The world so loves an overnight success story. It is a truism, though, that many overnight successes are years in the making, filled with toil and strife, coloured dark by heartache and self-doubt, and often rescued from the very edge of surrender. The motocross world has seen a goodly share of precocious talents, riders who have the fans uttering collective gasps as they charge to prominence at impossibly young ages, taking the battle to the lions whilst still cubs themselves.
Such was the expectations of Henry Jacobi now nearly a decade ago. The German overcame the most devastating of injury setbacks to race to a 85cc Junior World title and pundits sat up and took notice – maybe we have the Next Big Thing out of Germany? Further setbacks trotted along, though, and that, coupled with not-too-spectacular seasons seemed to consign him to the recycle bin of motocross consciousness in the minds of the oh-so-fickle populace.
There’s no keeping a good man down, though. Henry kept plugging away, and his innate abilities, work ethic and constant drive conspired to see him hoist himself up and ever more up by the proverbial bootstraps. In the space of two-and-a-bit seasons he scrambled up from 20th in the final world standings in 2017 (notable of course, but still not ultimate evidence of truly world-topping ability), to tenth the following year, to the now, where he sits in third position in the world rankings, just a fingerful of points adrift from second. His current lofty ranking came mainly by dint of his first ever GP podium at Matterley Basin in March. Since then, he’s been a regular front-ranker, both in GP – and Dutch Championship races, so this clearly was no flash in the pan. It was time to haul the phone near and get the low-down or high-up, however you want to view it, from the man himself and from his right hand man for these two years past, Christoph Selent.
The interviews were a while in the making. Getting the planets aligned for three men to speak together half a globe apart is often easier said and done, and finally time logistics dictated that the two gentlemen were best interviewed separately. And so it came to pass that the phone headset was filled with the mellow sound of Henry’s laid-back tones as he was on the way back from a training session. He came across as obviously pleased with the happenings of late, if a tad dazed. During the course of an engaging half an hour, we get to learn more about this modest, feet-on-the-ground racer who has suddenly grabbed the attention of the racing world at large.
We begin the interview by spinning the clock back to a sunny Holzgerlingen in 2010, where a young Henry, his voice box still distinctly unbassy, bubbled with youthful enthusiasm after a season which at one stage looked as if it had come to a disastrous, grinding halt, but which in fact yielded him an 85cc Junior World Title. It was a tale of some heroism, the kind of which Hollywood scripts are crafted from. A mere 10 weeks before the world championship event in France, he broke both arms in a German Championship event at Höchstadt. With scarcely three weeks to go before the event, he got back on the bike, and no one in his right mind would have given him a mouse’s hope at an alley cat convention of a decent result. Henry himself admitted during that interview that the best he dared hope for was a top ten result. Yet he prevailed and was crowned champion, after a memorable and sometimes quite physical tussle with none other than Tim Gajser. A mention of that fact elicited a deep-dimpled smile from the obviously buoyant youngster.
Motocross can be a cruel master, though. Just when it looked as if his star was on the up and up, fate quite literally slammed him hard into the ground again. His conversion onto the bigger 125cc machine seemed to go smoothly with early European championship points, when a devastating crash during a training session in Triptis left him with two badly broken feet, which more or less drew a line through his début 125cc season.
“My throttle got stuck and I immediately knew that there was something seriously wrong,” he recounts. “This of course has an effect on your confidence too, and it took time for me to rebuild.” He underlined his undoubted abilities with a final ranking of 8th in the 125cc European championships in 2012, but the season was somewhat troubled, and for him a broken finger at the final race of the season was more or less a metaphor for all that had passed.
He improved to fifth in the European Championship standings during his last year on the 125cc bike, and then came the switch to the 250cc MX2 class in 2014. He was a serious title contender in the very competitive ADAC MX Masters Youngster Cup, duking it out with perennial rival Thomas Kjer Olsen, but an eye injury at the final round conspired to keep him to third in the final rankings. The year was also significant, because he schlepped his name onto the MX2 world championship scoreboard for the first time with a solitary digit at his home GP. He was now demonstrably a GP rider, and to him also fell the honour of being called up for national duty to represent Germany at the Motocross of Nations.
