that, too. You can't think that you're just going to get on someone's bike and be as fast as him. That's not the case. But I believe they've definitely got some horsepower and some other things that are obviously going to make the bike better.
Q. Valentino's absence has changed things for everyone and you're in the spotlight because in two races' time you're eligible to get on the bike. Do you see that as a distraction or would you quite like to get on that bike?
BS: It depends. It depends what Valentino decides to do next year. It depends if he's going to ride for Yamaha next year. There's a lot of stuff. It's a hard one to answer because it is Valentino. It's kind of a dangerous question, quite frankly.
For sure I'd like to ride the factory bike, but if he was riding for Yamaha next year, if Lorenzo was staying with Yamaha and I was still on the Tech 3 bike, then you wouldn't want to be jumping in first class and then going back to your coach. So that's the problem you have there.
In the paddock, it feels different without him being here. It hurts Yamaha in the championship for sure. Things like that, but also I think it almost lets some other things happen that maybe should happen and wouldn't happen if he was here. I'm a Valentino fan, he's the greatest ever, or if not, one of them.
On the track we're missing that part of it because Valentino's not there, but also I think, in some ways, because he has a lot of control in the series in general, and rightfully so, he should, with him not being here it opens a couple of doors for other people, other riders and it seems like the mood is a little bit different.
Q. It does give opportunities...
BS: Not just for me, for everybody – not just me because I'm in a spot where I could maybe ride the factory bike next year, but I think just from the way things go, it's almost more even in some ways.
Q. It opens up the field on Sunday, and maybe opens up opportunities for you to get on the podium?
BS: Yeah, but also if you finish on the podium with him not here, if he was here it might have been different. But just the way the paddock flows, the way everything is, the whole MotoGP scene is almost a democracy in some ways, and it kind of opens things up and loosens it up a bit.
Q. Obviously this year is a learning process for you, how do you feel it's gone so far? Are you happy with your achievements so far? Are you on target?
BS: Yeah, I'm exactly on target with what I said I wanted to do. A lot of other people said they wanted me to do this and this, but realistically I knew what we had to do. I said top 10 every race, top eight, I'll be happy with. It might not be what I really want, but in the grand scheme of things when you're learning half the tracks, you've got to take that.
We had a couple of bad Sundays at Le Mans and Jerez, but the results we've had have been in the top eight. And in the practice sessions and all that stuff, besides that one hour on Sunday that didn't turn out too good, we've been in that fourth- to eighth-place range, and that's exactly what we need to do.
Now we get to this track that nobody knows, we go to Assen, we go to Indy, we go to places I've been, and that's where I think we can just try to slowly step up and get closer and closer. Any time I'm in fifth place up, that's a race win for me. On a satellite bike in the first year, you can't really ask for a whole lot more than that.
Honestly I think the season's gone exactly the way I wanted it to and needed it to, it's just that other people obviously build up expectations. But, at the end of the day, I know what's realistic and what I need to be doing.
Q. You've obviously had a chance to have a closer look at what the "aliens" at the front do now. How reachable are they for you?
BS: It can be done. There's four of them, so it's not like there's just one of them. It can happen. The problem is the way things are in MotoGP with the bikes, the crew, the package, raw talent doesn't always come out.
I'd say the rider is 70 percent of the equation, and the other 30 it doesn't matter how talented they are. If you put Valentino on the Suzuki, he's not going to win. So you've got to look at it from that way, too. But I think there are other guys who have the potential to be up in there. Maybe they never will, you don't know. But the top 10 guys in MotoGP are fast. Then it's building the whole package around that, and it's hard to do that.
I wouldn't be here trying if I didn't think I could do it at some point. When I get to a point where I know I'm on equal machinery – machinery that can win, basically – and I feel like I'm riding at my potential and as hard as I can, then I'll know if it's achievable or not.
Right now I'm not at even my peak level and the bike's peak level to know that, so it's kind of difficult. But later on in the year, next year if I'm on a factory bike, and I get off the track and I feel like I rode like I could and with everything I had and I'm not there, then I know that Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino and Casey [Stoner] and who ever is up there might just be faster than me. But right now I'm not at that point to know. I'm a little way off.
Q. Is it frustrating not knowing what the situation is with the works bike?
BS: You can beat yourself up about it, but all I know is there's a difference. It could be one tenth, it could be eight tenths. I don't really know. All I can do is ride whatever I'm on as hard as I can and see what they give me and what I get the opportunity to do. You've got to ride what you've got till you get something better.