An Inside Look at MotoGP
Behind the Garage Door With Ben Spies and Tom Houseworth at the Gran Premio d' Italia at Mugello, Tuscany, Italy
By Samuel Quarelli Fleming & Melissa Berkoff
Yamaha Factory Racing invited Roadracing World editors Sam Q Fleming and Melissa Berkoff to be embedded with Ben Spies's MotoGP squad at the 2011 Mugello race. This level of access has never been granted to any journalist in the past. Some access was restricted to allow Spies to focus on his race routine and to preserve technological secrets from Sam and Melissa's trained eyes and ears. The following series of articles convey the exotic, and the familiar, about racing motorcycles at the highest level.
The Mugello racetrack with a full paddock and empty hills on Thursday evening before the start of the Grand Prix d' Italia in the humidity filled rolling hills of Tuscany, Italy.
The first time we met Ben Spies was in 1998 when he was racing in the WERA National Challenge series. He was 14 years old, racing 125s and whatever other bikes were made available to him. Often he was racing axle-to-axle with another young rider, John Hopkins.
By age 15, Spies was making guest appearances with Army Of Darkness in WERA National Endurance races, but even by that time it was slumming for him. He was already making waves in the AMA just weeks after turning 16.
As we parted ways after winning the championship at the Grand National Finals at Road Atlanta, one teammate teased Ben with the prophetic line: "Hey Ben, when you are in GP and we are on the other side of the chain link fence, will you try to get us through the gate?" Eleven years later, Spies made good on his promise and we found ourselves eating breakfast in his RV on Friday morning at the Mugello GP.
At 16, Spies was fast, easy going, reliable, methodical, and he absorbed every piece of information that we discussed during the race – data acquisition, geometry, fueling and tire strategies, or rider order and suspension set up. Not only could he retain the knowledge, but he would always ask the follow-up questions to make sure that he understood clearly any dynamic being discussed.
He was also very mature for his age, a little shy but very good natured and very humble about his abundant natural talent that was developing under the nurturing guidance of his mother, Mary.
Compliments on his race leading pace were always deflected with a shy smile and something about "the bike is so good it makes it easy." His mother volunteered, at 3:00am, to make a gas run for the team. Two weeks after the race we received a thank-you note from Ben for the weekend.
We were curious to see what Ben would be like ten years later, after three national championships, one world title, and a GP win. As it turns out, not that different from 16-year-old Ben. Humble, focused, calm, committed, sharp, serious, friendly and a little shy.
He is the only rider to win a MotoGP dry race in the 800cc GP era besides the four aliens. He is the only American to win on an 800cc. He is only the second World Superbike Champion to ever win a premier class GP, ever. Powered by a tireless work ethic and boundless talent Ben Spies has been defying pundits for years while building unstoppable career momentum.
Ben asked us to meet him in his RV on Friday morning before the first free practice session (basically the only full-sized RVs in the pits belong to the MotoGP riders and are lined up in a neat row in the residential section of the paddock) for a breakfast chat before the full frenzy of the weekend began.
"I have a house in Como (ed – a beautiful small Italian town on Lake Como in the very far north of Italy) and one in Texas. Brent (ed – Copeland, Ben’s personal trainer, masseur, and nutritionist) lives with me in Como. He had lived there for years, but once we started traveling to all the races it didn't make sense to have two places there. I love Como. I like how it’s different from the U.S. But then I love going back to the U.S. in the off-season and remembering why I love the U.S. It's a perfect blend.
"We are about forty minutes north of Malpensa (ed – the international airport for Milan, which literally translates to "poorly thought") and the team is based just north of Milan as well. I am close enough to everyone, but it’s easy to train in Como."
Beautiful Como, Italy. Idyllic Italian town which is also home to George Clooney, and Ben Spies has a relaxed lifestyle for mental health and ample hills to cycle on for physical health.
Spies hides beneath an ever-present hat and behind sunglasses. When talking about racing, motorcycles, or exercise routines he is as serious as a gun fighter. He chooses his words carefully and is measured and precise. However, ask him about his cycling team Elbowz Racing or his next gran fondo bicycle race and his eyes brighten and his charming smile quickly appears.
Rather than talk about his successes, he is more comfortable talking about his missteps or gaffes. Mugello was one week after Ben's historic win at Assen – historic because it was the first time a rider other than one of the Aliens (Rossi, Lorenzo, Pedrosa, or Stoner) had won a dry race since the move to the 800s. Spies created a new class of MotoGP rider: "Predators." It is currently a class of one, although Simoncelli aspires to get his membership card soon.
