While this weekend’s British Grand Prix is eagerly awaited by home riders, there’s an extra pressure on Lincolnshire rider Sam Lowes, who found himself unceremoniously dumped by Aprilia ahead of the Austrian Grand Prix earlier this month.
Lowes’ relationship with the Italian manufacturer has been strained all season. The Brit has remained dignified amid stories of him receiving inferior equipment to his team-mate Aleix Espargaro and a lack of support from the team but with a two-year contract, the first of which was meant to be a ‘learning’ year, it was expected that the popular 26-year-old, whose twin brother Alex races for Yamaha in world superbikes, would be retained next season.
Instead the former world supersport champion and Moto2 front runner finds himself auditioning for a 2018 ride at Silverstone, even though his options to stay in the premier class are limited, after Aprilia announced that it had signed fellow Brit Scott Redding to ride alongside Espargaro next year – despite still having a year left on Lowes’ contract.
“I’m sad because I want to be in MotoGP,” Lowes told the press after hearing that his services were no longer required for 2018. “Hopefully we still can stay in MotoGP. I’m so happy to be in MotoGP but the situation has been difficult for many reasons. You dream all your life to get here and feel like I’ve got a lot to give in this class. You’re very easily dismissed in sport but I accept it is results driven.”
Lowes should learn his MotoGP fate in the next few days, with several announcements expected to be made at Silverstone this weekend. If there’s no opportunity to stay in the top class, Sam’s most likely move is back to Moto2, his spiritual home. Lowes has spent almost his entire career racing 600cc bikes, which in many ways may have been his undoing in the switch to MotoGP.
He added: “I would look at trying to go back to Moto2 and look to try and win races and be world champion. Right now I’m focussed on staying in MotoGP. If you leave it’s hard to come back, so I’ll try and stay here. If not, Moto2 on a good package is a good option, to try and fight for the world championship. If you look at my results last year, I’m capable of doing so.”
A lot has been said about Sam’s time at Aprilia, particularly about the way in which he has been treated by the Italian factory and the lack of support he has received. To his credit, Sam has managed to be both vocal and respectful at the same time, however the bottom line is that he has only scored points in one of the 11 races so far this season and as Lowes concedes, in a results driven business, it’s not been good enough to retain his place. Aprilia boss Romano Albesiano told press that they are signing someone ‘less risky’ and although Redding has hardly set the world alight, he has shown glimpses of his potential with a couple of podium finishes in the MotoGP class.
Sam’s journey to MotoGP has been unusual to say the least, but speak volumes for his desire and determination. Like MotoGP winner Cal Crutchlow, he’s a former British and world supersport champion, but where his fellow Brit continually switched teams and classes in his rise to MotoGP, Lowes spent a total of eight seasons racing 600cc bikes before securing a seemingly dream deal to switch to MotoGP.
Regardless of the quality of the material at his disposal, Sam has looked ill at ease on the MotoGP bike, but had been making progress as he adapted to the new machine.
Lowes is also handicapped by the fact that DORNA, the organisers of MotoGP don’t really need him in the premier class.
The cold hard fact is that world championship motorcycle racing is a business, and a global one at that, and has to sell itself to partners around the world. It derives its income not only from direct sponsors like Tissot, Hertz and the various energy drink companies, but also circuits paying for the right to host events (from which they would look to make a profit by selling tickets) and TV companies paying for the privilege to broadcast.
These partners want local stars that appeal to their audience, which means that riders are often ‘supported’ in order to help raise the appeal of the ‘product’ in a certain territory. For example, in recent years we have seen Columbian rider Yonny Hernandez grab a MotoGP ride to secure to create interest in South America, while there has always been support for at least one French or German rider in the championship – even in the fallow years for riders from those championships.
And while sports fans may wince at the thought of riders gaining spots in teams by virtue of their passport, it’s also hard to argue against the six riders holding the coveted factory seats at Ducati, Honda and Yamaha being the absolute best riders in the world.
Britain has done well out of it too. DORNA have done (and continue to do) more than their bit to support the sport in the UK and indeed today it is holding auditions for the new British Talent Cup, a series that will give under 16s from the British Isles a chance to learn from the best and race for free when it launches next year. More than that, the best riders will be supported right through to the world championships, with the new British Talent Team being designed as a Moto3 team specifically for our best young riders.
This makes Sam Lowes’ dilemma even more difficult. Had he been the sole Brit in MotoGP, his chances of retaining a spot in the top flight would no doubt be helped by the need to sell tickets at Silverstone and to keep BT Sport subscriptions coming in. As it is, he is one of four British riders currently in MotoGP. In terms of numbers, only Spain has more riders in the premier class, with nine. Like Britain, Italy also contributes four riders, with France (two) the only other nation to be represented by more than one rider (with Johann Zarco and Loris Baz). Amazingly previous racing powerhouses America and Japan have no representation in the premier racing class in 2017.
Currently there are only three seats unfilled on the 2018 MotoGP grid. One of those looks like going to mid-pack Moto2 runner Xavier Simeon, with the backing of the Belgian TV broadcasters, and it looks like Lowes is up against former Moto2 world champ Stefan Bradl for the chance to ride a Honda at the Marc VDS team. With class rookie Franco Morbidelli lined up on the team’s other machine, the more proven German rider would appear to the front runner for that gig,
Assuming that’s the case Lowes’ options remain limited. A switch to world superbikes looks unlikely, as the situation there is almost identical to MotoGP with all the winning seats tied up. It’s also a series swamped by Brits, meaning that there are no real commercial benefits to encourage the organisers to support a move to the production class, while a move all the way down to British superbikes seems unthinkable – even though Lowes is a hugely popular racer who would be welcomed back to the national championships with open arms (and no doubt a reasonable salary too).
A switch back to Moto2, where he has won three races in the past, could make him a star again. The crudeness of the production based Moto2 bikes allows them to be slung into corners sideways, a spectacular style that Sam perfected over the years, and is almost the complete opposite of the silky smooth riding style required on the 1000cc MotoGP bikes.
That would also give Britain something to shout about in all three classes. With a factory Honda contract under his belt, Cal remains Britain’s great hope for race wins, with Redding getting one more chance to retain his status as Britain’s next great hope while Bradley Smith continues to develop the improving KTM.
Lowes in Moto2 would give us a genuine title contender. Even on a half-decent bike, the Lincolnshire rider is sure to give it his all and be up there fighting for wins. He’ll be joined in the class by Danny Kent, the 2015 Moto3 world champ and another rider in the last chance saloon, while the British Talent Team will mean at least one Brit in the Moto3 class, with the possibility of at least one rookie joining John McPhee in the 250cc class.
Whatever happens to Sam Lowes in 2018, one thing is for sure. It’s looking like a great season for Brits in the MotoGP paddock, and I can’t wait to see how it pans out.