Spies to Yamaha World Superbike

Henny Ray Abrams | October 1, 2008
Ben Spies is going to World Superbike.

The three-time AMA Superbike Champion signed a one-year commitment with Yamaha Motor Italia to team with young Brit Tom Sykes, during a trip to Italy last week.

“I’m very excited about joining Yamaha in World Superbike,” Spies said in a statement released by Yamaha. “This is a positive step for the direction of my career. I’ll have a great opportunity to race on many of the top road racing circuits in the world. Riding with a company as passionate about racing as Yamaha is going to put me in a good position to contest for a world championship right from the start.”

Spies joined the Suzuki domination of the Superbike class when he moved to the class in 2005. Racing alongside Mat Mladin, the greatest rider in the history of the class, Spies finished second his first year before stringing together three in a row, including this year’s title which he was awarded when the appeal of Mladin’s disqualification from his double victories at Virginia International Raceway was denied. At last Sunday’s season finale, Spies made the point that he would have won the title even if Mladin had kept the wins.

The final points tally was 652 to 557, the 95 point difference the largest in the history of the class.

Spies finishes his Suzuki career with 28 wins, third all-time, and an unrivaled 90% podium rate, the highest for any AMA rider in the history of the championship.

“Superbike racing originated in America, but it’s been a while since we’ve had an American world champion,” Spies said. “There’s a great tradition of American riders in World Superbike and I hope to put my name alongside great champions like Fred Merkel, Doug Polen, Scott Russell, John Kocinski and Colin Edwards.”

For much of the season it was expected Spies would end up in MotoGP with the Rizla Suzuki team, which gave him three rides on the factory GSV-R. His best ride came at the Red Bull Indianapolis Grand Prix, where he finished sixth in deplorable conditions in front of factory riders Chris Vermeulen and Loris Capirossi. He also finished 14th in his debut in the British Grand Prix at Donington Park and eighth at the Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. But that door was shut when Suzuki re-signed Vermeulen and Capirossi. There was also interest from the Gresini Honda and JiR Team Scot MotoGP teams.

On the domestic side, there were serious discussions with Yamaha U.S. and a late flirtation with the Rockstar Makita Suzuki team. In the end, Yamaha Motor Italia made the best offer, though there are no MotoGP wild card rides attached, according to Tech 3 Yamaha team boss Herve Poncharal.

“After considering my offers it became obvious to me that Yamaha would be a great home” Spies said. “Yamaha was excited about the possibility of me joining them and they just made me feel like I was coming into a great family. You look at how Yamaha treats its riders and how, even after their careers are over, they’re always part of the Yamaha family. That was really important to me. I’m looking forward to the challenge at hand and to work with Yamaha to produce a winning team and ultimately a World Superbike Championship.”

For Spies, it’s a smart career move. It gives him the chance to travel the world under less scrutiny and pressure than he would have had in MotoGP. It also gives him a chance to see the inner workings of the Fiat Yamaha team close-up. Yamaha’s MotoGP and World Superbike teams work out of the same facility in Italy.

The downside is that he and fellow rookie Sykes will be tasked with developing Yamaha’s new R1. Spies owes much of his AMA success to Mladin, who did the bulk of development work on the Suzuki GSX-R1000 over the years. It remains to be seen how quickly Spies can get up to speed on the new R1 with Pirelli tires. He would benefit greatly by having crew chief Tom Houseworth join him.

Spies is expected to attend the World Superbike season finale in Portugal on the final weekend in October, though only as a spectator.

“We’re really enthusiastic to have signed Ben Spies for the 2009 team,” Massimo Meregalli, Yamaha’s factory Superbike team manager, said. “He’s proved to be a very skilful and successful rider in AMA Superbike, he has been one of the riders we have followed closely this year. We are sure he will be a great combination with Tom Sykes, the team are looking forward to starting with them both next year. There will be a lot to learn with new circuits and new bikes but we also have new motivation as a fresh team and will give 200% to help the riders win in 2009.”

Henny Ray Abrams | Contributing Editor

Abrams is the longest-serving contributor at Cycle News. Over the course of his 35-some years of writing and shooting photos, he’s covered events from MotoGP to the Motocross World Championship - and everything in between.