Since leaving Suzuki when the Japanese factory withdrew from MotoGP at the end of 2011, Alvaro Bautista has been with the Gresini Honda team. There, he has ridden the team's factory RC213V, racking up three podiums and one pole for the team. Things have not been as easy for him as for the other Honda riders, however, as Gresini has a deal with Showa to supply suspension and Nissin to supply brakes. As the only team in the paddock on that combination, competing against the massed ranks of Brembo/Öhlins-shod MotoGP machines has been hard. Where the Brembo/Öhlins bikes have masses of data from other riders they can compare their set ups against, Bautista and Gresini have only their bike, and the data from the bike on the other side of the garage. In the previous two seasons, that was an FTR-built machine powered by a CBR1000RR engine, making data comparison very difficult. This year things are a little easier, with the RCV1000R being closely related to the RC213V, but challenges remain.
At Barcelona, MotoMatters.com friend and contributor Mick Fialkowski caught up with Bautista to ask him about his season so far. In a long conversation, Bautista talks about the difficult start to the season, the challenges presented in developing the Nissin and Showa suspension, about the changes made for the 2014 season, and about the fitness required to compete at the top level of MotoGP. It made for a fascinating discussion:
Mick Fialkowski: Alvaro, it's been an up-and-down season so far. First three races without points, then a podium at Le Mans. What happened?
Alvaro Bautista: I think in the first three races we just had bad luck. We were competitive in Qatar. Also at Austin I was in the podium group, as well as in Argentina. We had a setting that wasn't too bad for the race but I didn't finish, so it was just bad luck. Then I scored a podium at Le Mans and in Mugello I struggled a lot with the setup of the bike. Using this suspension and these brakes the thing is that when we have problems, it's difficult to fix them because we don't have any reference, only myself, and that makes it more difficult for us.
MF: What stage are you on with sorting the suspension?
AB: In the past we worked a lot of the front to find a better feeling and we improved that a lot. In the winter testing we worked a lot on the rear and found something but it depends on a circuit. In some places we struggle more and in other less. The front, for example here today we had a lot of problems and not the best feeling, so we have to work both on the front and the rear and that makes it more difficult.
MF: So which tracks suit the suspension better? Stop-and-go or the flowing ones?
AB: In places where you have to carry speed in the middle of the corner we have more problems.
MF: Last year you told me you had the option to switch to the Ohlins suspension for 2014 but in the end you didn't. Why and who made the decision?
AB: It was like a combination. The team wanted to remain with Showa and Nissin and OK, I decided to remain with this package because I got a two year contract. It was easier that way for me because I could concentrate on the suspension and don't worry about the next year.
MF: How about the brakes?
AB: It's just me and Scott using them. In the first race we had a lot of problems with the brakes which were very inconsistent. At Austin I tried Brembo but their character is totally opposite so we decided to remain with Nissin because the suspension and the entire bike is set up for the braking character of Nissin. Now they're developing the material and after Jerez we tried something new that was more similar to Brembo, still not the same but more in that way, so we're improving all the time.
MF: So what's the difference between the Brembo and the Nissin brakes?
AB: They're completely opposite. Brembo brakes are more smooth at the beginning and then the bike stops at the end of the corner. Nissin start to stop the bike more from the first touch of the braking, so it's totally opposite. With that the setup is completely different. If you set up the bike with a brake character that's strong from the beginning, then you have to have a good support from the front fork. When I tried Brembo, it was like the first part of the front fork wouldn't go down because it had no power to do so. That's why we decided to stick with Nissin.
MF: How's the relation with the team in your third season with them?
AB: I'm really happy with this team. The first time I came here it felt like a family straight away and I felt a lot of support. Now this year, with not the best start to the season, the team is still supporting me, even harder than before because it's important to have a good relationship. I'm quite happy with the team, with my mechanics, my crew chief, and also with Fausto [Gresini] and everybody working here.
MF: How supportive is Fausto? Reading his comments in some of the press releases I get a feeling he gets a bit angry at times and can be hard on the riders...
AB: For sure the first person who's angry when the results don't come is me, and Fausto just speaks because he was a rider and he listens to all the problems we have. He's angry because we're not able to get the best setup at every track and we struggle a lot in some places, so he's angry because we're not getting the positions we know we can get.
MF: Do you feel any pressure now with your contract up?
AB: Not really. I'm thinking about what's going on now and I try to do my best. I don't think about my future because I don't know what can happen, so I prefer to keep focused on this year and try to give my best.
MF: You have the same bike as the other Honda riders, at least the chassis and engine...
AB: … theoretically, yes. The engine for sure is the same. The frame, I don't know if they're using a different frame now, and the suspension and brakes are different of course.
MF: … so with that difference, do you feel you have less of a chance than Marquez, Pedrosa and Bradl?
