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34X34: Saying Goodbye To The Season...And A Friend
by kevin schwantz
Monday, November 28, 2011

Kevin Schwantz won the '93 World Championship. His column appears occasionally on the 'planet.
image thanks suzuki motogp
Well, I'm back from Europe. Dorna and the Simoncelli family allowed us to do a tribute to Marco before the warm-up at Valencia. I rode his bike and all the competitors rode behind me. It was a fitting end, and I think it helped everybody. Obviously it still weighed on people's minds and hearts, but I think it helped get closure. I thought it was a great idea when it was first proposed, but once I got there and started to think about doing it, it was even that much more difficult to be in the garage with the team and see the bike just sitting there all weekend. It's part of racing. It's not a part that we like, but we deal with it when we have to, and now we've just got to move on.

Nico Terol looked to be in control of the 125 championship the entire season. A few mistakes in the latter part of the year left it open to Johann Zarco, who was a Red Bull Rookies' Cup rider in 2007. So there's a little bit trickling out of Red Bull Rookies' Cup and continuing to make an impression in the world of motorcycle Grand Prix racing. I think Terol and the Aspar team always seemed to be one of the strongest teams, with some of the youngest and best and most talented riders. Big congratulations all of them. It wasn't quite the season that Aspar had hoped for in Moto2 and MotoGP, but at least they got one of the championships. As is always the case, even as we saw in the last runnings of the two-strokes, I think Jorge Martinez and his entire Aspar team will continue to field competitive bikes, whether it's Moto3, Moto2 or MotoGP. So a tip of the hat to those guys and their entire effort.

I was very proud to lead the honorary lap for my late friend Marco Simoncelli at Valencia.
image thanks scalera
In Moto2, Stefan Bradl got the pressure taken off him sometime on Saturday when it was clarified that Marc Márquez was not going to be cleared to race by the medical director. A little bit of an anticlimax to what was surely going to be a showdown. I think Stefan really showed a lot of people this year just how good he is. I don't know a lot about his Viessmann Kiefer Racing team, but in talking to some of the people that are fairly close to Stefan, it didn't seem as though the team was expected to do anywhere near that well. Maybe the rider achieved a little bit more than the team - maybe the rider carried the equipment a little bit this year. But no real mechanical failures. A couple of mistakes by Stefan himself, and maybe a few misses on setup in wet and dry weather conditions. But it's all about doing the best you can all year long, and he did that better than anybody else. In the second half of the season, Márquez was faster than him, beating him most of the time, more dominant; but that doesn't really matter, because the series is 18 races, and it wasn't that way for 18 races.

Stefan's dad, Helmut, was one of the guys that I raced 250s with. He won several Grands Prix, but never a World Championship. I'm sure dad and son celebrated that one together on Sunday. It was really good to see Stefan get on a MotoGP bike with the Cecchinello Honda team, and get down to doing just as fast times as most of the other guys on Hondas were doing, with the exception of Casey and Dani. It'll be interesting to watch the progress there. I haven't actually had any direct contact with Stefan yet, but hopefully he'll come over and we'll do some dirt bike riding, maybe a little bicycle riding. I think the winters in Germany are quite harsh. So maybe he can come over and do a couple-three weeks of riding and training in a little bit softer wintertime here in Texas, before he goes to Malaysia for the first test, which I think is the end of January.

Then MotoGP. Somewhere I rated the top six or eight riders on a scale of one through ten, and I gave Casey a nine and a half. He did an outstanding job. Just, in typical Casey fashion, he complains a little too much. Whether it's about other riders, slugging at dePuniet in Le Mans, or talking about "why didn't anybody help me get back up and get going" when he and Valentino crashed in Jerez. Those are all things that happen in racing. You get guys that get in your way on slower laps. You have crashes. You have accidents. You don't get up and try and make the most of what just happened; you try and stay focused on what's coming at you, and continue to do what he did pretty much all year long, and that is to hand everybody their ass in a very dominant fashion.

