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Bradley Smith, 2010, 125cc || The Brits in MotoGP: Review

December 16, 2010

SportingBlogs kicks off its review of the British riders competing on the MotoGP circuit with Oxfordshire youngster Bradley Smith, who after finishing runner-up in the 125cc championship last season, this year returned with his Bancaja Aspar team hoping to go one better. Here’s how he got on, with a glance towards his prospects for 2011…

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After 2009 yielded two victories and a title challenge, the relative obscurity of a fourth place finish in the 2010 championship and just one victory from the final round must seem like something of a frustration and disappointment for Bradley Smith. This was the fifth season in the 125cc class for the 19-year-old from Oxfordshire, and a world championship title would have been the ideal way to sign off from the category, as he admitted before the season began when asked what his targets for the year entailed: ‘I want to become World Champion!

However, the Bancaja Aspar rider’s season failed to unfold in the manner he so desired, with just a solitary victory and a handful of podiums to show for a lot of frustration and graft. The early stages of his 2010 campaign were beset by a number of engine issues, with carburettor troubles in the season opening round at Qatar restricting him to just ninth in qualifying and a ‘disappointing’ eighth in the race. Later Smith was to reveal that his team had discovered that ‘the oil pressure through the system was causing the rear brake to come on while racing down the long straight.’

In round two at Jerez, engine power issues meant Smith found himself cut adrift from the leaders and his title rivals, finishing a lonely fourth place. ‘It was a lack of horsepower especially under acceleration that meant there was absolutely nothing else I could have done,’ remarked Smith afterwards. This was to be followed by an engine seizure in practice for the third round at Le Mans that inhibited his weekend, although he recovered to fight for a podium, eventually finishing fifth.

Smith then had to settle for fourth in the following round at Mugello after his designs on victory were to be restricted through ‘missing […] some power in the engine’ compared to his rivals, an occurrence he phlegmatically deemed ‘frustrating.’ Sensing that a dream title challenge was slipping from his clutches, Smith stated that he and his team had ‘a lot of work to do off the track [in order to…] try and find some more speed.’ Ultimately however, he was to admit that ‘at the beginning of the season I just wasn’t competitive enough because of some issues with the bike.’

Smith’s fortunes picked up in round five with a podium in his home race at Silverstone, an achievement which clearly meant a lot to the Englishman, and one which he could put down to finally having ‘a fantastic feeling with the bike for the entire race.’

Frustratingly, there was to be only one further podium appearance – a cleverly fought battle at Catalunya which left him ‘happy’ – in the following six rounds for Smith. These were again attributed to an unfortunate catalogue of mechanical and set-up based issues: in the Dutch TT at Assen, Smith found himself unable to ‘lean over as far as’ his opponents, finishing fourth in the race; at Sachsenring in Germany he struggled with chassis set-up issues and consequently had ‘problems with the back […] and a lack of grip in the rear end’ during the race, finishing fifth; after qualifying on pole for Brno, the weather intervened and left him with ‘big problems with grip at the start of the race,’ before recovering to sixth; at Indianapolis he struggled with rear grip and engine issues throughout practice, before falling during the race; and at the San Marino meeting he was to be frustrated by engine and suspension troubles in practice, before ‘a mistake on tyre choice’ spoilt his heard-earned pole position.

With over half of a very frustrating season gone, and his title challenge all but over, Smith was at least able to reflect on a run of eight consecutive front rows in qualifying, which given the numerous troubles suffered in countless practice sessions, was a remarkable achievement. Indeed, his fortunes were to pick up somewhat as the season neared its close, with four podiums from the final six rounds.

Two third places at Aragon and Motegi (Japan) were followed by a fifth in Malaysia, which was commendable as his Aprilia ‘was locking and there was a lot of chattering to deal with.’ The young Brit excelled in practice but then struggled to fifth in the windy conditions that Australia’s Phillip Island had to offer, the wind making more pronounced the fact that his rivals had a ‘higher top speed’ than him.

However, Smith was to finish the season in style. He claimed pole position for the penultimate round at Estoril, before finishing third in the race and earning praise for his professionalism as he attempted to hold of his team-mate’s title rival. This was to be the only occasion in the season where he did not give his 100% best: ‘maybe I would have tried to win in Portugal rather than sitting in third,’ he later remarked.

Smith then topped it off by winning the season finale in Valencia, commenting: ‘what a way to finish a difficult season.’ It is no coincidence that this victory occurred when the team had given him his ‘best bike of the year,’ which ‘had felt awesome since the very first practice session.’

In many ways, the positives that emerged which had enabled his final round victory served to highlight the deficiencies that had inhibited the young Brit through the season. On Smith summed his campaign up perfectly: ‘I fought against the elements this season; nothing has really gone my way through no real fault of myself or the team.’ He continued, ‘it [the engine] was never absolutely on-song perfect, but it got better.’ 2010 had not been disastrous, merely not perfect. ‘It’s not been the best of seasons,’ he declared, which – given his pre-season title aspirations – must be taken with a dash of understatement.

The best news for Brad and his fans this season is that he has signed a deal with Tech 3 Racing to move up a class to their Moto2 team for 2011. Not only are the Tech 3 Racing team ‘delighted’ and ‘really excited’ to have secured the services of a rider Team Manager Hervé Poncharal admits having ‘admired for a long time,’ but the enthusiasm with which Smith announced the decision on his Twitter page reveals just how enamoured he is with moving up a category, now just one step away from the main event.

After five years in the 125cc class, Smith recognises that the time is right (‘I’m too big for a 125’) for him to move on, citing it as ‘the next step in [his] career.’ He admits to being ‘nervous’ about what he calls the ‘massive challenge’ he faces [who wouldn’t?] but is fortunate to have a team with ‘such experience and success at World Championship level’ to help him in his transition from 125 to Moto2. Media interviews conducted in light of his impending step-up have revealed his down-to-earth character and an awareness of the graft required (for instance, with fitness) to succeed in this sport, which will serve him well over the coming seasons.

For now though, he has had to content himself with a couple of end-of-season tests with his new team, which he approached ‘brimming with confidence.’ These tests are reported to have gone rather well, with Smith ‘immediately lap[ping] at a consistent and fast pace.’ The Oxfordshire youngster also ‘quickly struck up an excellent understanding with experienced new crew chief Tom Jojic,’ which will undoubtedly serve him well in 2011, as ‘his enthusiasm to gain vital information saw him complete an incredible stint of 90 laps.’

After all his pre-season optimism, 2010 might well appear to have been a bit of a disappointment for Smith, on the racing front at least. However, there are plenty of positives for the nineteen-year-old to take. The fact that he was able to achieve a respectable fourth place in the championship despite having a problematic bike for much of the season is plainly evident, although detractors might query why his team-mate (Nicolas Terol) did not suffer with the same issues and at the same frequency that Smith did. However, the biggest plus-point of course is the deal for 2011 that will see him riding up a class on what should be a relatively competitive bike. The fact that he is aware of the size of the challenge he faces and that he is approaching it in a professional and mature manner is also something to be commended, whilst he can also look positively on the fact that he has a decent record against several of his likely competitors for next season.

So, although 2010 turned out to be a campaign mired in frustration, at least Bradley Smith can look forward to next season having stepped up a class, with a new team, a new bike, and a new challenge. Here’s hoping a bit more luck comes his way in 2011…

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