MotoGP midseason review with Kevin Schwantz

MotoGP midseason review with Kevin Schwantz


MotoGP midseason review with Kevin Schwantz


The current tires let elites like Marquez show their stuff, but hinder young riders’ progress, Schwantz says.

All images by Red Bull except where indicated

Kevin Schwantz (LAT photo)

Fresh off a remarkable third-place finish with Noriyuki Haga and Yukio Kagayama in the Suzuka 8 Hours his first race back after retiring 18 years ago!  1993 World Champion Kevin Schwantz returned to the U.S. and downloaded his thoughts on the 2013 MotoGP season at its midway point.

RACER: Not sure we should start a midseason review on a 2014 story, but anywayCal Crutchlow leaving Tech 3 Yamaha and joining Ducati next year is the hot story of the moment. Why would he do that when Ducati are still struggling, and he’s started scoring podiums with Tech 3? Surely he could have just hung on, and eventually the works Yamaha ride would have been his when Valentino Rossi retires?

KEVIN SCHWANTZ: I was a bit surprised that’s the direction he went in, yeah, but at the same time, maybe Cal has met with some of the new guys in charge or some of the guys from Audi. Someone must have said, “This is what we do, this is how we fix it.” I’d imagine Cal is not the sort of guy who’d shy away from a hard day’s work and, as a rider, it would mean so much to him to be able to go to a team in a slump and get it headed in the right direction.

And maybe he’s got Casey Stoner’s phone number and can ask him, “How in hell did you manage to ride those Ducatis? Nobody else has looked good on them. Tell me how you did it!” It will be interesting to watch. Will he be able to immediately start working with the Ducati boys or is he going to have to wait until his contract’s up with Yamaha?

If Crutchlow’s decision is the topic at the moment, the theme through much of the season has been the top riders having accidents. Is it just about the nature of the tires?

I think it’s partly to do with sensitivity to how quick the tires cool when they come out of the garage. I talked to Blake Young, who had a crash at Laguna Seca. He came out of the pits, tried to keep out of the way of a couple of fast guys, then got stood up by a CRT guy, so he just rode around for half a lap until he got some clear track in front and behind. That let the tires cool down too much and then when he got to Turn 5, he cracked the throttle and it threw him into a cartwheel.

The Bridgestones are really sensitive to cooling and if you’re one of the top guys and you can just go out and put your head down and not care who’s coming, then they’re fine. But it’s not a good steppingstone for some of the kids trying to learn, especially not the ones on the CRT bikes who come out of the pits just trying to keep out of the leaders’ way and trying not piss anybody off. Any time we have a wild card or someone gets a one-off ride because one of the regular guys has gotten hurt, the new guy spends the entire week trying to learn how to use these tires. That shouldn’t be the way it is; it should be about trying to learn the motorcycle. It’s like they’ve built the tires specifically for the elite and the rest are left trying to make it work, but now it’s gotten so edgy that it’s biting the elite guys, too, unless they go flat-out from the word go each time they leave the pits.

The Bridgestones are good once you get them warmed up and in good racing condition: the ultimate grip is amazing, and the lean angles are just unbelievable. We’ve seen them leaning over at 60 degrees! I don’t think my Dunlops at Suzuka would have allowed me to do thatwell, actually, I tried to but my ass was dragging and then the side of the bike was too!

Do you think that Marc Marquez’s pace this year has been partly because he’s had less to “unlearn” about these tires than his more experienced rivals?

Well, kind of, yes, but I’d put it another way: because he doesn’t know what to expect, I think Marc is treating these tires with a little bit more respect. He made his mistake in Mugello, when he was beating his [Honda] teammate Dani Pedrosa but fell off trying to catch up with Jorge Lorenzo [Yamaha], so everybody’s had a race he’d prefer not to talk about; Lorenzo’s had a couple, in fact.

It’s interesting that now that we’ve had this break, because everyone’s going to have a chance to get back healthy for the Indianapolis Grand Prix. The youngster’s leading and the older guys are going to have a chance to come back at him and put some pressure on, and that’s when we’re going to have a chance to see what Marquez is made of. If he starts getting beaten or starts getting raced against and rubbed against, he may start making mistakes, hand over fist. Maybe.

But the three races at Indianapolis, Brno and Silverstone are going to be very telling. Marquez has to look at the first half of the season, thinking “I’ve won three grands prix now, that’s a whole lot more than ever was expected of me. What I don’t need to do now is dig myself a big hole by crashing or running off the track.” I think his aim should be to be as fast, smooth and consistent as he can be. That may involve winning one or two more races and if the other two split the wins then Marc is still sitting pretty, so long as he stays in those top three or four bikes at all times. That will make it tough for his rivals because as often as they are going to beat him, he’s gonna beat them and they’re gonna beat each other. That’s how close it is.