He's obviously a huge talent. Maybe the Ducati in '07 let him show a little bit of that, but I think if we look back and see where Valentino and Nicky are now with a very similar Ducati, you've got to give Casey a really big pat on the back for what he did achieve while he was there. We all thought in '07 that the Ducati had a bit of a performance advantage. Maybe it did, in a straight line. But not too many of the racetracks are all determined by big long straightaways. He obviously still had to ride the thing really, really hard. And a few of the times - as, funnily enough, he did when he first got on a Honda - he'd ride it really, really fast, and then he'd sling it down the road. But not nearly as frequently on the Ducati. As we saw this year, once he got on a really, really good bike and got that confidence about him, with the exception of a couple of times, maybe a bit of an issue with tires, maybe making a mistake here or there, he's never really given those big chunks of points away like you can't afford to do at that level of racing.

Probably his biggest rival all season long was Lorenzo. I kind of gave Jorge a hard time about not continuing to fight for that championship in Australia, even after Sunday morning when he hurt his little finger. I would've thought, "Bandage it up, because it looks like the weather could be a factor here. It may be a race that isn't all that physical, and maybe I can ride with a hurt finger." But instead he packed up and went home, didn't even stay and watch the race, didn't even think about riding, from what I understand. But it's also really tough, as the current World Champion, to watch your championship be taken from you. So I don't know. Maybe Jorge did all he could. There's no doubt he rode a few races this year that I really didn't think he stood a chance of winning. He did an outstanding job. I think Mugello was one of the ones that left me standing with even more respect for Lorenzo than I already had. I didn't think there was any way in the world he could beat the Hondas there. But he pulled it off.

So overall it was a pretty good season. We're going into the off-season, and "where's everybody going, what's everybody doing?" New CRT bikes, Colin and what looked to be maybe a handful of other teams that tested at Valencia. Some of them got down into some respectable lap times, down into the high :34s and maybe :35s. The pole record at Valencia is :31, so three seconds off that. Hopefully the CRT bikes can make some more progress as this off-season goes on. And maybe the factories won't continue to make progress, but I doubt that's going to happen.


image thanks scalera
I feel good about 2012. I think it's going to bring the competitiveness of the class back, get some numbers back out there. Yeah, you're probably going to have two separate races out there - factory bikes and CRT bikes, and who can be the best privateer, who can be the best CRT team - but I think in the end, if it turns out to be more bikes on the grid, more teams in the paddock, that bodes well for the sport. I think when we look at the grid with 17 bikes, and we have two guys get hurt, and then two or three guys don't finish the race, and there's just ten running at the end, as we saw in Australia, it's tough to watch that. Especially when you're used to seeing grids of 25 or almost 30 bikes. I think the guys at Dorna - Carmelo Ezpeleta, Javier Alonso - have a really good idea in mind of what they're looking for. I think the CRT is going to be something that is going to have its critics, but at the same time, I genuinely think that even if it does away with full factory bikes, there's still going to be the manufacturers there. They're going to be involved, and they're going to find those teams in the new structure called CRT, where they're going to want to have some involvement, but they're just not going to have complete involvement. As manufacturers do right now, like we've seen with our friends at Suzuki pulling out of racing. The cost has gotten so big for manufacturers, and the sponsorship dollars have gotten so much smaller, that unless you are Honda or maybe still Yamaha, it's a tough nut to crack. It's hard to make sense of that, especially with 18 different races on the calendar. But at the same time, MotoGP is by far the World Championship in motorcycle road racing, that's for sure.

Let's talk a little bit about Suzuki. Since I've been involved with them, since 1987, I always felt like they weren't there as a factory when I first went to Europe in '86. I got to ride a Heron Suzuki when I first raced GP, and it wasn't long that the factory had been missing, but yet still supporting Heron and continuing with their Grand Prix effort, since I think '84 when Sheene stopped racing. For me, I always felt like Suzuki was going to be there, they were always going to have a presence on the grid. Whether it was a bike that was competitive or not, I felt like they'd always find a way to be there.

I think what we see with them stopping and saying, "Hopefully we can come back in 2014," to me, is nothing but just a big mistake. I know the Japanese are going to do what they have to do from a business perspective, but I really feel like the people in charge of the race team, the Crescent guys, should've been able to do something more. Find some sponsorship dollars. Be able to help Suzuki offset it. Even if it meant they had to lease the bikes from Suzuki, do it at a little bit smaller level, but just keep a presence on the grid. I think I've noticed from Paul Denning from when he got the team in 2006, his interest is what's best for him. My opinion is that his interest isn't necessarily what's best for Suzuki. And to me, that's something that I don't know that I'll ever be able to stare him straight in the face on. I feel like he's taken what all of us who've ever been at Suzuki worked so hard for, and more or less just set it aside to go do something else, because this doesn't make good business sense to him any more. In my opinion you've got to work through the good and you've got to work through the bad. For me to see the Suzuki 800 as good and as competitive as it's ever been, the last six or eight races of this season, to me, makes it even that much more disappointing that we won't get to see them again out there next year.

