Motorcycle racers are complex characters. If they are to achieve success, they must find a way to combine hubris and humility without their personalities veering off the scale at either end. Without hubris to believe they are the best rider in the world, they would never find the determination to dig deep in preparation, and overcome the pain and adversity the sport brings. Without humility, they would never be open to the constant process of refinement and learning, of throwing away preconceived ideas, acknowledging mistakes, and being open to the information which can help them be even better.
Few riders are willing to talk about the two horns of this dilemma they find themselves caught upon. From time to time, they may allude to it in passing, but rarely do they speak openly and candidly about it.
Which is why speaking to Alex Lowes, Pata Yamaha WorldSBK rider, at the launch of Yamaha's global racing program was so refreshing. In a candid and very open interview, Lowes spoke of his aspirations for the 2017 season and beyond. He talked about the lessons he learned during the 2016 season, including the hardest lesson of all, seeing his teammate get a podium. Lowes also talked about the things he learned from his stint in MotoGP replacing the injured Bradley Smith, and the insights it gave him into how to get more out of the Yamaha YZF-R1M in World Superbikes.
That it wasn't all talk, Alex Lowes showed at the first WorldSBK round of the year at Phillip Island. There, Lowes rode with his head, pushing to stay with the lead group without pushing over the limit and crashing out, as he has done in the past. Lowes took two fourth place finishes, missing out on the podium twice by the narrowest of margins. But Lowes looked calm and collected, taking the good result which was on offer without throwing it away in pursuit of a better result. If Lowes can continue along this path, he can grow to become a real fly in the ointment for the championship favorites.
Here is what Lowes had to say in Milan, in early February:
Q: Your first year on a Yamaha was tougher than expected. What are you changing this year?
AL: Yes, the first year with Yamaha in 2016 didn't go like I expected it to go, how Yamaha expected it to go, how the team expected it to go. So it was difficult for everyone, but we all learned a lot. And now we need to put all those experiences to good use for 2017. There's a lot of changes, a few staff changes on the bike, a few electronics changes, a few chassis changes, and also I've tried to change my style on the bike a little bit as well. So there are enough changes to be excited and to be looking forward to going to the first race and see how much we've improved. Because 100% for sure we have improved, it's just until you're in a race situation, you're not quite sure exactly how much you have improved. So we'll have to wait and see.
Q: What have you changed in your riding?
AL: So last year, I got to ride the MotoGP bike, and one of the great things about that is that I got to ride in the Yamaha camp with two of the best riders that I think that we've ever had, with Jorge and Valentino. I was very lucky, I got to look at some of their data, at how they do things, and you'd be absolutely stupid if you didn't try to take something on board.
So there were some things they were doing that I'd never really thought about or tried to do, just riding the bike in a slightly different way in a few parts of my riding. And the good thing was, some things I was doing really well.
Corner entry was the biggest thing, and I've used all this winter with my brother [Sam], who is going to MotoGP, trying to pass some of that experience on to him, and trying to improve in that area. Obviously, it's not like motocross or other off road disciplines where you can ride the bike every other day, but if you have the mentality of what you are trying to improve, in the testing we've done, it seems to have made a difference so far.
Q: Are the lessons you learned in MotoGP transferable to WorldSBK, despite being on different tires?
AL: They were riding the bike better, regardless of what tires they've got on! They were just doing a better job of riding the bike. And a lot of it was just using the rear brake, or using the tools you've got in a bit of a different way. Also, Sylvain [Guintoli] did some good things, there were some points where he was quicker than I was, and I learned a little bit from all of that put together.
I like to think that I'm quite clever, and I believe 100% in myself, and I tried to understand where I could improve, and like I say, I've just picked a couple of points, I've been working hard on them over the winter, and the guys have already said that my data looks like a different rider to last year. Of course, that doesn't matter if you're slow, so I have to make sure I'm fast, make sure I have improved where I want to improve, and see if it can transfer into results. Because at the end of the day, that's the thing that matters most at the end of this year.
Q: Will getting more support from Yamaha this year make a big difference?
AL: Yes, support is stepped up again, and it's clear that we need to, because there's a green and a red bike which are too far in front of everything else in World Superbike. And honestly? It makes it a bit boring.
So I don't want it to be like that this year. Yamaha as a factory deserve to be there, I feel like I deserve to be there, and our goal is to be there, with all the support that we have. We need to achieve that as soon as possible.
Obviously, my target is to look back at the year and be able to say, the days where I didn't have the package, I didn't have the feeling, I took the result. Which is something I have not done in the past couple of years, I've crashed or tried too hard or made a mistake. But when I needed to get a result and the bike was there, I took the result and I achieve some podiums and wins. And that's a realistic goal that I want to set.
Q: Is it also about changing the objective, pushing not to save a race but to try to achieve a little bit extra?
AL: Yes, 100%. Because it all depends on what attitude you have. If you have the best bike on the grid and you have an attitude like mine, where you want to win no matter what, and you're very competitive and you can't always step back and see a good result in a different situation, I think it's a good attitude to have, and in the past, it's worked really well for me.
But on the days where unfortunately in our sport you've not got the package, or you've got different conditions, someone who has been at the top for a long time has the ability to accept that position, that's something I need to do, I'm a professional rider paid to do that, and it's something I've not done. And by not doing that, it made it more dangerous for me because I've picked up injuries.
Does it sound good when you say, oh, sometimes you need to settle for a result? Of course not. I'm a winner, I want to win. If I've got a bike to win, I'll put everything I've got on the line to win. But I need to see the other side, I can't get to the end of my fourth year in World Superbikes, and people think, "Oh yes, that kid's got potential, he's fast," because that means nothing to me. Like I said, I think I've got enough intelligence to step back and try to understand where I've been going wrong. There's always reasons for everything, and I do a lot of things well, so it's not all negative.