Life in the paddock fish bowl is epitomized by the Thursday afternoon press conference. One Predator, three Aliens, and a very hungry hatchling are arranged in front of a mob of the world press (from left: Spies, Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa, and Marco Simoncelli). Whoever arranged to seat Simoncelli next to Pedrosa had a sense of the dramatic. Since Lorenzo was not invited to this press conference Yamaha scheduled a second debriefing session in the Yamaha hospitality tent immediately following.
Ask him what it is like to beat the world's best on an equal playing field, defying all the common wisdom endlessly repeated by the ignorant and the uninformed (i.e., 'Spies will struggle against Mladin, Spies won't do well in World Superbike, Spies is too big to be competitive in MotoGP’) and he'll deflect to talk about the funny points:
He almost didn't make the start because they had to switch both bikes’ set-ups from rain to dry after the sighting lap. He made it to the grid with twenty seconds to spare.
While he was on the top of the podium, Mary teared up when she read Ben's lips saying "Where's my mom?" to Andrea Dovizioso. She later found out that Ben was trying to locate his friend Simon (who had famously ridden a bicycle around Assen all night in order to win a bet with Ben) to point him out to Dovi . He knew Simon would be standing next to his mom. Both Mary and Ben laughed about this.
Azi Farni, the pit lane/park fermé reporter for the BBC, had told Ben on a previous occasion about a time she recently interviewed a rider while he was seated and, with nowhere else to position herself, she had to kneel for the interview. Interviews are timed and coordinated in parc fermé , and when the coordinator brought Ben over to Azi at Assen he teasingly asked her, "Are you going to do me on your knees?". It was a live broadcast.
Azi Farni remains standing while interviewing Spies after free practice for the BBC under the watchful gaze of Yamaha Press Officer Gavin Matheson.
His disarming humility masks the keen intellect and sharp memory. He remembers every race, the margin of victory or the reason he lost, the tricks of every track, the strengths and weaknesses of every bike. Legendary pilot Chuck Yeager once observed that the key to becoming a great pilot is to survive each experience and remember those lessons. Ben is able to remember every corner on every track so learning a new track is just about assembling it from his book of corners he already knows, or picturing it as a T. Rex. That recall extends to people as well. Chances are, if you've met him at a track, he remembers who you are and will ask about your well being when encountering mutual friends.
His skin carries the indelible crib notes of lessons learned; the tattoos are personal, the scars professional. He is impossibly thin, having shed ten pounds from his 5' 11" frame down to 155lbs (mainly from his upper body) in order to narrow the weight gap to some of the smaller aliens.
"When I switched from Superbikes to GP I needed to lose some weight so I reduced my body fat percentage and let my upper body atrophy. I went from 165 lbs on the superbike to between 153 and 156 now. I can get down to 153 but I am stronger at 155. The GP bike is a lot harder to steer than a superbike. Not many people know that. It is really tough to ride it."
Although he abdicates the scheduling of his training and diet to his trainer Brent Copeland , he can tell you what his max heart rate is (196bpm), the glycemic index of various foods, the purpose and intent of each exercise and the theory behind upper body atrophy and core strength.
"Brent does all my nutrition, training, sports massage and general health and conditioning. He is certified by the Italian Cycling Federation and I've learned a lot from him. My diet varies based on what I am doing that day or what I've done the day before but we pay a lot of attention to it. When we are doing a lot of bicycling it might be 5,000 or 6,000 calories, with a big bowl of pasta before we start. And when he says 'pasta' it means 'pasta', no sauce, no oil, no parmesan. Or if we are doing strength training then it’s a lot of protein. On a GP weekend it'll be about 2,000 to 3,000 calories each day but spaced out across five meals so it’s really consistent."
Ben compensates for his diminished arm strength by aggressively working his core with pilates and planks. The core strength allows him to exert more control over the bike without carrying the penalty of big shoulders and the risk of arm pump caused by large forearms.
"We are running a 4" front rim to maximize the grip but that 4" rim steers very slowly. It's a lot more work than a superbike. And the brakes. The brakes are really powerful. My hands get crushed and end up all swollen and sore. Everyone thinks that because the bikes are light that they are easier to ride but that is just not the case."
"A lot of the set up is in the electronics, but the electronics only allow you to use the grip that you've put into the chassis. For instance, we've got wheelie control. The wheelie control is always cutting power coming out of turns. We keep having to make the bike longer to reduce the mechanical tendency to wheelie which allows the electronics to use more of the engine's power. But making the bike longer makes it harder to steer."
"Understanding the electronics is a huge part of the set up. In AMA Superbike the traction control was only mapped by gear. Sometimes I would want more TC in one 2nd gear turn and less in another 2nd gear turn. I would switch the TC maps with the handlebar switch on every lap to manually select the map I wanted for that gear for that turn."