AB: It depends on the track. Some places are harder for Showa and some are easier. For example in France we were very close to Marc and Dani. It depends on the track.
MF: What's your contract situation?
AB: Like with everyone else, my contract ends this year but for the moment it's difficult to say anything. First of all all the factory guys have to make their decisions and then the rest will fall into place. So for now I'm just waiting and prefer to focus on each races.
MF: Let's say you can stay here but you can change brakes and suspension. What would be your call?
AB: We have to see the conditions. We'll see. Now it's too early.
MF: How about Scott Redding. He's a rookie and he's on a bit of a different bike but do you work together, spend time together and so on?
AB: I think our relationship is good. For sure we can't share some information because the bikes are totally different but sometimes it's good to hear what he feels about Showa and Nissin. Our bikes are different but more or less the feeling and the problems are the same and that means they come from the suspension and the brakes. Ok, we can't share a lot but we talk about some details.
MF: There's a lot of talk about Scott having a two-year deal and that he'll pretty much take over your factory-spec bike next year...
AB: It's normal. People from outside the team talk a lot but the reality is inside the team and I know how is the situation so I'm not worried. Nothing is clear for next year either for me or for Scott, so we have to do our best and try to get the best for next year.
MF: If you'd get the production Honda for next year, would you take it?
AB: Fortunately I have other options and I would like to have a factory-spec bike, not a production one.
MF: There were some small changes for this year; tyres, electronics, smaller tanks. Do you feel it on the bike?
AB: Sometimes you feel it, especially with the fuel. You have to be very careful in the races because on the long distance we finish the race on the limit. Also the tyres are a bit different to last year but as far as the electronics go it's not a big difference. The software is still the same and comes from Honda. It's just the hardware that changes, so it's not a big change.
MF: Bradley Smith just told me that with the smaller tank they had to change traction control settings, especially at the bottom, on the initial touch of the throttle, they had to work to make it smoother. He says he feels more 'robotic' now because he can do less as a rider to make a difference...
AB: But I think also with more fuel the electronics were still very important. Sometimes you can't do your best as a rider because the electronics would cut and cut and cut. It's very important to have a good electronics setup because sometimes it's difficult to ride a bike that cuts everywhere.
MF: Do you change a lot of these electronics settings during the race?
AB: You can change traction control, engine brake, character of the bike, it depends on what you prepare for the race. In the practice you try different things, depending also the state of the tyres, and then you know for the race what kind of map, traction control or engine brake setting you can use.
MF: So do you have like two or three predefined settings or do you simply change it get more/less?
AB: You have different settings. You have some maps for traction control, some maps for engine brake and also you can adjust traction control, you have different solutions.
MF: With less fuel, do you have to play more with it during the race?
AB: More than the fuel it's about the traction. During the practice you prepare everything so that you don't have a lot of problems with the fuel consumption. So it's more about the riding than the fuel.
MF: Do the new tyres have less edge grip and require a more stop-and-go riding style?
AB: It's more or less like this. There's less edge grip. The strange thing is that we lean out more but we have less edge grip. It's more or less the character. More stop-and-go.
MF: It seemed it affected Jorge Lorenzo quite a bit. Can you see it on the track?
AB: Lorenzo is using a lot of edge grip so for sure he's struggling more than the other riders but I can't really see it on track.
MF: Maybe it's just Marquez messing with his head?
AB: I don't think it's that. I think it's more about real problems than mind issues.
MF: Jorge had some physical issues...
AB: What issues? I've heard about it recently but I don't know the details.
MF: He had three operations in the off-season and he couldn't train properly. Is fitness really that important in MotoGP nowadays?
AB: It's very important, because when you're riding at the limit, you need to be really strong and really fit, also to keep you concentration. If you're not fit, you lose concentration, then you lose a lot of time on the braking, in the corners and so on.
MF: How do you train?
AB: I train a lot. I train with some triathletes. I like cycling a lot but also do some running and swimming. Then I go to the gym.
MF: How much do you run in a week?
AB: I don't know. It depends on what my personal trainer decides. We have a plan depending on the week, the race and it's not the same every week.
MF: So more or less in a month?
AB: Every time I go out cycling I'd do around 100 km, so in a month I'd go 11-12 times. Running, it's between 10 and 20 kilometres every time I run.
MF: How about the speeds?
AB: More or less 30km/h, but I'm not sure. It depends on what you're working on. Sometimes it's uphill, sometimes downhill, so it's hard to take out an average. It's the same with running. Sometimes it's the speed, sometimes the endurance. In the future I'd like to do an Iron Man Triathlon. But I'm worried about swimming in the open sea. I'm so afraid! But that's for the future, when I'm at home with no races, so a long, long time.
MF: Hopefully it's not anytime soon!
For those who read Polish, you can read more of Mick's insights into MotoGP on the Polish website Motormania.com.pl.