When you went over to the Spanish Championships with Alberto [Puig] how did you find competing over there when you were only 13?
The first try out that I had in November 2000 I was pretty young at 13 and it was straight in at the deep end. I had hardly ridden a race bike 125 because I’d done one year of the Aprilia Challenge, which is basically a road bike with the lights taken off, and I hadn’t really ridden much in terms of a full on Grand Prix bike although obviously it wasn’t top spec. It was a baptism going there for the first time and racing in the Spanish Championship because it was so competitive.
What was it like going over because at the time yourself, Casey [Stoner] and Leon [Camier] all went over at the same time and you already had the likes of Dani Pedrosa, Joan Olive and other GP riders racing in the championship. It must have been a major culture shock going from the Aprilia Cup in the UK to that level of competition?
Yeah it was massively different and I was nowhere near ready for it. It was only a tryout the first time I rode it and I was so inexperienced with race bikes that I wasn’t up to speed on a Grand Prix bike, even though I’d been going well on the Superteen, so it was very different but it was enough to put me in a position in 2001 to be accepted as one of the Telefonica Movistar guys. There was eight of us in the same team in the Spanish Championship. That year Dani, Joan Olive and Raul Jara moved onto the World Championship with Telefonica so it was the feeder to the GP team.
How did you find working within a team with eight riders where obviously some guys get the parts before others? I imagine that it wasn’t a team of equals?
No it wasn’t. It was Casey and Julian Simon that automatically at the start of the season started on Honda’s A kit. Casey had done well at the same trial that I did and he had done an extra race and him and Simon got given that kit straight away and then were bang on for the podium from the first race, more or less. Whereas the rest of us were on bog standard Honda 125’s. They were brand new but they were stock standard and they don’t come with the airbox so we didn’t even have that because it was an optional extra. When we did the original test at Barcelona it was eight white bikes and you had to just get on with it and learn the bike and get on from there.
It was different and it was the first time that my dad wasn’t on the spanners anymore. Even so my dad tried to be involved as much as possible and in 2001 because I was racing in the British 125 Championship and we had a full gearbox for that bike and we were taking that to Spain and putting it in the engine over there. It was little things like that we tried to improve the bike as much as possible. It was a good learning experience though and I’d say that I probably wasn’t ready for the A kit from the off. It would have been nice to have the shortcut, and probably over the next few years it could have been different if I’d been given a shot from the very start, but you learn a lot riding a pretty slow bike.
You got plenty of experience of riding slow bikes in your early Grand Prix career. After the Spanish Championship you went into the World Championship with Matteoni. What kind of kit were you on that year?
I don’t even know. At the time you try and understand, especially because dad was involved. He was trying to understand what level the bike was at and because Dorna had helped me get the ride and helped placed me with Matteoni. From there you think that it’s a dream opportunity because the year before, racing Honda’s, the team had done quite well but it wasn’t as we’d hoped. Dorna had pushed out the paying Italian rider and said that if Matteoni wants to run two bikes he had to have to take an English rider. At that time there was a big push for Northern European riders because it was a lot of Spaniard’s and Italian’s on the grid.
For that reason it wasn’t a good year because Matteoni couldn’t give a damn about me and he wanted to just put the money in his pockets. He thought that I didn’t cost him any money it was better so I’d start races on used tyres, even at Donington I started on used tyres. You wouldn’t believe it if you heard half the stories and I think it was in Malaysia that it got to the point that my dad was saying, “Just tell me to nut him and I’ll nut him.” It was at that point. My dad is pretty fiery but I’d not heard him say anything like that either before or since but that was the level that it was at. I was here trying to do my best to get picked up and you’re not given the opportunity because one guy can’t be arsed. Even the mechanics were saying that they were sorry but that we’re under his control so there’s nothing that they could do.
How tough is it for a 15 year old kid to deal with that kind of stuff?
