On the Sunday morning of the French Grand Prix at Le Mans I caught up with Paul Bird Motorsport’s Michael Laverty to speak about how he is adapting to life within MotoGP, his career path to the GP level and also his hopes for the rest of the season….
Stephen English: You’ve been making progress of late. How are you adapting to MotoGP?
Michael Laverty: We need a good base setting position wise, geometry wise so that we can go track to track with it. It’s difficult because at every track we have to go around the doors to get a nice comfortable setting. At every track we’re always chasing the rest because we have no data for the bike and a lot of the tracks are new for me.
SE: How many are new?
ML: The next three [Mugello, Catalunya and Assen] are all new but I know maybe half the tracks but there’s still a lot of learning to do on the circuit side of things and also on the bike to get it into a nice working setting.
SE: How different is a MotoGP bike to a Superbike?
ML: It’s quite different in how much more rigid the chassis is, the tyres and the extra power from the carbon brakes. But engine wise and electronics wise there’s not a lot of difference. They require a different style of riding so you have to try and forget your old habits from the Superbike and just try and adapt and to ride the bike the way they want to be ridden.
SE: What’s the biggest difference? Just trusting that the front end will stick?
ML: Trusting the front end and running into the corners with the brake on and carrying a lot more lean angle than the Superbike and just trusting that it’s going to stick. Sometimes you feel that it’s not going to do that with how the front fork is setup and how much wheel you have on the front tyre. The Bridgestone front tyre is really rigid and stiff and it likes a lot of force going through it into the front tyre and if your setup isn’t allowing you to put that force through the tyre you aren’t generating the heat and you don’t get the grip. It’s just understanding how to work their tyres at their best and getting the best out of the electronics setup. They’re not overly complex but it’s difficult. The control ECU is a whole new package so we’re starting from scratch with that and all the team’s that choose the control ECU are. The Aprilia engine is quite complex with how they do it as they have two separate fly by wires so you’re almost controlling two different throttles. It’s difficult to smooth it all out. It’s a nice bike to ride but it’s really hard to get the maximum out of it.
SE: Yeah, when you stand trackside you always look quite comfortable on the bike.
ML: My style always looks a bit steady, even when I’m going fast it doesn’t look like I’m going faster. I’m not overly uncomfortable on it by any means. But I just need the bike to react differently in some areas to go faster. Like I said it’s always playing catch up. We always get the best out of it on the Sunday as we learn a bit more through the weekend.
SE: It’s tough as well for you when you look around the grid and pretty much everyone has had at least 100 Grand Prix starts and you’re coming from BSB and a handful of World Supersport races. It’s a big jump up for you but by the time you get to the end of a weekend you’ve learned a lot.
ML: We’re always learning and improving on how the bike works and how comfortable you are on it. Hopefully we’ll get to the stage in a couple more races where we can roll out in FP1 or FP2 and be a lot stronger from the start of the weekend so that would make it easier to improve from a higher level.
SE: That’s it exactly. You see it every year when a rookie comes in and it takes them the first half of the season to get an understanding of what’s needed in MotoGP.
ML: Yeah and especially for us developing a new bike.
SE: How tough is it to have no data to share with your teammate [Yonny Hernandez]?
ML: It’s true it does make it more difficult when you don’t have a teammate on the same equipment; it’s a completely different motorbike so we can’t even overlay the data.
SE: Even if you could compare the data Yonny’s style is completely different to yours.
ML: Yeah exactly but to be fair in the dry we’ve stronger than Yonny this weekend [at Le Mans] and also at Jerez pretty much. We’re just slowly making our bike better where it is not and I think that he’s struggling a bit with the ART package but we’ve got a long way to go to get the maximum from this bike; there’s still a lot of improvement to come. It would be nice for someone else to have a go on it as I’m only guy to have ridden this bike. It’s different to Superbike where you might have five riders on a Honda or a Kawasaki and they can go talk to five people about the bike. But here I’m completely rowing my own boat. We’re still working on the fundamentals-body position, padding-and seeing big advantages. It takes time we’re still at the early stages of development. It can be frustrating as I rode the ART at the first Sepang test and it was easy because it did everything that it should and you could just concentrate on fine tuning the setup and riding fast. With this bike we have to really think a lot on what we have to change to make the bike fundamentally better and improve it.
SE: Did you take any mechanics over with you from Samsung Honda in BSB?
ML: No, all the guys at Samsung Honda were all Honda employees but I rode for PBM in British championships from 2004-2006 so I knew Phil Boardley well, he’s my chief technician, and there’s a lot of guys I know well.
SE: This is your fourth different bike in bike years, why is that?
ML: It’s strange how I went from Suzuki to Yamaha and Honda and now PBM. It’s funny how it goes. Each time me and the team were happy to go on for another year but you always have to go with the best option and you end up jumping ship. Even this year I was content to stay were I was at [with Samsung Honda] and build on what I had learned and challenge for the championship but when the GP offer came you can’t turn it down.
SE: Did you think that you would get the chance in GPs?
ML: I never did to be honest. Unless you grow up in 125s, Spanish championships they’re the guys that are brought through. I didn’t get my first full time ride until I was 22 so it’s nice how CRT worked out and having a team based in the UK that actually understands the level of BSB riders and picking someone from there instead of just taking a Moto2 or Moto3 rider. I’m happy to get a shot here.
SE: How high a level is BSB compared to here?
