The former 125cc race winner will once again race with Monster Yamaha Tech 3 – having upgraded machinery this year, including a seamless shift gearbox – Smith has set finishing the season as the leading satellite rider as his target.
“To be honest this winter was really good,” said Smith. “I didn’t have to learn anything about MotoGP and was able to just ride the bike and gain as much knowledge as I could. We tested everything from front suspension, to linkage to geometry, you name it and we tested it. We’ve got a package that I’m really happy with and I feel the most ready I have in a long time.
“I think we can fight for a podium. There’s 18 races to do it so why not? We have to fight to be the top satellite rider. There’ll be weekends that the Honda is stronger and some where the Yamaha is stronger but by Valencia I want to be ahead of Stefan and Alvaro.”
Last season one of the biggest improvements from the factory Yamaha bikes came with the introduction of the seamless gearbox. Having used the technology at the Sepang and then Qatar test, Smith is confident it will make a considerable difference to his race pace.
“We got the Seamless shift gearbox in Sepang 2 and it was good. The biggest difference for me is that it’s easier to manage everything from a rider’s view; when the tyre starts to drop it allows less movement and less wheelie coming out of corners. It’s less physical to ride too. I’m not sure how much faster it is in terms of lap time but over a race we’ll notice a big difference; three or four seconds.”
On track one of the biggest concerns for riders this weekend will be fuel consumption with the Factory riders now limited to 20 litres of fuel, one less than last year. Having spent the winter adjusting to the lower fuel Smith said that this weekend’s race could be very interesting with some riders struggling to go the distance:
“It’ll be really tight and some riders will struggle in the race. We’re really lucky because we tested here for three days and with my riding style we should be OK. For some riders it will be close and the final six laps of the race could be interesting! With the Open class if someone runs the soft tyre or if someone has fuel consumption issues I believe that the end of the race will be the most exciting part.”
With Ducati remaining in the Factory class, but with Open style rule concessions, Smith commented that the Bologna squad – including his former team-mate Cal Crutchlow – should be very competitive both this weekend and throughout the season.
“The Ducati is going to be fast. It’s fast in a straight line, it’s strong on the brakes and will be difficult to pass especially for us if we’re behind. Qualifying is going to be so important and if you can start in front of the Open bikes you have a chance to go away from them. If you start behind them it’s going to be difficult to catch them because they’ll have the extra grip [from softer tyres] so they’ll come off the corner well and then down the straights they’ll have a little bit more than us.”
Crutchlow’s place at Tech 3 has been taken by Moto2 champion Pol Espargaro, who will make his MotoGP debut this weekend despite a recently fractured collarbone.