I don’t know. I think that even then when I had that opportunity I thought that ‘I’m in Grand Prix and I’m doing my best.’ I don’t really remember thinking about it because I don’t think that you can think much about it. Obviously I wasn’t happy with the situation and being 20 k’s down on a straight isn’t what you need on a 125. What can you do? I was pretty relaxed about it at the time and thought that it is what it is. When you’re in a team with someone like that it’s hard but what can you do?
It was funny because the only two times that my bike ran well was at Barcelona, and it was so different. Even from morning warmup to the race it was different because my teammate had put himself out of the race, with a concussion I think, so the team decided to see how I could do. Everything was so different straight away and I was going 10-15 kmp/h quicker into every corner and I wasn’t ready for it because I hadn’t done anything like it in practice. I had a good race though, probably one of my best of the season.
The next year you joined Aprilia Germany and stayed with them for the next three years. You had some very good strong results with that team for a couple of years and it looked like you’d shown some potential at the GP level and that you might have had an opportunity to move further up the grid. How do you look back at those three years in 250’s and how do you judge them?
I think that they were a good team and we had good success even though they weren’t particularly well funded. I had a base kit from Aprilia so there was a few others out there to compare with. The team were good and I was able to, on occasion, show potential and improve. I think that as a rider, especially when you’re that young, that if you can get a sniff of the fastest guys that it brings you on and brings you on to the next level. It’s the same thing that if I’d gone from there to a factory bike, and I’m not saying that I would have gone to battle for wins, but if you start off on the back of that group and in sixth or seventh that you can move up the group.
Some guys get that from the beginning and rock into 125’s with all the kit around them. It’s a different situation because at the time there was a factory tyre sheet and a privateer tyre sheet and the difference was incredible. Aprilia Germany was good years and at the end of 2004 it was my strongest year and finished the year at Philip Island and Valencia that I had my best results. I wasn’t too far from the win and I’d made a step and closed the gap. Unfortunately though nothing came from it and there was no step up in machinery for 2005 so that was a hard year. We had the odd result that year but it didn’t progress as we hoped and that was definitely a case of the wrong passport at the wrong time to make that step and get someone to think that they could take me on.
Was it made any worse by Casey and Dani dominating the 2005 season having come through with them?
Not really, it would have been nice to have had success back them because I feel like there was a lot of effort put in for very little success back then. I’m not going to say that if I had been given the same bike as Casey and Dani because I know how good they are but to have been given an opportunity back then would have been good but I never got that. Whether I’d have done anything more with it I’ll never know but to be given an opportunity, even from 125’s, would have made such a difference.
If you can rock in with the right situation with the right team everything back then was a lot more plain sailing. I think that it makes a difference for your career because you start at a higher level and progress whereas if you start at the bottom it’s a long way up. I see that it’s quite different these days. There’s still obviously a difference between teams but much less a difference between bikes in Moto3 where you can have the same engines and tyres with some different chassis. It’s a bit more plain sailing so I think that coming through as a young rider now is a lot better and this generation can be given a good crack at it so you get guys that can show their talent.
The 2006 season was the Competella disaster, I suppose that was rock bottom for you?
Yeah, I think that after so long battling away that 2006 started with a big team presentation and a semi-factory bike and a big sponsor and lots of promises. We had a semi-factory Aprilia and at the head of the privateers was me, Guntoli and Alex Debon and we were consistently battling in the group behind the leaders but the sponsor only made one payment at the start of the year and after that payments were waiting to go through and obviously Aprilia won’t give bikes without getting money so I was riding a ‘bitzer.’ The bike was made up of whatever was left from the previous season and whatever parts Competella had until the parts came through. It lasted a couple of races and I wasn’t happy, Iwasn’t enjoying it and the results were shit. It wasn’t a situation with any promise of the money coming through so it was basically a case of a sponsor who bullshitted his way into it and got a bit of exposure and had a big presentation but it didn’t go any further of that.
The next year you started racing in the AMA championship. How did that come about and how did you find living over there and racing over there?
