EXCLUSIVE Michael Laverty - Q&A
22 May 2013
By Christian Tiburtius
An exclusive interview with MotoGP rookie Michael Laverty, who races the brand-new PBM motorcycle for the Paul Bird Motorsport team.
The 31-year-old Ulsterman, who moved to MotoGP straight from BSB, is currently fifth out of twelve riders in the privateer CRT standings...
How did it come about that we have three Laverty brothers in racing?
Our father was a road racer and as a family we've always been into bikes. As kids we had motocross bikes, we didn't see it as a career choice but just raced each other around the fields at home.
Our father never pushed us into racing; we got into it via some local friends who went motocross racing. As I said, it was never a career plan, it was just a passion we had from an early age that we were born into via our father. Our father retired when our older sister was born and we took it from there.
Our father had been through the road racing scene and was happy and lucky to walk out of it alive. So he didn't want us to go down that route so he took us straight to the mainland British championship to learn our trade.
We all started in the 125GP series on proper race circuits like Brands Hatch rather than being sucked in by the road-racing scene which was even bigger then when people like Joey Dunlop were around. It was quite a strange thing at that time to be brought up in Northern Ireland and not to go road racing, but we decided to do our own thing and it's worked out fine in the end.
Our father was very conscious of the danger of road racing and didn't want us doing it. Both my father and mother have put a huge amount into our career often driving us overnight after school on Friday to race and then back again in time for school on Monday, so even if we wanted to do a road race we wouldn't do it on principle because of the effort they made to get us out of that scene.
On Friday we would load the transporter with our 125s and together with my brothers, my parents and my brother-in-law Philip drive to the circuits. Philip was just a friend who was our spanner man, but is now Eugene's chief technician in WSBK and is probably one of the best technicians in the paddock. He also grew up with us and we learned our trade together.
I was in my final year and had just moved to college and Eugene and John were still at school and were always looking to bunk off on a Monday after racing. My parents were very disciplined though and made sure we got our education
When you look at the guys coming through now, they're all schooled and trained to be professional racers but we were just doing it for the love of it and it was great fun.
Those times with the seven of us in the transporter were busy, but they were great times!
So what would you have done if you hadn't been a bike racer?
I did my training in computing and was going to go on to university to study it when I had my first professional ride offered to me. I think I went in the right direction.
So you were 22 when you got your first professional contract and came to racing quite late, did you find that a disadvantage?
The downside is that teams see younger riders as a better bet for the long term. But the way I came through into racing has meant that I never feel burnt out, which can be a danger if you start young. It's a job that I'm still keen about and hungry for.
The fact that I've come in later and kind of earned it means that I still love the sport, have a passion for it and can't see myself ever tiring of it.
Some of the younger guys are actually thinking of retiring in their mid-twenties and have missed out on a normal lifestyle when growing up. I've lived a good life of study, work and travel so I feel I'm quite grounded and my head's not in the clouds.
Racing is a hard arena to grow up in so I think it was good that I had developed my character a bit before starting in it.
So if I put you, John and Eugene on the same bike for a short race, who would win?
It'd be really close (laughs) and we've always said that we'd love to be on even equipment so that we could compare.
Me and Eugene have a similar methodical way of going about our racing whereas John is a little different, having said that though, I think we all have a similar skill level. I think it'd be very close between me and Eugene and on a standard bike I think I could beat Eugene. But John would probably beat us both if they were Superstock bikes because that's something he's already done.
When Eugene was going into WSBK he needed to get used to the bigger bike so we both went out on standard R1s and I was faster than him over a lap. That's probably the closest we ever got to going head to head.
Why do you race, what do you get out of it?
I still get the same buzz and adrenalin out of it now as I ever did. It's also my job now and what I earn a living, from but even if I wasn't I would probably still be racing just for the love of it if I could afford it. For a combination of excitement and the thrill of competition and attaining goals, you just can't beat it.
It becomes part of you when you grow up with it and I have to say I don't know how easy it will be to walk away from when I finally decide to retire. Once you've had a taste of it it's hard to get away from.
Tell us about your style?
I don't need to bed in at the beginning of races, I can immediately get up to race pace and find any gaps available.
I remember Philip Neill at TAS Suzuki used to preach to me that I should be more strong and aggressive in the early laps, but I as I mentioned I think that is actually a strong aspect of my riding because I feel I have good spatial awareness and peripheral vision and often find some places in the first laps.
If I'm 17th on the grid, I'll come round in the top ten and that's always something I've been naturally able to do so, it was ironic at the time that the team boss didn't identify it. So I had to give him a bit of grief about that.
I'm strong at the start of the race and afterwards can keep my lap times constant. I'm a consistent rider and you can see in the first few races this season my lap times don't fluctuate the way some of the other guy's do. Whatever lap time I can do in qualifying I can usually maintain for the race.
