Saturday, August 23, 2014

Bradley Smith: Signed, seamless, ready to deliver

Safe in the knowledge that he is only halfway through an extended Tech 3 Yamaha MotoGP contract, Bradley Smith's top priority is to stretch single-lap form over a complete race distance. 

"I'm feeling very good,” said Smith of the one-year contract extension. “I've got a new deal, found some performance and I'm finally able to stay on a motorcycle more than a few laps! 

“Obviously I'm very happy that Yamaha and Herve [Poncharal] have shown the belief in me for another season. It's nice to have ridden a MotoGP bike for 18 months but also know that I'm going to be riding it for another 18 months.”

Smith's seat had been in doubt due to his ninth place in the world championship. The 23-year-old hesitates to label pressure as the cause of a tough mid-season, which included five falls at the Sachsenring. 

“I had a few grands prix where I made bad decisions. Where I just started to ignore warning signs and feedback, rather than pressure because I've had that all my life in motorsport,” Smith explained. 

“It's more about how you interpret warning signs. Sometimes you think, 'ok, today it doesn't feel good and we'll back it down one or two percent'. The alternative is that when it doesn't feel good, you're just not willing to accept it. You think you are Superman and can just out-ride it. 

“But sometimes you have to be in that desperate place. I was trying to secure my ride. I knew that I could and I believed that riding through dangerous situations is the way to do it. It wasn't and it's not a smart move! It creates more problems than it's worth. But it's a tough one to find the balance [when you are riding on the edge].” 

One glance at Smith's left hand shows he isn't afraid to push the limits, his little finger being permanently bent downwards. 

“I don't have the tendon. I haven't had it for twelve months. So the finger doesn't move, but I had it put into a handlebar position! I have a special glove, but it doesn't change my riding. We don't really use the clutch anymore. I had to remember to use the clutch on the R1 [while doing pillion rides around Silverstone, pictured] because we've got an auto-backshift now. It was strange using the clutch again.” 

Not using the clutch lever when shifting down the gearbox is one of the main technical innovations made available by Yamaha for its satellite team this season, the other being a seamless shift gearbox. 

Smith and rookie team-mate Pol Espargaro's machines are, “the same specification as Jorge Lorenzo rode from Misano to the end of last year. It's a great bike.” That means they are using the first generation of Yamaha seamless, which offers the super-fast upshifts from second gear onwards. However first to second gear is still a normal shift, passing through neutral. 

Factory Yamaha riders Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo received a second generation seamless this year, with neutral moved 'out of the way' and seamless shifts between every gear. 

“Neutral is still between first and second gear for us,” Smith confirmed. “I don't know where the Factory Yamaha team have got it. I know Honda have it at the bottom.” 

Is the slower shift from first to second gear noticeable for Smith at the start of a race? 

“I don't know if that is exactly why, but I seem to launch good in first and when I put in second everyone seems to come back past me. But we also have some room for improvement with our launch control as well. I started fourth at Brno and got swallowed by both the Factory Yamahas into turn one. It's a killer when that happens! We are working on it.” 

If the present pattern of hand-me-downs continues, Smith and Espargaro will get the full range of seamless upshifts from Yamaha for 2015. However the Factory team are still likely to be a step ahead, with Yamaha under pressure from Rossi and Lorenzo to replicate the seamless downshifts (as well as upshifts) on the Honda. 

Back to this year and Smith began the season in style by qualifying on the front row in Qatar. He then fell while in the hunt for a debut podium at Losail, before a career best fifth next time in Texas. However Smith didn't break the top six again until just after his contract renewal, at Indianapolis, then qualified fourth and the top Yamaha last time at Brno. 

“I've put in some good performances. Still not clinched that [standout] race result, but Indy was a step forward and I believe Brno would have been as well if we didn't have tyre issues in the race.” 

Smith believes design changes made for the latest Factory team M1 have improved early race pace. It's an attribute Smith and his team are seeking to achieve with set-up and riding changes. 

“Where Yamaha have improved with their new bike is in race spec form and that is the next area where we need to try and improve as well,” Smith explained. “It's a case of bike balance. My bike is very balanced towards the front end with full fuel and it's difficult to keep rear contact. I think that is something Yamaha has been working with for their new bike. 

“It looks like it is more balanced towards the rear. It doesn't seem to help [Lorenzo and Rossi] so much on a one-off lap, but especially at the beginning of races. The second half of the races I'm closer. So it's a case of dynamic balance and weight balance. 

“I also have a few weaknesses with my riding style that I'm trying to iron out. I'm working with Randy Mamola around the track to try and figure out what I need to do compared to other riders: Video analysis, photo analysis and what he can see. 

“That is the next level. There is only so much you can extract from a motorcycle. You have to do the rest of it yourself. 

“This year I've been smoother on the bike. You have to be very quiet, you almost have to creep on the motorcycle rather than jerk it around and upset the bike too much. I've had to work on that, even at the test on Monday, especially in the changes of direction.” 

Smith remains firmly in the fight for top satellite honours, sitting 13-points behind Pol Espargaro but equal with LCR Honda's Stefan Bradl and ahead of Gresini Honda's Alvaro Bautista, with seven rounds to go. Reigning Moto2 champion Espargaro joined Tech 3 in place of Cal Crutchlow, who had helped guide Smith through his debut season. 

"At the beginning of the season it was quite different," Smith said of his new team-mate. "But we've gained a relationship and I think it's better for me to not be as friendly with my team-mate as last year. Having Cal as a team-mate for my first year was great because it helped smooth the introduction to MotoGP. It's quite an isolation when you come to MotoGP and a lot of pressure. So having him there for support was good. 

"But in terms of my career it's better to have someone that I'm competitive against and is a rival, because it is going to push me forward and push me on. I'm excited to be in the same team with him for another one and half seasons because I think the rivalry will push us both forwards." 

The next round will be Smith's home GP at Silverstone, an event he admits to 'dreading' as a rookie last season. "I feel like I'm ready for Silverstone this year. I wasn't last year. I was actually dreading it, but now I'm really excited." 

Smith, who qualified tenth and finished ninth on his home premier-class debut, added: 

"I wasn't fast enough this time last year. It was a cold weekend, the tyres were not really working and I had no experience of how to make them work. I rode nervous and tense. I didn't enjoy last year but I'm looking forward to changing that. 

“I've got a completely different outlook now and I'm ready to ride the M1 how it should be ridden at Silverstone." 

MotoGP comes to Silverstone on August 29-31, coverage starts from Friday at 8:30am and continues on Saturday and Sunday exclusively live on BT Sport.


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