But that's also not the end of the world, because what it does is, it gives me a chance. It gives me almost two full years to try and figure out how to get my foot in the door in Suzuki, in front of the right people, to get the right decision made, so that hopefully when Suzuki does decide to come back into Grand Prix racing, that I can be someone that's at the helm, controlling things.


image thanks scalera
Alvaro Bautista had finally started coming into his own a little bit, and I think they'd gotten a bike that he was comfortable riding. You talk to Vermeulen, you talk to Capirossi, you talk to any of the guys who'd previously been on it—it was a bike that you really didn't know what it was going to do. It was kind of the same description that you get when you talk to Valentino about the Ducati. But obviously, they've got a lot more confidence. They've got better feel from the bike. They've got it working better in low-grip conditions. I think a lot of credit there goes to Bautista in continuing to push and try, and especially Tom O'Kane in coming up with the ideas of what to do to try and make that bike better. Good luck to Alvaro. Hopefully the Gresini Honda team will be a good home for him, and he can make that team smile again.

Ben Spies had an interesting season. He started off in what looked to be a fairly strong form, and four races into it seemed to really fall into a spot where he didn't need to be. He won the race in Assen, and everybody thought, "Man, he has got the momentum going now. He's just going to continue to race right at the front." And it didn't happen that way. It wasn't until the very last race of the year in Valencia that we saw again what Ben's capable of, and that is making a Yamaha that's a little bit short on power, stay competitive even with the three factory Hondas that were all around him at one point. He was the meat in a sandwich for a while. But I think Ben is feeling a little bit of the pressure of being on the factory team. My take to him, late in the season, was when Lorenzo decided to stop riding after hurting his finger, was, "Now you need to work harder than you've ever worked. What you need to do now is really start to get that motorcycle and get that team, and get all the Japanese engineers 100% behind you, and start to turn this team from Jorge's team into your team." It's not going to be easy to do, because Jorge's going to get back on that bike and be hauling ass like he always does. But I think it's a real opportunity for Ben to test and get on with things and be able to maybe get some input in toward that motorcycle that makes it suit him a little bit better than it suits Jorge. But I think all in all, as the race in Valencia came to a close, it was looking like he was going to smoke two Grand Prix wins out of one season, and we were all pretty excited about that, but just that slight little bobble coming off the last corner, and obviously a Honda that's got a whole lot more legs than the Yamaha had at that point, it didn't quite happen.

I think that has really given him some big motivation for what's going to go on this winter. I don't think he can train any harder. I don't think he can be any better prepared physically. But I think what he's going to have to work on this winter is a bunch of mental toughness, because I think this season showed him just how hard it can be.

I spent some time with the Simoncelli family after Valencia. They're as distraught as any of us would be. None of them came to Valencia, understandably. They'd just finished the funeral, and they wanted to stay home and heal, and spend time with family and close friends. I know that everybody in Grand Prix racing is trying to find a way to include the Simoncelli family. Marco's dad, Paolo, I think would be awesome with young riders, maybe as a Moto3 team manager, or to be involved in rider selection. I hope they will heal day by day more than month by month. I hope that we can continue to pay enough attention to them, and continue to support them any way we can, throughout the winter, until racing starts again. I had dinner one night with his mom and his dad and his sister. They're great people, and they're going to be fine, but it's not going to be easy for them. It's not going to be easy for any of us, but they're the ones who have to wake up every morning without Marco around. The day I was there, his sister picked up a new puppy, a black Labrador, and she named it "Black." Not "Nero" in Italian, but "Black." I went by the house and looked at all the photos and memorabilia. Marco's career was their life, so it's not going to be an easy time for them. Any opportunity we have to see them or talk to them or support them, the more emails and things we can do, the more we can help, check in on them, ask them to be involved in things, I think that's going to make a huge difference. There's not a stronger group of people out there, that's for sure.


image thanks scalera
The last thing I want to write about is that I spent an afternoon with Valentino after I went down to see the Simoncelli family, after Valencia. We had lunch that Friday. I went out to his new property. He's building a couple of big dirt tracks, he wants to be riding bikes and sliding them sideways. We were talking a little bit about what he felt was going on with Ducati, even with the new bike, because he'd already tested the new bike. He said the new bike is better, but it's not enough.

