A return to WorldSBK with the bike that he came so close to winning the championship on. It all appeared like a dream opportunity for Eugene Laverty to put himself into a position to win the title. The dream quickly turned to a nightmare and from the start of winter testing it was clear that major work needed to be done to return the RSV4 to the front.
Moving to the Milwaukee Aprilia squad understandably led to heightened expectations. In their second year in WorldSBK the former British Superbike champions were expected to make a leap forward. Teething problems were expected with the switch from BMW to Aprilia, but not the struggles that lay ahead.
“During the winter you can go in the wrong direction with the bike,” commented Laverty. “Unfortunately, that was the case for us. It wasn't the direction that I would have taken the bike and that’s why right away from early in the season I was starting to steer it back to how I rode the bike four years ago. It took us a few rounds to get the right base and we’ve been trying to progress since then.
False dawn at Portimao
“When you’re lost, the best thing is to find your feet with something you know and first then build on it from there. The only track we were able to be strong with this bike in testing was at Portimao but it's a special track. It’s a track that you can drag a bike around even if the bike’s not working. So that gave us a sense of false hope. But when we went to Philip Island we knew we were struggling.”
That struggle was plain to see with Laverty crashing in the opening Superpole session of the year and being put immediately on the back foot. Two top tens were scant reward for the Irishman on his return to WorldSBK duty.
“After two years in MotoGP I think the main thing that’s changed in WorldSBK is what the riders have done to bring it forward. Between Chaz, Johnny and Tom, they've really brought the performance forward. The lap time that they gain has come from braking. If you watch where they’re braking now, they’re really getting the most out of the Pirelli front tire. I think Chaz took that another step midway through last year, and then that’s why you saw the others having to catch up in the wintertime. So, that’s what happens.
The game moves on
“If you have great riders and great bikes, they don’t get slower. They only get faster. That’s where they’ve kept working at to make a tenth here and there, but the race times don’t lie. We see the guys are absolutely flying, and that’s what makes it tough. When Aprilia left for a couple of years, coming back was always going to be difficult. But the fact that them boys have brought things on another step, it’s much harder than we expected.”
While Rea, Davies and Sykes have progressed what a WorldSBK rider has to do to get to the front, two years in MotoGP certainly changed Laverty's riding. When he last raced in WorldSBK he was a constant front runner, race winner and title contender. While this year hasn't allowed him to showcase that speed at the front, he certainly feels the value of the last two years.
“I’m definitely a better rider since my two years in GP. When you go and ride under par machinery, you have to ride the wheels off. I was riding different tires and learning some different tricks. Hopefully we can get the bike to a level where I can show that.
“Lausitzring was the first time this year where I was able to really have true pace, and that’s why I was so disappointed, because we were strong but we had problems in the two races where it all went to pot for us. That was so unfortunate, because with the decent qualifying we had the potential to finish third or at worst fourth in both races.
“It didn’t go to plan and that was I think even more frustrating than earlier in the season whenever we were lost and we didn’t know where we were at. At the Lausitzring, we had smiles on our faces thinking this is all coming together, and then it just went to pot. We had a problem in Race 1 and I dropped outside the top nine and that meant that we had a crap qualifying for race two. In race two I was behind the group, and because we were lacking acceleration there was a yo-yo effect. I got frustrated and crashed out and so suddenly a weekend with so much potential, we only walked away with single-digit points.”
Back into the groove
Single-digit points-scoring days have unfortunately been the norm for Laverty in 2017. The Aprilia rider has only cracked the top six on four occasions this season, and while the Aprilia was the dominant machine in 2014, times have certainly changed.
“It took me three or four days to start to really get the most out of the tires again. Before the start of the season I was fully back into superbike mode, riding the bike correctly. But because of that transition phase, I wasn’t able to point out the problems with the bike right away until suddenly the season’s getting underway and then I started to have some complaints.
“Since May it’s mostly been working on geometry. We changed the weight bias of the bike for Donington, and just within two laps, I said, the bike now is natural. You roll the gas, it pitches correctly. It was normal because before that, it was doing some strange things. But as soon as Donington we knew we had the tools to make the bike feel natural. We’ve just been working really to improve our braking since then.
“The guys did quite a big step to improve our braking to try and catch up to Ducati and Kawasaki there. I think we’re not far away from that. But then as with anything, if you iron out the main problem then there’s the secondary problem to get on with. Riding with Johnny in Lausitzring then you notice we’re lacking really the acceleration. Them guys get so much punch out of the corner and from low RPM we don’t have that.
“In 2013 that was our strongest area and that’s why I have to use a different gear pattern at a lot of tracks now. Even at Portimao I think there’s three corners I’m using a gear lower than what I did back in the day just because this thing used to have to so much torque and it used to accelerate. Now it doesn’t anymore because of the rule changes, unfortunately. But that’s the bike we’ve got and we’ve got to work with it.”
In it to win it
Working within the Milwaukee Aprilia team is obviously very different to when he was riding for the factory in 2013. The atmosphere of the mostly British crew obviously contrasts to an Italian operation but Laverty is keen to stress the quality of the team assembled.
“It’s a very professional team and in BSB they won championships there because they’re a world championship-level team. They’re well-structured and Shaun Muir really wants to win, and over the years, as strange as it sounds, I’ve been with teams where taking part was what it was about, whereas here it’s about winning. I like that because I go racing to win. Where we’re at this year is not where we expected.
“I wasn’t sure if we could realistically fight for the title this year. We went into the season at the start of the year thinking, let’s give it a good go for the start of the year, we’ll get stuck in. But I think realistically we were thinking to be around that third, fourth place marker, and we’re back in bloody ninth or tenth. So we’re well away from where I expected and where Shaun expected and where Aprilia expected. So, it’s been pretty rocky until now, but at least it looks like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
“It has been three years since I’ve really been able to show true potential. Probably on the Suzuki getting a race win at the start of the year, a podium in Sepang. It was a difficult year but at least we were getting some results, whereas the last three years I haven’t really had the machinery to truly show my potential. That’s why I wanted to sign a two-year contract to come here to start winning races again.
The pecking order
“There’s a pecking order of machinery available and I left WorldSBK because I couldn't get a bike that would allow me to win. I wanted to stay at the end of ‘14, but when I couldn’t get on a competitive bike and with Johnny having signed for Kawasaki, I knew what to expect. I’d always said that if you put a top rider on the Kawasaki and they’re going to walk away with that. We knew that for years because the bike was such a step up on everything else.
“I thought if I can’t get a competitive bike in superbike, I might as well try a mid-field bike in MotoGP and see how it works out there. But the reason I came back to WorldSBK is because I wasn’t going to get a MotoGP bike better than the one that I was on at the time and I didn’t want to stay on the same level of machinery. In WorldSBK with Aprilia, going back with official support, I thought that’s actually a good fit, and I'd get my old bike back again.”
While Laverty has gotten back on an Aprilia it certainly hasn't been the same old bike. Time will tell whether the 13 times race winner can add to his tally and challenge for a title once again. He's made clear that no stone will be left unturned on his part but he's also under no illusions; the game has changed a lot in recent years.
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2017 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.