Pedrosa leads Lorenzo and Marquez

If Marquez does go on to win the title, do you regard it as being cheapened in any way by Lorenzo and Pedrosa hurting themselves, or should we think, “Well, it’s up to those two to stay on their bikes,” and give credit to Marquez for doing that?

I’m sure in the Lorenzo or Pedrosa garage, they may look on it as Marquez being lucky, surebut I don’t think anyone else in the world will think that way! If I were the folks in Lorenzo’s garage, I’d say, “Jorge, why were you soooo set on going fast in free practice in the wet in Assen? That puddle was only gonna get worse, you couldn’t go through it at the lean angle you did, you should’ve known what was going to happen.”

And maybe Dani Pedrosa’s mindset when he got to Sachsenring was that, with Lorenzo injured, he only had his teammate to worry about and he relaxed a little bit and that’s what caused his error. Trust me, at no point in MotoGP, AMA, World Superbike, whatever, can you drop your guard and think, “I got this,” when you’re in the title race. You cannot switch from mindset to mindset. You’ve got to go out and focus each and every session, with no slips, no silly mistakes, because at the speed they’re going, an error is going to involve hitting the ground and getting hurt.

Dani Pedrosa

Have you detected any desperation in Pedrosa’s riding since Marquez’s arrival as his teammate?

I think Dani has handled it quite well. I’m sure he’s felt some pressure and I’m sure he’s watched videos of how Marquez in Barcelona was trying to get around him just on the right side of being out of control. It was one of those situations where, in Pedrosa’s shoes, I might have given up the spot and followed Marquez, thinking: “If he’s able to race with me, he must be doing things as good as me, and he may be better at some points of the track. Let me follow him for a little while and learn what he’s doing, and then find a way back around him.”

That’s how I was. I hated racing from the front, because if things were close on pace, the guys right behind me were learning places on the track where I was better and then improving themselves. Meanwhile, I obviously wouldn’t be able to watch where they were stronger than me, so I’d be missing out. The perfect scenario for me was to grab the lead on the last turn of the last lap: then my rival 1) didn’t know how I got there, and 2) had no time to respond!

But there’s another point: I don’t think there’s a lot of racecraft involved in today’s era of MotoGP racing. Everyone knows what they’ve got, they have their electronics set, their throttle maps are programmed, and then it’s down to just turning perfect laps. And I think those perfect laps are easier to produce with the electronics now used. Once, when I was speaking to “Ago” [nine-time 500cc champion Giacomo Agostini], he said, “I was watching you at Spa for all 18 laps and, going through Eau Rouge, you hit different marks 18 times.” I said, “Really? That’s pretty sh***y, huh?” And he replied, “No, because you made them all work and as a rider, you’re supposed to be trying different things, entering more to the right, more to the left, trying it straighter up the hill, etc. You’ve always got to be learning, adapting, adjusting.”

Now, there’s less improvisation, less learning on the job. And unfortunately the races too often get decided in the first five or eight laps.

Does Pedrosa still feel loved at Honda? I get the impression he needs a cosseting environment, and there’s been an (understandably) big fuss made of Marquez.

Well, I can tell you from experience that if you have two really strong riders on the team but one is doing a better job than the other, the far side of the garage is not a pleasant place to be, even if all your friends are still there. It creates a tension that spreads over the whole team. And I remember, those occasions when my teammate had that edge, the weeks between races were the longest of my life. Nothing was right again until I’d re-established myself. I could get beaten by a Honda, or a Ducati or a Yamaha and that would annoy me because I want to beat everyone, right? But if someone beat me on another Suzuki? Hell no! Unthinkable. I had to step up my game.

So I’m sure Pedrosa is feeling that way. The first four races were back and forth between them and currently there’s not a fight: Marquez has the edge. And how Dani goes about adjusting that balance of power is going to define him, I think.

Looking at Lorenzo (BELOW, MotoGP photo), there’s been nothing wrong with his speed, but once you get injury on top of injury aside from the sheer physical restrictions  how damaging is that for a rider’s confidence?

