DERBY, ENGLAND, JUNE 20: Ben Spies spent the first day of his grand prix career learning. He learned a new track, he learned a new bike, he learned new tires, he learned new suspension, he learned new brakes, but mostly he learned how deep the field is in MotoGP and how much more there is to learn. And at the end of the day he was happy to get through it and move on to Saturday, when he could concentrate on finding ways to gain time.
The two-time defending AMA Superbike Champion finished the day with the 17th time out of 18 riders, just behind Fiat Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo and just in front of Alice Team’s Sylvain Guintoli. He took a second out of his morning time to finish the day with a best of 1:30.766 mins. Ducati Marlboro’s Casey Stoner was on pole at 1:28.253.
It’s been less than a week since Spies was asked to replace Rizla Suzuki's Loris Capirossi at the British Grand Prix. Capirossi broke his right hand in the Catalunya Grand Prix two weeks ago. Capirossi, it turns out, is one of Spies’ boyhood heroes, so making his grand prix debut in his place was almost as much of an honor as the debut itself.
Capirossi watched today’s progress on the Internet and is expected to attend Sunday’s race at a track he’s very familiar with, but one that Spies had never seen before yesterday.
There was no one thing that Spies found most daunting. “You got carbon brakes. The suspension is obviously different from what I’ve ever been on. And the tires are a completely different feel too. So you put everything together and you can’t name one thing that’s really the hard thing,” he told a considerable media scrum at the back of the Rizla Suzuki pit after the afternoon session . “The brakes really aren’t the biggest issue. It’s just that the total package being so night and day is difficult. Not that it doesn’t work or it doesn’t work great, but it’s just so different, it’s hard to adapt. But I think we’re doing a fairly OK job with it and I think we’re going to keep going with it.”
About the 2.5-mile Donington Park circuit, he said, “Honestly, I really like it. It’s easy to learn the layout, but there’s a couple little tricky spots that just take laps around here. It’d be a completely different story if I was on my Superbike or something around here and would able to be a lot more comfortable. But we’re trying to learn the bike and the new track and it’s a little tricky. So, I think we’re doing OK.
“Like I say, I’m not usually in this position of being this far back. But time-wise and what’s competitive, I don’t’ think we’re really that far off. We’re pretty competitive. If we can drop another second we’re going to be right in there with a bunch of people to race. So looking for some more dry weather and if we can, it should be good and try to move along.”
Spies’ only other MotoGP appearance came during a one-day test following last season’s Valencia GP. He rode John Hopkins’ Rizla Suzuki for about 33 total laps on yet another track that was foreign to him. But it was so long ago that there was no carryover.
“You know, honestly, that was a long time and I can’t even remember how the bike was then,” he said. “I think it’s pretty close to what it was. It’s obviously a little bit quicker this year, but all I’ve been riding is a Superbike for the past six months, so it’s no way even close to that. So we’re trying to get more comfortable every time out.”
Asked to compare his Rockstar Makita Suzuki GSX-R1000 to the Rizla Suzuki GSV-R800, Spies couldn’t.
“I mean, it’s a great working motorcycle,” he said of the MotoGP weapon. “It just feels like I’m on a completely different brand of a bike. They don’t compare in one way. It’s just like one of these guys just coming to a track they’ve never seen and jumping on a Superbike they haven’t ridden. It’s difficult, but we knew it was going to be a learning weekend and we had our work cut out for us, so we’re going to keep learning.”
There was help from a few riders before and during his first session. Scotsman Niall MacKenzie pointed out some of the track’s quirks during a lap on Thursday. Spies had already been briefed by Kevin Schwantz and he got help from another Texan early in the session. Tech 3 Yamaha’s Colin Edwards showed him the way around for a few laps.
Teammate Mat Mladin, who had one year in GP racing early in his career, told Spies, “It’s just a motorcycle with tires, so go ride it.’ And that’s what I started doing last session. Started really treating it like it was my motorcycle instead of somebody else’s and getting faster every time we get on it and just getting more comfortable. That’s the biggest key is to be more comfortable on the bike. And now I’ve kind of got the track down and just more laps on the bike and more times around the track are going to be faster lap times.”
Spies started the day with Capirossi’s settings and “made a couple small changes in the session and made it a little better and definitely going to make some changes again tonight. But nothing night and day. Just little bitty things to get a little bit more feel and just a little more comfortable.”
Spies knows he’ll have to be a lot more comfortable to be competitive. That will come with time.
“Yeah, I think it’ll be good, now that I’m here and kind of jumped in the worst way into the deep end with not knowing anything and seeing where we’re at on a competitive level,” he said. “You know, I’m not stupid by any means. I know they’re the best riders in the world and they’re hard bikes to ride. But now I know that with the right time on the bike and a good team that we could do it for sure. We might not win a race the first year or two, but I know we can be competitive. So we just got to work on getting that achieved.”
But first comes Saturday, the second day of his grand prix life. Rain is in the forecast for both Saturday and Sunday, but Spies is undaunted. Full rain doesn’t bother him; he doesn’t like mixed conditions. But if that’s the case, so be it, it’s just one more thing to learn.