2021 sees Sam Lowes head to Qatar favourite to challenge for the Moto2 title after last season’s determined return to the pinnacle of Moto2 racing.
A heroic Portimao race effort, despite his agonising right hand, to close 2020 combined with a long winter recovery and confident, if somewhat shortened, pre-season testing leaves Lowes in prime contention as the first of 19 scheduled race weekends approaches.
Returning to the Elf Marc VDS camp - as it embarks on its 12th season in the ultra-competitive intermediate class - the 30-year-old is full of motivation and self-belief after completing seven productive days testing at Valencia, Jerez and the home of the opening race, Doha. The latter of which he completed at the top of the timesheets without the need for a time attack.
Fully recovered from both the potentially career-ending right shoulder injury which forced his withdrawal from last year’s Qatar race, and the damaged right hand sustained during FP3 at Valencia, Lowes describes himself as “fully fit” with the hand “causing absolutely no issues riding” during last week’s three-day test at the Losail International Circuit.
Reflecting on last year’s troubles, he continued: “Since I joined this team I’ve felt quite relaxed and in a good place so it’s obviously disappointing when you get injured, it’s a hard moment but you also have to understand that it happens in our sport. You just have that focus of getting back to full fitness. Qatar is a track that I love and enjoy anyway, testing has gone well, so it’s all looking good.”
With 2020 forcing him out of action in the desert, Lowes has two top six finishes in Qatar to his name so far - an eye-catching Moto2 World Championship debut in 2014, alongside his 2019 performance, which saw him just 1.2s away from a rostrum finish - but with another stellar pre-season under his belt, he’s confident of more to come as the new year kicks off this weekend.
“I’m really excited to get the season started” said the Brit ahead of the action commencing this Friday. “I can’t wait to see what’s possible in the two races in Qatar. I’m expecting it to be a close and hard fight because all of us have done a lot of laps on the same track, so I think there’s going to be a lot of riders with very strong pace. I need to get the season kicked off in the best possible way and I know myself and the team are ready to go. The team have done a brilliant job all winter and I’m excited and ready and looking forward to making a strong start under the lights.”
Speaking of his Marc VDS team, Lowes knows he’s always had the speed but the stability and down to earth nature of his current environment is allowing the final pieces to all slot together. Fine-tuning his riding style, taking each session as it comes and building on the momentum of the weekend, rather than focusing on the race from the start of FP1.
“What helps is when the team analyse everything well,” the Brit explains further, “when they analyse the sessions and analyse the riding, of course they can help me with the riding and the bike, but certain teams I’ve been in, if you’re first in FP1 it’s like you’ve won the world championship and then if you have a bad FP2 they have to change everything on the bike. That up and down as a rider and a team is where you’re not ready for the race. That’s where it’s helped me the last year, it’s just been a lot more stable, more working through the process, and then just crack on.”
A fundamental piece of that puzzle has been his working relationship with crew chief Gilles Bigot, as Lowes explained to Steve English in his recent Paddock Pass podcast:
“I really enjoyed the first test with him. He’s different to me but that’s a positive thing, we bounce off each other. When something is not going good or it’s not quite the right direction, he doesn’t panic, he doesn’t say anything negative, he just tries to work you back into a good way. Same when things go great, you don’t get much from him as well - I think it took three wins in a row to get a nice compliment off him last year! - but I respect that. He’s got so much experience I love talking to him over dinner, talking about everything he’s done and seen, achieved and enjoyed in his life, it’s great for me and I really respect him. The bike is always more or less workable every time I get on it and that’s something that I’ve missed in the past and it gives me great confidence.
“The team have done really well, they make me feel welcome in any moment, made me feel like I’ve got support all the time and that’s great as a rider. It gives you just a bit more ammunition, a bit more feeling in your pocket, that when you go to the race, you’re going all together.”
The pair have also been working to fine-tune Lowes’ riding style, with the addition of a rear brake lever during last season. “Smooth is fast in racing but when you push hard, it’s sometimes hard to be smooth, especially for me in my career” Lowes continued. “Even from last year to this year I’m still working on just being smoother, not just visually on the bike with much smoother movements but also with my brake release, throttle control, stuff that is obviously hard to see from the outside. Just smoothing everything out and putting a lot less stress on the tyres, a lot less stress on the bike, so it means you can keep that consistency going a lot longer.
“The rear brake’s helped me just because I can balance the bike a bit easier. A lot of guys in Moto2, which is obviously the majority, have come from Moto3 so the riding style is a lot more wide and sweeping lines, just as a result of the fact that there’s a lot of those guys in Moto2, the development sometimes goes a little bit in that direction.
“Since the Triumph’s been in, you can ride the bike a lot of different ways and my style is a lot more direct into the corner. I cut quite a lot into the corner compared to them but that means at one point I’ve got quite a lot of stress on the front, because I’ve cut in, which can be fast. You’re braking with angle which means you’re loading the front more, in effect you’ve got more tyre in the track but then in the middle of the corner when I wasn’t using the rear brake, that brake release was causing the bike to come up in the front, lose front feeling and grip and [resulted in] a lot of small little crashes just at that point.
“So the rear brake’s helping me with the second part of tipping in the apex, it’s just balancing the bike out a little before I release the brake, just keeping the bike in balance and then eliminating those small mistakes or small running wides, and then you just take the confidence and you can build upon it and then work on the smoothness.”
The global pandemic has seen restrictions on technical changes ahead of the 2021 season so what has Lowes been working on during winter testing and what can we expect for the year ahead?
“Wish you’d told my team there wasn’t any technical changes before we’ve done four days testing because I’ve testing a lot of stuff considering there has been no changes!” joked the Brit. “No, it will be similar but Kalex have done a great job, Ohlins have done a great job and there is new things coming through. It’s going to be similar because the base chassis is the same. Basically they’ve not made a new chassis, but everything that they’ve had over the last couple of years you can mix and match, also triple clamps and links, stuff like that, and swingarms have been new, so there is some new stuff. There’s some good stuff for me, some things that I felt in testing that we’ve improved but majority, 70% of the bike will be the same.
“I think the big thing is the tyres will be the same. Even last year they were changing the tyres quite a lot from the year before, so now we’re going back to the same tracks with the same tyres and that’s going to be quite nice because it means that from FP1, you know more or less the race tyre and you can work on that.
“I think Bezzecchi obviously will be strong, great rider, great team, finished fourth in the championship, still had a chance at the championship until the last race of the year. Remy won the last race, so he’s obviously full of confidence, joining a great team, so he’s going to be strong, but there’s loads of guys. Navarro is coming off a bad year but the year before he was strong, Speed Up also has good tracks. Canet has been at the tests I’ve been at and has also been quite strong. My teammate [Augusto Fernandez] is gonna be strong. He didn’t have the best year last year but he can do it, he’s changed his crew around a little bit and he’s looking good, so you could name a lot of people.
“It’s gonna be a case of just me focusing on myself, doing what I can do, and starting the year solid because I think every year there’s three or four guys who keep the consistency over the year, after that there’s always quite a big gap in the championship at the end. So it’s about building points in the first half of the year and when you can be fast, and win, you have to in Moto2 but it’s the bad days that are gonna make a difference in the championship.”