Sam Lowes Speaks: Part 1 - How A New Swing Arm Made Him Fast Enough To Win

Sam Lowes is a rider on the move. After impressing in both BSB and World Supersport, the Englishman made the switch to Moto2 in 2014, joining Speed Up to race the bike designed and built by the team run by Luca Boscoscuro. His first season in Moto2 was much tougher than expected, Lowes crashing often and never getting close to a podium, despite often showing good pace in practice in qualifying.

His 2015 season has gotten off to a much better start. Lowes has been fastest in both testing and practice, and with Johann Zarco, Tito Rabat and Alex Rins, has shown himself to be a true title contender for this year. A win at Austin confirmed that, as has a podium in Argentina and pole position at Qatar. On the Thursday before the Texas round of MotoGP at Austin, a small group of reporters had a long and fascinating conversation with Lowes, in which he covered a lot of territory, ranging from finding confidence when riding in the rain, to how the Speed Up bike has changed, to the value of looking at the data of other riders. Over the next couple of days, we will share some of that conversation with you.

One of the biggest changes in Sam Lowes' fortunes came as a result of a change to the bike. The carbon fiber swing arm which Speed Up have been running since they first starting building their own bikes back in 2012, and is a legacy of Boscoscuro's days working with Aprilia, has been replaced with a more conventional one made from aluminum. That switch had made a huge difference to the feel of the bike, giving Lowes and the other Speed Up riders much more feel for the rear tire of the Speed Up, and putting an end to a string of inexplicable crashes.

Though Lowes took painstaking efforts not to blame the bike, and more particularly the carbon fiber swing arm for his disappointing results in 2014, he made it clear that the aluminum item had been a massive step forward. "Last year I crashed a lot because I was trying to go too fast," he told us. "I wasn't ready to go fast, the package wasn't there. Not just the bike, me and the bike together weren't ready to go fast."

Lowes made some interesting points about the dangers of taking risks with innovation in racing, and stepping outside of the normal and well-understood parameters of racing. Lowes describes this as 'the box', a useful metaphor. "Now that my bike's got an aluminum swing arm, the suspension is good - there's a lot of people on WP now - I think that we're in the box," he said. "Last year, I think the carbon swing arm took us outside the box. Because the engine's the same, the tires are the same, the engine has to fix in the same place, so chassis are very similar. I'm not a believer that they're all that different. We were different, because we had the carbon swing arm. And I know how different it was, because I tested them back to back. It was like riding a Honda to Yamaha in World Supersport. Now, I think we're in the ball park, I think we should be alright. I'm positive about it. There's nothing I'm really struggling with, but we can still improve in all areas. In fast corners the bike is better, but also in the stop-start it's better."

The change had meant improvement, not just for the machine, but for the team as a whole, and for Lowes' confidence and approach. "I feel good," he said. "It's a lot better than last year, the team's good, the bike's better, atmosphere's better, I feel good." Lowes also emphasized just how important confidence and belief is. "It's all in your head anyway."

He then went on to try not to blame the carbon swing arm for 2014, but struggled to find the right words. "I'll never say it, but last year at times I wanted to say it," he said. "But now that I've got this bike working how it is, the bike last year wasn't good enough to win, in a fully dry race. I know Westy won, but that was in wet conditions at Assen." The new swing arm and suspension for this year have changed all that. "Now it is good enough to win. I never said I needed a Kalex to win or a Suter to win, I believe this bike is good enough to win. So if you believe that, you feel good."

Feedback from other riders coming in to the QMMF team, the other team using the Speed Up chassis, helped his case. "It helped as well that [Julian] Simon jumped on the bike at the end of last year, start of this year, and said he's got no feeling compared to the Kalex." Lowes had started to doubt his own feeling on the bike in 2014, having never ridden a Moto2 bike before and not having any material for comparison. "I was coming from Supersport, and jumped on the bike, and in the end, because it was a hard year, I started to think, maybe it's just me. This is a Grand Prix bike, maybe it's just me." Julian Simon's feedback confirmed that Lowes had been on the right track. "Then [Simon] got on it and said compared to Kalex it's got no feeling. And then we put the aluminum swing arm in and it gave me a lot more feeling. It was like two positives really."

This confirmation, and the improvement from the aluminum swing arm, was a big step forward. "You need the feeling to build the confidence. Even if all the bikes are capable of the same lap time if the setting's perfect, but you had no feeling. So to do that in a full race weekend, 18 times a year is impossible. Because you have a big slide or you have a crash, and you lose your confidence. And you can't get it back, because there's no feeling. So you end up doing the lap time by just doing it, and it being OK. You think, I did the last lap at this speed and it was OK. And then you have a crash, and you think what the **** happened?"