I think that at that point going from shit results in GP’s and being at home and doing only a little bit of riding, I did a wildcard at Donington, but it was pretty much that my career was over. I was washing my push bike at home and I got a call from Jeremy McWilliams who said that there was a guy in Ireland, Barry Gilson who runs Celtic Racing, and if I was interested he had a spare bike for the last race of the season. He said that if I was interested that I should go and do it, the tracks are a bit dangerous but if you want to do it you should give it a shot. At first, and it seems strange now, it took time to weigh it up because I’d never looked at the AMA because it had always been a retirement idea to race in America. But I wasn’t doing anything of note so I decided to go there and see what happens and it ended up being the most enjoyable race for at least a couple of years.
I did quite well and finished top five in both races at Mid Ohio and it was the first time I’d ridden a four-stroke as well. It was good and I really enjoyed working with Barry and the team and it kind of kick started me again and showed that I wanted to keep racing. In 2007 I stayed with him and did the full season in Supersport and Formula Extreme. I had some decent results and it went pretty well.
I also got the opportunity with Dantin to race at Laguna when Hoffman was injured. I think that I started on Saturday morning and having missed the practice session with the biggest bike that I’d even ridden being a Supersport bike getting on a Ducati MotoGP bike at Laguna, having never practiced or raced there, I don’t think that you could have made it any more difficult! At the end I just about swum and it was a decent weekend. It opened the eyes of a few people because my laptimes in the race were decent and the bike worked really well there. The grip at Laguna was phenomenal and then when we went to test at Mugello it went well too but for the three wildcard races at the end of the year-Sepang, Philip Island and Valencia-it really felt like I was in at the deep end because the other teams had tested there. Nobody was doing well on the Ducati expect Casey but I did alright and beat Edwards and Elias a couple of the Yamaha riders on Dunlop tyres.
In 2008 you raced with Kawasaki in America.
I raced in Supersports and Formula Extreme again and I had the option to be the test rider for Ducati that year. That was a spanner in the works because I’d just done the first race season that I actually enjoyed in a long time so I wanted to continue racing because I felt that if I didn’t race I could be stuck as a test rider, which was obviously very flattering to be offered the test role at 21, but in the end I decided to carry on racing and see if I could get back to Europe through good results in America.
Turning down the Ducati test role was probably the hardest decision that I’ve ever had to make and it’s still one that I’m not sure was the right or the wrong call. 2008 was a so-so year. I won at the Daytona though. That win was controversial though. We’d tested very well there and I was flying with the bike and happy. I was a second quicker than anybody in the test but when it came to the race Honda had found a massive leap in speed and suddenly we had a race on our hands. In the first part of the race I had a rear sprocket carrier break so we had to replace that at the first pitstop and we lost a lot of time. I got back out and past my teammate for a podium place so I thought that was good to salvage something having been quite far back and then Neil Hodgson had an engine failure so I finished second behind Josh Hayes.
We went out for dinner that night and the team boss took a phone call and he looked pretty excited. He said, ‘We’ve won the race!’ and I asked what happened? He said that they’d been disqualified for running polished conrods and cranks so that explained the second that they found between the test and the race. It was great to win but it felt like a hollow victory because of how it unfolded and I didn’t get the chance to stand on the top of the rostrum which with a level playing field I would have done. But as it went down I was second and felt lucky to be second after the day that I’d had. To be the first Brit to win it and to have the trophy at home is great but it would have been nice to stand on top of the podium. After that it was a difficult season and we were the only team running the Pirelli tyres so it was a tough season.
When you came into World Supersports you were able to come in and win races and then win the title with Yamaha three years ago. How important was it to win those races and show people what you could do? Obviously you had shown flashes in GP racing but over time people forget that you were racing on bad machinery.
It’s pretty satisfying to turn it around from being seen as a mid-pack rider to then win races and a title and be in World Superbikes now and having established a career for myself. It was good to get the opportunity in 2009 on a decent bike with Triumph and finish fourth in my first race and put together a solid season in 2010. A lot came together in 2011 with good equipment and a good team to win the championship so that was pretty satisfying. I had to prove to myself that I was riding well and loving racing again in 2010 and I had some of my most fun races on the bike to finish fourth or fifth but in 2011 it all came good and I had the equipment to be able to make that step forward. It’s satisfying to have a big trophy sitting at home for the effort!
