Editor's Note: This is a series counting down the top 15 stories in MotoGP in 2013, as determined by the Soup staff.Maybe we should have seen this coming.
Ben Spies stunned the motorcycle racing world Oct. 26 by announcing his retirement from racing at age 29, after just four seasons in MotoGP. But was the news really a fragmentation bomb? There were many reasons why Spies' exit, while not expected, wasn't a massive bolt from the blue akin to Casey Stoner's departure in 2012.
There was the obvious issue of injuries. Spies suffered a severe injury to his right shoulder during a crash on a Yamaha Factory Racing M1 in October 2012 at Sepang, requiring reconstructive surgery involving connective tissue from cadavers.
He sat out postseason testing in November 2012 at Valencia, missing his debut with his new team, Pramac Ducati, and targeted a return at 2013 preseason testing at Sepang. Trouble started brewing there, as continuing pain and weakness in his repaired shoulder truncated Spies' test time leading into the season opener at Qatar.
Spies made it to the starting grid at Qatar on his factory GP13 despite crashing in the final free practice, causing everyone in his camp to gasp and hold their collective breath. He finished 10th, 44 seconds behind winner Jorge Lorenzo and seven seconds behind Pramac teammate Crazy Joe Iannone.
Then Spies headed to home turf in Texas for the first MotoGP race at Austin. The race at the Circuit of the Americas was a watershed event in his career, for two reasons. One, it was the first time he had raced in his home state in a very long time. Two, it was the last start of his career.
Spies rode at Austin with intense pain in his chest, probably due to favoring those muscles to ease the demands on his weakened shoulder. He gutted through an agonizing final eight laps of the race to finish a disappointing 13th in front of his home folks, realizing there was only one decision to be made: Shut it down for a while.
He skipped Jerez and Le Mans and attempted a comeback at Mugello. But continued pain and weakness in his chest and shoulder were too much to bear, and he withdrew from the event after Friday practice. Another rest and therapy stint was prescribed, and Spies targeted a return at Indianapolis, where he won the pole and finished second in 2010 as a rookie.
All systems appeared "go" at the Brickyard. Spies was upbeat and said he was rested, recovered and ready. He even was the star of the show in an impressive drag racing display of a custom-built Ducati Diavel on the backstraight of the famous IMS oval, gleefully leaving huge clouds of smoke and a straight-pipe symphony in the faces and ears of a pack of mainly European journalists at the PR function.
Then reality bit again. Hard. Spies crashed in the tricky Turn 4 during practice at Indy and suffered a dislocated left collarbone. He was out of the event and on the sidelines again.
It would be the last time he rode a Grand Prix motorcycle.
The physical component of Spies' forced early departure from MotoGP was evident to the world. But the mental side also played a big role, even if it was somewhat clandestine.
In the fall of 2009, it appeared the motorcycle racing world was in the palm of Spies' hand. He had just finished winning the World Superbike title as a rookie, one season after winning his third consecutive AMA Superbike championship against legendary hard-ass and bitter team rival Mat Mladin. Spies had landed a MotoGP ride for 2010 with the top satellite team on the grid, Tech 3 Yamaha, a ride that was seen by many as a quick stop before promotion to the factory team.
Spies was runaway Rookie of the Year in 2010, with two podiums, a pole at Indianapolis and a sixth-place finish in the standings. When Valentino Rossi left Yamaha for Ducati after the 2010 season, Spies was a seamless fit as a replacement alongside reigning World Champion Jorge Lorenzo.
The table was set for Spies to become the next in a line of American World Champions stretching from Roberts to Hayden. That anticipation intensified when Spies earned his first - and only - MotoGP victory in a magisterial ride in the rain in 2011 at Assen.
But the first sign of cracks in the relationship between Spies and Yamaha started to show after the season. Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis suggested that Spies needed to improve his performance in 2012 despite the win at Assen and three other podium finishes. Spies finished fifth in the standings, 84 points behind Lorenzo.
Everything started to unravel for Spies in 2012, as he recorded no podium finishes in the first nine races of the season, plagued by mechanical problems and bad luck. The boiling point came when he struggled to an 11th-place finish at Mugello while suffering from food poisoning.
Spies claimed senior members of Yamaha management questioned his illness at Mugello and told him not to bother going to the next round, at Laguna Seca, if he wasn't going to ride at 100 percent. It was reminiscent of Ducati's skepticism of Casey Stoner's bout with lactose intolerance in 2009.
Spies' disenchantment with Yamaha - and possibly motorcycle racing - reached a shocking peak when he announced early during the week of the Laguna Seca round that he would leave Yamaha Factory Racing at the end of the season. It was a stunner and almost certainly enraged Yamaha bosses.
Then the shoulder injury occurred later that season at Malaysia, and Spies' career quickly entered a downward spiral.
Spies was like many racers in that he existed in a cocoon in the paddock, protected by his mother/manager, Mary Spies, and a very tight circle of friends and confidantes. It was a tough shell for outsiders to pierce, and few were let in.
But he was different than many riders because he never seemed comfortable with the publicity, PR and trappings of fame offered to elite factory Grand Prix motorcycle riders. He was somewhat unique, too, because he has interests outside of racing and motorcycles. Spies owns a pro road cycling team, for which he races at times. He also has real estate holdings in the Dallas area and is the co-owner of a restaurant in Dallas.
So Spies always had a wider perspective as his discomfort grew with Yamaha in 2012 and the risks of motorcycle racing, in general, in 2013. He probably could envision a robust life without taunting his life on a 250-horsepower machine, unlike many of his 20-something peers.
And when the injuries made it impossible for Spies to ride without pain in 2013, he simply made the decision to walk away.
Maybe we shouldn't have been surprised.