Britain’s Bradley Smith is feeling good about his next two MotoGP seasons with KTM. After a couple of tests, the Oxfordshire rider is only 1.4s off the pace and says the bike is only at 80 per cent of its potential. We sat down with him at the team launch to get the full griff:
First of all, how are you feeling? Are you back to full fitness after your last year's injury?
I'm back to where I'd like to be in terms of fitness. I still have five weeks so that's plenty of time to get that final little bit but to be honest I was doing on average around 70 laps per day during the Phillip Island test, so happy with where I'm at with my physical condition. I'm able to do some, not super long runs because at the moment it's more important to focus on bike development than doing a race run but still happy with how thing are going. From injury side it's not affecting me on the bike any more so that's a nice situation to be in.
It was a tough season last year. Why?
To be honest, looking back the beginning was so difficult. We had four or five different tyres for the four of five different weeks so for a satellite team with not so much knowledge or not so many resources to adapt to those tyres I think that was the main thing. If it didn't work it didn't work. We didn't have a chassis or a swingarm or a different suspension to try. We had what we had so if it didn't work it never worked.
Then I seemed to get some results. They seems to start to come, especially at Le Mans and Mugello. I was battling for top satellite in both of those races, so we were finding our feet. Then we had a string of mechanicals. In Barcelona I had a problem there. It rained in Assen and I crashed out. Then in Germany we had a flag to flag, in Austria I was fast again. Then it rained in Brno, so five races kind of disappeared in the championship and actually we were quite fast and consistent and then it rained or something happened and the results weren't there.
Then I had the injury, unfortunately but when I came back from the injury I'm still really happy. I finished eighth in Phillip Island, I was battling not far behind Pol in Valencia. I was actually battling with Cal until he crashed. So back to normal. In terms of the points or results it actually looked like a bad season but if I dissect it actually wasn't as bad as it looked on paper.
How hard was it do adapt to the different tyres and electronics last year?
To be honest electronics are quite simple. Tech3 did a fantastic job from that point of view. From the tyres it was a little bit more difficult. Like I've said we had the same bike from the start of the season. It was a bike that was designed around the Bridgestone tyres, and I think Pol was in the same boat. We both did the best that we could. He was a bit more consistent throughout the season but in terms of the overall performance on the day we were always very very similar. Already I feel a lot better. Michelin have done a fantastic job during the winter. What they've provided us on the race track seems to be better. The KTM already naturally feels better with the Michelins so I think I'm in a better place now than 12 months ago for the start of the season.
How the KTM compares to Yamaha?
I think you can't really compare it because it's so very different but I certainly feel very comfortable on this bike. Even ergonomically, just sitting on the bike, it feels a bit more to my style. When you ride it you can be quite versatile with the motorcycle, there's not only one line that works. You can ride two or three different approaches and they all seems to be quite positive so I'm really pleased with what we have so far. The development rate has been phenomenal.
To be 1.4 seconds from the best guy at Phillip Island after only seeing the place for three days shows what the KTM is doing as a bike. We haven't even got full potential. We're really so fresh in all of this. I think we're a 80 per cent of what we're capable of doing and 80 per cent of what we're doing only 1.4 seconds away shows what potential we could do but that final 20 per cent is the most difficult part. This is when the real work starts and I'm really interested to see what we could do.
You've said at Phillip Island that this bike requires a more aggressive riding style. How does this suit your natural riding style?
I needed to adapt a little bit to be honest. It was something that I was a little bit too smooth at the beginning but something that I've started to sort out towards the end of the test. Both tests I kind of started 8 out of 10 and then just tried to get a little faster. Phillip Island, we've made a bit step on the last day, especially in terms of chassis. Pol, he followed our direction and he felt the benefit as well. The work we're doing is right at the moment and it's scary to think we've only got three more days of testing before the season starts but we're all about competition. In the end there's only so much testing you want to do. Finally put us on the pressure, put us on the stopwatch and let's see what happens.
What it's like to ride the steel trellis chassis? Does it feel different?
I'm really happy with it to be honest. I have more feel with the steel chassis than what I've ever had with the aluminium so I'm super content with what we have. I'm a rider that rides on feel so when a bike is talking to me that's what I want. From a positive side and negative side. When it's not giving you the right feeling it's clear so you know where the limit is quite quickly. I really have no negatives. I think I've tried four different styles of chassis so far. That's something that was never possible so it shows the reaction time of KTM and how hard they're working and that's just going to help us in our development in the future.
How about the engine? Pol Espargaro said it's aggressive and doesn't have much acceleration. With Phillip Island not being a track that's demanding on the acceleration, are you worried for places like Qatar, with long straight and slow corners. Will it be more of a problem there?
I'm never worried of what KTM are going to do, honestly. These guys always have something in their back pocket and that's the exciting thing. They always have something there that if you need it they have it, that's the amazing thing with this project. Right now the engine is maybe not where we want it but where they took the bike from the end of last year to what they gave us now is already a massive step and I'm sure they already have the next step available. They know that Qatar is super important. They know the high speed nature of the track. They're not underprepared. They're going to turn up right there and give it their best shot and whatever we'll learn there we'll have something even stronger for the next weekend. You can rely on these guys to keep on improving.
You've been quite far back during the last couple of tests. Why was that and are you concerned?
For me there's never a reason for a concern. I crashed three times last year and that dented my confidence. One thing I've wanted to do this year is to make a slow build up; ride the first day 8 out of 10, then 9 on the second day and then on the third try to make a real difference. I didn't want to make any silly crashes. It hampers development and rider confidence and that confidence is so important at this point. I know what I'm doing and I think it worked fine. Pol's way of working is a little bit different but at the end of every test we've always ended up in the same spot. So yeah, no reasons for concern from my side.
Are you putting your goals in any numbers?
No. The most important thing is to improve every weekend or if we don't improve, we learn. That's all I can really ask for. If we can turn up in Qatar and score a point that would be amazing. If we score anything inside the top ten by the end of the year we should be having a massive celebration because this is MotoGP, we're 15 years behind the very first MotoGP bike that was out on track. You can't catch that up in 15 months so we're going to work hard. All of the resources that we have here within KTM are amazing. They're really throwing everything at it at this point and I just need to steer them in the right direction as a rider.