Straight Talk: Ben Spies Leaves Yamaha For Ducati

Ducati wanted me on its bikes next year—end of story.

Ben Spies in-action

Ben Spies in-action

I had food poisoning at Mugello. Bad food poisoning. I shouldn't even have started the race. I got sick in my helmet, and afterward, I was dry-heaving and shaking uncontrollably.

Yamaha stayed in Italy and tested the next day, but I didn't ride. I couldn't ride. I couldn't move. I couldn't do anything. A senior Yamaha employee—that's as specific as I'm going to get—said to me, "We've invested a lot of money in you. Don't come to Laguna Seca if you aren't 100 percent."

Then, he added, “We’ve lost confidence in you.”

That was the moment—the halfway point of the season, just before the two U.S. rounds at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Indianapolis Motor Speedway—when I decided I wasn’t going to ride for Yamaha in 2013. I have a lot of good friends at Yamaha, but when someone talks down to you like that, you lose respect for them.

Looking back, I know I tried 100 percent in all the races, but as everybody saw with all the crazy mechanical problems we had this past season—blistered and chunked tires, rear suspension failure, blown engine, fried clutch, overheated brakes—something else wasn’t 100 percent.

There's no way anybody could have planned all that or made it happen. Usually, one of those things happens once a year to a rider. For us, they all happened in one year, back-to-back-to-back. It looks bad for the team, but I know it had nothing to do with them. It was just a lot of bad luck.

Ben Spies

Ben Spies

I'll admit it was frustrating to look on the other side of the garage and see everything was perfect. My teammate, Jorge Lorenzo, was winning races and, eventually, the world title. I know his engine, brakes, clutch, suspension and tires were the same as mine. You don't want bad things to happen to someone else, but it's hard—not just for the rider but the team, as well—to see everything going right on their side and wrong on our side.

During pre-season testing, we were most concerned with the factory Hondas of Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa. To catch them, we needed to improve some of the Yamaha's weak points. The 800cc YZR-M1 was a good package, but it was down on power, missing a little grip and wheelied a lot.

We definitely cured a lot of those problems and started the year with the best base package in MotoGP. Maybe the 1000cc M1 didn’t have a strong point, but it worked well in all of the places that required good acceleration, braking and top speed. At some tracks, the V-Four Honda still had a big advantage, but the Yamaha was the best-balanced.

Finishing 11th in the first race of the year at Qatar was tough because the bike was good and the team was working well. I’d qualified fourth but had a small crash at the end of the session. Something structural broke in the seat, which also serves as the subframe. At the time, we didn’t know the seat was damaged or that it would lead to horrible chatter in the race.

Sunday morning, I had a lot of chatter on old tires. We didn’t know if the problem was the tires or something else. On the warmup lap, however, I immediately felt the same thing, but it was a lot worse because I had more grip with new tires. My race was over before it even began. A situation like that is hard because you know what you’re in for even if no one else does. Also, there’s no getting around it. That was the start of a lot of bad luck for the season.

The Yamaha is a great bike, but it likes a lot of corner speed. If it moves, if the wheels get out of line, it gets upset. For example, if the rear wheel comes off the ground when you're braking, moves left or right and barely touches the ground, the bike will snap! So you can't maintain the same front brake pressure. Both the Honda and the Ducati look like they can be ridden a little more "wild."

Ben Spies

Ben Spies

To go fast on a modern GP bike, you’ve got to keep both tires loaded and in line. You enter the corner at a speed you might think is too fast and start turning the bike to get force into the front tire. The Bridgestones have tons of grip, but because they’re so hard, they don’t have the “feel” you get from Dunlops or Pirellis. The riders asked for “safer” tires that warmed up more quickly, and the current Bridgestones are much better at that. But durability and handling are a little bit of a problem.

Jorge doesn't look fast. When I overlaid his data with mine, I could see he was braking earlier than I was, but he was going through the corner faster, which, at the end of the next straightway, translated to a tenth of a second. Casey Stoner looked fast. He was always sliding the bike and spinning the rear tire.

If you watch Jorge’s body language—how he sits on the bike, not moving around a lot, the way he enters corners, lean angle—you can see he’s really good at keeping the bike evenly balanced and the tires loaded. That’s what you’ve got to do to go fast. But it’s a lot easier said than done, that’s for sure.

