In his rookie season in the MotoGP World Championship, Ben Spies thrived. He led a race, earned pole position and finished second in his home GP in the Red Bull Indianapolis Grand Prix, but it was the pole on Saturday afternoon at Indy that he remembers most about his season.
“From even finishing second to leading the race at Indy, the moment that I knew how big it was and I got a super happy feeling from was at Indy when I qualified on pole,” Spies said in an impromptu press conference at the Long Beach Motorcycle Show after being presented with a Roland Sands-built Yamaha YZ450F Supermoto bike. “I kept looking at the board and I saw that the clock was done, but I knew somebody could still be on a lap. I was watching and watching and almost running off the track. Once I saw that we had pole, I stopped on the backstraightaway to do my practice start and all the fans were lined up on the fence and they were losing it – jumping up and down and screaming. I got goose bumps then and that was a big deal for me, starting on pole at Indy. It’s a famous place for the Americans and to do that… that’s when I felt I did something for the home crowd and that was the moment for me.”
Last year is last year and Spies is hoping to move on to bigger and better things. He wants to be more than just the fast new kid. He wants to run at the front and win races. This year he will do so on the factory Yamaha team as a teammate to World Champion Jorge Lorenzo. So far so good, he says.
“The first test went well and I’m definitely happy with how the test went,” Spies said. “The bike’s not majorly different, but pretty much in every department it’s better. And working with the factory team… it’s just a dream. We got to the last step and now we just have to see what we’re made of. We’ve got a great manufacturer behind us and a great group of guys so I’m just looking forward to it.”
The goal is simple: To win.
“To do what I haven’t done before and win a race,” Spies said. “We haven’t won a race and obviously we haven’t won a championship [in MotoGP] and that’s a dream for me. The goal is to be better than we were this year. We were always just off the back of the front guys, so to run with the top guys and be battling for America and representing… we’re definitely not the person that everybody is looking at right out of the gate, but we’ll try and sneak up there. This is the first year for me in a few years where I won’t be the young kid, the rookie or the new guy learning tracks… I don’t have any excuses next year so we need to step up for sure.”
Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner have changed teams. Rossi moves to Ducati with Stoner headed to Honda. Much has been made of both moves. But the rider to beat remains the same, Spies says.
“The most dangerous guy for next year is definitely Jorge [Lorenzo]. He’s on a great bike as we know. He’s got a lot of good things about him as a rider. When he had to step up this year, he stepped up. When he had to back off, he knew when to back off. A lot of people thought that maybe he was fading or was in a low period and then when everything was done at Phillip Island, he was back up there rolling again. I think him, Casey [Stoner] will be fast and Valentino [Rossi] has a lot of work to do with the Ducati, but he’s one guy I’m not putting money against. There’s 16 or 17 guys who are fast out there, but I would say Jorge for sure. He’s the one with the bullseye on his back.”
And he’s a good teammate, someone Spies is looking forward to working with and learning from.
“I’ve had worse [teammates] in the past for sure, but he’s a good kid,” Spies said. “He’s fast and he’s nice and he’s quiet and he goes about his business. So far so good. I don’t know how the future is going to be, but right now it’s started off as good as it can. We’ve worked together looking at some data and hopefully I can learn from him because he’s a great rider.”
Spies is looking forward to next season, but it’s the 2012 season that really gets him smiling. That’s when MotoGP will go back to 1000cc motorcycles – the sort of bikes that Spies cut his teeth on.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “The way I ride, the way I like the bikes to work, I like bigger ccs and it’s a different riding style for sure. I think it’s good for the series, good for the fans. This year with Rossi going to Ducati, Casey to Honda and me to Yamaha, it spices the series up for sure. Next year  there will be 1000s so it will be another big change so it’s keeping it interesting. For me, the way I like to ride, I look forward to it. I think I will benefit from it more than some riders, but then there are some riders who will hit the ground running. And some of the manufacturers… some of them might start out ahead and I’m hoping Yamaha is working on it right now. I look forward to it… from the fans to riding it, to everything.”
Although Spies says his factory bike is different from last year’s Tech 3 satellite Yamaha, he can’t say what it is. Because he simply doesn’t know.
“I don’t think I’ve been working for them long enough for them to tell me [what the differences are],” Spies said. “They said about three-tenths a lap and that’s pretty much it. There’s a lot of subtle changes… not anything mind-blowing. I wish there was a little bit, but the bike is definitely better. The engineers are better… you’ve just got the best of Yamaha working on the bike. Exact differences, I don’t know. I don’t know that much about the bikes.”
The key to performing better in 2011 is going faster earlier, Spies admits.
“I think it’s a lot of just how the tires work,” Spies said. “It’s a learning curve before, but we need to be better in the first laps – just trust the tires more. The way they heat up is definitely different. I got spat off on the warm-up lap, Casey [Stoner] has done it before. The first few laps has always caught a lot of the riders out. Next year there is going to be some differences in how they [the tires] are made so I think it’s going to change the people who were good in the beginning and it may even it out a bit. But it’s basically the fact that they have more grip than you think they do and I just have to trust them more and be better in the beginning of the race. It’s something I have to work on as a rider and I’m not afraid to admit it. We’ve been good in the middle of the race and at the end, but it doesn’t hack it when you’re 10 seconds back on lap 20. I just need to trust more and get more confidence and experience… I think that’s the key to it.”
One thing Spies has in his corner is a team he can trust, a team that knows his strengths, his weaknesses. He hand-picked most of them.
“It’s pretty exciting for me because I’ve done all the tracks, I know where I’m going and the bike is pretty similar to last year and every guy I’ve worked with, besides Rossi’s old engineer and he’s very good, my crew chief, my mechanics, the Ohlins technician, my team manager, my data guy I worked with in the past in America… it’s all the same for me which is not really normal. I’m really looking forward to it. I got put in the position where I could build my team the way I wanted it and it’s a dream team for me. They all know me inside out and they know my look in the pits and know what I’m thinking. I’m looking forward to it. We just have to enter the season healthy and 100 percent.”