"In GP we can program the clutch back slip, the TC, and the wheelie control by turn and by gear. I can have more back torque in one turn and less in another, I can have more wheelie control in one turn and less in another."
"Right now we are struggling with wheelie control. I have plenty of rear grip so it is usually the wheelie control that is impacting our acceleration out of slow turns. Tom (Houseworth, Ben's long time crew chief) has some ides for us on how to fix that this weekend. Assen didn't have any hairpins so we weren't losing tenths on those turns each lap."
Five years ago the GP bikes were famous for spinning their rear tires over the 200 mph front straight crest at Mugello. Now they are wheelieing across it. Pedrosa has the record top speed on a MotoGP bike at Mugello at 349.5kph, or 217mph.
“From 165 to 195 the speed is all pretty similar and we’re doing a lot of the work on the bike at those speeds on the track. Switching maps, changing the brake lever position, that sort of stuff. Over 200 I have to be really careful taking my hand off the bar because the wind shear just takes it all the way back.”
Read that again. Taking your hand off the bar at 200 mph.
"The MotoGP bikes are stable all the way to those speeds, but they are a lot of work."
"The biggest difference between the factory bike and the Tech 3 bike is the support. I mean, the bike is better but it’s mainly better because of the support. Changes to the set up can be made immediately, not two sessions later. The engineers in the garage know all the systems inside and out so the bike can be optimized much faster."
We left him to his bowl of cornflakes and fruit to head down to the garages to see his crew before the first open practice.
"His crew" sounds very clear and precise until you really start looking at it closely. His Yamaha branded crew are Crew Chief Tom Houseworth and his mechanics Greg "Woody" Wood, Jurij Pellegrini, Ian Gilpin and Olivier Boutron. Also in Yamaha colors are the data technician Erkki Siukola and the Japanese factory engineer Hiroya Atsumi. Atsumi is also in constant communication with unseen, but numerous, engineers, data analysts and test riders back in Japan, many of whom are 'on call' during the weekend.
Then there is Peter who is the technician from Bridgestone assigned to the Yamaha squad, Mike, the technician assigned to Ben from Ohlins, Ben's personal rep from HJC (who changes his visors and services his helmet on an ongoing basis during the riding stints), the guy from Alpinestars who watches over Ben's gear, the service rep from Oakley who looks out for Ben's omnipresent sunglasses. There is also Brent, the aforementioned trainer, Mary Spies, Ben's manager and mom, and Press Officer Gavin Matheson from Yamaha who schedules Ben's media appearances over the weekend and hustles us out of the garage anytime a fairing comes off the bike.
It’s a lot of people.
We ran into Peter the tire tech for the Yamaha teams outside of the Yamaha garage. At each track Bridgestone brings two tire options. Basically one is a bit softer than the other. At each event each rider gets eight fronts and ten rears. They are not allowed to take more than five of one type of tire. The team typically uses 3.5, 3.88, or 4.00-inch front rims and mostly 6.25- inch rear rims. The tire compound, carcass, and compound symmetry (multi compound profiles) all potentially vary from track to track.
Peter plays a crucial role in helping the team by advising them on the type of tire that will be available on a specific weekend and any technical details about it. However the fuel/tire manager for Yamaha is responsible for the actual tires for Ben’s bike. That includes setting pressures, monitoring warmers, managing the tire mounting and other details related to the tires.
Peter would not disclose the starting tire pressure, the target pressure rise, the ideal operating temperature of the tire, the ideal amount of slip for the rear tire with traction control, the number of compounds or any other details about the tires. But he did politely refuse with a smile. "Even though we are the sole supplier, we still consider such things proprietary."
In the back of the garage the tires are mounted and waiting. The front wheels carry no rotors because the carbon rotors bed into the carbon pads and need to be matched. The rotors are held on with only three bolts so, while tedious, it is not too hard to manage the constant bolting and unbolting of front rotors.
At the front of a transporter backed up to the garage, Spies methodically dresses with his riding gear from his personal rolling armoire to the dulcet tones of Thirty Seconds to Mars.
Meanwhile, Ben is getting dressed and preparing for the first open practice in the back of one of the Yamaha trucks backed up to the garage. He has a 6' road case packed with his riding gear and various personal items blocking off a small area in the front of the trailer. Changing in the trailer should feel familiar to any racer.
Ben's leathers are custom made and wafer thin. There is nothing extra on them, save for the memory foam padding over the collarbone and bicep areas. The pull tabs on the zippers are miniature, there are no trim pieces, sponsor logos are printed rather than sewn on, wrists and ankles are left unfinished to save weight. Brent was there to help him get his back protector and chest protector correctly positioned.
