MotoGP: When a step back to some becomes a gift to others

Hector Barberá has been the big surprise of the 2016 preseason thus far, and the Spanish veteran talks about what helped him suddenly become so competitive in MotoGP

motogp hector barbera surprise 2016 preseason
The move to spec ECUs has been a major boost to the Avintia Racing Ducati team, with rider Hector Barbera finishing in the top five quickest riders at both 2016 preseason MotoGP tests.Photo courtesy of Avintia Racing

Hector Barberá started to race on tarmac at 12 years old. Just three years later he joined the World Championship, and at 16 he had finished runner-up in the 125cc class. At 18 he upgraded into the 250 category, and again finished in second overall in the 2009 championship.

“Yes, suddenly it looks like I am a much better rider than yesterday,” remarks Barberá, the unexpected protagonist of the 2016 preseason. He finished as first Ducati out of eight at the Phillip Island tests on his GP14.2, a two-year-old version of the Desmosedici. Until now, Barbera, one of the few MotoGP riders who lacks a world title on his resumé, was considered the top ugly duckling of the premier class.

“I understand the situation, because this is an elite sport and things work like that. The results are what define your position in the big picture. When I arrived in MotoGP at 22 maybe it wasn’t that easy to handle. When I joined the World Championship I was competitive from the very first moment. I won races and finished runner up the first year. The same happened when I switched to 250cc.”

Things took a different when Barberá joined MotoGP . He joined Team Aspar, a new team in a new category in MotoGP and thus there was so much to learn for everyone concerned. His promising trajectory suffered a harsh break.

Barberá recounts that the only real good chance he had in MotoGP was in 2012 within Team Pramac. “Until midseason I pushed the factory riders, we were doing really well. Then I suffered an accident and broke my tibia and fibula. When I returned I was still competitive, like in Valencia, where I was on the grid in front of Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden…But the team had already signed the new riders.”

motogp hector barbera surprise 2016 preseason
How much of a difference have the spec electronics made for the Avintia Ducati team? “The electronics we had last year were light years behind the ones in current use," Barberá says. "I’ll give you an example: Last season we had the option to split the circuits into a maximum five parts; now we can set up every corner!”Photo courtesy of Avintia Racing

Barberá points out that after having fought for championships with riders like Dovizioso or Lorenzo in the lower classes, there was no way that suddenly they were better riders than him. This is conviction that has kept him going all these years. “They are guys like me, with a special talent to ride a bike fast…they are like me, not better than me.”

But Barberá confesses that in mid-2014 he made a decision to quit. He had joined the Avintia team that ran a supposed factory-supported MotoGP project with Kawasaki, but nothing of the initial plans come to fruition. “It was a disaster! For example, the Japanese technicians that were sent to our team set up gearbox ratios in which I couldn’t even use sixth gear! I finished the race at Barcelona in tears. I knew that it wasn’t a matter of riding ability,” remembers Barbera bitterly.

At this stage the Avintia team began conversations with Ducati to explore the possibility of finishing the season using the Italian bikes. What seemed to be a desperate and absurd move finally happened…and it saved Barbera’s career. “This year I am stronger than ever, I work harder than ever, but it’s because I know there is a project, there is a chance of doing well if I take care of my physical condition.”

2015 was Barbera’s comeback season. He finished the year as Open Class Champion, but the big step into the spotlight has come with the introduction of the new electronics. What the rest of the field has been looking at as a frustrating step back, for Barberá it has been a gift. “The electronics we had last year were light years behind the ones in current use. I’ll give you an example: Last season we had the option to split the circuits into a maximum five parts; now we can set up every corner!”

motogp hector barbera surprise 2016 preseason
After a promising career in the 125cc and 250cc GP classes where he finished runner-up in the championship in both classes, Barberá has had a rough road in MotoGP. His results in the 2016 preseason tests hopefully show a turnaround for both him and the Avintia Ducati team.Photo courtesy of Avintia Racing

In his first test with the new electronics after last year’s final GP, Hector realized that the new rules had changed the whole picture for him. Suddenly he saw his name close to the top guys, something unimaginable a few days before. And, as said, during the second part of the preseason the dynamics have been the same. “In Malaysia, Marquez passed me and I was able to follow him. The same happened with Valentino. When we arrived at Phillip Island I waited to go out until after the rest…Within two laps I did the same lap times as the fastest riders...and I stayed there the whole day!”

Was this due to personal improvements, team improvements, or a combination of the two? “Look, neither the team nor I are any better than a few months before, we are the same. It’s all down to the electronics; it’s the only thing we have changed. My winter training has changed this year. Before I tried to have as many hours as possible on different types of bikes; this winter instead I worked more on the muscles that felt weaker…and I have noticed a difference. I feel much more agile on the bike.”

Theoretically, as the factory teams start to understand and control the new electronics, the situation should get back to “normal”. Barberá doesn’t agree with this theory, but he does admit that the additional resources available to the bigger teams helps.

“The factory teams have many engineers working on the electronics, we have just one brain thinking about it. So the others are quicker in trying things and getting the right set up. If, for example, our engineer has an idea, we usually have to wait until the next day to try it because he has to focus on the moment. In the rest of the teams some engineer can work one line and the others in another.”

From a purely mechanical point of view, there will be differences. The bike Barberá is riding in the preseason is the one he will use throughout the rest of the year. This is something Ducati made clear. But even though it is the last version from 2014, it has demonstrated this winter that it is still a competitive bike in the right hands.

In three weeks time the championship will launch. Then it will be for real. To finish our chat with Hector Barbera, we asked him if he has been focusing on the Qatar race. “Look, after what I went through all these years, I have learned that the best thing to do is to focus on the present. If your thinking is on something that may happen in the future, you miss enjoying what is happening. My next focus is the Qatar test. After seeing how we finish, I can start thinking about the race.”