Ben Spies: The Bad Patch
by staff
Thursday, January 03, 2013
Ben Spies hit World Superbike like a bolt of lightning. He won the WSBK title in his first try. In 2013 he will ride a Ducati and again be teamed with his longtime crewchief Tom Houseworth.
image by dean f adams

Everybody endures a bad patch in their career, their marriage or in the period when they own a rusty Dodge van. It's all relative, of course, but it's difficult to think of anyone who had a worse 2012 racing season than American Ben Spies. If the collision of maladies had hit any other rider as often and as hard as they did Spies you could easily imagine them retiring.

But what really happened to Ben Spies in 2012?

One of the larger mysteries of the 2012 MotoGP season was the chain of events that caused Ben Spies to announce in an email to SuperbikePlanet in late July that he would leave Yamaha Factory Racing after the 2012 season.

Spies pulled the pin on this grenade during the Laguna Seca race week but dropped only bread crumbs of specifics about his decision to media that weekend or any other time for the rest of the season.

When one examines Spies' '12 season, it has to be prefaced with his previous accomplishments. Spies won three AMA Superbike championships, beating arguably the best Superbike rider in the world to do so: Mat Mladin, his teammate. In doing so, Spies endured and won a psychological inter-team war during that period, the likes of which we had not seen since the days when Wayne Rainey and Fred Merkel were teamed at Honda in the 1980s.

From beating Mat Mladin, Spies absolutely astounded the world by winning the World Superbike title in his first try, making riders like Troy Corser, Nori Haga and others look like imposters. In doing so, Spies broke records in WSBK that had been set when Spies was just seven years old. Spies and Yamaha won Yamaha's only WSBK title, a championship they had spent over a decade and tens of millions trying to attain.

It was during this time that a bromance with Yamaha started. Spies was so happy at brand Y that at one time he was telling friends that he would ride for Yamaha forever.

Yamaha moved Spies up to MotoGP a season early, and Spies continued to deliver. He won MotoGP Rookie of the Year, finished on the podium and became a true player in Grand Prix. Yamaha slotted him in at the factory team in 2011, and he won his first Grand Prix, and nearly beat Casey Stoner at the final GP of the 2011 season. No one else was even close to the pair as the final race of the 800cc era finished.

Cue the move to 1000cc MotoGP bikes. Spies was expected to shine, by Yamaha, by MotoGP, by fans and certainly by himself. Instead the season crumbled into a saga of unsightly technical DNFs, bouts with food poisoning and finally Spies quitting the team. there were tire and equipment failures on Spies' bike, of that there is zero doubt. But Lorenzo won races and eventually the title on the M1. Andrea Dovizioso put his satellite M1 on the podium multiple times. Cal Crutchlow, also, was extremely competitive on the 1000cc M1.

What. The. Hell. Happened.

Spies has said very little since he sent us his infamous e-mail. But Spies no longer is under contract to Yamaha, as his new Ducati deal took effect on New Year's Day.

So Spies spilled his guts about his decision to torch his bridges with Yamaha—the only manufacturer he has known during his three-year, full-time MotoGP career—in a first-person piece in American publication Cycle World.

Spies, who actually wrote the piece in August, confirmed the whispers that made the rounds in the MotoGP paddock during the second half of the season—senior Yamaha management didn't buy that Spies was suffering from food poisoning at Mugello, resulting in a finish of 11th. It was Spies' fifth finish of 10th or worse in the first nine races of the season, a stretch pockmarked with illness, freak mechanical malfunctions and rider mistakes.

"I had food poisoning at Mugello," Spies wrote. "Bad food poisoning. I shouldn't even have started the race. I got sick in my helmet, and afterward, I was dry-heaving and shaking uncontrollably.

"Yamaha stayed in Italy and tested the next day, but I didn't ride. I couldn't ride. I couldn't move. I couldn't do anything. A senior Yamaha employee--that's as specific as I'm going to get-said to me: 'We've invested a lot of money in you. Don't come to Laguna Seca if you aren't 100 percent.'

"Then, he added, 'We've lost confidence in you.'

"That was the moment--the halfway point of the season, just before the two U.S. rounds at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Indianapolis Motor Speedway--when I decided I wasn't going to ride for Yamaha in 2013. I have a lot of good friends at Yamaha, but when someone talks down to you like that, you lose respect for them."

Ah. Okay. A Japanese team manager yells at you and it all goes bad? This from a rider whose very first introduction to the Yoshimura Suzuki team was marked by him touching Mat Mladin's leathers and Mladin lunging at him, telling him, in no uncertain terms, to never touch anything he owned again? Those two nearly came to blows at seemingly every other race as Spies began to beat and continued to beat Mladin, including twice on cool-off laps at different races. Spies seemed to almost revel in the aggressiveness of it all and the easily observed hate between them. Moreover, Spies beat Mladin while very ill and recovering from abdominal surgery.

One can't discount that a rider needs to feel supported by his team, just as one can understand that in these tough economic times MotoGP teams are under pressure from the few sponsors and manufacturers left in it for results.

Spies was ill, and under attack from his senior teammate and he still won races and titles. In 2012, though, the story was very different.

Among the many topics touched by Spies was the indecision over his future destination once he decided to leave Yamaha. He admitted that he leaned toward leaving MotoGP after his M1 blew up while running second at Indianapolis, considering strong World Superbike offers from Ducati and BMW.

Then Spies decided there was still unfinished business in MotoGP. He talked with Gresini Honda—Honda sources say the Spies camp approached them—and Ducati about MotoGP rides next season, but Ducati's "junior team" became his preferred destination because Ducati officials showed exactly what he claimed Yamaha brass lacked in 2012—desire to have Spies on their bike.

It's unfortunate that the Spies/Yamaha relationship ended, as Spies was a popular figure at Yamaha USA. His involvement in the "mancation" video Yamaha produced will forever be internet gold.

Spies has ridden four cylinder-powered motorcycles for his entire professional career (the Suzuki GP bike that he raced in wild card opportunities was a V4). Now the American will ride the Ducati, which has earned every bit of its reputation as the nastiest and most unforgiving MotoGP bike of the second millennium. That said, Spies may have signed to ride a Ducati at precisely the right time. Audi are said to be focusing hard on Ducati's MotoGP effort and will pour in the resources to make the bike win races.

The Texan finished the season in a hospital recovery ward. Spies' numerous health issues in 2012 bring home the adage that if one has good health, then one really has no problems at all.

Here's to 2013 and a return of Ben Spies.


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