The 2015 Speed Up was totally different, giving him feedback which allowed him to understand what was happening, and understand what he had done wrong. "I've crashed this [2015] bike – not at Qatar, that was a different one – and I'm moving, and I know that I'm nearly at the limit, and I'm crashing, and I'm thinking it's nearly OK. Because I knew I was at the limit, I've done that all my career, that's good. It almost gives you confidence crashing. Because you know what happened, you know where it is, it's nice. Last year, I didn't have that. I just thought, well what happened? This is when I would look at the data, the team would look at the data and say, well, it looks exactly the same. So what do you do?"

This is what made racing the Speed Up so difficult in 2014, not being able to understand what the bike was doing, and when you were approaching the limit. "Like at Brno in the race, I was in third, then crashed, I didn't know what happened. The team said, well, maybe you were half a kilometer faster. So then in your head, you've got no answer. Then you go to the next race, and it happens again and you just don't know where you are. You go do the speed, you build up and build up and think, well I can do it, because I'm not crashing. And then you crash, and you don't know why. But that's totally different with this bike and this suspension. With this package, it's totally different."

Was the lack of confidence with the rear of the bike because he was not getting any feedback from it? "There was no feedback," Lowes said. "Zero. The connection between the hand to the rear tire to the track was non-existent. It was just like a button. You could tell it was spinning, but you couldn't even feel the spin in your body, it was more just a movement."

The difference with the 2015 bike was huge. "Now, in some corners in Qatar, I was picking up the gas 20 meters earlier. Just a little bit of gas, and with the aluminum, I can feel the bike. Now, when I get on the gas, I feel the bike pitch to the rear – not massively – but put the weight on the tire, and on to the track. And then subconsciously, you have the confidence to just turn. It just turns and goes. Last year, I was no gas, watching the apex, not even hitting the apex, and just feeling so far above the track. Now I make the corner, I choose where I go. The bike is a lot better for that."

That's why 2014 had been such a tough year for Lowes. "Last year, I was making triangles of all the corners: going in, stopping, and coming out, that's how I could ride it. The change is little, but it's also big. Last year, looking at the average lap time, my best lap was 0.4, 0.5 off the best lap time. It's a lot, but not a lot. But now how I'm feeling, and how I was feeling, it's a different world. Because even when we got the bike working good, just to have it good for one weekend, you never got the most out of it, the bike was better than me on that odd weekend. But overall, it was just a disaster really."

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Comments

Attention engineers.
Attention data geeks.
You are essential to racing. However, so is the rider.
Just like Sam's experience of communication with the track and bike, two-ways, speaking (rider inputs) and listening ("feel"). Which inherently is resonance. The track also speaks and listens. As does the bike. It is a large orchestra.

Carbon fibre for part of the tuning fork at lean? "It doesn't show shortcomings in design analysis, here...let me communicate the numbers at you." NOOOOOO

Exactly
"It didn't show up on the dyno" (Suzuki's oiling issue to start the season). Another gem. And their Mitsubishi electronics in the 990 and 800 eras.

And FOR SURE Stoner and his exemplary throttle control w low electric aid settings to mask the Ducati carbon fibre limitations.

Save carbon fibre for subframes etc where they don't dampen resonance, limit tuneability, and make set up an exercise in futility or luck.

Love Serious Sam! When he first came to Moto2 I thought, well if he at least goes better than Sofuoglu that will be a success. But it was really tough watching him struggle. Always made me think, maybe the talent gap or whatever really IS that big between WSS and Moto2?
I'm so excited to see Lowes back in form! I thought the 2014 Moto2 season was kind of lackluster compared to previous years, but the 2015 season looks to be a cracker with Zarco and Lowes duking it out! Not to mention watching Sam backing it into those corners is worth the price of admission itself! A lot of riders do it obviously, but the way Lowes gets the rear kicked out like that is Marques-esque, just mind blowing haha.
Now if only my man Aegerter can get back to form :-/

I keep hearing that F1 is the pinnacle of motorsports and so has to have the latest technology and this leads to all kinds of changes in rules periodically. The new V6 based electric hybrids and some of the other newer technologies are only adding to the escalation of costs at the expense of the spectacle (Nico Rosberg's burning desire to beat Lewis Hamilton seems to be the only reason a wee bit of spectacle is still left). Sometimes keeping things simple and not changing technology for the sake of changing it is more meaningful and what Sam Lowes says here (despite all the effort at diplomacy) and Ducati's years in the wilderness prove that sticking to something well known and well understood is in itself not such a bad thing at all. MotoGP will be great fun if you take out the seamless shifting gearbox and maybe even a slipper clutch out of the equation. It is a bit like in music. A piece of music built around the most complex and difficult to play notes may need a technical master to play it but the listener might just not like it at all. Some of the greatest songs of this era too are the ones which are simple but have catchy melody lines. Complexity of technology or craft is not necessarily the best way to promote spectacle for the audience. What Sam Lowes is saying seems to prove that.