I tried for a long time to ride like Jorge. But our styles are completely different. My natural style is not the smoothest, not the highest corner speed. I like to brake hard, get the bike turned and fire it out of a corner like a Superbike.

It’s hard to completely “180-degree” your riding style. Bike setup changes a lot. You’d be surprised how much softer Jorge’s spring and damping rates are than mine, especially for how fast he’s going. But he’s super-smooth on the bike. If you can get away with that, it’s good because you can generate more grip.

I rode Valentino Rossi's YZR-M1 at Valencia in 2010. I did five or six laps, but there was no way I could ride fast; it was too soft. We started fine-tuning the setup for me, and I went faster than Valentino had gone on the same bike during the race weekend. It's all about feel. If the rider is comfortable, he can ride the bike to its limit. Same goes for lines around the racetrack; there's no perfect way to do anything.

Sometimes, you nail the setup and you fight for a win or the podium. Other times, you’re on your back foot all weekend and don’t find the right combination until morning warmup on Sunday. That’s why a good base setup is so important.

After my engine blew up while I was running second at Indianapolis, I thought I wanted to leave MotoGP. I started paying attention to World Superbike. That series was great to me when I was there in 2009, and the previous director, Paolo Ciabatti, is a good friend of mine. He would have loved to see me back in SBK. I still might go back there one day.

Ducati showed interest in me first, but they had just been bought by Audi and didn't know what they could offer. Then, BMW came at me quite hard with a good team and a good offer. BMW is definitely strong in World Superbike, too. They've come a long way with the S1000RR.

Ben Spies in-action

Ben Spies in-action

Ducati hasn't raced the new 1199 Panigale in Superbike yet, so it's a bit of a question mark, but I researched the bike and saw what it had done in Superstock. And when was the last time Ducati showed up with a Superbike that wasn't good? Honestly, I wanted to go with Ducati and the Panigale, but they had to sort out the MotoGP program first, and I understood that.

At that point, I started thinking a lot and finally concluded that I haven’t reached my full capabilities in MotoGP. What that is, I don’t know. I’m not going to say I can win this many races or a championship, but I don’t want to walk away and in five years say, I could have done this or that.

Ducati wanted me on their bikes this year. San Carlo Gresini Honda wanted me really badly, too. I spoke with Fausto Gresini, Shuhei Nakamoto and Livio Suppo at Brno. I told Gresini what I would like, what it would take to get me on a Honda. But Ducati never let that become a possibility. They were ready, and Honda wasn’t.

Finally, I came to the conclusion that it was going to be either BMW in World Superbike or Ducati in MotoGP.

The package that Ducati put together is an ideal scenario for me. Andrea Iannone will be my teammate. We’re going to have the same Ducati Corse colors but different sponsors. I will have factory bikes, factory everything.

Tom Houseworth will be my crew chief, and Max Bartolini will be my engineer. I asked for Max based on what I've seen him do in the past, what he currently does with Ducati's GP program and after talking with a lot of people. I told Ducati that I had to have Max. They were surprised but in a good way; they knew I'd done my research.

Ducati is going to do the best they can. They know what they’re doing. Last couple of years, they’ve been headed in a direction that may not have been the best for them. I think Audi is going to do a lot for Ducati, but it’s not going to happen overnight.

I think riders need to remember they aren’t engineers. They need to ride the bike as hard as they can, give feedback and let the engineers fix it. I’m happy with my decision, with what I’m doing this year.

That’s what matters.

Ben Spies in-action

Ben Spies in-action

When it comes to safety, warmup and stuff like that, the latest Bridgestones are much better. A lot of guys who are very fast, if they were to jump on my MotoGP bike from two years ago thinking they were on a Superbike or a Supersport bike, the first lap, they'd probably be on their heads.
Ben Spies

Ben Spies

Little did I know the 2012 MotoGP season was going to end the way it did, with shoulder surgery.
Ben Spies in-action

Ben Spies in-action

Prototypes are always changing. If your bike's working great but your electronics are just a bit off, you're done.
Jorge Lorenzo

Jorge Lorenzo

Lorenzo is super-smooth on the bike. He makes riding look effortless.
Valentino Rossi

Valentino Rossi

Rossi sells a lot of motorcycles. Yamaha had a good team with me and Jorge Lorenzo. We got along well, but it's going to be hard to deal with that combination.
Ben Spies

Ben Spies

The win at Assen two years ago was special because it's a track I grew up watching all of my heroes race on.