It was another season and another British title for Roger Magee’s Hitachi Construction KTM. This time it was Ben Watson winning his first ever British title at adult level as he continues his climb up the professional motocross ranks.
But the team also saw the other side of the sport with their MX1 rider Jake Nicholls suffering a season-ending injury at the Italian GP and ruling Jake and the team out of a possible MX1 British championship.
The team will go again in 2018 but this time with two new and very exciting riders.
Roger’s countryman and new British champion, Graeme Irwin, will bring the number one plate to the team at British championship level as well as get his first full season at MXGP level. While Conrad Mewse, one of the most talented riders in MX2, will run a factory KTM out of Roger’s awning as the teenager seeks to fulfil his potential in a more family orientated squad.
We caught up with Roger to discuss a successful 2017 as well as his hopes for the 2018 season.
It was a very good season for Ben Watson after his injury the year before, British champion and 15th in the world!
The overall finish in the world championship maybe didn’t justify where he was. At the start of his season he was really only back training from the tail end of last year, we knew it was going to take a few months to get back up to speed and we just had to be patient with him, let him work away and do his thing.
At British level Ben came out all guns blazing and won both races – we actually won both races in both classes but with Jake getting hurt in Italy we knew he couldn’t come back in time with that sort of injury to even have a chance finishing in the top six. Unfortunately, we knew he would have to sit out the rest of the year so he could be fully fit when he came back again.
Ben did what he had to do in the races, he didn’t overstretch himself and rode with his head. If you are finishing consistently on the podium each weekend, then that’s what wins championships.
With Jake getting injured, long-term from a team owner’s point of view, do you look for a replacement in that situation to get a bike on track for sponsors or what way does that process work?
Well we did speak to a number of riders – one of them was actually Steven Lenoir. I spoke to him five days before his fatal accident to say that he could have the opportunity to come to us if he wasn’t contracted to Kawasaki. He said he couldn’t as he was contracted to Kawasak, but looking back he may not have been at that race if he came to us, it was just one of those unfortunate fateful things.
We talked to a number of the other riders but none worked out because they maybe had personal sponsors that clashed with some of ours. Towards the middle of the season we got Todd Kellett to give him a bit of support at British level (and won 1st day out overall at Blaxhall!) and in the Europeans which gave him some direction and that worked quite well and with Natzke being there it gave us a strong representation at most of the GPs and at the British.
From Ben’s point of view as the season went on he improved and out of the gate he was top four to top 10 at nearly every race, beating a lot of the so-called factory bikes. The one problem he had all year was running with that intensity from the drop of the gate. He was good in the first two laps but then his pace dropped off a bit, and by the time he picked it up again, the leaders were gone. He finished in the top ten on a number of occasions but he just needed to improve in that intensity for the full race.
Ben seems a nice guy and quite humble does he need a bit of arrogance to make that next step?
I think he believes in himself fairly well without being too abrasive. He has matured a lot in 2017 we were getting more feedback to the mechanics. He was standing on his own two feet a bit more, whereas in the past in maybe depended on other people telling what he should be doing so we did see a definite positive change there.
Once he got a couple of good results in GPs, he seemed to deliver consistently then…
Yeah that’s what happens, once they get the confidence results come along a bit easier.
The other point he had a bit of difficulty he had was setting fast laps in qualifying to get his gate pick in the qualification race which would have helped him on a number of occasions on race-day. It’s easy on our side of the fence, and we highlighted what he needed to improve on, and he did to a certain level – but to get that next step he needs to improve on this weakness.
He won the British championship which is a big achievement but as a team it adds another one to a long list of British titles you have as a team!
That’s the eleventh British title since 2008 when we started with KTM, and all the titles have came with KTM. We know we can deliver at the that level and we try to get the rider selection right and we know we can give them the tools to do the job. It is a very important market for KTM in the UK. That’s why we and KTM put so much effort and resources into it every year.
Just on the MXGP side of it, what is the relationship with the factory KTM team and how much emphasis do KTM UK put on the World championship compared to the British championship.
A lot of our assistance comes directly from KTM in Austria and their priority is always the World Championship, although they accept the National championships are important – especially in the UK. At the end of the day Grand Prix results are where we get the support from. When Jake got injured, he was very up front with me from the start and confided to me that he no longer wanted to compete at GP level We asked KTM if we could get support for him just to do the British championship, but as they need Grand Prix riders to maintain our level of support, unfortunately we had to let him go.
You always seemed to have a good relationship with Jake.
