With Pol Espargaro ruled out of this weekend's British Grand Prix, Loris Baz will fill the void at KTM. With replacement riders once again in the MotoGP news, how does it feel to jump onto a MotoGP bike?
“It was like I'd never ridden a motorbike before,” is Leon Camier’s review on his MotoGP debut when he deputized for Nicky Hayden in 2014. With such a steep learning curve, what can you gain by jumping on a MotoGP bike for one weekend? It's a hiding to nothing according to many, but as Camier attests, world class riders can get up to speed quickly.
“It's tough mentally and it was draining to try to learn so much in such a short space of time. Understanding the tires was the biggest thing to learn because the brakes are quite normal; they stop the bike when you pull the lever! The tires take time to get the most out of them. You'll figure out how to get the most from them for one lap pretty quickly, but understanding them for a race takes longer.”
Have you got enough time?
Time is something that a replacement rider rarely has. You may only have one opportunity to shine and you may never get the chance to race in MotoGP again – no matter how many points you score. If you're on the outside looking in, talent isn't enough to guarantee teams will pay attention to you and sometimes you just have to jump in the deep end.
Opportunities for riders outside the Grand Prix paddock aren't to be sniffed at, and this weekend will see Loris Baz become the latest rider to jump back into the fire. The Frenchman - a veteran of 49 MotoGP starts - will replace Pol Espargaro at KTM. Having experience both with the class and Michelin tires will give Baz a clear advantage over a handful of riders who have deputized in recent years.
Alex Lowes is another rider to have been given the opportunity: “I had a test at Brno, but it was only a few laps as a thank you gift for winning the Suzuka 8 Hours in 2016. I didn’t learn a lot from the test, because at the time I didn’t know I would be racing the bike a month later. I was just trying to enjoy the moment of riding a MotoGP bike rather than trying to learn about the bike. When I arrived at Silverstone I felt like I was going in blind. FP4 and QP were wet, so I probably went into the race as the rider with least amount of dry time on a GP bike before their premier class debut! I was happy to come away with some points and being 40 seconds from the win was, I thought, a good effort.
“The hardest thing for me was to understand and adapt to the front tire, because it was a tough time to ride those tires. It was cold at Silverstone and 2016 it was the first year of Michelin tires, we saw a lot of front end crashes that year. With a MotoGP bike, the power isn't much of an issue to get used to but the gearbox was fantastic. It didn’t take any adjusting, just the way the bike shifted was awesome, I remember that being one of the first things that made me think, 'wow!' The electronics were great and everything on the bike just felt that little bit better, which obviously it should.”
Timing is everything
For Lowes it felt like an opportunity that came at the wrong time. The Englishman was recovering from injury at the time and struggling in WorldSBK. It wasn't ideal timing, but an opportunity he knew he had to take. Finishing in the points in a difficult weekend was as good as could be expected, but what about riders that exceed expectations?
It was a lot easier for Chaz Davies than most to exceed expectations. The Welshman's MotoGP debut started with the d'Antin Ducati squad running up and down the Laguna Seca paddock searching for a rider. With regular rider Alex Hoffman having crashed in Free Practice 1, the team were trying to find a seat filler, and former Grand Prix rider Davies was one of the few available riders at such short notice.
“There were a few options in AMA - Bostrom and a few others - but those guys were racing for factory teams so couldn't get out of their deals to ride,” recalled Davies. “I was racing for a private team so I could race. I don't think it could have been any deeper to jump into, because I'd never ridden the track before, never mind a MotoGP bike. I had been expecting to race a Supersport bike that weekend, and instead of learning the track with that bike my first laps of Laguna were on a MotoGP Ducati!”
“Laguna is one of the hardest tracks to learn anyway and I had a new bike, new tires, and I'd only been riding a Supersport bike for a few months [after racing in 250GP], so it was so different for me. It was such a learning experience for me and the standout was how much grip those bikes had. It was phenomenal, and I still think that I've never actually ridden a bike with that much grip.”
With no pressure on his shoulders, Davies enjoyed the experience and was a lot more competitive than anyone could have expected. His performance was enough to see him land a new job as Ducati's official Bridgestone test rider.
“The Bridgestone tires were incredible, and the MotoGP guys had told me that it was almost impossible to highside the bike. It was my first time riding with Traction Control so I did my best to just trust what the engineers and the team told me. I was quite fast by the end of the weekend and in the race but I had a mechanical problem with the bike. I lost a few laps but once I was back on track I was within a few tenths of the likes of Valentino.
“It was such a great experience and I was offered the job of being Ducati's Bridgetone test rider. I did another few wildcards but didn't have the same results at them, even though they should have been easier because I had some experience and didn't miss a practice session! I went into those races thinking that I could do OK. But after everything working so well at Laguna - where it was grippy and GP riders don't test - it meant that it was a lot harder at Sepang, Phillip Island and Valencia where they had so much knowledge.”
You can't fake experience
And there in lies the rub. Knowledge is power in MotoGP. Every time a replacement goes out on track they learn a new lesson, but it's one that was learned months or years ago by the regular riders during testing. Away from prying eyes in the winter at Sepang or Qatar, the regulars scratch and scrape as they look for answers. A replacement rider does that under the spotlight. It's something that Michael van der Mark found out last year at the Malaysian venue.
