MotoGP Q&A - Eugene Laverty: EXCLUSIVE

MotoGP Q&A - Eugene Laverty: EXCLUSIVE
An exclusive interview with Eugene Laverty, in which the Irishman explains why he has decided to leave MotoGP and discusses the new Milwaukee Aprilia project he will join in World Superbikes next season...
After several months of talking and negotiating, it must have been a relief to have your future sorted.

Eugene Laverty:
Yeah, it was. It just kept dragging on. I knew what direction I wanted to head. After I knew the level of bike that was available and all the rest, I had to make sure that there was going to be a really competitive superbike. That's what I've been pushing for. It all settled into place finally.
Can you tell us a little bit about the 2017 package? Shaun Muir is going to be running the team, but Aprilia will provide a full factory presence?

Eugene Laverty:
It's nice because I know a lot of the guys there from when I was at Aprilia in the past. It's going to be a strong package I think. Even last year it was semi-factory involvement and Leon Haslam won a few races. This year is the first year really if you look at it in 20 years where Aprilia hasn't been winning races at the world championship level, so that's the idea: to get that race winning pedigree back.

I'm really keen because it's important to have the team structure. It's a factory-backed team but it needs to be a strong team as we well know. So I don't think there's many better than SMR. They've have won titles in BSB with two different manufacturers. So it shows that they've got the structure capable of winning titles.
You said this has been one of the first years that Aprilia has not been winning in world championship. Is that one of the reasons the factory is keen to get behind a World Superbike fully again? Or was it seeing the machine perform well this season without much support?

Eugene Laverty:
Yeah, it's a combination I'm sure because with [Lorenzo] Savadori there's been zero development from Aprilia. The bike looked good on track when I was watching at Misano as well. We know it's a good bike. It's been around for some years but it's still strong. I think it was a bike that was ahead of its time when it first came out as a road bike. The potential of it was still being explored when I was there. I always wanted that third year, so I guess I'm getting it now.
Did you work with Romano Albesiano [Aprilia Racing Manager] in the past when you were last with Aprilia?

Eugene Laverty:
One race. He came to the final race in Jerez [in 2013] when we did the double there. But I've always been in touch with him since, because we've always been in discussions pretty much every year, to see what direction we may be going, be it Superbike or MotoGP. I know all the guys there, even Dario Raimondi [Aprilia Sports Manager], who has been there since I arrived in the same year, actually 2012, a lot of the engineers. So, in some ways it's like going home.
Romano obviously had a difficult job, coming to Aprilia after Gigi Dall'Igna left for Ducati. What are your impressions of him and his team?

Eugene Laverty:
They've done a good job on this MotoGP bike. It's tough whenever you're just two riders. There are not many manufacturers that have more. It's tough when you're fighting against the likes of Honda, Yamaha, and Ducati that have got several riders and a lot of experience there.

There are a lot of clever guys in there I know from when I worked in superbike. I know some of the guys I worked with in the past that their focus will be the MotoGP project and will be there for some of the superbike races, but there are also some good guys I know that will be involved solely in the Superbike project. I'm excited about that too.
Looking at World Superbike, fighting for the world title must be your aim in 2017?

Eugene Laverty:
Yeah, definitely. When I first rode the Aprilia in 2012 it was a difficult year. 2013 they made some big progress with the bike. I always wanted that third year because I think that's what it takes if you want to win a world title on a bike that was pretty raw back then. So going back there, definitely the aim is to win a world title because I've finished runner-up in Supersport twice, runner-up in Superbike as well.

Every one of them went down to the last round, so I've always been pretty close. But I think I'm a stronger rider for having come here for these two years. You ride the below par bike harder than you would if you were fighting for race wins consistently. I'm always searching for that 1% really because that's what I've got, so I've got to look within myself. It's probably made me a better rider, so it's been worthwhile for sure.
Both you and Stefan Bradl - a former GP world champion - will make the move across to join a strong field. How do you assess the strength of the championship at the moment?