He said, "We need a whole lot more than that." That's about all I want to say, because when I talked to him at Laguna, he said the same thing. "I just cannot get any confidence from this bike. I can't get any feel from it. I cannot get what it is that I need to be able to push this bike to go quick on it."

But what he said that I thought was even more interesting was about tires. We talked a little bit about Bridgestone, and he said, "You know, you ask the guys at Bridgestone, and they say 'this is exactly the same tire we used last year.'"

And then he said, "I just want to tell you one thing, Kevin. Same tire? Bridgestone says same tire. We went to Malaysia" - and this is just the example he used - "We went to Malaysia. Last year in Malaysia, in 2010, of the 17 or 18 bikes that were there, 90% of the guys ran the hard tire." I think he said 15 on hard, two on soft, and I think if I remember the race last year, for some reason I think Colin ran a soft tire, and about mid-race, he started going backwards really quick. I don't remember that specifically, but that just kind of sticks in my head. Valentino said, "This year, there were 17 bikes on the grid, and all but one ran a soft tire." Valentino said, "Almost identical weather. Not like, 'Oh, it was just about to rain,' or 'it was pretty cool.' No real difference as far as weather. And the only guy that ran a hard tire was Simoncelli." So my take on that is, if the tire's the same, why a complete flip, of all hard last year to all soft this year?

Most of the issues that seem to be hurting people are these tires. You talk to these riders in the first two laps, and it's just absolute fear. It takes time to get the things up to temperature and get a real feel for them. I don't know exactly what's going on there—have the bikes all gotten that much stiffer in the suspension? I have no idea if there've been that many changes in the bikes. But Valentino stared me straight in the face and said, "Those tires, they scare me."

I haven't actually had any direct contact with Stefan yet, but hopefully he'll come over and we'll do some dirt bike riding, maybe a little bicycle riding. I think the winters in Germany are quite harsh. So maybe he can come over and do a couple-three weeks of riding and training in a little bit softer wintertime here in Texas, before he goes to Malaysia for the first test, which I think is the end of January.
I can't ever remember, when I raced a Honda, a Yamaha and a Suzuki, all using the same rear tire—most of the time Yamaha was on Dunlops, so we don't really know what they used. But the Honda and the Suzuki, Mick and I, Gardner and I, even my teammate sometimes, we used different tires. Some of us liked a tire that gave us a ton of grip early on and we were able to go, but then at the end we had to try and hang onto it. I just don't think there's a single tire you can make, because each motorcycle has so many of its own characteristics. It's got so many of its own traits. You can't just make one tire that works for you. To me, it's turned into a safety issue. I know it's cost-effective, but as I've always felt is the case, a single tire isn't good for anybody. It's good for the guys who are making the single tire, but it's also easy for them to get a bit lazy on development. Technology's not going to continue pushing forward if Bridgestone's not having to figure out how to beat the Michelin, or if Michelin's not having to figure out how to beat the Dunlop. I think especially at that level of the sport, tires obviously are going to make a bit of a difference, but I still feel like even if it's all Bridgestones, maybe there's two or three or a few more options, instead of just one or two. But I really feel like they need to have a big, long, hard look over the winter, and try and come up with a reason why so many people supposedly can't get on a MotoGP bike and get a feel for it.

Well, Josh Hayes kind of broke that mold—kind of made that idea look a bit silly—but at the same time, it was a weekend in Valencia that was really, really cool, and when it wasn't really cool, it was extremely wet. So he got to run rains and really, really soft tires. Everybody raced on the softest tire that they had. Not to take anything away from Josh Hayes and the effort that he put in and how well he did, and being fastest in Sunday morning warm-up, but it was the perfect scenario for him to go there and do well. My only take is, I hope Bridgestone comes with some improved product for next year.

ENDS

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