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So Close! Paul Bird Motorsports Aprilia MotoGP German Grand Prix Review

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The Eni Motorrad German Grand Prix got off to a run of the mill start, I drove down on Tuesday, with a 6-hour drive to Sachsenring from home in Luxembourg. The team reported to the track Wednesday and began setting up our pit box in the tracks garages. We had an easy time of it this year; instead of using settings from 2013 at Sachsenring, we decided to start off with Michael Laverty’s settings from the Dutch GP at Assen, instead. So, instead of redoing the entire chassis, we focussed Thursday’s race prep on detailing the bike, removing the components, cleaning and making sure that everything was serviceable and ready for action, only changing a few items on the bike from the last race. Unfortunately, with rain on the radar for the weekend, that meant dialing both bikes, the A bike, ML-1, optimized for dry racing and the B bike , ML2, optimized for wet.

Friday’s MotoGP Free Practice went exceptionally well, Michael Laverty compared the 2 bikes in FP1 and we experimented with a longer swingarm in ML-2’s chassis. Michael liked the improved feel, so we settled on the longer swingarm and in FP2, we experimented with spring rates, first running heavier spring on ML-1, then lighter rate spring on ML-2 and back to the original to finish the session. Michael was cooking, but unfortunately high-sided late in the session. When he came back, he posted on this Facebook: “Rode my socks off, so nice to see P10 on my pitboard! Huge highside and bumped to 14th at the end. Only 0.8 off the top and 0.3 off Rossi.” Obviously, we’re making a lot of progress with the chassis, as reflected on the MotoGP time sheets after the first day of practice.

Saturday’s Free Practice & qualifying didn’t go quite so well as Friday, unfortunately. Michael crashed again in one of the morning FP sessions; he was alright , but this time, the bike was not. Michael went out for QP1 on the back up bike and similar to qualifying at Assen, came in for  fresh tires as it began to sprinkle and went out for a flying lap, only to encounter riders waiting for a tow. As a result, his 18th place qualifying wasn’t as good as we’d have liked, but it was still 2 seconds faster than at the 2013 German Gran Prix. Michael summed it up on twitter:

Photo by Gold & Goose

“I went a little quicker today, we don’t find much with a new tyre around here, happy enough with qualy though!” PBM’s Michael Laverty on Qualifying his PBM Aprilia Photo by Gold & Goose

Meanwhile, the crash on the primary bike had bent the swingarm, trashed the bars & controls and caught on fire. Apparently, one of the sensors on the LH side of the bike ground down as it was sliding across the MacAdam, causing it to short & catch fire, melting a good portion of the wiring sub-harness for the front end of the bike. As a result, we had a late night saturday, rebuilding the bike for the race. We replaced the front wiring loom, as well as brake & wheel-speed sensors, bars, controls & bodywork. We didn’t get back to our hotel until well after midnight.

We got back to the track at the crack of dawn Sunday Morning and conditions had changed radically overnight. Where we’d had mixed skies and warm air, we now had overcast skies, light rain and a cold track, which presented problems of its own. We’d made a gamble and opted to run the hard tire option. The trouble is, that the hard tire is only good above 20ºc (68ºf) and really great above 25º (77ºf), however morning temps were just below 20º for the morning MotoGP warm-up and it was iffy as to whether it would get warmer come race time. That meant that not only was grip not at its best, but our chassis and electronics strategies that we’d developed, we not quite ideal, either. With the weather switching from sun to torrential rain during the Moto3 & Moto2 races, we weren’t quite sure what we were going to do come race time- would we run the wet , M2 bike or risk it with ML1 on slicks with the possibility of rain? Time would tell.

It was when raining when Michael Laverty rolled out of the pits to the grid for the sighting lap, it had been raining, so he left on ML2 with rain tires. However, when he got to the grid, it seemed like the weather was changing. He and Phil, our crew chief made a last minute call and Victor rolled ML2 back to the pitbox, while Michael ran back and grabbed ML1 with slicks and started the sighting lap from pit row, while the rest of the field came back to switch bikes after the sighting lap. This is where everything got confusing: that morning, MotoGP officials issued a directive to avoid the delays caused in Assen. My memory is a little foggy, but if a rider left pit row & it’s a dry race & it starts to rain, they were allowed to pull up to their starting position & could change bikes on the grid. However, if they switched after the sighting lap, they would have to start from pit row. As it hapened, about 80% of the grid switched to slicks after the sighting lap and what resulted, was one of the oddest starts in recent MotoGP memory.

Because we switched bikes on the grid, the MotoGP race officials set us back to 20th, from 18th on the grid. All that was moot, due to the rest of the grid starting from pit road; Michael got a great start and was running in 2nd for the first couple laps of the race! However, while Laverty is famous for his ability to ride in the rain, Michael wasn’t very comfortable riding slicks on a wet, but drying track, especially with the hard compound  Bridgestone that wants a lot of heat to grip at its best. As a result, Michael began to fall back on the lineup as the faster factory and production bikes caught up. 28 minutes into the race, Michael had dropped back to 16th, but the track had a dry line at that point and he’d begun running his fastest laps of the race. Then, just as he’d begun running a really great pace and was picking up ground, Michael tucked the front and crashed into the gravel. (Michael’s crash was captured here, but you’ll need a MotoGP Video Pass in order to watch.) Michael summed it up best in a facebook post after the race: “It’s not every day you run 2nd in a MotoGP race, albeit for a couple of laps. The hard front took a while to come good for me, I had just set my fastest lap of the race, my pace was good for 12/13 but I lost the front and crashed. Did nothing different that lap, shit happens…”

All told, it was an expensive weekend for Team Paul Bird Motorsports Aprillia- teammate Broc Parkes crashed & totalled his #1 bike on Saturday, too. At the same time, we’ve gotten our baseline setup tuned really well and Michael Laverty has shown that he has what it takes to run with the factory production bikes. Our tiny, underfunded privateer team is like the little engine that could: we’ll make the most of the summer break and regroup for the Red Bull Indianapolis GP in a little less than a month. I think that with the new pavement at Indy, and all the work we’ve done so far, we’ll be able to show the world what the PBM Aprilia team is capable of! <I think we can, I think we can, I think we can..>

PS. Neil Hogdson gave us a glowing review in his UK MotoGP Half Term Report on BT Sport. You can see me  at the 30 mark, I’m the handsome guy in shades standing next to Michael Laverty. http://www.motorcyclenews.com/MCN/News/newsresults/General-news/2014/July/MotoGP-Half-Term-Report/

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