Oh, I don’t think there’s much wrong with Jorge’s confidence; he’s gonna show up at Indy and want to be fastest from the first lap. He’ll have had two or three weeks off, and won’t have been back on a bike until first practice but he’s comfortable enough in his own skin to ignore the people who say he got back on a bike a little quicker than he should have. He’s a class act, he’ll be strong to the end of the year and remember, he’s only 26 points out of the lead of the championship right now. The Honda, from what Valentino Rossi was saying, is still the better-accelerating bike, but Lorenzo is always a factor.

Well, you seem pretty certain the championship is still up for grabs with nine rounds to go.

Yeah, absolutely. You’ve got the three big guns slugging it out at the top, you’ve got the old master Rossi still able to mix it with them at the tracks he really likes, and I think you’ll see that again in the second half of the season not consistently, but I think he’ll win one or two more grands prix this year. But the races are often decided by pace in the first five laps and that’s where Vale has been struggling a little bit this year. But he’s the ultimate spoiler: he won’t win the title, but he could probably help decide which way it goes.

Cal Crutchlow (image courtesy Andrew Northcott/Monster Energy)

Another guy who might do that is Crutchlow. Preseason, you suggested he needed to start getting podiums and he’s done that. Could he sneak a win?

Now that he’s announced his departure, Yamaha may want to do everything they can to give him a win, but I doubt he’s going to see much improvement in his equipment between now and the end of the season, so it’ll be tough. But all he needs is a bit of a break. He’s on the pace of Rossi most of the time, for example. And you know what? I would really like to see Cal get a win because once he gets to Ducati, it’s going to be a long hard road to Victory Lane. It may be a long time before he even gets near a podium.

Stefan Bradl

Now, I take what you say very seriously and I know you rate Stefan Bradl, so I wasn’t surprised to see his consistency this year. Sixth place behind the works Yamahas and Hondas plus Crutchlow is about where Bradl should be in the championship. But pole position and runner-up finisher at Laguna Seca a couple of weeks ago Where the hell did that come from?!

Well I think everyone was a bit surprised that he could do that with an LCR Honda. His crew chief Beefy [Christophe Bourguignon] called me and I got him a CBR1000 from Honda and got him riding on the track before the season even started, and I’d like to think that helped a little. But sometimes what you need to get the best out of you is not knowing what the future holds. When the media start asking you, “So, what’s your plan for next year?” and you have to say, “Well, right now I don’t have a plan,” that can be some of your best motivation right there. You start asking yourself, “Why’s no one sticking a contract in front of me?”

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t say Stefan has been taking it easy, or hasn’t been performing racing in the top five each weekend means you’re doing things quite well, right? But that last bit of inspiration that can drag the last 0.5 percent out of you can be the difference. It can help you produce something pretty remarkable. That Laguna result, finishing 2.4 seconds behind the fastest kid in the world on a factory Honda, has been followed by the midseason break. So that’s given Stefan three weeks of being on a mental high, thinking, “Damn, I’m not that far from winning a race.”

The other factor is that he’s only missed out on a couple results, and that improvement in consistency is another important factor in his progress: if he can’t match the bikes in front, Stefan remembers that it’s better to ride the bike into the back of the trailer than have it thrown in the back in pieces.

And finally, Nicky Hayden, the 2006 MotoGP champ, will be losing his ride at Ducati (LEFT, MotoGP photo) after five years of disappointment. He’s compared favorably to his teammate Andrea Dovizioso but obviously everyone’s view is colored by how he compared with Casey Stoner back in 2009-’10. What should he do now?

It’s a tough call, because there’s not much out there for Nick, unless that LCR Honda doesn’t have Bradl on it next year. Factory Hondas, factory Yamahas and Tech 3 Yamahas seats are already taken. The CRT bikes? I’d come home and race AMA Superbikes before I’d do that. I think Nick could go anywhere he wants in World Superbikes, but if I were him I’d be putting some feelers out now.

Who is Kevin Schwantz?

Synonymous with Suzuki and that famous No. 34, Kevin Schwantz won his eighth ever 500cc Grand Prix which was the opening round of his first full season in 1988. From 1989 to ’94, he never finished the championship outside the top four, and the zenith of his achievement was winning the 1993 World Championship. He retired from racing after three rounds of the 1995 championship, having accumulated 25 wins, which puts him seventh in the all-time 500cc/MotoGP winners list. As a mark of respect, the FIM then officially retired the No. 34.

Schwantz set up the Schwantz School to create “more confident and safer riders” on the road, []. He’s also been an adviser for up-and-coming bike racers, played a pivotal role in bringing MotoGP to the Circuit of The Americas in his home state of Texas and his deep love of the sport means that he keeps his finger on the pulse of bike racing at all levels.