Sam Lowes is a rider on the move. After impressing in both BSB and World Supersport, the Englishman made the switch to Moto2 in 2014, joining Speed Up to race the bike designed and built by the team run by Luca Boscoscuro. His first season in Moto2 was much tougher than expected, Lowes crashing often and never getting close to a podium, despite often showing good pace in practice in qualifying.
His 2015 season has gotten off to a much better start. Lowes has been fastest in both testing and practice, and with Johann Zarco, Tito Rabat and Alex Rins, has shown himself to be a true title contender for this year. A win at Austin confirmed that, as has a podium in Argentina and pole position at Qatar. On the Thursday before the Texas round of MotoGP at Austin, a small group of reporters had a long and fascinating conversation with Lowes, in which he covered a lot of territory, ranging from finding confidence when riding in the rain, to how the Speed Up bike has changed, to the value of looking at the data of other riders. Over the next couple of days, we will share some of that conversation with you.
One of the biggest changes in Sam Lowes' fortunes came as a result of a change to the bike. The carbon fiber swing arm which Speed Up have been running since they first starting building their own bikes back in 2012, and is a legacy of Boscoscuro's days working with Aprilia, has been replaced with a more conventional one made from aluminum. That switch had made a huge difference to the feel of the bike, giving Lowes and the other Speed Up riders much more feel for the rear tire of the Speed Up, and putting an end to a string of inexplicable crashes.
Though Lowes took painstaking efforts not to blame the bike, and more particularly the carbon fiber swing arm for his disappointing results in 2014, he made it clear that the aluminum item had been a massive step forward. "Last year I crashed a lot because I was trying to go too fast," he told us. "I wasn't ready to go fast, the package wasn't there. Not just the bike, me and the bike together weren't ready to go fast."
Lowes made some interesting points about the dangers of taking risks with innovation in racing, and stepping outside of the normal and well-understood parameters of racing. Lowes describes this as 'the box', a useful metaphor. "Now that my bike's got an aluminum swing arm, the suspension is good - there's a lot of people on WP now - I think that we're in the box," he said. "Last year, I think the carbon swing arm took us outside the box. Because the engine's the same, the tires are the same, the engine has to fix in the same place, so chassis are very similar. I'm not a believer that they're all that different. We were different, because we had the carbon swing arm. And I know how different it was, because I tested them back to back. It was like riding a Honda to Yamaha in World Supersport. Now, I think we're in the ball park, I think we should be alright. I'm positive about it. There's nothing I'm really struggling with, but we can still improve in all areas. In fast corners the bike is better, but also in the stop-start it's better."
The change had meant improvement, not just for the machine, but for the team as a whole, and for Lowes' confidence and approach. "I feel good," he said. "It's a lot better than last year, the team's good, the bike's better, atmosphere's better, I feel good." Lowes also emphasized just how important confidence and belief is. "It's all in your head anyway."
He then went on to try not to blame the carbon swing arm for 2014, but struggled to find the right words. "I'll never say it, but last year at times I wanted to say it," he said. "But now that I've got this bike working how it is, the bike last year wasn't good enough to win, in a fully dry race. I know Westy won, but that was in wet conditions at Assen." The new swing arm and suspension for this year have changed all that. "Now it is good enough to win. I never said I needed a Kalex to win or a Suter to win, I believe this bike is good enough to win. So if you believe that, you feel good."
Feedback from other riders coming in to the QMMF team, the other team using the Speed Up chassis, helped his case. "It helped as well that [Julian] Simon jumped on the bike at the end of last year, start of this year, and said he's got no feeling compared to the Kalex." Lowes had started to doubt his own feeling on the bike in 2014, having never ridden a Moto2 bike before and not having any material for comparison. "I was coming from Supersport, and jumped on the bike, and in the end, because it was a hard year, I started to think, maybe it's just me. This is a Grand Prix bike, maybe it's just me." Julian Simon's feedback confirmed that Lowes had been on the right track. "Then [Simon] got on it and said compared to Kalex it's got no feeling. And then we put the aluminum swing arm in and it gave me a lot more feeling. It was like two positives really."
This confirmation, and the improvement from the aluminum swing arm, was a big step forward. "You need the feeling to build the confidence. Even if all the bikes are capable of the same lap time if the setting's perfect, but you had no feeling. So to do that in a full race weekend, 18 times a year is impossible. Because you have a big slide or you have a crash, and you lose your confidence. And you can't get it back, because there's no feeling. So you end up doing the lap time by just doing it, and it being OK. You think, I did the last lap at this speed and it was OK. And then you have a crash, and you think what the **** happened?"
The 2015 Speed Up was totally different, giving him feedback which allowed him to understand what was happening, and understand what he had done wrong. "I've crashed this  bike – not at Qatar, that was a different one – and I'm moving, and I know that I'm nearly at the limit, and I'm crashing, and I'm thinking it's nearly OK. Because I knew I was at the limit, I've done that all my career, that's good. It almost gives you confidence crashing. Because you know what happened, you know where it is, it's nice. Last year, I didn't have that. I just thought, well what happened? This is when I would look at the data, the team would look at the data and say, well, it looks exactly the same. So what do you do?"
This is what made racing the Speed Up so difficult in 2014, not being able to understand what the bike was doing, and when you were approaching the limit. "Like at Brno in the race, I was in third, then crashed, I didn't know what happened. The team said, well, maybe you were half a kilometer faster. So then in your head, you've got no answer. Then you go to the next race, and it happens again and you just don't know where you are. You go do the speed, you build up and build up and think, well I can do it, because I'm not crashing. And then you crash, and you don't know why. But that's totally different with this bike and this suspension. With this package, it's totally different."
Was the lack of confidence with the rear of the bike because he was not getting any feedback from it? "There was no feedback," Lowes said. "Zero. The connection between the hand to the rear tire to the track was non-existent. It was just like a button. You could tell it was spinning, but you couldn't even feel the spin in your body, it was more just a movement."
The difference with the 2015 bike was huge. "Now, in some corners in Qatar, I was picking up the gas 20 meters earlier. Just a little bit of gas, and with the aluminum, I can feel the bike. Now, when I get on the gas, I feel the bike pitch to the rear – not massively – but put the weight on the tire, and on to the track. And then subconsciously, you have the confidence to just turn. It just turns and goes. Last year, I was no gas, watching the apex, not even hitting the apex, and just feeling so far above the track. Now I make the corner, I choose where I go. The bike is a lot better for that."
That's why 2014 had been such a tough year for Lowes. "Last year, I was making triangles of all the corners: going in, stopping, and coming out, that's how I could ride it. The change is little, but it's also big. Last year, looking at the average lap time, my best lap was 0.4, 0.5 off the best lap time. It's a lot, but not a lot. But now how I'm feeling, and how I was feeling, it's a different world. Because even when we got the bike working good, just to have it good for one weekend, you never got the most out of it, the bike was better than me on that odd weekend. But overall, it was just a disaster really."