Henry collected his first top ten GP finishes, a pair of them no less, at his home GP in 2015. This helped him to 23rd in the final world standings. He repeated the final standing in 2016 after his first foray on a Japanese bike, a Honda. There were no earth shattering single results this year, just a steady collection of points.
For 2017, Henry switched to a privateer Husqvarna, and again his home GP at Teutschenthal provided a highlight, with a scintillating 8th in the first heat. He advanced to the top twenty in the championship standings, and secured his position as the up-and-coming German rider by charging to a final third position in the ADAC MX Masters classification.
All top riders know the pain, both mental and physical, of having to cut your way through a competitive jungle when results seem patchy and fickle support wanes. “In my heart I knew I was better than the results had shown thus far, and I felt vindicated when we beat some factory riders on what was essentially a privateer Husqvarna. I had not chosen for the setbacks that had befallen me, but I kept working on changing what I could, and the unshakable belief of my dad in particular drove me on. He just never doubted that we were headed somewhere special, and I cannot express my appreciation for this enough.”
It was during the 2017 season that Henry’s path intertwined with that of Christoph Selent, and this is as good a time as any to weave the tall, friendly German into our narrative. The GP paddock got to know him as a regular companion to former GP – and AMA rider Gareth Swanepoel, but Christoph is a more than able rider in own right. With the laugh crinkles permanently set in the corners of his eyes and his easy-going demeanour, he is a popular figure.
“I started riding just for fun, really,” he recalls. “Dad didn’t ride himself, and it was actually a toss-up between motocross and soccer.” Nonetheless, his abilities shone through, with a top ten result in the German MX2 championships as proof positive. He finished second in the 2004 IMBA (amateur federation) European Championships, and just to show that he still had the wherewithal, came out swinging again as recently in 2016 to finish third.
The association between Henry and Christoph wasn’t initially met with universal approval, and in fact many people were skeptical. Christoph had by then done some work with Swanepoel and German riders such as Pit Rickert and Vinny Galwitz, in addition to memorable successes with South African Camden McLellan, but still Henry’s minders were unsure of the benefits. Christoph was not in it for the financial benefits, he saw definite room for improvement if things were done differently. They decided to see if the chemistry was right during a 4 week period at the end of the season, and indeed soon after Henry announced that he felt comfortable with the arrangement. He also credits Christoph with helping him gain traction as it were, as they lived together and joined forces towards a common goal.
Even though outwardly confident, Christoph sensed that Henry still had self doubts, even as a top ten GP finisher. There were also a few technical aspects that needed looking at, for instance Henry’s heavy clutch usage. One thing that Christoph was sure of, though, was that Henry had the X factor by the bucket-load. “He has a big heart and fights to the end, and this is not something that you can ever teach. A rider has it or he doesn’t,” Christoph explains.
The 2018 season would be the acid test of how the relationship worked. Henry came out of his corner swinging in Argentina with his best ever GP heat result. In Trentino, Italy the planets aligned to near perfection when he finished second, a mere seven seconds behind Jorge Prado, and after yet another titanic battle with Thomas Kjer Olsen. “I wasn’t sure if it was a trend or just a one-off result yet,” he admits. “I did realize that there is something good happening here, though, and that I need to keep working professionally at it.” He raked in points like a stock trader accumulates profits, and at the end of the year a world championship top ten was his reward. He also claimed the ultimate accolade on home soil, with title honours in the ADAC MX Masters series.
