Challenges facing a MotoGP rookie

Michael Laverty Le Mans MotoGP Race 2013 (4)In MotoGP it’s very easy to look upon the class as two distinct groups. There are the prototype bikes at the front and the CRT bikes at the bike. There is a gulf in performance between the two bikes with the prototypes enjoying a substantial power advantage in the region of 50 bhp and the CRT teams having the advantage of extra fuel during races and more engines over the course of the season.

However the challenges facing rookies in the premier class are very similar regardless of whether they are riding a prototype or a CRT bike. Over the course of the Le Mans weekend I spoke with both Tech3’s Bradley and PBM’s Michael Laverty to ask how they are adapting to MotoGP.

It is not just the machinery underneath Smith and Laverty that differs both riders have enjoyed very different routes to MotoGP and arrive at different stages of their career. Smith has raced in Grand Prix since 2006 and has been a full factory Honda and Aprilia rider in 125s before moving to the intermediate Moto2 class with Tech 3 in 2011.

Laverty on the other hand is 31 years of age and has spent the majority of his career racing in the Supersport and Superbike classes in Britain. In 2007 Laverty was the British Supersport champion before moving into the British Superbike championship the following year and has established himself as a leading rider in that series.

Both riders are now in the early stages of adapting to MotoGP machinery and it was remarkable that even with such different machinery at their disposal the challenges and difficulties that have faced as rookies were very similar.

For Smith the biggest challenge is getting on the limit immediately. Whereas his teammate, Cal Crutchlow, can immediately set a fast time on his first flying lap Smith needs to build up to that.

“Right now I don’t have the feeling to go out and go 100%.,” admitted Smith. “At the moment me going out and getting a rythem [in qualifying] is more important than doing one lap and hoping for the best.”

Smith has made progress, as shown by qualifying one second off the pace in France, and it seems that he is now at the point where he has gained enough experience of the bike to start developing confidence in how to get the most from it. After the Jerez race Smith said that his team made a breakthrough in terms of their setup:

“I needed the first three races to understand what I needed from the machine,” said Smith. “I needed those races to understand everything. We did a lot of setup changes in the first three races but at Jerez we had a similar setting and we knew exactly what we wanted to do.”

For Laverty the biggest challenge has been a lack of data. The PBM rider is developing the team’s own chassis and with his teammate, Yonny Hernandez, riding an ART there is no other rider to compare data or discuss how the bike is performing. This is in stark contrast to Laverty’s background in Superbikes where “you might have five riders on a Honda or a Kawasaki and they can go talk to five people about the bike.”

Adapting to a new bike is something that Laverty has gotten used to in recent years having ridden for Suzuki, Yamaha and Honda in BSB but the biggest challenge for most riders adapting to MotoGP revolves around the tyres. Bridgestone, providers of the control tyre, have produced tyres that are superb once they are in their optimum working range. Laverty has had to adjust his riding style to adapt to the tyres.

When asked about the main differences between his Superbikes and MotoGP bike he said:

Hector Barbera Michael Laverty Le Mans MotoGP Race 2013“Trusting the front end and running into the corners and carrying a lot more lean angle than the Superbike and just trusting that it’s going to stick [is the biggest difference]. The Bridgestone front tyre is very stiff and it likes a lot of force into the front tyre. If your setup isn’t allowing you to put that force through the tyre you aren’t generating the heat and you dont get the grip. It’s just understanding how to work their tyres at their best.”

Trust is key for a rider. They need to understand exactly how hard they can push at any given time and for Smith finding this trust is also key. The Englishman forged a reputation in 125s as one of the best riders at riding the track and time trialling. Getting to that point in MotoGP will obviously take time and at the moment Smith is clearly looking to build up towards finding that limit:

“At the moment I’m still riding [in qualifying] almost at race pace rather than going to the nth term,” said the 22 year old. “I think that will only come with experience, especially the Bridgestone front. It’s amazing. I think I need to learn a bit more aggression, or a little more push, and instead of riding at 95% I need to eek out the 99% in qualifying.”

Once Smith can learn how to get more from the bike he should be well placed to meet his other target in the coming race; finishing within 30s of the race winner. This equates to roughly one second per lap and it is regarded as a “magic number” within Tech3. Members of the team have said that if Smith can finish within this time that “anything is possible” for him.

“The idea is to be within the 30s at the end of the race,” said Smith. “That’s always where Colin was so once we get there we know we’re doing a pretty decent job. If I can get within 30s of the lead in a dry race than I know we’re doing something postive.”

Finding the confidence to push from the off in qualifying will be key for Smith going foward if he is to reach this goal.

Laverty knows that to make progress he needs to be able to hit the ground running from the opening practice session. As a rookie who will be racing at most circuits for the first time he has to spend time learning nuances of each track takes time so it is crucial that he can arrive at the track with a good base setup. This obviously takes time but there are signs of progress, in Jerez Laverty was faster than Hernandez in the dry.

Developing the bike from scratch means that PBM will have some difficulties this season and for Laverty the biggest issue at the moment is braking. The combination of the PBM chassis and Aprilia engine has meant the bike will understeer and push him away from the apex. As a result he, like Smith, he is having to ride below the limit so that he can set solid and consistent laptimes.

“At the minute [the biggest weakness] is braking, which has always been one of my biggest strengths,” said Laverty. “I just cant get it to stand up. I really like the carbon brakes but at the moment it’s the engine management and the chassis [causing the problem]. The bike doesnt physically stop in a straight line, t just pushes and it only scrubs speed towards the apex. At the minute for me to go fast I have to ride at 95% if I push on I just miss the apex.”

Michael Laverty Le Mans MotoGP Qualifying 2013Gaining confidence in their bikes and understanding how setup changes impact on the handling is key for both riders. They have already spent the opening four races making a myriad of changes to their bikes to try and find a comfortable base setting but at Le Mans it was clear that both were finding their feet in the premier class.

For Smith making it through to Q2 automatically was a big step. For Laverty the steps will be incremental as PBM iron out the kinks of a new bike. His strong race performance in France, at one point he was the second fastest CRT bike in the field, shows that he is adapting to life in MotoGP.

The bikes might be different but the challenges facing these rookies are similar.

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