The final piece of the MotoGP puzzle has finally dropped. Eugene Laverty has decided that he will be switching back to WorldSBK, where he will ride a factory-backed Aprilia RSV4-RF with the Milwaukee Racing SMR squad. The departure of Laverty means that Yonny Hernandez will get to keep his place in the Pull & Bear Aspar Ducati team, filling the final empty slot on the MotoGP grid.
It may seem strange for Laverty to abandon MotoGP, just as his star has been rising in the class. Since Aspar switched from Honda's RC213V-RS Open Class machine to the Ducati Desmosedici GP14.2, the older Ducati working very well with the Michelin tires, more rear grip helping to reduce the understeer the GP14.2 suffers from. He is currently eleventh in the championship, and has a fourth and a sixth as best finishes, Laverty being annoyed that early traffic cost him the chance of a podium at Brno. It took the factory Ducatis on their brand new GP16s six races to get ahead of the Irishman in the championship standings.
So why has Laverty decided to abandon MotoGP in favor of WorldSBK? There are a number of reasons, but all of them boil down to a single issue: Eugene Laverty is a winner, and he likes to win. On two-year-old machinery, in a private team (though with good factory support, unlike other satellite set ups), Laverty's only chance to win in MotoGP would come when the weather acts as the great neutralizer.
GP15 vs GP16
Speaking to Neil Morrison of Crash.net, Eugene Laverty made it clear that the fact that he would be on a Ducati Desmosedici GP15, rather than a GP16, was what tipped the scales for him. Though the difference between the two bikes is relatively small, the changes to the GP16 have helped reduce tire wear and make the bike better over race distance. In terms of a single lap, there is little to choose between the GP15 and the GP16. But by the end of race distance, after 25 laps or so, the difference can be measured in seconds, rather than tenths of a second.
Ducati will expect to make a similar step between the GP16 and the GP17. That would effectively double Laverty's disadvantage to the factory bikes, putting the gap over race distance between the bike he would be on and the bike Jorge Lorenzo will be on in the range of tens of seconds rather than seconds.
In WorldSBK, Laverty will be aboard a factory-backed Aprilia. Though final confirmation is yet to arrive – paddock gossip suggests that the official announcement that Shaun Muir's SMR Milwaukee outfit is to run the factory Aprilia team has been kicked down the road two or three times already this month – it is as good as certain that the SMR Milwaukee team will run the factory Aprilia effort.
Though the Aprilia RSV4-RF has not had many updates in recent years, general consensus in the WorldSBK paddock is that the Aprilia is highly competitive, as long as the team running the bikes has support and assistance from the factory. "The Aprilia is the best package on the grid," one WorldSBK rider told me off the record at Misano. "But you have to have factory support." Without factory support, getting the best out of the bike, especially through its sophisticated electronics package, is almost impossible.
Beating the best on their own terms?
So the choice for Laverty is between winning in WorldSBK and fighting for top tens in MotoGP. There is no doubt that MotoGP is currently the better series, though this has not always been so in the past. The current top four riders are already dominating the record books, and have earned a special place in history. There are signs that some of the other riders in the class are on their way to join Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa in the MotoGP pantheon.
That is not to underrate the current field in WorldSBK, however. The cream of the World Superbike riders could hold their own in MotoGP, if given the right machinery. Laverty's achievements on a two-year-old Ducati prove what the best WorldSBK men are capable of. But Jonathan Rea, Chaz Davies, Tom Sykes are all too old to be considered for rides in the factory MotoGP teams, and even the strongly-supported teams such as Pramac Ducati are looking more to young riders in the support classes rather than riders such as Chaz Davies.
But MotoGP is the big show. Crowds are triple what WorldSBK brings in, and TV audiences are similarly much larger. Given the extra prestige of MotoGP, and the extra exposure for sponsors, the choice should be simple? Surely, given the choice, a rider should choose MotoGP every time?
Not necessarily. Given the freedom which the engineers have in MotoGP, and the budgets the factories have to spend, the machine makes up a bigger part of the overall performance equation than it does in World Superbikes. With more power, better tires, more engineering freedom in the technical regulations, and a bike designed solely for the race track, with no compromises for road use, MotoGP is more of a playground for engineers than WorldSBK is.
Building down to a price point
The limits of a World Superbike machine are determined much more closely by the technical rules, by the fact that the bikes also have to function well at street-legal speeds on terrible surfaces on public roads, and by the fact that the bikes are designed to be built down to a cost. The differences are most visible in the engine: the engines of WorldSBK bikes use the cases and much of the internals of the road bike. Cases are vastly overengineered to last for many years and hundreds of thousands of kilometers. The engine cases of most MotoGP bikes are machined from a single block of aluminum, keeping just the very minimum material necessary. A set of MotoGP engine cases might be expected to last 10,000km, and not 200,000km.
With riders having more of a chance to find the difference in themselves, WorldSBK gives them a better chance of winning, or getting on the podium. That, above all, is why a racer would choose WorldSBK over MotoGP. For personal reasons, for psychological reasons, and even for financial reasons.
Racers = psychos
The psychological reasons are perhaps the most interesting. Racers love to win. It is their very reason for existing. They make a competition out of everything, and are determined to win that competition. Woe is you if you overtake a professional racer on the motorway. They will go out of their way – even if it means missing their exit and adding half an hour or more to their journey – to get back in front of you, despite the fact that you were probably not even thinking of your commute as a competition. So perhaps, woe is the motorcycle racer.
Every MotoGP racer turns up at the start of each weekend firmly believing they can actually win this thing, though it would require things to go their way to a greater or lesser extend, depending on the bike. They know rationally that they are more likely to get tenth than top, but the unique combination of hubris and Panglossian optimism which lives inside every racer means they will still give it their best shot. But in their darker moments, the knowledge that tenth is the best they can realistically hope for starts to wear on them, sucking the motivation and the positivity out of them.
So sometimes it is better to switch to a different championship, and get back to winning ways. On Sunday, the only people who count are the rivals on the track, and beating them is an obsession. In a series where the rider can make more of the difference, the attraction, the availability of the drug of winning, is a difficult temptation to resist.
Money makes the world go round
Switching from MotoGP to World Superbikes can make a lot of financial sense as well. Though I am not privy to the precise details of either Eugene Laverty's deal with Aspar, nor with the Irishman's new contract with Aprilia, it is clear that the Aprilia deal will be more lucrative. Riders are offering themselves for nothing – or even offering to bring money – to MotoGP teams with empty seats. The limited supply and unlimited demand mean that rider salaries are skewed. The teams also have more budget for riders, as they don't have to spend €2 million plus on machinery. For half that, they can field two bikes. That means the WorldSBK teams have a lot more money to spend on riders, and still have budget to spare.
A switch to World Superbikes can be lucrative from the view of personal sponsors as well. Leathers manufacturers, helmet manufacturers and more all have personal deals with riders which include bonuses for podiums and wins. Those podium photos are valuable marketing for a leather suit manufacturer, and they are more than willing to reward their riders for results. Those same sponsors are less likely to be shelling out bonuses for tenth places in MotoGP, no matter how hard fought they were.
More money, more competitive equipment, and the chance to fulfill a deep-seated psychological need? I see exactly why Eugene Laverty decided to abandon the MotoGP paddock for WorldSBK. Winners like to win. And winning makes solid financial sense. Laverty is easily one of the very best MotoGP satellite riders in the world at the moment. But the chances of that appreciated, acknowledged and rewarded are very slim indeed. Laverty did the right thing, no matter what it looks like.
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