Jake is an easy guy to deal with. He has his own ideas and he is strong willed, but he knows how to talk to people in a nice way without coming across too arrogant. He is like his Dad – what he says he will do, he will do – he is chip off the old block in that way! We had a very good relationship now for many years. We always try to run the team with a family atmosphere and Jake integrated himself into that over the years. Once everyone is happy in that sort of environment, then that’s when you get good results without having to put too much pressure on everyone. They know what they have to do without having to reinforce it and put more pressure on them.
You have Conrad coming in, a very high calibre rider, but were you disappointed to lose Ben?
We gave Ben an even better offer than what he eventually accepted as we had a contract with him, as we do all the riders, that we have the first right of refusal for the following year. We had the opportunity to improve on the offer which we did do, but Ben chose to go in another direction with another manufacturer and we respect his decision.
For a time we were hoping the team would be Graeme in MXGP with Ben and Conrad in MX2 – that would have been a really strong team outside the Factory teams. We would have had two riders that could potentially win the British championship, and in MX2 two riders that could have finished inside the top six at a lot of rounds.
Moving onto the signing of Conrad Mewse. He has shown a lot of talent but sometimes results have been a bit patchy. At Assen this year it looked like he might have won a moto but at other races he can get a bad start and get mired in the pack. I believe he is getting factory support so do you feel you can bring his full potential at the races every week?
We are getting genuine factory support for him and that level of commitment is already there – his bikes with semi-factory engines have already been delivered from Austria!
He is only 18 and has a bit of growing up to do yet, but I think that being away from family and friends in previous years didn’t really suit him at that age. Now he will be based in the UK and bringing him into that family atmosphere that we try to create, he will be the number one rider in the MX2 side of the team. We will try to give him the self-belief and with the co-operation with Jamie Dobb we have a good training programme for him for the winter.
I genuinely think he can win the British championship and at World Championship I think anything is possible, and I genuinely mean that. We could be fighting for podiums every week and even in contention for the Championship. That might sound pie in the sky, but I know with some of the testing Conrad has been doing on the ’18 bike he as significantly quicker than a number of high profile guys who competed at the MXoN. I wasn’t at the test session personally there, but the Team personnel present said that the way he was going through sections of the track at Cusses Gorge would make the hairs on the back of your arms stand up! These are seasoned team members who know what they are talking about. If he can do it from the drop of the gate next year, then anything is possible for him.
We don’t want to put any pressure on him with comments like that. But we know he has the speed, it’s just the consistency that he needs to work on. He showed at Lommel and Assen that he has the speed. At Assen especially, he was closing in on Prado and Jonass at a rapid rate of knots and just had that unfortunate slip that knocked him back down the leaderboard. He got back up and passed a few guys again, so he has the determination to win..
As a Team, to have a rider of that talent, it must be very exciting heading into 2018?
Yeah it is exciting especially because he is quite young but we will play it by ear, it’s a long season. There is no point getting excited at the start of the year with good results and then things going upside down halfway through. We will see how the results go at the start of the year then put a strategy in place for the rest of the year. If we get the results we know that there will be even more support from Austria.
Just on Graeme, you had him when he was young at 17 or 18 but he got injured and went back to British championship level but know he’s is British champion, which gives you the number one plate on your bike for 2018. Just talk about re-signing Graeme who now appears to be at the prime of his career.
We gave him the opportunity at the early stages. But at that time he was maybe a bit too raw, and maybe got a bit too excited and he had to learn the trade – which he has obviously done over the past few years and has smoothed out a lot.
In his personal life he is well established now with getting married and having a child – things which gives him a good grounding. A few years ago we didn’t think that would happen so quickly but there we have it and it has probably been a good thing from his point of view!!
We have always kept a relationship going, there even though he has been on rival teams. Obviously being from Northern Ireland, the ultimate aim would be to nurture talent from here, but there hasn’t been the quality that is needed for British level never-mind Grand Prix. Now we have the opportunity to do something very positive with Graeme.
We have had a good few chats over the last few months, and I’ve said to him that he probably won’t be finishing in the top ten in Grands Prix at the first few events – if he does it’s a bonus. What we want him to do is start the season sensibly, work his way up into racing at that intensity for a GP race duration. There are no bad riders out there, the top 12 or 15 guys have all won a GP!
In the early part of 2018, he might not finish top ten immediately, but in 15-20 the team will be happy and Graeme should be happy. Top 12 / top 10 on maybe on a track that suits him and his confidence will grow.
We have already been doing some negotiations with WP for suspension settings and things like that so he will be gong to America in a couple of months now with his own suspension and the loan of a bike from Factory KTM USA – for which we are very grateful to Tyler Keeke for organising. Then in January time he will come-back and probably go down to Spain at Redsands where there will be a Grand Prix this year, and do some more testing with the rest of the Team and WP.