Eugene Laverty:
I think it's what it needs. Last year it was lacking a little bit in depth. Now there are a lot of riders coming to the fore and more manufacturers are going to be stronger. Some of the other factories are stepping up their support as well to chase down Kawasaki, because they've had the run of the mill for a lot of years now, especially since Johnny's arrived. Johnny's just getting stronger and stronger. Now with me going back there, Bradl, and Nicky there, two great riders... The Honda maybe isn't the best bike out there but those two guys will make up for that. I think it's good times for Superbike and what it needs is a lot of great riders coming across.
And potentially two Northern Irishmen among the title challengers...

Eugene Laverty:
It would be pretty special for somewhere so small to produce two guys that could be on the podiums next to each other. That would be nice. I get on well with Johnny but it looks like he's on course for his second world title so I've got to try and step in and chase him by next year because he's really got some momentum now. He's going to take some stopping.
Do you feel that you're riding as well now as when you fought for the World Superbike title in 2013, if not better?

Eugene Laverty:
Yeah, I think I've been riding strong. It's difficult when you're midfield for confidence, to gather momentum as it would if you were consistently on the podium. That's really when a rider is really at their best. But I think I've learnt more. I've focused on my weaknesses the last couple of years and really ironed those out. That's the most important thing for a rider. So I feel now more complete, someone that can now go and fight for a world title because what did fail me those couple years was, OK, there were some mechanicals and all the rest, but I crashed at critical times in the races. I think this year I've been I think one of only three riders until Austria that scored points in every round. So I definitely more than ironed out that weakness. Now I feel more complete and ready to fight for titles, whereas before maybe I was a little bit immature and a bit over-eager.
What are your impressions of the SMR team?

Eugene Laverty:
I've known Shaun a lot of years. Michael [Laverty] raced for them in 2011. So they finally moved to World Superbike this year. They talked about it for a lot of years, and I think the probably should have come sooner because they were more than capable. They're one of the most professional teams. It shows, their eagerness to win where they switched manufacturer now because they know they need a race winning bike. Shaun was very eager to get me on board as well. [I'm] keen to get going. It's nice to be back in a British team as well. That's always good because they've got the same mentality.
Has this decision been one of the toughest in your career, or did hearing of Aprilia's support and the SMR structure make it fairly straightforward?

Eugene Laverty:
In the end it was [straightforward]. At first it was definitely I've been pondering it for a while to do the superbike thing, even back when the Kawasaki seat could have been available. I was still unsure of what was here in GP, so I didn't want to be jumping the gun until I really knew what was here. But when I knew that my team-mate was going to be on a GP16 - and I kept pushing to try and get a GP16 - but when there was just going to be a GP15 available, you have to think with your head over your heart. Because you can say all you want, that it's just a little bit different but [the difference between the] two bikes will be four tenths of a second a lap. You do the math in a 25-lap race that's ten seconds in a race.

So that's what I just had to do, pretty much make the decision based on that, that I work too damn hard for ten seconds in a race to just be able to fight with my team-mate. I'd essentially have to finish ten seconds faster than him. So I just did the simple math and thought, no. Here against the best riders in the world. You need to have equal machinery to at least your team-mate, because that's the first guy you're gauged against. So that's when I started looking at Superbike really seriously. Every year I've always weighed up the two, whatever's the strongest option. It's not about the prestige of one or the other. I'm going to World Superbike on one of the best bikes to fight for a world title. That's the clear objective.
Would a GP16 have convinced you to stay in MotoGP?

Eugene Laverty:
Yeah. It would have, because it's about machinery. Last year the 'Open' Honda was a disappointment. I think everybody knew that. We expected more. Both me and Nicky had tough years. But this year was a step forward and the important thing for next year would have been to step forward again.

That would have been going from a two-year-old bike, which was really the old Ducati that a lot of riders struggled with, to go onto the GP16, which the guys are currently on and has now won a race. That would have been motivation enough to stay, but when it wasn't forthcoming I just had to go back to my word and that's a policy that I've always had as a rider, and stuck to it, but if I'm not on the same equipment as my team-mate then I won't.
Especially if you're always judged against your team-mate, even if the machinery is not the same...