The first time racing the Yamaha you would have seen the difference that it makes to have the best bike on the grid. What did you think the first time you tested the bike when you could suddenly think that there’s a title to be won?
I knew that we’d a strong chance because I’d seen what Cal had done on that bike previously so I knew that the package was strong even though we’d gone with a different suspension manufacturer. The first time I rode it the biggest difference was in the power compared to what I’d been using. We were testing at Portimao and the conditions weren’t great but I remember coming over the last crest that the bike wheelied a decent amount, and I knew that the bikes that I had been riding wouldn’t wheelie at all over it, so I knew that right from the start that with that bike and the team around you that a rider knows when they’ve a good shot at the championship. From the early races it was pretty evident. I didn’t finish the first race and then finished second at the second race but turned it around after that and notched up six or seven wins after that so it was good.
You went onto the Aprilia in 2012 in your first year in WSBK. What sort of difficulties did you have adapting to a Superbike?
It was a massive learning experience, I’d ridden a street Superstock bike and that was the only 1000cc bike I’d ridden so there was a lot of crashes early on and a lot of learning to be done. I think at Miller I finished fifth and that was a breakthrough. There was a few races early on where I was midpack but at Aragon I was a couple of seconds off the lead group behind Eugene, Melandri and Biaggi and I fought with them and got fourth and then I got my first win at the Nurburgring. I think that it was a pretty solid rookie year and once I’d learned the bike and how to ride a Superbike I was consistently sniffing the front and it was a decent season.
Last year you went to BMW and it seemed to be another year where you could take a step forward. It wasn’t a full factory team anymore but it obviously led to making the move to Ducati this year. What has it meant to you to make the move to a full factory team?
It’s a big step to have the full factory package. BMW was close to it but it became evident this year that the big difference between BMW and Ducati is that you deal with the race department and overall it’s pretty small in a company the size of BMW the race department is a minor part of it and I’m not really sure how much they cared about it last year. As it’s came out maybe they didn’t care about it too much at that point.
To be able to move to a factory team with Ducati where, it sounds cheesy but, the passion is there. It’s not just a saying about Italian passion because it was pretty evident from the first meeting with the team in Bologna and the team launch. There was Gigi Dall’igna, my chief mechanics and electronics engineers, chassis engineers and we were just casually chatting about the bike at the team launch but next thing we were in a meeting room with the CEO of the company! The connection is that tight and it’s not like at BMW where I didn’t know anyone outside of the race department. We were all sitting around a table talking about the strong points, where we need to improve and where we’re decent.
You’ve also got a few MotoGP tests lined up for this year, has anything been confirmed dates wise?
Not yet but it’s to be discussed.
Do you still look at MotoGP as something that you would go back to or do you think that you’d only go back if it was a perfect package?
No, I think that it would be a good opportunity to cut my teeth there again if I had an opportunity with a good team around me. I’m happy in Superbikes at the moment but the goal is to go back there in a competitive situation and to have another crack at it. I’d love to have the opportunity in the near future but we’ll see how it pans out.
The TT has just finished up, you used to go there when you were a child for holidays. Would you go back again?
It always clashes and we were actually talking about it earlier when we saw Michael and Jody’s pictures from there. Doing the parade lap is something that I’d love to do but getting the time and getting it not to clash with the Superbike schedule is the difficultly. I think that I can safely say that if I wasn’t here I’d be over there but the last couple of years it hasn’t worked out. Hopefully next year the schedule works out and I can go because I’m itching to go back.
Is it something that you’d race or just that you enjoy spectating at?
No I don’t think that my mum would ever let me race it! Deep down I don’t think that I’d ever want to race there and I can only imagine the buzz that those guys get from racing on it. Just watching some of the shots from Closer to the Edge and footage from the onboard cameras last year as a rider it’s pretty awesome and the guys must get a real buzz out of it but I’m afraid that they’ve got bigger cajones than I do! The time I went over I was ten or eleven but I’ve still got all the autographs somewhere!