Lost in all of the hoopla surrounding Ben Spies’ maiden MotoGP victory in front of a packed house at the Assen Circuit in Holland this past weekend is the fact that the factory Yamaha rider came dangerously close to starting the race from dead last.
Like many of his peers, Spies began Saturday’s pre-race sighting lap on rain tires and with a wet-weather chassis setup. Rather than take his place on the front row of the grid for the warm-up lap and eventual start of the race, Spies returned to pit lane and jumped on his back-up YZR-M1, which had been hastily converted by his crew to a dry setup and fitted with soft-compound Bridgestone slicks to compensate for the quickly changing track conditions.
Spies exited pit lane seconds before it “closed.” Had he missed the official cut-off time, Spies would have had to start the warm-up lap for the Dutch TT from pit lane and the race itself from the final spot on the grid. For all intents and purposes, the race would have been lost before it even began.
Instead, Spies got a great start, jumped into the lead and took advantage of a Turn 5 collision between his teammate, Jorge Lorenzo, and pole-sitter Marco Simoncelli, pulling out a massive 2.6-second lead after just one lap of the still-damp-in-places 2.82-mile circuit over Repsol Honda riders Andrea Dovizioso and series points-leader Casey Stoner. The American expertly controlled the gap for the remaining 25 laps to pocket his first Grand Prix win. Stoner was second, with Dovizioso third.
Spies said at the post-race press conference he wanted to lead the race into the Strubben hairpin—the aforementioned left-hander where Lorenzo and Simoncelli went down—because he knew that if he were in third or fourth position, a crash “could happen quite easily…because it’s hard to get heat into the left-hand side of the tire” at the right-turn-dominant track. Spies’ end-of-race gap on Stoner, a four-time race-winner this season, was 7.69 seconds.
“The race went extremely well for us—leading and being in my own rhythm,” said Spies. “It’s been a while since I’ve led a race. When you’re seeing ‘plus 3.5’ [on your pit board] for 15 laps and the name under it is ‘Stoner,’ you’re not really resting easy. The last four laps, I was just praying it wasn’t going to rain.”
Regarding Simoncelli’s crash, Spies said, “I saw it on a jumbotron at 200 kph, so I don’t really know what happened.”
Victorious at Assen in World Superbike in 2009 and fourth in last year’s race, Spies has made 28 MotoGP starts, including three wildcard appearances for Suzuki in 2008. Spies admitted that he didn’t expect his inaugural win would come during his first season with the factory Yamaha squad.
“I didn’t really put that expectation on my shoulders,” he said. “We wanted to do as good as we could, but I didn’t think we would be championship contenders.
“This is definitely [my] biggest win. To be able to ride in MotoGP and then ride for a factory team and now, win a race, that’s as good as it gets. Now, it’s just got to sink in and try to do it again.”