We want our countryman, Ben Spies, to do well in his switch from Yamaha to Ducati in MotoGP, but we
know enough to worry. Owing to slow-healing scar tissue from his off-season shoulder surgery, Spies sat
out part of the first Sepang, Malaysia, pre-season test and could ride with only slightly less difficulty in the second. Ducati itself is, as moderns say, “in transition,” having not won a GP in two years despite putting Valentino Rossi in the saddle. Rossi has now returned to Yamaha.
Ducati’s new owner, German carmaker Audi, has appointed Bernhard Gobmeier, the man who turned around BMW’s World Superbike team, as head of Ducati Corse, replacing Filippo Preziosi. Can German management succeed in an Italian company?
To get a view from within, I phoned Spies’ crew chief, Tom Houseworth.
“Ben’s shoulder isn’t ready,” began Houseworth. “It needs a couple more months. He was pretty down on himself [at Sepang]. But guys in pro ball take six, eight months to come back from that injury. I could see it in his face; he was in pain.”
I asked about Gobmeier’s much-publicized “three-step plan.” It was to begin at Jerez, Spain, with a review
of parts on hand to find a direction of improvement. Step 2 would be large geometry and cg changes at Sepang II. Step three…
“There’s a lot more to it,” said Houseworth. “They bent over backward for Rossi. The parts they’re talking
about are the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth that they built for him.”
At several points in the conversation, Houseworth stopped, considering what he could actually say. So many
things are in question: Will Audi continue if prompt improvement doesn’t come? Can a German at the top
and Italians at all other levels co-exist? Ben’s injury? His new sponsor? It all simmers with a possibility of sudden change.
“Okay,” said Houseworth. “Honda and Yamaha make very, very good frames. They are 100 percent made
in-house, and they all behave the same. Ducati does almost nothing in-house.”
“They still run one injector,” he added. This is mandatory in Formula 1, but Honda and Yamaha MotoGP
bikes run two injectors per stack as a way to make their engines both smooth off the bottom and strong on
Spies left Yamaha after pressure was applied to him and also Cal Crutchlow to “ride like Jorge Lorenzo.” Spies said he tried but could not.
Yamaha’s goal in this was surely improved fuel consumption and better tire and brake life, results of
Lorenzo’s extreme smoothness, big lines and corner speed. But riders can’t voluntarily throw away what has
kept them safe and successful so far. Imagine Ernest Hemingway’s editor telling him, “Start writing like W. Somerset Maugham—smooth and stylish.”
“Another part of this sport is the ego,” said Houseworth.
Yes, that’s a lot of what riders are paid for, the me-first, I’m-twice-the-man-you-are spirit that drives top riders to find ways to win. Spies learned to defeat Mat Mladin in the U.S. then became World Superbike
champion in his first year in that series. Become someone else? Maybe pride is a better word than ego here. At Ducati, the job is testing until solutions appear. “He’s not the guy to go out and do a hundred laps,” said Houseworth. Spies is a combat ace, not a test pilot.
So we wait, and the possibilities simmer. We hope.
Houseworth finished by saying that on the last day of Sepang II, “We were putting on tires at 5 p.m. and had a fork leak. If Ben had gone out, I think he’d have equaled Dovi’s time [Andrea Dovizioso has taken Rossi’s place at Ducati]. “Or, he might have crashed.”