Podium dominance demands more from Spies

Duncan Bishop

New ground was broken at what is likely to be the final Portuguese Grand Prix for the foreseeable future, but there was still an air of predictability about proceedings.

It shouldn't have been easy to call, however, given that we are watching a season of unprecedented events unfold.

All three of the opening races of the 2012 season have seen first-time winners at the circuits, for the first time in the MotoGP era since 2004. That was when Valentino Rossi won in South Africa (he had already been victorious at Welkom, but in the 500cc class) and Sete Gibernau triumphed in Spain and France. So far this season, Jorge Lorenzo has broken his duck at Qatar and Casey Stoner called 'full house' on his own MotoGP bingo game, becoming the only rider with premier class victories at every track on the calendar with his Jerez-Estoril double.

The end result, however, is much as everyone expected. Stoner, Lorenzo and Pedrosa on every podium and the rest of the field not stepping up as expected to get ahead. An exemption can be made for Cal Crutchlow, who has come closest to breaking the hegemony against the predictions of most and is still in his sophomore year. Andrea Dovizioso can also be forgiven for taking a step back from the three out front —'Mr. Honda' is still getting to grips with a Yamaha that is capable of a rostrum but not yet suited to the Italian.

Which leaves us with Ben Spies. 33 seconds down on racewinner Stoner is some difference to the 0.015 of the final race of 2011. This was meant to be the year in which 'Elbowz' showed his flair, but that hasn't been the case just yet. Yes, his points total and finishing positions in Qatar, Spain and Portugal are an improvement on this time last season, but they come with an important caveat: The Yamaha factory rider crashed out in the wet at Jerez and had never previously finished a race there or at Estoril.

Signs don't look good for Spies heading to Le Mans, either. He didn't finish there in 2010, was a good 16 seconds off the podium in sixth last year and was being largely regarded as a factory team flop by the time the series headed to Barcelona -so much so, that he wryly commented in the pre-race press conference that it was "good to see some journalists again," as interest had undoubtedly been on the wane.

That was where Spies picked up the pace with a first podium of the season, one of four in the campaign. Assen proved that, on his day, the American is capable of beating the top riders in the dry. That's only at a few specific tracks, by the looks of things, and the rider who constantly dominated in his time in the AMA and World Superbikes is by far the most inconsistent man in a winning factory team since joining the official Yamaha outfit.

What positive signs have we seen from Spies so far, then? Well, he can pull out a fast lap when needed (and when not caught in traffic, if Estoril is anything to go by) and he appears to be hampered by the front end on a worn tyre. That was the cause of his pair of crashes in practice at Losail and his drop down the field in Jerez, if Yamaha's version of events is to be believed.

Spies called his performance in the Spanish GP "pretty pathetic" and "a bad day at the office." Estoril was "an improvement" but not quite there. With the satellite riders both outperforming him so far, and with Yamaha chief Lin Jarvis saying that he was expecting more from the American this year, a French round not to Spies' liking and the cancellation of testing in Portugal come at a bad time for Number 11.

For podium variety, the fact that four into three doesn't fit is a perfect equation. If nothing else, Lorenzo could use the support in holding Stoner and Pedrosa back. Everyone except the Repsol Honda team needs Ben Spies back on form.

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