“It was an amazing experience to race in MotoGP, but the biggest lesson I learned was just how close it is in MotoGP!” Explains Van der Mark. “Making your first start at Malaysia is tough because MotoGP tests there through the winter, and all the riders know the track so well. They are all so fast from the first session. I had so much to learn in that session.”
“Body position is very important for me and I struggled with the M1, but we didn't have the time to make changes. During the race it was wet and we made a mistake with the electronics - I didn't have quite enough power. I'd overtake riders and then run out of power, so it was tough, but I was close to Maverick in the race so I was really happy with that. In Valencia I was 1.9s off the fastest and I was last...that's how close it is in MotoGP.”
For the Dutchman his MotoGP outings ended with two finishes just outside the points, but a realization of just how difficult it is in the premier class. The bikes are tuned to such a degree that everything is built to the finest detail to secure the speed. The chassis is stiffer, the gearbox smoother and the engine more powerful; the riding style is different and takes time to master.
“Physically it was tough for me because a MotoGP bike is capable of so much that the rider is the limit initially,” said Davies. “The bike can do so much, you can work it harder and move around a lot more than you could with other bikes. At the time I wasn't used to the bike and what to expect, so I wasn't in tune with the bike and was probably trying too hard. You don't understand the strengths of the bike, and that can mean you try to compensate for the weaker areas.”
Taking the plunge
It's a tough task in one weekend to jump onto a MotoGP grid. Going up against the best riders in the world on machinery that they've spent every waking moment since February fine-tuning is a massive task and for Mike Jones it was certainly a case of jumping off a cliff and hoping for the best.
The Australian, nicknamed “Mad Mike” had arguably one of the maddest MotoGP debuts in history. As an Australian Superbike front runner he had no Grand Prix experience when drafted in to replace Hector Barbera at Avintia Ducati in 2015, when the Spaniard raced for the factory team. Jones was understandably thrilled at the prospect of racing in MotoGP but the deal cam together so last minute that he arrived at Motegi on Thursday night and the first time he saw he track was on Friday morning! To score points was a massive achievement.
“I was down in Phillip Island testing,” recalls Jones. “Troy Bayliss was managing the team I was riding for and he sent me a message asking 'do you want to ride a MotoGP bike?' I thought he was just joking around but it quickly became clear he was serious. Iannone was injured at the time and Troy managed to get me onto the Avintia bike to replace Barbera who would ride for the factory team. To get a phone call saying 'get on a flight to Japan and go to race at a track you've never seen before' is a tough experience for any rider, but it was great because I didn't feel any pressure for the weekend. I could go to Japan and just learn, have fun and gain the experience.
“It was surreal because everything was brand new to me! There was nothing familiar for me whether it was the bike, the track or the paddock. It was totally new to me and getting a feeling from the tires was tough. The chassis of a MotoGP bike is so rigid compared to a production based bike and that rigidity combined with the stiff tire was the toughest thing to get my head around. Understanding that limit is very difficult.”
Different every time
Not all replacement rides are equal and while most was completely thrown in at the deep end with little experience to call on some have knowledge. Even then, being a test rider called in to action can be a very different experience. Michael Laverty was drafted in by Aprilia in 2015 to replace Marco Melandri at the Sachsenring. It should have been a perfect opportunity for Laverty, who had spent the year as Michelin tester for Aprilia, but he still had to spend time getting up to speed.
“It's not an easy task to come in for one event. First of all you have to get comfortable on a bike that isn't your own,” explained Laverty. “In testing I had my own bike, but for Germany I had to ride Marco Melandri's bike which were completely different. Getting comfortable takes time because even though you'll set the handlebars, footrests and seating position inside the garage, it's completely different once you're out on track when you're going at speed. You lose a full session getting those correct. They're simple but it takes time and at Silverstone someone like Loris, who's so much taller than Pol, will lose time getting comfortable.
“The tire change takes time to get used to. When I was testing for Aprilia in MotoGP, I was racing on Pirellis in British Superbike, testing on Michelin's and then raced on Bridgestones! What I was riding for Aprilia depended on the plan for what I was testing, and the same went for machine setup. We would have different plans depending on what parts we were evaluating and you're not thinking about optimizing the settings because that's not your job. You're not setting the bike up to go fast you're working towards making sure something is better.
“I think that KTM have probably changed their plan going forward to have fewer wildcards in the future, because Mika could have been working towards what was best for his race pace rather than what was best for the bike build going forward. For Loris, none of that is a concern because he's not ridden the KTM before, but he'll have plenty of work to do this weekend.
Getting used to Michelin takes time because even if you've got experience of them, after a year on Pirelli, there will still be an adaptation to do. It takes time to get used to them again. It takes time to settle in and for it all to click but sometimes it happens quickly and I remember watching Alex Lowes on the Tech3 he found the feeling really fast with that bike. Some riders don't want to push and don't want to risk crashing. It'll be interesting to see how it unfolds for Loris.”
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