I don't feel like I'm the last of the late brakers, but I've never come up against someone who brakes later than me. That's a strength, but also a weakness because I always go to the last second. Jorge Lorenzo brakes that little bit earlier and can then release and carry better corner speed. For overtake manoeuvres it's definitely an advantage though.
That comes from my time riding in Ireland where so many corners are slow tight hairpins where you have to brake late to survive.
On your website you mention finishing 2008 'unhappy and disillusioned'?
I had moved up to BSB from BSS with TAS Suzuki and it was at that stage I was racing against guys with better equipment than me. I felt I was as good as them and in a selfish way I felt I deserved something similar and TAS couldn't make it happen at that time.
I always got on well with the guys at TAS, and still do, but I felt they just couldn't give me the equipment I needed and felt a little bitter for that. I just felt I wouldn't be in a position to win if I stayed with the team. As it turned out the next year TAS got more factory support so I might have shot myself in the foot a little by moving on to race in America.
You learn by these things though because I learned how quickly your career can slip away from you. Memories in the paddock are short and you are only as good as your last race. You've always got earn it, want it and work for it. That experience made me realise how much I wanted it and to appreciate what I had and how difficult it is to get back on with a top team.
America made me hungrier to get back to BSB. Before going away I felt that I was owed that ride but afterwards realised that nobody owes you anything, you've got to earn it. That experience gave me the kick up the arse I needed and when I came back for 2010 I rode for a lot less money that I had previously, even in Supersport.
How did it end at Samsung Honda in BSB last year?
I had always wanted to ride for the Samsung Honda team as the top team in BSB. 2012 was a tough year though, we were lacking top speed and the Pirelli really didn't work well with the Honda at many tracks. We ended the year knowing what we needed to improve and I was happy to continue with them and that was the plan to have another tilt at the BSB title.
The Honda deal was a little slow to come together though because of the red tape that had to be completed. During that time we heard that Shakey had turned down the [PBM] CRT ride and I then got the call from the team offering me the ride.
It was a tough decision, but I have to say it was a blessing in disguise that the Honda deal was taking so long because I was available when the CRT ride came up. Looking back, on top of the CRT offer, my firm options in BSB were Milwaukee Yamaha and Samsung Honda and I had to decide which direction I wanted to go in.
I had about a week to decide and in the end I had to go with my gut feeling that I had always wanted a shot at the World Championship. I felt that if I didn't do it now and it never came up again, I would kick myself for passing it by. So we sat down with Birdy and Phil and made a plan. My contract with PBM is for one year with an option for a second.
I've got a little unfinished business in BSB, but I've got time in the future to come back to it. Overall though I'm pleased the way things turned out.
It's tough in the CRT ranks when there are prototype bikes with 50hp more than you, smoking past you on the straights. Having said that though, it's seen as its own class and I have my own targets of beating the other CRTs. I'm getting closer every weekend and am really enjoying it.
Did you discuss the move with your brothers?
Oh at length. It was a question of positives and negatives in that if I had had a difficult year wobbling around at the back it could have a really bad effect on my career. You can weigh it up on riders who you might have come up against in the past though and I felt sure I could do a reasonable job in CRT.
We didn't know what level the bike would be at, but in the end both John and Eugene agreed that I'd have to go for it and give it a shot and I've surprised myself with how competitive I've been able to be early in the season.
I've had plenty of doubters saying that I didn't win [the title in] BSB last season so why should I move to MotoGP, so it was great to be the second quickest CRT rider in pre-season tests and I've shocked a few people who realised that I really can ride a bike.
When I was young I had always wanted to get into the World Championship but thought you had to go through the Spanish system to get there. I always aimed for World Superbike because I thought it would be more realistic, so getting into GPs fulfilled an ambition.
How does Paul Bird split his time between MotoGP and BSB?
Quite evenly though it's actually Phil Borley who is the manager for the MotoGP team and he handles the majority of things with Paul being available as back-up. Paul pretty much manages the BSB team and is onsite for the BSB events but not the MotoGP ones. The GP team is smaller than the BSB team but it's a well-run operation.
I think Paul wants the MotoGP team to grow, Stuart Bland (co-ordinator from the BSB team) was here recently to check us out with regard to staff requirements and Paul is also investing in a larger hospitality unit for the rest of the season. Paul has another year's contract with Dorna and I believe wants to extend that into the future for a fully British team for British riders to be able to make that step up.
How did you feel sitting on the grid for round one in Qatar?
I'm quite level-headed that way, it didn't really affect me. Without being blasé about it, it was a bit of a non-event. We were really struggling, I had qualified last so I was just having a craic with my team on the grid and just going through the motions.
It was strange because it was a night race with no crowd, so I kept the lap times consistent and passed one guy in the race. We were on the back foot there because the bike had arrived so late and I didn't want to put us backwards by crashing.
