For Bradley Smith the switch to KTM was one made on "blind faith," but during a tough year he's aware he needs that faith to be reciprocated
"I'm the first one to admit that I've under performed this year," admits Bradley Smith as he looks ahead to the final races of the MotoGP 2017 season. "I can't really pinpoint exactly why that is. I think that I've put in the effort and the focus but I've not understood what I needed to do to get the most from the KTM. I think that I've done a great job with the development of the bike and I've embraced the role of developing the bike. At some times I've probably focused on that too much rather than racing."
Since joining the premier class in 2013 Smith has been noted as one of the most articulate and insightful riders on the grid. His ability to explain the minute details of how a MotoGP bike interacts with the track and rider has made him a favorite of journalists looking for information. On the back of a superb 2015 campaign, it also put him on the shopping lists of numerous teams. Ultimately, that season, where he spent the majority of the year inside the top six, showed his potential in the class.
Playing the long game
Having proved to himself that he could run at the front it has also given the 26 year old an appetite to do it again. This year KTM has been battling just to try to score a point, and it has been clear that these performances were a long way from the goals he had set himself. Being able to return to the sharp end will certainly take some doing, and for Smith playing the long game has been an important part of 2017.
"I was a sixth placed rider in the past, and I want to get this bike back to the point where I can be in the top six again. I'm almost at a point where I don't really care about racing around for 15th, my only goal is to make sure that in the future we're able to fight in the top six. I've always been a big picture kind of guy, and my goal has always been to make sure that at the end of this two-year contract that I'm in at least as good a position as I had been in before."
Development vs racing
When KTM placed the expectation that he would lead the development of the RC16 throughout this season upon him, Smith embraced the role. With results having been scarce the pressure has been mounting on the Englishman, and with a change of crew chief for the final third of the season it was clear that patience has been wearing thin in Austria.
"I've probably focused on developing the bike too much rather than just thinking about racing it. If I'm honest, that's where most of the problem has come from. I basically had my group of people around me that meant that we could play with things on the bike. Sometimes when you've a group of intelligent people are in a circle, like with those engineers, they question each other and try and find the perfect solution. Sometimes what can happen in that situation is that they question each other and miss some of some the important stuff."
Seeing the wood for the trees during KTM's inaugural premier class campaign has been a challenge for Smith. The Oxfordshire native has been forced to adapt from one extreme to the other, and he's struggled to move between the roles of developing the bike and racing it as seamlessly as he might have hoped.
"Unfortunately for me, I didn't distinguish between developing the bike and racing it. I think that one of the biggest reasons that I'm still here is because I have brought a lot of development to the table. There's been a lot of talk about me losing my contract because results haven't been there, but the problem for me is that in my mind I've not been able to say 'this is the KTM and you have to ride the bike to its limit on the day to get its best result.' I've been thinking that if we're fighting for a point in 15th, I'd rather focus on making the bike better for 2018 rather than getting the point on that day."
"That's been taking up too much of my mental focus and I was surrounded by people that believed in that approach. Pol's strategy was different and he wanted to race the bike to its potential every weekend. Mika's approach is even more that way, because he's only had two races. On my side of the garage we've been working on different parts and this approach was my decision."
"I know though that this is a results-based game, and even though I believe that I've brought a lot to the table, I've not been fast enough in races or qualifying yet. I've had to switch my focus away from development and look for results. I want to finish this season strong and focus on the right things."
It's not what you got, it's what you do
Being able to understand exactly what he needs to do is one of the most important things for Smith. His history in the premier class has been turbulent but with two podiums and a season as the top satellite rider he has shown that he has the potential to deliver. Having tasted champagne on the podium and been lauded for his consistency, getting back to that point is his sole goal. Having been able to taste the trappings of success he knows now that the pain of not being at the front vastly outweighs the comfort of money in the bank.
Moving to Monaco, training with other leading athletes and being able to enjoy an enviable lifestyle means nothing to him now unless it's accompanied by success.
"Honestly all of that means absolutely nothing to me. When you get older you start to realize what makes you happy, what matters to you and what you want from life and what makes you confident. It's racing that makes my life good and when you're riding well you don't have to justify things to your friends or the people you meet.
"When you're out for a training cycle you get a pat on the back and told 'we saw you at the weekend, well done!' You don't get that when the results aren't there; it becomes a forbidden subject almost. That impacts on everything from when I wake up in the morning until I go to bed. I don't feel like myself when it's been like this year, and it makes everything else irrelevant. The results are all that you want. I want to show my 100%, and the money in your bank account, where you live, they're just the icing on the cake. I've always felt that I was put on this world to ride bikes and MotoGP was the path that I took. I want to show what I can do in MotoGP."
The pressure has been mounting on Smith throughout the year, but far from shying from the criticism, he knows that he needs to deliver. With MotoGP teams growing more and more impatient - as illustrated by the uncertainty surrounding Smith and Andrea Iannone, and Aprilia's decision to move on from Sam Lowes - the KTM rider knows that it's put up or shut up time.
"This uncertainty is the nature of the sport: it's all about results. I walked away from a podium bike at Tech3; we've seen with Zarco and Folger this year that the bike is capable of being on the podium. Whatever people want to say about me as a rider, I walked away from a podium motorcycle in MotoGP because I believed in this project and I want to be involved with KTM."
"It was blind faith on my part and I wanted to be involved. Even before the end of 2015 I wanted to be here for 2017. I've committed the good years of my career to this project and to hear about the uncertainty, of course it affects you. I've tried to look at the situation and think that everyone inside the garage is 100% behind me. Business realities, though, it isn't always about the work that goes on in the office or in the garage. It's about what happens in board rooms or golf courses, and they are results-driven conversations. If profits are up everyone is happy, if profits are down someone is going to be fired. That's the kind of situation that we're in at the moment."
"I know that everyone in the garage is behind me. We all got involved with KTM because we wanted to start something from scratch and be involved in something good. We all came here with the same mindset, but maybe outside of the team, people that have already had success with KTM, are maybe just looking at the end-of-year results. KTM are used to being world champions and they're not used to seeing these kinds of results any more. They still have belief in me, and now it's down to me to show what I can do and deliver the results that I need to."
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