WEC. Comparing GP to F1 seems like beating up your little brother, it doesn't really make you a better boxer...The technology, hybrid technology, in WEC seriously makes F1 look like karts. During the Silverstone broadcast the booth was saying F1 is losing engineers to WEC simply because its so much less constrained.

HOWEVER, I do agree that when it comes to certain aspects don't fix what hasn't broke, but then again can they know its not 'broken' if they don't try to fix it?

I'm just glad we get to watch Sam clutch and drop three before he puts its back together. Certainly unique!

Let's wash and call for balance?

Will the engineers now realise never put carbon fibre between the rider and the wheels. The Ducati experiment and this one must surely prove it. Hit a sheet of carbon fibre with a hammer and then hit aluminium whilst holding onto them. There is no resonance with the fibre and that is what gives a rider feeling of what is happening.

Check out the crash rate of Ducati riders when they were using carbon fibre compared to the aluminium frame. From one year to the next it might not have handled any better but their crash rates dropped dramatically.

3 stars is what folks are giving your post 95...I gave it 5. Those giving low stars, since there is one single point here, we may assume disagree about carbon fibre in frames and swingarms. I have one point to make down yonder * for consideration.

You folks, please take this warmly as it is NOT personal at all. I am curious if perhaps you are "in parallel process" w the resonance/two way communication/self involved or self referential thingamading that has been occurring for the teams. Are you thinking, from within your particular frame of reference, that you are right about carbon fibre being in frames and swingarms? And as such dismiss receiving feedback in favor of giving it?

* Guess what? That is not only what some engineers are doing (which by temperament and training they can be vulnerable to), it is WHAT IS HAPPENING between the rider an the track surface on the bike you just sent him or her out on!

Congrats on choosing to "be right" in lieu of "being fast, effective, successful and happy." How is that working out for you? It is important to be wrong and fail some of the time. Successful people are frustrating and disappointed regularly but move forward relentlessly in a dialectically evolutionary manner without getting stuck. It is a bit humbling. And empowering too. *

Yamaha did it w Burgess/Rossi. Ducati w Gigi and co now FINALLY. Someday it happens for everyone and everything. When I realized and acknowledged that rather than "not being full of sh#t at all" I was about a quarter full of it, that right there may have brought me down from half! And 20-25% is "compostable" and necessary for fertile growth.

And, if there is a Materials Science knowledgeable person that wishes to make a point, go ahead. I really am listening! But realize that I have experienced an R1, R6, 998, 600rr, 1000rr, etc etc at lean and listened to that too and recommend you do as well.

A few years ago I started road cycling and went to my local bike shop and road a couple of bikes for test rides. First one had alu. frame with CF fork and 2nd was full CF. On the alu bike you can feel almost EVERY lump and bump on the road at 110 psi which is a typical pressure for those skinny tires. After riding the CF bike for 1/2 city block I had to get off and check the tires we're inflated because everything felt dampened and buttery smooth on the same road. There is a definite difference on these road bikes when constructed out of different materials and this sounds similar to what Sam Lowes was talking about the lack of feel.

Back in the day when I raced on steel (chromoly) bicycle frames the tyres were 20mm width, skinny!
I now find it amusing when I see carbon fibre framed bicycles being fitted with 25mm, or larger, tyres as standard to compensate for the lack of flex & feel these frames give to the rider.

Perhaps the mix/weave of carbon fibre has yet to be refined sufficiently for the specific purposes it is being applied to!

As the sayings goes for cyclists, "steel is real". The technology for carbon fibre is still not yet where near it needs to be!

Way back, when I was club racing my Kawasaki Z1, the bike had two major things wrong with the frame---not nearly stiff enough and a build-up of manufacturing tolerances---(AKA: "slop") that had things way too loose---think swing arm pivot. Everything needed stiffening-up. Small, lightweight MOTO2 bikes can be TOO STIFF---functioning well, but giving the rider "no feel" at the back of the bike---a new swing arm with some small built-in flex can make all the difference...