I was far from comfortable on the bike at that stage, we hadn't got the chassis or electronics working so I just tried to get my first MotoGP finish under my belt. Phil Borley is acting as my crew chief and the bike is his baby so I brought it home and did what I could.
What is the difference between your bike and Yonny Hernandez's?
Yonny is running the full Aprilia customer bike, the ART, it's quite similar to the World Superbike RSV4 with a slightly modified frame for the Bridgestone tyres.
The only Aprilia part on my bike is the engine, with the rest of the bike constructed by PBM. PBM is classified as an official constructor. PBM have built their own chassis, put the Aprilia motor into it and added the control Magneti Marelli ECU.
It's a very different bike to Yonny's, with different airbox, frame, exhaust and totally different ECU.
For the first three rounds the ART was a lot more competitive. I rode it in testing and it was a far more sorted package. Our target is to get closer to that level and at the end of Jerez I felt that we were almost at an even keel with it. Our target is now to get to the level of the Aspar ART bikes within three rounds.
Why two different types of bike in one team?
Yonny did a deal where he would only ride the ART and didn't want the development bike. He wanted the proven package.
Until I signed up, it wasn't clear whether PBM would be running another ART or go the development route. Some time after I signed up though Paul gave Phil the all systems go to develop their own bike, the PBM1, which was the goal when starting the team.
That was in December and it was January before they really got going. I signed knowing that I would be riding the development bike and that it would be tough, but I felt sure it would come good as the season went on.
It was a little tougher than expected. I tested the ART bike at Sepang and jumping onto a comfortable, developed bike was almost too easy so coming onto the unrefined PBM1 was hard. There's light at the end of the tunnel now and we know what we need to work on to develop the bike step by step.
It's fair to say that depending on rule changes etc, the PBM1 is the future and the goal for the team. It's possible that the existing chassis will be run with customer prototype spec engines next season. The current Aprilia motor is making something like 210bhp whereas the prototype motor would be more like 250 to 260 and the customer spec one might have a slight reduction from the full factory.
There are some great teams in CRT, well-funded, with great equipment and personnel so I feel that the supply of good customer motors could be the answer to getting CRT fighting with the main prototypes.
Often the CRT chassis and electronics are great and the only thing that's missing is the power, you're not going to beat HRC but you would be closer.
I've scored the same number of points as Yonny so I feel I've done a reasonable job considering it a new bike on circuits new to me. We're now consistently third/fourth CRT behind Barbera and Aoyama and we now need to get closer to the Aspar guys.
At the end of the Jerez race you were running at about Espargaro's pace, but not so fast at the beginning?
I think that came from one of my strengths of keeping the pace consistent, but we're not maximizing the set-up of the bike for new tyres. I still need to understand how to get those extra 3 or 4 tenths out of the new tyres. But from half distance to the end of the race I hardly lost anything to Espargaro.
How are you adapting to a MotoGP style of riding, having come from Superbikes?
I was aware of the different kind of technique required and my riding style lends itself quite well to that because I grew up on 125cc two-strokes and raced a 500cc V-twin in the Irish championship.
It's always been an underlying thing for me on Superbikes where I put a little too much force through the front tyre and have too much entry speed, but once I got on the GP bike it actually needs a bit more of that. It was harder for me to initially adapt to a Superbike, in comparison riding the GP machine feels natural.
I think the biggest thing you need to get used to is the braking distance because of the non-deforming Bridgestone tyres and carbon brakes, you can stop so late into a corner it's untrue. The GP bike does have a slightly more knife edge feel than a Superbike
Learning the tyres and carbon brakes took a couple of days in Sepang and once I got my head around them it felt quite comfortable. I've gone about the testing in a calm and methodical manner though rather than going at it like a bull at a gate.
Once I got my head around the tyres, I quite like them, they're probably the grippiest and best tyres I've ever used. They give great lean angles. You've just got to be careful about getting heat into the Bridgestones before using them though.
Gary Reynders mentioned that he felt I was approaching it with a calm head on my shoulders, working through problems methodically and getting there in the end, rather than costing the team a couple of hundred thousand pounds worth of damage.
How are you surviving in the MotoGP paddock?
It's actually a lot more welcoming than it looks from the outside. I already knew some of the guys, but people have been very friendly. At the briefing at Qatar Jorge came straight over and said 'Hello'. It's a bit like BSB but with a language barrier and a bit more Spanish.
I'm also enjoying the travel of it, seeing new cultures and meeting new people.
Is it you or Eugene that your brother John is traveling with?
That's Eugene. John will come to some of my races, but he's currently acting as manager and right-hand man for Eugene.
When John had his BSB accident in 2011 he broke the majority of bones in his body and he made the decision to step away from racing for this year and Eugene needed someone. Having a manager who Eugene can be absolutely sure has his best interests at heart is good for him.
He's also training as an osteopath so he can help at races. His recovery gave him an insight into that.
Thanks Michael and good luck.