On the eve of the 2014 MotoGP season I sat down with Michael Laverty to discuss his prospects for his season season in the class, the uncertainty of the winter for PBM and the development of the Dorna Spec ECU….
Stephen English: What are your prospects this weekend?
Michael Laverty: It’s going to be difficult. Qatar was a difficult circuit for me last year with the PBM chassis and it’s funny that when we came back for the test, and the bike has changed a lot since then because it was our first race, I actually had the same sensations on the bike even though we’re going two seconds a lap faster. There’s still a couple of corners that are quite difficult to get around here but we made some good progress on the second night and did some good laptimes that put us amongst the customer Honda’s and ahead of the Avintia Kawasaki’s.
We did consistent high 1m57’s and on that night that was fast. On the last night of the test those guys went half a second faster and we came back to having issues with chatter. I’m hopeful that we can get rid of the chatter completely this weekend and then we’ll be in a strong enough position. We’ve got new engines as well which is a nice step up. We’ve been using old motors through the winter tests so now we’ve got some new material, the Spec four engines that Aleix Espargaro finished last year with, so I’m hoping for a step up in power. It remains to be seen once we get on track how much of a step it is but if it’s a 1% improvement it will be a good step forward.
I’m aiming for consistent 1m57s laps, we were able to do 7’s and 8’s in the test so if I can take another half a second off that it would be pretty much bang on and similar to Scott Redding’s pace when he did a race run. I’m chasing those guys and it’s going to be difficult for sure but I’m keeping my hopes high and the bike is a lot better to ride this year. We’ve got some developments planned with the electronics and we know where we can improve with that so we’ll just keep working away. It’s slow going, we were kind of late getting everything off the ground this year and we’re probably a little under prepared for this weekend but with the three week break to Texas we’ll be much better prepared for there and the same for Argentina and hopefully keep getting better when we get to Europe. I’m looking forward to getting stuck into it!
What was the problem you were having with the chassis in the test, was it the front end under braking again?
It’s funny here that there’s a lot of fast corners. It’s a unique circuit here and you need to have a bike that turns easily and bike that plants comfortably on the front especially on the triple rights and you have to be so pinpoint accurate with the speed you enter them. Myself and Broc were having the same issue and you’d get in there and when you got to the full lean point the bike would just chatter and run wide. We changed the offset and effectively added more trail on the second night and it was like, ‘Yes, this is the answer,’ and everything was working well.
On the last night we had our front forks serviced and all of a sudden the chatter was back. We never cured it on the last night but we know it’s curable because we got rid of it on the second night but we need to work on it. Hopefully we’ll roll out tomorrow night and it won’t be there but we’ve got a few ideas chassis wise about where we need to improve. Aside from the front we had some issues on the rear too, a lot of sharp slides when you crack open the throttle, so coming from the second night when we solved the front I thought we’d be able to concentrate on fixing the rear and if we can get rid of the sharp slides on the rear we’d have a bike that works really nicely around here.
Unfortunately the front end chatter came back and we ended up back in the same circle trying to fix it. We’ve got a few chassis issues to work on and a few electronics areas to improve on. We’re hoping to be in there fighting this weekend. Petrucci is on a similar speed bike to us but obviously on a different chassis. The Avintia Kawasaki are a strong bike and they looked strong on the last night here in the test but in Sepang we were quicker than them. So they’re our targets, we’re the last of the old CRT bikes and then the customer Honda’s aren’t too far ahead of us with Abraham, Redding and Aoyama. Nicky [Hayden] seems to be a step up from them, I heard he got a new engine on the last night of the test so he seems to be the top customer Honda.
I think that there might be some tracks where we’re closer but this one is probably a tough one for us but you never know. If we fix the chatter and the sharp slide I think that with the new engine we could possible break the barrier into the 1m56’s and if we do that it would be a heck of an achievement-three seconds faster than last year. The factory bikes are consistently lapping in the 55’s so if I can dip into the 56’s I’d be well happy with myself.
What’s the story with the electronics package for you, is it the same that you used last year or is there any new upgrades you can use? Obviously Ducati’s upgrade of the spec ECU made headlines but have Aprilia looked to add anything to the development chain yet?
We’ve had some small updates but we’re still fighting with similar small issues [to last year]. We’ve got one electronics engineer for our team of two riders so we’re a little bit slower getting the most out of the electronics but Phil’s doing a great job. We’re slowly getting there, we’ve got the corner entry settings working quite nicely, which was a big problem last year, but there’s still room to improve on the anti-wheelie and the torque map settings; these give you the throttle connection and the horsepower how you want it in the middle of the corner to smooth out the power delivery.
There’s still work to be and we haven’t taken a massive step forward on that but we’ve made small changes and been fine tuning which at that level is all that electronics is to make the difference. We’ve got some areas still to work on and improve but it’s going to take some time. Everyone thought that with the Ducati change over that the spec ECU would take a big step forward but for us it hasn’t changed a great deal over the winter. It’s not been a massive turnaround.
So it wasn’t a case of Aprilia also dropping in a major chunk of what they did with Aleix last year?
No, not yet. They’re still probably a bit behind us because they’re having to integrate their strategies from the ART system into the Magneti-Marelli system but once they catch up maybe we’ll get some more information from them but at the moment they’re still trying to get theirs onto the same level as us so they’re probably a bit behind us. There’s a lot to come from it and from the rider feeling side it hasn’t taken a massive step yet but there’s room for improvement.
So is the IODA team the “works” Aprilia outfit this year?