The first race is a flyaway to Argentina which he is looking forward to, but it will be a new experience for him and take some adjustment to all the travel and everything else. It’s not just about driving to a race and turning up! We have a two-year deal with him so this year will be a learning year and hopefully if results go well, it can maybe lead to something else.
At the MXoN this year At Matterly Basin when conditions where reasonable, he did show good speed – he wasn’t far off Wilson for most of the race and he had Tanel Leok on his back wheel, and Tanel is no slouch and doesn’t give in. Graeme didn’t get agitated, rode smooth and that was a good indication that he can run at that level in GPs asTanel has been finishing top ten at a number of GPs this year. If you use that as a yardstick, hopefully we will have good year with him.
The other main priority will be to retain the British championship and win both classes again in one year as we did with Strijbos and Banks-Browne in 2012 – but a lot of other teams will be looking to the do the same!
From a team owner’s point of view dealing with sponsors and the depth on MXGP, is it difficult to explain to sponsors that the guy in 17th is still going really fast maybe 10th speed from ten or fifteen years ago?
We have been very fortunate to maintain our main sponsors over the years and they know we are doing our best and they fully understand the level of competition. At the end of the day, as long as they get the recognition they are due, get all the logos prominently on the bike, obtain some very good Press coverage social media publicity, everyone is pleased with their return on their investment. We entertain a lot of main sponsors’ guests at each GP and we tend to get the same guests form each country coming back year after year, so we must be doing something right! We get a lot of good feedback from them that enjoyed being part of the team. If Hitachi are selling more construction machinery due to the involvement with the Team, then it’s a win/win situation for both parties.
You are looking at around a 30 race season next year with 20 GPs, eighth British championships, a pre-season race and maybe the MXoN. Is it difficult to budget all that and sort the logistics?
It’s reasonably straight forward. Apart from the doubt header in Indonesia, we have been to all the places. Russia was bit unknown this year, but fortunately everything worked out perfectly. The flights arrived when they should have, the freight arrived when it should have, the hotel turned out to be very good in a good location. The only thing that didn’t work out was the weather!
The series looks healthy in terms of the level of the riders and the competitive nature of the series, but obviously Suzuki have pulled, what is your take on MXGP as a team owner?
Over the past few weeks, we have had so many requests from riders, mechanics, drivers who are unfortunately losing their jobs, so that situation hasn’t been good for the sport. But sometimes you need situations like that where the strong do survive and fortunately we haven’t been compromised so far. We want to continue that and grow with KTM and bring on their younger riders which is what they want us to do. We are one of the main satellite teams for KTM now with HSF pulling out and that shows the level of mutual respect that we have for each other and long may it continue.
On a personal level you have been doing this along time, do you see yourself staying in it for years to come still?
I have been doing this from 2005 but the only difference on a personal level is that I have been on dialysis since December which not everybody knows! It has been a bit of an eye opener but I feel a lot better for it and I can’t thank enough the renal staff at Belfast City Hospital for their care and support.
I had been quite tired going to the Grand Prix in 2017, and this year I haven’t been able to go to just as many as the dialysis treatment is Monday/ Wednesday/Friday at home. I can usually get in it Belfast on Friday morning then fly out Friday after no one then back Monday Lunchtime and get it done on Monday night again. If the Grand Prix like Assen, Valkenswaard or Lommel it’s no problem, but some of the rest it takes a bit of organising! I am looking to do a few more GPs next year now I have a year under my belt.
For the overall Team, it’s not a big issue as we have a very strong set of loyal Team personnel, so if I’m not there it almost runs itself ! The guys we have are very, very loyal and I can only thank them 110% for all the effort they put in. You always want that holy grail of a World Championship although it’s extremely hard to beat the Factory Teams.
The one story I tell people is at the end of 2008 when we knew Shaun Simpson was going to the factory KTM team, we got offered a certain rider called Marvin Musquin. We looked at his 2008 results and he had one top 10 GP result that year, and we said he’s “more of a supercross rider”. He ended up winning the 2009 MX2 world championship – so that’s one of the big rider selection mistakes we made!
With Graeme and Conrad you don’t know what we could do – that is part of the excitement and unknown factor that keeps all of the Team motivated. Realistically we are satellite team and feeder team for the KTM Factory team and we totally accept that. We have provided riders to them over the years and not just riders, as we have provided mechanics to them as well! So it’s all about getting the right Team personnel and hopefully we have that in 2018 once again.
Pics: KTM UK