Ben Watson discusses Kawasaki switch and working with Strijbos
Ben Watson’s transfer from factory Yamaha to Kawasaki teams for 2022 is one of the few high-profile rider switches for the new season. The 24-year-old MX2 Grand Prix winner is still relatively fresh to the premier class but will now adapt to the resourceful IceOne set-up – who will be running the KX450Fs for the second time in their history but for the first time as the official factory squad – as well as a different motorcycle after four years on Yamaha YZ-F equipment.
Watson had an inconsistent MXGP debut in 2021. Top ten results were mixed with some lowly points-scores as the Monster Energy Yamaha team struggled collectively to be a regular podium presence. The Briton, now the only rider from his country left in the MXGP gate, was hastily jettisoned from the Blu Cru despite being briefed to learn and develop, and found another opportunity in former F1 star Kimi Raikkonen’s unit, alongside friend and training partner Romain Febvre. The deal was confirmed well into December, meaning Watson had to little time to get used to his alternative surroundings, as well as bear the weight of the team’s development with Febvre still out of the saddle.
“I was just riding the production bike for the first four weeks with a production engine and the factory KYB suspension,” he says, when asked about the differences between the YZ450F and the KX450F; the latter used by Febvre to almost capture the 2021 title. “It was hard to compare the bikes straight away on the first days but I really liked the power of the production engine and the way it was laid out. The Yamaha was a very strong bike and I didn’t struggle with power but I did struggle in terms of where I wanted it. It was nice to notice the differences. The full-factory KX450F is not radically different to what I expected – they are both Japanese bikes – but I think the biggest factor for me is having a completely fresh start: the team, the bike, the way to work, even the colour. I’m enjoying the change. I think many bikes at this level are very good.”
“The power emphasis is in a different place and, I know this depends on the rider, if you are a guy that doesn’t want to change gear much and just wants to roll the throttle on and have power then you’ll really enjoy the Kawasaki,” he adds. “I’m loving it at the moment because the power is everywhere.”
IceOne is Watson’s fourth team in Grands Prix since he began his career in 2015, two of those were Yamaha efforts.
“It’s a very different situation for me,” he admits. “I was with the Yamaha family for four years and I got to know everyone involved. Even when I was in MX2 we would spend time with the MXGP guys and do the pre-season photoshoot together. So, this was a big change. There is also the fact that the team is new to Kawasaki and I’m new both to the team and to Kawasaki! So, I’m learning the way to work. Antti [Pyrhonen, Team Manager] has a strong position and does the work of maybe three guys in another team. I’m getting used to it all.”
One alteration is the addition of ex-GP winner and championship runner-up Kevin Strijbos as the team’s trainer.
“Kevin has just retired from an insanely long career. He has so much experience and knows what it takes to compete at the top level through many different scenarios: he worked with some people that he maybe didn’t get on with but has had to handle those. He’s not only a coach but he has become like a good friend and that’s important because you have tough and hard days,” Watson says. “He’s not one of those guys standing at the side of the track and telling you to ‘shift here’ and ‘sitdown there’. He sets plans and takes away the doubts you have. I’ve been doing GPs for a few years now but I don’t have even the half of his experience. I can put my trust in him for scheduling about how much I should be doing and riding. He has all our data and heartrate zones and can be flexible.”
A familiar aspect of Watson’s programme is the working relationship with Febvre. The pair trained together when they were Yamaha brandmates and they shared coach/mentor Jack Vimond. Now they are finally teammates and potentially rivals.
“We’ve always had a good relationship,” Watson insists. “We get-on well. In the past we’d train together but not with a strict routine. We’d meet-up for cycling or riding. This is the first time we’re in the same team and had the same support. Kevin is doing our stuff and we’ve been using the same system to upload our training results. We share our data and keep updated. Hopefully when he is back on the bike then the training will be more enjoyable: he’s not only a top rider but also someone I feel I can learn from.”
Watson has already taken a top-four finish in the first round of the Internazionali D’Italia series in Sardinia for his Kawasaki ‘baptism’ but his MXGP debut will be intense. The rider’s home Grand Prix at Matterley Basin will open the championship on February 20th and where #919 will bear the brunt of expectation. Despite the wide-open spotlight, Watson believes the scrutiny at Matterley will bring a positive influence.
“The British GP is always good but we haven’t had the same atmosphere because of the Covid restrictions. I don’t know how it will be this time…but to race in front of your home crowd is a buzz,” he reflects. “The first GP is always a bit strange because you don’t know what to expect or how your level will be. It will be even more of a mystery for me…but I like being in that pressure situation. Being at the home race will take away some of that glare of everything being ‘the first’ for the team and there is a good chance I’ll be the only rider there [for KRT]. I’ll have all the focus and I’ll be able to enjoy all the cool support; even on the Sighting lap the fans are pushing you.”
If Watson can triumph on the KX450F then he will be only the eighth Grand Prix winner with Kawasaki since 2010 after the Pourcel brothers, Sebastien and Christophe, Gautier Paulin, Ryan Villopoto, Eli Tomac, Clement Desalle and Febvre. He will be the second Brit to do so in the four-stroke era after Billy Mackenzie owned the 2007 Grand Prix of Japan.
Words: Adam Wheeler