ML: BSB is unbelievably close to here. People think it’s a national championship but you have to battle unbelievably hard to win. The front five in BSB could all come here and do a good job. There’s not a massive difference in the top five riders in BSB and World Superbikes and the in MotoGP riders. It’s mostly about the team around you and getting best out of yourself. All the riders are capable but it’s just about having all the bits around you. Shakey, Josh Brookes, Tommy Hill, John Hopkins who was here in GP for years are all at the level that they could come here and do a great job on either a prototype or a CRT bike. You follow the top riders and they’re not doing anything different to you they’ve just got 50 more horsepower.
SE: At 31 how long do you think you can keep riding for at this level? You’ve been lucky to avoid major injuries in your career.
ML: I feel that I’ve ten years left in my career. Although I’m older in GP terms I hope that I have five or six years here and get the shot on competitive machinery. I’ve had a few back injuries but nothing too major. If you can stay injury free and fit age is only a number.
SE: That’s it exactly with nutrition and fitness riders are much healthier later in their careers than even ten years ago so we are seeing careers last much longer. Moving away from this to Eugene he’s obviously doing well in World Superbikes but what would you have thought the chances were that you’d be in MotoGP before him?
ML: Yeah but you have to remember that Eugene is on a factory bike in WSBK and something that he can win on which is a better position to be in than on a CRT bike in GPs. I think his ultimate goal is still to be here and hopefully if he wins a World Superbike title or two he’ll get a shot on a factory bike here.
SE: From his perspective I’ve always looked at it that he had the chance in GPs before and had poor machinery so he can’t really afford to come back here on an uncompetitive bike and have another bad year.
ML: That’s it. He’ll only come back on something more competitive. He’s a lot more mature now than he was then. When he came in at that time he thought ‘the bikes cant be that bad’ and he really had no chance. It was like a CRT trying to race a prototype; that’s how big a difference it was in terms of machinery in 250s he had compared to Barbera and Lorenzo.
It’s funny I share a track with Barbera now and I remember standing trackside and seeing Barbera pass Eugene and pull away at two or three seconds a lap. I remember thinking that he can’t be that much better than Eugene and he definitely isn’t that much better. It was just that the machinery was that much better. It really was a case of the haves and have nots. He knows the way things work now and he understands the politics better now as well and if he doesn’t get the prototype offer he’ll stay in WSBK until he gets that offer. Hopefully winning in WSBK and step up here in the future.
He’s had a parallel career with Cal Crutchlow in many ways. They’ve raced each for two championships and he’s always been just as strong as Cal and in my opinion a bit stronger. Hopefully he gets the chance to come here in a few years. He just needs to keep consistent and hopefully an opportunity will come up.
SE: Yeah I always thought the same when they were racing each other in World Supersports. Cal’s bike was still pretty much good enough to win the championship with Chaz Davies riding two years ago whereas Eugene didn’t even have the best Honda, that was Kenan Sofuoglu and Ten Kate, so there was a big difference between the bikes.
ML: Yeah, Eugene did the job in World Supersports so hopefully he does get the chance to come here in the next few years and hopefully he keeps doing the job in World Supers and can be consistent and delivery the title and then we’ll see what opportunities come up in the future. It would be nice to race against him in the future.
SE: Is John racing this year or is he just in Eugene’s corner?
ML: No, he’s just in Eugene’s corner. He came back and I think that he was reasonably fit last year but he’s lost a bit of the hunger and when Eugene wanted someone he could trust so it works 100%.
SE: What benefit does it give to have someone experienced like that giving you support?
ML: It’s great. I’ve Eugene in my corner this weekend and it’s great to have a fast pair of eyes for someone to go out on track and pinpoint the areas where you’re weak.
SE: Where are the areas that you’re weak at the moment?
ML: At the minute it’s actually braking which has always been one of my biggest strengths in my career; I’ve always been able to brake later than anyone else. At the minute I just can’t get to stop the bike up.
SE: Is it just adapting to the carbon brakes?
ML: No, on the ART I was 100% on the carbons. Sometimes we can get the setup to work and I really like the carbon brakes but at the minute it’s the engine management and the chassis at the minute the bike doesn’t physically stop in a straight line. At the minute it just pushes and it only scrubs speed towards the apex. We need to fix that on the bike and then I can make the difference on the bike. At the minute for me to go fast I have to ride at 95% if I push on I just miss the apex.
SE: That’s the same as what Bradley Smith was saying, at 95 he’s fine but once he pushes he start to miss apexes.
ML: That’s interesting that Bradley says that too. At the minute I need to somehow come up with an answer to how to ride the bike. Even after I got a good result at Jerez I came in quite deflated because you’re only ever happy when you get 100% out of yourself and your bike. I just felt like I was riding around and even though I was faster than the group and cleared off I was having to be so smooth because if I braked harder I’d just miss the apex so that’s the main thing we need to improve on.
SE: I thought Jerez was a very good performance, nice to get some points.
ML: It was nice to get some points on the board. I didn’t feel that I had a great setup for the race but at the test on the Monday afterwards we made some improvements and I was lapping consistently one second per lap faster every lap. It was really good on the Monday but it was a day too late. It’s still a work in progress with the bike and there’s a lot more to come from the bike once we get the braking and the electronics sorted out and I think we can be a lot closer to Espargaro and de Puniet. At the minute we’re still half a second to a second off them consistently. On new tyres they can pull in a good lap time in qualifying and I still can’t do that yet. Whatever pace I get to in practice I can bang out through the race.