"I used to ride my trainer some to get warmed up but I found that it didn't really make any difference so now I just do some stretching before I ride. I don't really think about much before I ride.. The plan is to start the session with five laps or so then come in and talk with Tom, maybe make some changes. Then I like to go run twelve laps or so until the tire drops (i.e., the tire enters its "worn" stage) and see how the settings feel with the worn tire."
Tom Houseworth explains MotoGP set up philosophy, practice and tactics to Sam Fleming after Friday free practice.
Houseworth sticks his head in the truck and asks Ben,
Tom: “What tires do you want to go out on? It's 40 degrees on the track, we can use either tire.”
Ben: “What’s everybody else doing?”
Tom: “Colin, Cal, and Jorge are going out on softs to clean the track as usual. What do you want to do? Peter says we can use either tire.”
All the data collection, all the technicians, all the track temperature surface monitoring, and it comes down to a mechanic and rider deciding what they want to do.
After seven laps Ben rolls back in to the pits to talk with Houseworth. He describes how the suspension is holding him back. "The front end feels too compressed and so the back end is skatey." Houseworth quickly checks to see if that impression matches with the suspension position data collected off the bike. Erkki tells Tom that the front end is operating in its normal range but the rear is too low at some points on the track.
Houseworth tells Ben, "We think the bike is overly compressing the rear giving you that feeling. We should try the other linkage to give it more support. Do you want to try it next session?"
Spies replies, "Let's do it now."
Houseworth stays seated and directs the waiting mechanics: "Other linkage!"
Two and a half minutes of smooth but purposeful labor and the linkage has been swapped. Ben leaves the pits.
After the training, the press conferences, the social obligations and the waiting, Ben finally gets to ride the bike.
The new rear linkage is designed to have less torque on the shock at certain places in the stroke so the bike stays up higher in the rear and remains flatter on the brakes. Whatever it’s doing is working because Ben drops a second in his next ten lap run.
He is .35 seconds off the fastest times.
After the garage emptied out a bit we sat down with Houseworth. Tom Houseworth is 48 and has worked as a mechanic and crew chief in WERA, AMA, World Superbike and MotoGP. He is open and friendly with a confidence tempered by the awareness of all the things that can go wrong in this sport.
"I understand Ben's language. Sometimes I need to translate 'Ben talk' into things the rest of the team, especially the Japanese, can understand. We'll have thirty minute debrief meetings and then two hours later an engineer will walk up to me and say "excuse me, what is 'squigy' but once you know Ben's language, his feedback is excellent."
Houseworth has a lot of spreadsheets. One of the first things he does after the practice is to compare the theoretic speeds in each gear against the speeds that were actually attained. Plugging those numbers into a spreadsheet tells him what gear ratios would be the optimum ratios for this track. He makes the calculations and the final determination of the ratios and asks the mechanics to re-gear the transmission. Changing the gear ratios, start to finish, takes Woody twenty minutes.
With everyone usually on the same tires, maximizing the usable grip and life of the spec tires is one of the keys to winning a GP. Suspension and chassis geometry mechanically control the steering and, ultimately, the available grip of each tire. Electronically, the traction control, clip maps (the opening of the actual butterflies compared to the opening of the throttle), clutch control, and wheelie control all play a role in reducing the power. The engine in a MotoGP bike is almost always capable of generating more power than the tire/chassis can contain, so figuring out a better geometry which allows slightly more grip will automatically be utilized by the traction or wheelie control system to reduce lap times.
Houseworth observed: “The tires have to be heated from the inside out. The warmers help but you need to go load the tires so the carcasses will flex. The flex in the carcass will then heat the tire from the inside out. But you have to load the tire in order to achieve that. We figured out how to do it last year so it’s not a big problem for us anymore."
“Ben wants more load on the front wheel but we have basically have gone as far that direction as we can. So we are going to change the fairing to one that provides more downforce. It’ll help through the turns but also it will keep the wheelie control from kicking in on the front straight when we crest the hill (at about 200mph). We are also going to keep the linkage we put on, put on a stiffer rear spring, add a top out spring to the rear shock, re-gear the transmission and make some adjustments to the electronics. Come back in four hours and I’ll tell you how it worked."
“The stuff we are doing here wouldn’t work on superbikes. On superbikes we make 5mm changes, on the GP bike we make .5mm changes. We are just that close to the edge."
Spies added: “We need about .3 of a second out of the bike but I think the rider has something to do with it too.”
Unfortunately the afternoon session was canceled due to a powerful thunderstorm rolling into the valley. Filled with energy unused by the cancellation of practice, Ben decided to go for a training ride, on his bicycle, in the Tuscan mountains, in the pouring rain and hail, focused in mind and body.
Next month - More from Spies and Houseworth as they take the bike through qualifying and the race.