Knocking on the factory door

British MotoGP rider Bradley Smith is hunting a works seat – and this is the year he must grab it
Writer Ed Foster

Strangely for someone at the top of their sport, MotoGP rider Bradley Smith never actually wanted to get there – his early years were all about motocross and getting to the top of that discipline, the AMA Motocross Championship, instead of racing on Tarmac.

His father Allan competed in motocross rather than circuit racing and, handily, there was a motocross track on the farm where he lived. “I guess it’s still my dream now to be a part of that scene,” he admits when we catch up with him at the final round of the 2014 MotoGP season in Valencia. “I was on an okay route, but then I had three injuries in 12 months [2002/03] and my dad fell out of love with it.”

Allan Smith didn’t want his son to stop racing a bike completely and, after a few friends suggested circuit racing, Bradley went to get the necessary licence.

“There used to be a guy at the ACU [Auto-cycle Union] who was a real know-it-all,” says Ian Newton, the boss of the entry-level Aprilia Superteen series that brought on the likes of Casey Stoner, Cal Crutchlow and Smith. “Bradley went to get his CBT [Compulsory Basic Training] where you have to ride around cones or whatever and he ended up doing this at Darley Moor, where this chap was based. Bradley did his bit and this guy, who had been watching, turned to his father and said, ‘Yeah, your son’s okay, but I have to say, as long as he’s got a hole in his bum he ain’t gonna go road racing. He should stay in motocross’.”

The ACU instructor should have known better – a huge number of riders on the MotoGP grid started in dirt racing. “It’s great training for feeling the bike’s throttle control, dealing with a bike that’s constantly moving and sliding around underneath you,” says Smith who arrived on the MotoGP grid in 2013 after nine years battling in the lower categories. “The first time I actually sat down and watched MotoGP was in 2004, when Valentino won on the Yamaha in South Africa. To finally be on the track with him when he returned to Yamaha in 2013 was crazy, but when you grow up in that environment – I was in the world championship for seven years before I stood on a MotoGP grid – you get used to those guys being around. There is that respect level there, but you do realise that you can ride as fast as them on certain days, on certain laps. You need to get that into your head pretty quickly and, if you want to keep your job, you’ll need to beat them at some point.”

Smith surprised a few people last year with his first MotoGP podium – in the crash-strewn race at Phillip Island, where he finished behind Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo – and three fifth places. He hasn’t burst onto the scene like two-time champ Marc Márquez, but plenty of people take his talent and analytical approach seriously. “He’s got massive determination,” says Newton. “Some people probably thought ‘Jesus, he’s got a MotoGP ride’. Well, yeah, because if you look at what he’s done and how hard he works, he deserves it.

“When I’m looking at young kids starting out I look out for determination. Because they’re teenagers lots of things can change, but determination tends not to. To a degree it’s about how focused they are, regardless of how good or bad they are. Both Bradley and Casey [Stoner] were way ahead in that department. Casey used to live at our place when he first came over to the UK, because he had nowhere to go. He was just a little country kid and all he wanted to do was mess around in the fields and woods on his bike. I can remember it now and it was bizarre – he would put his crash helmet on and he would just change. And I mean it was as if someone had flicked a switch. He would have a glaze over his eyes. I did wonder, ‘Is it because he’s been doing this since such a young age? Or is it just him?’ I’d like to think it was a bit of both. I do think you have to have something in your make-up to make you go ‘click’ on a bike.”

While Smith has the steely determination that Newton seeks, there’s still plenty to absorb, a matter he openly admits. “When you’re racing against the best in the world there’s always lots to learn. Myself and Andrea [Iannone] are the only guys out there in the top 10 who haven’t been world champions in some category at some point – you’re riding against the absolute best.

“You do learn from everybody; everyone has a slightly different style and MotoGP is very different from the lower categories. We’ve seen it make or break quite a few riders’ careers.” Another bonus of Bradley’s current position at Tech 3 Yamaha is that he receives the works team’s data. He can sit down and go through exactly what Rossi and Lorenzo are doing at any point on a track. For someone who’s known for his scientific approach to racing it’s a huge help. “The Yamaha hasn’t been the most diverse bike,” he says. “It has one style and one line that really work so it takes a while to adapt. Once you do, it’s amazing”.

Back in 2011, Smith’s first year in Moto2 with Tech 3, he had a storming first half to his season with three podiums in a row in Britain, the Netherlands and Italy. Moto2 is a notoriously tricky step up from the 125cc category and Tech 3 decided that it had seen enough and signed him up on a three-year deal. The following year would be another spent in Moto2 and then in 2013 he’d make his MotoGP debut. Despite some eye-catching performances his seat was under threat, but around the middle of last year Tech 3 team manager Hervé Poncharal announced that he would remain on board for this season. It’s time for Smith to perform, especially seeing as he will be on a ‘satellite’ Yamaha M1 that, bar the control ECU, will be almost identical to those of Rossi and Lorenzo.

“I don’t fear anyone,” Smith says. “We’re all competitive people and we all totally believe in ourselves. OK, there’s sometimes a little bit of frustration because you feel, given a slightly better bike, you’d be able to do more. What you have to remember is that the factory teams know how good your bike is, they know the lap-time difference between your package and the factory bikes, so they know whether you’re extracting the absolute best or not.”

While Márquez will be trying to fend off the likes of Rossi, Dani Pedrosa and Lorenzo in order to seal his third consecutive title, Smith will reignite his mission to persuade the factory teams that he’s good enough. The coming season will be his best chance yet.

Our thanks to Tissot for its assistance with this feature. The MotoGP season starts in Qatar on March 29.

UK futures
What are the prospects for Britain’s other rising stars?

Brits Smith, Cal Crutchlow and Scott Redding are all on the MotoGP grid this season and, with Smith on a factory-specification M1 and Crutchlow and Redding on works-spec Honda RC213Vs, there’s no reason why they can’t challenge for occasional podiums. However, the only other Brit out there is Danny Kent, who’s scored some results in the lower categories. He’s shown potential, but moved from Moto2 back down to Moto3 last season.

“It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” says Ian Newton, discussing the lack of young Brits coming up through the lower categories. “I’ve run the Superteen Series for 18 years and we have a shortage of youngsters coming in. I put it down to your modern dads who are 35-plus. They’re not into bikes like we used to be, they’re into computers, that sort of thing.”

Smith agrees and says that racing bikes is still a niche sport in the UK. “I think only one per cent of the UK population actually own a motorbike. It’s not like football, where you can take your son to the park and kick a ball about. The other problem is that people can’t relate to the sport [because there aren’t that many riders]. A motorbike is something you either love or hate. If someone’s never tried it, they won’t be able to relate to us in MotoGP and think ‘I want to do that’.” There is, of course, cost as well. As a youngster Smith went out to do the Spanish 125cc championship, which is a part of the MotoGP Academy. “When he went out there,” says Newton, “you got a free ride if you were good enough.” Nowadays, though, the likes of Wayne Gardner’s son Remy have to find €200,000 for a season.

Spain and Italy have no problem finding young riders. Indeed, the top four in the 2013 125cc championship were all Spanish and, of the 23 confirmed MotoGP riders for the 2015 season, eight are Spanish and four Italian. That’s more than 50 per cent of the grid… But as Newton points out, Motorbike racing is “in their blood”.