After much soul searching, Henry again opted for a Japanese mount for the 2019 season, this time for the Dutch F&H Racing Kawasaki racing team. It took a lot of soul searching, but as it has turned out thus far, it seems an inspired choice. Christoph pipes in. “It was a difficult discussion, but we were surprised with the power of the bike. The handling of the Kawasaki suited Henry perfectly, as well. He likes to favour the front wheel with his riding, and the Kawasaki seems tailor-made for this. The ergonomics of the bike are good, and he trusts it implicitly on the track.
It did not take long for the partnership to yield a career-best result. During the second GP of the season at Matterley Basin Henry rode to a second and a third in the heats respectively for second overall. Naturally, days like these make for fine memories. “Of course (Jorge) Prado wasn’t racing that day, but still I felt like it was a great day for us. It was a beautiful day for the team and Kawasaki as well” Henry recalls, ever mindful of those that have stood by him.
Henry and Christoph both agree that Prado on song is a hard man to beat, but certainly they’re not giving up the fight. “I’m just focusing on maintaining top three results wherever possible,” Henry muses. “If we have a really great day, a win is possible.” He continues to hone his skills, particularly so in the notorious deep sands of Holland. He now participates in the Dutch Masters of Motocross series, a home series for his team, and currently tops the MX2 classification. He regards sand training as very important in building a complete riding arsenal, a fact discovered by most great riders before him. Not unimportantly, the prize money in Holland is also good, a weighty consideration in an era where GP motocross riders do not earn prize money.
Henry ages out of the MX2 class at the end of this season and contemplations of his move to the premier MXGP class naturally have had to happen. He is fairly muted about the almost-certain approaches that he has already had. “I am just focusing on this season, and if I continue to perform well, I am sure a good MXGP offer will come,” he says. Christoph sounds the clarion a bit louder. “A good team with knowledge and experience and good strategy is definitely what we’re aiming for,” he says. “All the big bikes have power, and here set-up and suspension can make all the difference.” His role with Henry has since refined to encompass not so much training and riding technique, but overall strategy and motivation.
Looking towards the end of the season, Henry beams at the possibility of a German Motocross of Nations team that might include Ken Roczen, Max Nagl and himself. He is reluctant to prognosticate too much, but feels that such a team, properly fit, could have a decent swing at a podium finish.
With the interview moving towards conclusion, we explore a bit about Henry Jacobi the non-racer. Like many motocross riders, he reveals a propensity for golf and what he calls “sunshine time.” He also dabbles in some serious bouts of Fortnite on his Playstation, and in this gets involved in some intense gaming action with well-known sportsmen from other disciplines. Atypically, though, and this causes a virtual double take, he reveals that he likes reading. Far be it from us to typecast, but ascribing literary preferences to a motocross rider is not something we’ve been called upon to do very often. He likes a good crime story, finds motivation in biographies, and broadens his horizons by reading about other sports as well.
As we say our goodbyes, Henry makes sure again to remind us of his gratitude to all that have helped him along this long and eventful journey. They are the proverbial too many to mention, but he singles out his father, his family, sponsors big and small, his home Federation the DMSB, ADAC Thuringen, Christophe, and every person that has wished him well, sought an autograph, patted his back or supported in any way.
There we have it. Germany has a lot to offer world motocross, with a great domestic series, a supportive federation, a perfectly-organized home GP, a great winter supercross series, and so much else. The country deserves success on the world racing stage. This pairing is well on the way towards delivering just that.
This interview was completed before Henry’s much-troubled outing at the GP of Lombardy in Mantova, where a first race crash and a second race DNF conspired to damp the euphoria somewhat. Still, he came out of the experience with his third place ranking still intact, and gained a lot of additional fans for his first race fightback, and the stoic manner in which he accepted the setback. He bounced back with vigour in Portugal the week thereafter, and the edge-of-your-seat battle during qualifying between him, Jorge Prado and Thomas Kjer Olsen made for fascinating viewing, and must surely be a top candidate for best racing sequence of the season.
Words: Tinus Nel
Pic: Scott Dunne