Following a dismal 2012 campaign with the factory Yamaha team, Ben Spies heads into his fourth season on the MotoGP World Championship stage with a determination to get back to the form that originally had him earmarked as a future champion, this time as a satellite Ducati rider.
Climbing the ranks of the AMA ladder, Spies’ career began in 2000 with a tenure in the 750 Superstock Championship riding a Valvoline Suzuki, a relationship that saw him finish ninth in his maiden season and then third in 2001.
Having already dipped his toes into Superbike waters in his teens, Spies embarked on a graduation to both the Supersport and Formula Xtreme Championships in 2002, finishing the season ninth and sixth respectively with several top five finishes on the Attack Suzuki.
A switch to American Suzuki in 2003 yielded a maiden win at Road Atlanta, although the outcome of ninth in the standings was the same. Even so, a title win in Formula Xtreme was impetus enough to keep him in the team for 2004, where by he improved to fourth overall with a win at the Infineon Raceway.
Still only 20-years-old, Spies finally got his chance to race Superbikes on a full-time basis, once again with American Suzuki, a shrewd move that saw him win in his first season, at California Speedway. Although he wasn’t a match for dominant champion Mat Mladin, 13 podium finishes were good enough for him to be classified as the runner-up in only his first year.
Unsurprisingly, leading outfit Yoshimura Suzuki were desperate to sign the youngster alongside undisputed team leader Mladin and duly did as much for the 2006 season.
An outstanding start to the year saw him win in six consecutive races, a run that saw Mladin playing catch up for the remainder of the season. Although he staged a late season comeback, ten wins was enough for Spies to win the title in only his second full year of Superbike competition.
Having established a fierce rivalry with one another, Spies and Mladin embarked on an incredibly close season of racing in 2007, the pair winning every race between them. However, while Spies won on just seven occasions, compared to Mladin’s 13, his better consistency was enough for him to win the title by a single point at the very final race of the year.
Although Mladin opened the 2008 season with three straight wins, Spies’ final AMA campaign would turn out to be his most convincing, following up his team-mate’s quick start with seven consecutive victories. When Mladin had his disqualification from an earlier round upheld, Spies was crowned the winner one race in advance, thus smoothing his progress to the upper echelons of racing.
Spies’ desire to move on from the American series, which had arguably enjoyed its golden years long before he emerged as a title contender, was well documented, although it was MotoGP, not World Superbikes, that he had set his sights on.
Indeed, having spent a career as a Suzuki rider, all eyes were on the Japanese manufacturer to see if they would offer him a full-time ride in the series.
Having tested the bike on numerous occasions already, Spies got his big MotoGP break at Donington Park as a last minute replacement for the injured Loris Capirossi. While finishing 14th may not have been the outstanding debut he was hoping for, a top ten qualifying position nonetheless hinted at what was possible with the benefit of experience.
In addition, Spies earned two wild-card entries at his home Laguna Seca and Indianapolis rounds. With prior knowledge of the circuits, Spies was more competitive, claiming eighth and sixth place finishes respectively.
However, despite receiving assurances he would be on a Suzuki in 2009, Spies was frustrated to learn of the team’s decision to retain Capirossi and Chris Vermeulen, while the option of a full-time third bike seemed slim. Spies was still hot property though, with offers coming from Gresini Honda and JiR Team Scot Honda, deals that he would turned down.
Instead, Spies has decided to remain with Superbikes, albeit moving onto the competitive world stage to front Yamaha’s 2009 effort in place of Troy Corser and Noriyuki Haga.
While many predict he will struggle with unknown circuits initially, his pace in testing aboard an unfamiliar bike marked him out as an outside favourite for the title and it wouldn’t take long for him to prove Suzuki’s loss from very much Yamaha’s gain.
Indeed, Spies was a winner in three of the opening four races, and though errors at Phillip Island, Valencia, Assen and Kyalami allowed the more consistent Haga to open up a fairly substantial lead at the mid-way stage, Spies maintained the pressure as his rival floundered.
With just ten points (in Haga’s favour) splitting the pair into the final round at Portimao, Haga’s fall in the first race would hand the advantage to Spies, who duly converted it into title victory in very final event.
An outstanding achievement for a rookie rider, Spies’s end-of-season statistics make for remarkable reading having won 14 races and record-breaking 11 Superpoles, including a remarkable run of seven in succession.
Unsurprisingly, Spies’s astonishing WSBK turn sparked rumours that he was MotoGP-bound for 2010, which is why eyebrows were raised when it was announced – two months before the end of the season – that he would be sticking in Superbikes.
However, his title-win prompted a flurry of back-room activity and it was subsequently confirmed he would indeed step into the Tech 3 Yamaha MotoGP squad for 2010, in a direct swap with James Toseland.
Making his Yamaha MotoGP debut at the season-ending Valencia GP, where he finished a fine seventh, Spies’s first Tech 3 appearance came at Qatar, where he immediately impressed with a run to fifth position – already better than Toseland had achieved in two seasons.
Taking until just round five to get onto the podium at Silverstone, Spies repeated the feat at Indianapolis when he delighted the home crowd by claiming a second place having started on pole position. Strong results elsewhere pushed Spies up to a fine sixth in the overall standings and with Valentino Rossi heading to Ducati, he was the obvious candidate to assume the Italian’s hallowed place in the factory Yamaha team.
Joining the championship winning team, Spies was anticipated as a race win contender initially, but with the Yamaha seemingly unable to match the pace of Honda, the American struggled to better the RC212Vs at times. As such, it took until round five for Spies to get onto the podium, in Barcelona, though just two rounds later at Assen, Spies would cruise to an exemplary maiden MotoGP victory.
Two more podiums would follow in 2011, at Indianapolis and Valencia – the latter race seeing him miss out on victory by 0.015secs -, leaving him fifth overall, though the man himself was satisfied, rather than delighted with his results.
As expected, Spies retained his ride with Yamaha for 2012, but while the return to 1000cc regulations was anticipated to suit the ex-World Superbike Champion, he would go on to suffer a torrid year.
Indeed, Spies would court awful luck throughout the season, picking up the lion’s share of Yamaha’s mechanical issues, suffering with persistent tyre problems and even ill-timed bouts of sickness would strike him during the first half of the year.
Together with satellite Yamaha riders Dovizioso and Crutchlow producing stronger results and not a single podium during the opening-half of the year, Spies appeared to be rapidly falling out-of-favour at Yamaha when he made a shock mid-season announcement that he would be quitting the manufacturer at the year’s end.
Even with the weight off his shoulders, Spies’s fortunes wouldn’t take an upturn and when he crashed during the Malaysian Grand Prix, the subsequent injuries sustained would bring a premature end to an awful year.
Regarding his future, Spies toyed with the idea of returning to World Superbikes following a tempting offer from the BMW factory team. In the end, Spies would decide he wasn’t ‘done’ with MotoGP yet prompting him to join Pramac Ducati for 2013 under the premise that the manufacturer would give the ‘junior’ team greater support.
Paired with series rookie Andrea Iannone, Spies heads into the 2013 determined to re-establish himself as the MotoGP front runner he purported to be during his rise up the ranks…