I feel like I'm eighteen again, I've got so much motivation, I'm fit and healthy for the first time in eighteen months, and I can go into the year with some good perspective.
Q: What's the objective for this year?
AL: Like I've just said, my main objective is to be able to look back and be happy. Because it's the million dollar question, I don't know how good the bike's going to be. If I start saying I want to finish first or second, it's not realistic, because it's not been there. I believe I can beat all those guys given the right situation, so I want to be able to look back, and evaluate my performance and think, I got a lot out of that year, when I needed to, I used my head and got a result, and was more consistent.
There's no point denying it, I've not been consistent, I've made too many mistakes. If you look at my results when I make mistakes, it's when I'm struggling. When I can get a result, I normally get a decent result.
So I need to not do that, making mistakes, because that's what's going to stop me getting a ride for the year after, or a better ride in the future with Yamaha. That's what's going to stop that, because it's not my speed, my speed's there, and the same for my brother. My target is 100% is to take a step up, be a bit more mature, become a better rider, and I think the results will come on top of that.
Q: Do you think you'll have a chance to win a race this year?
AL: Yes, I honestly do. But we do need to wait and see, because we have made progress in a lot of areas, and there were some tracks last year where we were close enough. And for sure the bike's better.
So yes, like I said, I have to evaluate every weekend for what it is, and be a lot more honest with myself with what I can achieve. But Yamaha, what I've seen of what goes on on the inside, they're making a really really big effort. And if Yamaha are making an effort, they deserve to be at the front with Ducati and Kawasaki.
But obviously, it's not always about what you deserve, it's what you've got. And I honestly believe we can make the step up. And obviously, you can say that every year, but we need to and I'm interested to see if we can.
Q: What about Michael van der Mark, your teammate? Is it more of a motivation to have a younger teammate and be the lead rider?
AL: No, we're similar ages, I think there's only two months between us. I like him, he's a good guy. He tries hard, he works hard, he gets on with his job, and that's that, it's nice. It's better for the team.
But one of the best things that happened to me was when Sylvain got a podium in Qatar. He's leaving the team, and he didn't have a ride with the team, I was staying with the team. Because Sylvain getting a podium was hard for me to take, it was a bit of a kick in the nuts. But I learned a lot, about, OK, why did it happen? And if you believe in yourself, you look at that and learn.
Q: What did you learn?
AL: Honestly? Look at it whichever way you want, but in general, I was quicker than Sylvain. He finished races when I didn't finish races, but at the same time, I was injured for a lot more of the year than it looks like. And he can say, "but I didn't ride," well I know he didn't ride, but I was trying to ride injured for the team, for Yamaha, for the sponsors pretty much for the whole year.
So it's not really a fair indication either way, but when he came back in Qatar he was faster than me. And I've not really been in many situations where the teammate has been faster than me. In Qatar, he was. His style is a lot different to mine, a lot smoother, and it was good, because he was just quicker. In practice he was quicker, in qualifying he was quicker, in the race he was quicker and he got on the podium. There were a lot of tracks where his style didn't work, and I think that's why in some races he was tenth or twelfth, because he couldn't adjust that.
So my goal is try to ride like that when I need to. Which is one of the things I was saying, like using the rear brake a bit different, approaching the corners a bit different. Just try to have more of an ability to adjust. I think the top guys, the very top guys, can ride how they need to ride to get the most out of the package on that track. The very top guys, like Casey, Valentino, Jorge. They can do that. Obviously, there's one extreme where they really can't get on with something, or a setting. But in general, the really top guys can change. That's something I learned from that. Because I think being able to do that puts you in a much better position whatever bike you ride, whatever situation you're in. Then that will help me with my consistency, with everything else. So yes, I learned a lot.
Q: What you are saying reminds me of Marc Márquez, and how he won the title in 2016, by settling for a position however much it hurt his sense of pride. Are you learning from watching those sort of things from other riders as well?
AL: Yes... The pain of finishing fourth will be nowhere near the joy of winning a world championship. So I think he did alright in the long run. The level of where I am now, riding for such a great company like Yamaha, you have to be able to do that. Márquez is riding for Honda, he has to be able to do that.
It's alright winning, it is mint. And on days when you can win, everything's fantastic. But to be a really top level guy, you've got to be able to adapt, like I said. And he did that really well. If you ask him, I don't know, but I think it was probably harder for him to do than to win ten races in a row. Because he was in a rhythm and the confidence was high.
But he probably finished some races in fourth when he should have finished sixth. And I've got a lot of respect for that, because I've not been able to do that in the past. There's no point lying about it, I've not been able to. Because I won't accept that that guy in front of me is going to beat me. Because I know I'm better than this.
But that hasn't helped, I can't keep doing the same mistake over and over again – I'm not saying I'll never make a mistake, that's racing, there are going to be races where I might crash, I might make a mistake. But actively trying to change that is the only way really where I can see trying to move forward with the project and everything else.
Q: Do you think that Yamaha can learn enough this year to be genuine championship contenders next year?
AL: I think they need to. Yamaha's goal is to do that, there is some Japanese support there, and it's coming more and more. And they're supporting because they want to win. They don't enter anything unless they want to win. And normally, when it comes down to it, after some time, they normally win. I don't think longer than that, I have a one-year contract with Yamaha. And honestly? It's quite simple really, if I do my job to the best of my ability, they'll have to keep me on the bike for next year to win the world championship!
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