WorldSBK: In racing twists of fate are as important as twists of the throttle
A motorcycle racer’s career can hang in the balance. It can come down to a twist of fate or a bit of persistence to turn a chance into a career. Opportunities are what you make of them. Eugene Laverty’s initial outings in the WorldSBK paddock are proof of this point.
The Irishman has built his career on the foundations of his first World Supersport races. Appearing in place of an injured Fabien Foret for two races the Irishman was able to fashion this into a front-running career as a factory Yamaha, Aprilia, Suzuki and now BMW rider but how did it all come about?
The Yamaha Factory WorldSSSP Team had lost their rider from the previous round with Fabien Foret having broken his back. The Frenchman, teamed with Australian Broc Parkes, was a title contender until a crash in Brno left him on the sidelines for three rounds. Initially replaced by Karl Harris at Brands Hatch the double British Supersport champion was only a stand in for one round as he returned to focus his attention on British Superbikes.
With a door opening at the Factory Yamaha squad it would take Simon Buckmaster to kick Laverty through the door to make his introductions.
“To be honest I didn’t expect them to know who I was,” recalls Laverty. “I was racing in 250GP that year but it was a tough season and I didn’t think that I was on the radar for the ride. I went to Brands Hatch for the WorldSSP round to speak with Simon Buckmaster about a seat in his team. It was Simon that told me ‘don’t be quiet, don’t be backward, get your ass in the there and talk to them!’
“I thought that if I had knocked on their door they’d not know who I was and think I was just deliverying towels to the team! Fabien had gotten injured and Karl Harris was riding the Yamaha at that point but Simon told me to get in there and talk to them. I didn’t expect that Wilco would know who I was but it was Simon that gave me the push to talk to them.”
For the Yamaha squad, featuring a host of personnel who would go on to work for the Yamaha MotoGP squad that would win multiple titles over the following ten years, they had Laverty on their radar but only because of circumstances. Following Foret’s crash in Brno the team were driving home and stopped for a coffee. The conversation turned to potential replacement riders and the team opted to look at the 250GP paddock because they felt that the R6 was similar to a 250GP bike.
Looking through the magazine rack in the coffee shop they they looked at the results from the German Grand Prix from the previous weekend in Motorsport Aktual. Looking through the results from the bottom to the top they saw Laverty had scored a point and Peter Bom said “I know his brother and he’s a good guy. He comes from a good family. Let’s keep him in mind.”
Laverty had endured a miserable season but when Bom called Wilco Zeelenberg and said “we should look at him” it was the moment that the wheels started to turn for the Irishman.
“At that time Eugene and Cal would become the standout guys in WorldSSP,” recalled Zeelenberg. “We needed a replacement rider for Fabien and we picked Eugene to replace him for two rounds and he did very well to take a podium in Italy and had a great ride where he battled with Jonathan Rea and Broc Parkes. Eugene and Cal were the guys to have from that time.”
It’s easy for Zeelenberg to look back and smile about the memory of choosing Laverty but it certainly didn’t start with smiles in the garage. With the first round at Donington just around the corner the team brought Laverty to Croft for a shakedown test. On his first exit he didn’t come past the pits…he’d crashed on his first flying lap!
“I had my first test at Croft and it was a shakedown day to get used to the bike,” remembered Laverty. “I was going to be racing a couple of days later at Donington so it was all about just getting familiar with it…I crashed it on my second lap! I had been riding two-strokes for a few years and had forgotten I was now back on a four-stroke and I was backing it in and it chucked me off over the top. We went to Donington and it was a nightmare.
“The whole weekend was wet until the race and the first dry lap I did on the bike was my sighting lap. Obviously it felt very different compared to the rest of the weekend so I was nervous about the start and when you factor in that I’d been used to the two-strokes we decided that it’d be best to ride off at the start but stay away from the other guys because it could be very dangerous for me to be in the pack. It could’ve done anything so it was best to build into my pace during the race.
“I started off slowly but started to pick people off and I didn’t finish great, maybe tenth, but my pace for the last five laps was very strong and the same as the guys on the podium. I knew that we could do something special in Italy for the next round.”