Eugene Laverty:
You're always judged against them. I've always made decisions based on that. People just see the same colour bike; it doesn't matter what's underneath it - GP15, GP16. They'll look pretty similar right there once the wings are done away with.
You have worked with Gigi before. Was he pushing for you stay in MotoGP for another year?

Eugene Laverty:
Yeah, even with Paolo Ciabatti as well, they were really helpful actually. Unfortunately it just came down to logistics and all the rest of how many Ducatis were available. They really pushed for an extra GP16 but it became clear that wasn't possible. It was just one GP15, one GP16 per team.

They couldn't stretch any more than that. After that it came down to the team. Unfortunately the passport came into it. That was a factor. I'm not going to be bitter about that because that's the day and age we live in. Sponsorship is too important. Spanish team, Spanish sponsors need a Spanish rider. And Alvaro is a good rider as well, so I can't knock him for that.

But it's frustrating in a sense because it's something that's come in the last few years after my best year in World Superbike.
Also, having fought for titles before, is there only so much time you can cope with not challenging for victories?

Eugene Laverty:
Motivation isn't a factor for me. It's more the frustration and you get to the point where you could end up pushing too hard and crashing. So even for the second half of this year I can still just focus on the bike that I have, getting the best results possible. But if I was signing on for another year thinking I'm going to be riding a two-year-old bike again, you can end up throwing it in the kitty litter pretty often. That's the problem. If you've got a winning mentality then you're not going to be content with finishing ninth. Ninth position is good on this bike but you're not going to be content with that.
So what does this mean for the rest of this year? Are there any targets that you've set yourself?

Eugene Laverty:
I think Austria was the strongest weekend of the year where we made it in Q2 and we were on course for I think an eighth, possibly even a seventh, until we had that problem in the race [being taken down by Petrucci]. So really I think I can be calm and not get frustrated and realise, I've got to finish this year off as strong as possible and that sometimes is better for your mindset, rather than getting frustrated and still fighting for a job.

Austria proved that and in Brno we were strong again. I want to make getting in the Q2 more of a habit, because it took too damn long for that to happen. It would be nice to finish in the top ten in the championship. We lost five critical points in Austria, but there is no point in crying over spilled milk. We've got to try and get strong finishes in these last eight races now. Some more top tens and that might see us there.
Do you feel that, now your future is sorted, some pressure has been lifted?

Eugene Laverty:
Yeah. Sachsenring was frustrating. We struggled at the start of that weekend. It was difficult to not get frustrated and want to turn it around very quickly. I've been more calm since then. The test at Red Bull Ring, we really needed that test because of what happened pre-season. Now I really understand the bike and what makes it work. So that's why we're starting to gather some momentum now.
Finally Eugene, we've heard one satellite team boss saying it is difficult to attract certain men for MotoGP, as most riders will only settle for a factory team. Is there an element that, when you ride a satellite machine, there's only so far you can take it?

Eugene Laverty:
It is pretty clear. You can see it with the Tech 3 guys this year. It's been a real surprise, just the gap between them and the factory Yamaha team. But the bikes are pretty finely tuned now and it's no coincidence that Honda struggled at the start but then come round one they were there. It's the same guys that are winning on the same bikes as they were when the rules were different last year with the electronics and the tyres. So it's so important to be on the factory team because now everyone talks about electronics.

I think they think in terms of electronic aids, the traction control, this and that. But with these four-stroke bikes and the amount of power they're creating, the engineer is becoming more and more important. And those guys in the factory team; I can see the data from the Ducati riders and I'm looking at it with envy going, 'I wish I had that engine braking style. I wish I had that power style'. The bike becomes easier to ride. They're just gaining tenths of a second here and there.

So it's not just about being in the factory team, it's those factory engineers that you're working with that really understand the bike.