Trackside Tuesday: The Summer of Our Discontent

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The view from pit lane into Ben Spies’ garage has been fairly grim in 2012, and today’s announcement that Ben is leaving the factory Yamaha team at the end of the season sheds some new light on this gloomy situation. If you have watched Ben since his AMA days, where he learned from, and then triumphed over, the formidable Mat Mladin, you may not have been surprised by Spies’ rookie season WSBK Championship, or his success at Tech 3 when he entered MotoGP, or his being the first non-alien to win a dry race since the Rossi-Lorenzo-Pedrosa-Stoner lockout. His move to Rossi’s spot alongside Lorenzo made perfect sense, as did Ben’s good results last season.

Surely after a season of adjustment, in 2012 he would repeat his success at Assen, by adding more wins and taking his rightful place among the elite riders. His difficulties in 2012 could be chalked up to the pressure of being at the very top for the first time in his career. Or could they?

Those of us who have watched Ben since his AMA days have said to ourselves, nothing should faze a guy who has been Mladin’s teammate for that long and come out on top to win three national titles. But 2012 has been a story different from what we have been expecting, a story that from the perspective of pit lane, grid, and Yamaha hospitality suite has only grown more mysterious.

It has been clear that something has been going on, but many of us have been writing that off as discomfort with a bunch of bad luck. Few, if any, doubt Ben’s pace or mental toughness, but everyone gets unlucky, and sometimes a run of bad luck can mean good results are very hard to come by. Wasn’t this the explanation for Ben’s manner in the hospitality? We know he is a quiet person, shy even, but also friendly, personable, and confident.

Yet each time I have attended his end-of-day press sessions he has waited at the side of the room, face buried in his laptop, emerging only to answer questions with his usual professionalism, before heading right back to his laptop again. His crew chief, Tom Houseworth, usually gregarious, smiling, and joking, has been circumspect and uneasy when I have stopped to talk to him in pit lane. I have been explaining these things, as many others have, by thinking the team is waiting patiently for things to turn around and for the results to come.

But today’s announcement suggests that there is something far deeper going on inside Yamaha that may help explain Ben’s dismal 2012 results. There are, after all, powerful personalities and egos involved at the top level of MotoGP, and for a quiet guy who cares only for the racing and not for the politics, the situation may be even more of a challenge than the one Mladin presented. For now we can only wait to hear more from Ben, though it is quite possible we may never know the whole story.

Scott Jones is a professional photographer who covers MotoGP and WSBK for racing industry clients as well as racing websites and publications in the U.S. and Europe. His online archive is available at Photo.GP, and you can find him on his blogTwitter, & Facebook.

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Photo: © 2012 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved