There were a lot of question marks when Ben Spies joined the Sterilgarda Yamaha Italia team for the first time in Portugal one year ago. Spies had spent his career with Suzuki, riding with the MotoGP team for three rounds in 2008 before signing for Yamaha Italia in World Superbike on the all new R1 in 2009.
Rizla Suzuki MotoGP team manager Paul Denning decided that Spies was not the answer for his struggling team. That opened the door to Spies negotiating with Gresini and Scot Honda teams to ride in MotoGP in 2009. Spies couldn't come to an agreement with either team over wages and opted for World Superbike with Yamaha.
There were many out there that thought when the only employers Spies had ever known turned him down, and his wages were deemed to be too excessive for a rookie, Spies was in it for the money and likely not MotoGP material. But when Spies began his World Superbike career in Australia earlier this year, he was about to prove the doubters wrong.
Spies went on to take 11 pole positions from 14 qualifying sessions and 14 race wins from 28 race starts on his way to becoming the 2009 World Superbike champion. The first rookie to become champion and the first World Superbike championship for Yamaha.
It had been rumored all year that Spies had signed with an intent to go to MotoGP with Yamaha in 2010 if he were to win the World Superbike championship or in 2011. In late September, it was revealed that Spies would move to the Monster Energy Tech 3 Yamaha team in 2010, championship or not.
There have been other World Superbike champions that have made to move to MotoGP. Colin Edwards, champion in 2000 and 2002 moved to the series in 2003 with Aprilia before moving to Honda and then Yamaha. Since, Edwards has accumulated 11 podium finishes, no wins and a best championship finish of fourth. Edwards will team with Spies at Monster Energy Tech 3 Yamaha in 2010.
Troy Bayliss won the title in 2001 and moved to MotoGP in 2003 with Ducati. Bayliss spent three seasons in MotoGP before moving back to World Superbikes. He stood on the podium five times and took one victory as a wildcard in the season finale at Valencia in 2006 and had a best championship finish of sixth.
Neil Hodgson won the title in 2003 and moved to MotoGP on a satellite Ducati in 2004 but only managed 17th in the championship before returning to Superbike racing in 2005.
The last World Superbike champion to move to MotoGP is 2004 and 2007 champion James Toseland. Toseland moved to MotoGP in 2008 with Tech 3 Yamaha where he's spent the past two seasons. Toseland finished 11th in the standings in 2008 with a best finish of sixth on multiple occasions. He wasn't able to replicate that success in 2009 and currently lies 14th in the championship. Toseland will trade places with Spies for 2010.
World Superbike champions don't have a history of success in MotoGP, but those riders haven't overpowered the World Superbike series the way Spies has.
Toseland won 16 races from 166 starts, a 10 percent win rate. Edwards won 30 from 186 starts, a 16 percent win rate. Hodgson won 14 from 75 starts, a 19 percent win rate. Bayliss was statistically the most successful in the group winning 22 races from 77 starts, a 29 percent win rate. None of them come close to what Spies accomplished. Spies won 14 races from 28 starts, 50 percent win rate.
Just like a year ago, there are questions about whether or not Spies will be successful in his new endeavor. No World Superbike rider has proven to be a world championship contender in MotoGP. Then again, there's never been a World Superbike rider quite like Ben Spies.