Yeah, you’d look at them and say that they’re the official Aprilia team because they’ve got three Aprilia technicians in the garage-a chassis guy, electronics guy and chief mechanic-so they’ve got the Aprilia shirts in their garage. We’ll get a filter down from that and this weekend we’ll start with the same engines but they’ll get the cutting edge from what Aprilia provide and we’ll get it next. They’re only a one rider team without Leon and hopefully we’ll be as competitive as them.
Obviously Leon’s deal was pulled at the last minute but were you worried at any point about your own future?
I was a little but Paul’s been good in that he said that he’d look after me either here or in British Superbikes. There was uncertainty about the team’s future at one point over the winter and it probably took a bit longer than we hoped and it’s probably why we’re a little bit on the back foot now for the first round but it’s all coming together now and we’re getting new materials from Aprilia. But it was a bit iffy for a few weeks and I could have been back in BSB at one point and I tested the bike in December.
It was a possibility that the GP team wouldn’t run this year but fair play to Paul because he’s pulled it out again and we’re back on the grid and in a stronger position than last year. It’s tough though to raise the budget, especially for us having two teams and with Paul the main financier having to dip into his own pockets but I think he’s had to do that to get us the new engines. I was a bit unsure of where I’d be with a job but I knew that it would be with this team and it wasn’t going to be a case of sitting on the sidelines doing nothing. I’d committed to him for the GP team and if that didn’t happen I would have been in the BSB team.
It’s not been too bad but it’s difficult when you have uncertainty and it cost me to lose my helmet and leather deals. It’s only been in the last ten days that it’s come together now for them. I’ve just done a deal with Macna and I’ll have them in time for Texas but this weekend I’ve got some off the shelf kit from RST Moto Direct with the right stickers. I’ve got some helmet deals on the table as well and have to evaluate some equipment this weekend but for Texas it’ll be ready.
Are you sure you’re not a club racer?
I feel a bit like a club racer this weekend rocking up wearing helmets and leathers that I mightn’t be wearing the rest of the year! But that’s the way it goes when it’s lastminute.com you can’t have everything you want! I’ll be looking smart for Texas but this weekend we’re running club race style!
How much of a headache has it been getting everything organised for this weekend?
It’s been frustrating because I like to consider myself as someone who’s organised and prepared and when you realise that everything’s a mess two weeks before the start of the season it’s not nice.
How are you getting on with Broc? Did you know him before he signed with the team?
I knew him to say hello to but I didn’t know him that well. I got on well with Yonny [Hernandez] last year but the language barrier always made it a little difficult so it’s easier having a laid back Aussie and having the craic together. It’s been good and he’s a fast rider so I think that we’re both shooting along the same ideas for development and improving the package so I think that we’ll work well together.
What are the major things in the pipeline for development?
At the moment it’s electronics. That’s the main thing that we know that we need to refine and then coming up with a few things on the chassis. The four bikes at the minute are the four chassis that we built last year so whether we come up with a new idea it will be the swingarm or the linkage and we’re going to be working with what we’ve got chassis wise. I think that the main developments will come from electronics and that’s the main area that’s still got so many layers to it. There’s so much depth to it if you’ve got the manpower and can pull more out from it.
The bike is a year older than last year and we’re a year wiser in how to set it up and ride it but there’s still a lot of unexplored avenues, especially with the electronic side of it, that we need get our heads into. I think that for home built bike if we can be within half a second of the customer Honda we’re doing a great job and I think that is realistically achievable.
How big a loss was Scott Smart leaving at the end of last year?
It would have been nice to have Scott continue on but he’s obviously taken the job as Technical Director in World Superbikes. Scott’s clever and had some good ideas, he’s very switched on with the electronics and if he had have been working with us over the winter it would have been good to have another electronics brain beside Phil for the development but I completely understand from Scott’s point of view why he went to WSBK.
We’ve got another good guy into the team Broc’s crew chief, Tom Larson. He’s very experienced and worked with Troy Corser at BMW through those factory years and was also a long-time Honda UK guy. So he’s been around and he’s a good guy that’s clever and brought some new ideas to the table. But he doesn’t have that electronic knowledge to write strategies which Scott would have been good for. We’ll miss Scott’s brain for that side of things and I think we could have used him well if he stayed part of the team.
I’ve always wondered what the electronics package actually consists of and the development of the strategies. It always seems very interesting to get an insight into the complexity of it, what are the main areas that can be improved for PBM?
I was speaking to one of the Marelli guys that’s working with us and he was saying that there’s stuff in there that is untapped and if you really know what you’re doing you can make a big difference with it. Obviously you need manpower to be able to do that and you need one person to focus on that one area of it as their job. On the torque side of things a lot of the MotoGP teams work on torque control rather than throttle position and traction.
Those are fairly simple parameters whereas the torque control is a smarter self thinking system. It’s hard for us though with one electronics man to programme the system. It’s a complicated system and even the stock ECU has a lot of capability. It’s something that I’m interested but being a racer I’ve never gotten into the bones of it myself and started writing anything. It’s something that I’d like to do but if you tried when you’re riding you’d probably fry your head! Scott actually said that happened to him when he was doing it for himself.
It probably wasn’t helped by doing it for half of the BSB paddock at the time!
Yeah that’s true and I’d say that you start to think of it from the programming side of things rather than feeling it through your hands, your ass and the sensations that you get and then relaying that to the engineers. It’s something that I’d be interested in, I’ve not got a great level of programming but it’s something that I understand from training a little bit in college, and it’s something that I feel that could do in the future but it’s not something that I want to get my head into while I’m riding. I think if I wasn’t racing because I understand the sensations of riding the bike that I could do it well for someone in the future. The guys that understand it from the riders view, like Scott, are a really good asset for a team.
That’s great, thanks very much Michael.