For Peter Bom the standout memory was the pace at the end of the race with the technician saying, “it didn’t start well at Croft and it took a long time for Eugene to come back to the pits. I think he was embarrassed by the crash! Once he was on the bike thought he did well and at Donington he scored points but was able to match the pace of Broc Parkes in the race. After that he went to Indianapolis for a Grand Prix but in his second SSP start he finished on the podium in Vallelunga. It was very impressive and his mentality was very good.”
It was a busy time for Laverty. After the summer break in MotoGP ended he raced at Misano, Brno, Donington Park, Indianapolis and Vallelunga on consecutive weekends but after Donington though Laverty knew where his future lay.
“The next weekend I was at Indianapolis and I had big crash in qualifying that left me with a broken foot. I went to the clinica and Dr Costa did a bit of a job on it. He was holding my foot and I was chatting away to other people and once I was distracted talking to Efren Vazquez he yanked my toes into place and then said, ‘ok it’s all done. I’m going to wrap this now but don’t take the bandage off until you’re getting ready for practice in Italy.’It was unbelievable but it worked. It was a suck it and see approach that left me in agony when he was doing it but I didn’t need an operation and I could hobble to Vallelunga on my crutches and ride. I was probably more injured than Fabien at this point but I didn’t want to miss out on the chance of fighting at the front.
“After Donington I knew what my potential was again I realised again how much easier racing is when you’re on a top bike with a top team. I made my decision at Donington that I wanted to focus on Supersport. After I busted my foot at Indy the Blusens team didn’t want me to ride in WorldSSP because I was risking a bigger injury but I was thinking ‘what does it matter?
“I’m in 250GP battling for a point.’ They told me if I rode the 600 that I wouldn’t be welcomed back and I said ‘good luck’ and went to Italy and put it on the podium. I was really suffering with the injury and I kept having false neutrals in practice after a few laps because my left foot was broken and I couldn’t move it correctly. I had some injections for the race and went out and raced.”
His performance in the race was very impressive. A second row starting position was converted into battling with the leading lights of the championship-Parkes, Jonathan Rea, Joan Lascorz amongst them-and in his second WorldSSP race Laverty looked to have found a bike, team and series that matched up perfectly. Eventually finishing third Laverty knew this was the vindication he needed for leaving Blusens but he also had a tinge of sadness knowing that Foret was coming back and Cal Crutchlow had just been signed for the 2009 season.
“I ended up at a great team in 2009 but this moment highlights the difference between my career and Cal’s career. He wasn’t as naive as me and he would fight for his corner. At Brands Hatch I didn’t have the balls to speak to Yamaha until Simon told me to go. After what I did at Donington Cal was smart knowing that he needed to get his deal sorted because he knew that I’d do a good job.
“I had been told beforehand that the deals wouldn’t be signed until after the weekend so that I would have a chance but I caught wind of the news on Saturday evening and sat down with Yamaha and asked them if they’d signed Cal. They told me they had. The next day I was on the podium looking down and you could see the thought crossing a few minds that ‘we’ve let this guy go?’ It was always going to be between me and Cal for the ride and they ended up with a great rider and I ended up going to a great team as well. Cal was clever to create a false sense of urgency and rushing them to make a deal.
“At the time Traction Control was already common place at the top end of racing in 2008 but the automatic blipper wasn’t. I didn’t realise it when I began working on that system at Vallelunga with Marcus Eschenbacher and Peter Bom that they were well ahead of the game. The Yamaha MotoGP boys were still using the clutch to backshift until at least 2010! The thing is that technicians in the World Superbike paddock were making advances ahead of the MotoGP paddock back then. These guys were having to take what was essentially a road bike and make it into a race bike so they were very clever individuals.”
“At that point the Yamaha was going through some changes and Markus Eschenbacher, who’s now my crew chief, said that my results helped to unlock the potential of the bike. It had an auto blipper for back shifts but Fabien and Broc didn’t like the idea of using electronics and traction control. For me I was thinking that if I wasn’t paying for using stuff that they should switch it on! I was the first to use them and get the electronics working and we saw the following year that Cal was incredible on corner entry and he was fantastic the next year.”
Having been cast as an also ran in the Grand Prix paddock following his switch of teams suddenly Laverty’s career was on a completely different trajectory. Signing with Buckmaster for 2009 he went on to win twelve Supersport races and finish second in the championship for the following two seasons being pipped by Crutchlow and Kenan Sofouglu before returning to the Yamaha fold in 2011 when he stepped up the Superbike class.