David Thorpe interview: Part two – his career!

In the second part of our David Thorpe interview we talk about his superb career that saw him win three world championship titles for HRC Honda against some very tough competition in glory days of the 500cc class.

We then touch on his ill-fated move to Kawasaki in 1990, discuss what makes a champion before moving on the the controversial issue of no prize money in MXGP.

Moving on to your career, you won your first world championship in 85 but it seems the results were all building towards that happening. Going into 85 was that the goal and when it arrived how did it finally feel to be world champion? 

When I signed for Honda at the end of 82, I signed a two-year deal for 83 and 84. I think it would be fair to say that if I didn’t have two-year contract at the end of 83 I would have been let go because it just didn’t quite gel for either of us. HRC stuck with me thankfully and the second year of that contract it got better. At the end of 84 I won the last six races so I felt in 85 I had a good chance but I was up against Andre Malherbe, Eric Geboers, George Jobe, Carlquist, there was a lot of big hitters there. The 85 championship, if you look at the calendar, I only had one DNF the second round in France, I was winning the race and on the last lap my gearbox broke. But other than that, it was a solid year, it was a lifetime ambition succeeded really.  

This article continues below

In 86 you had a big battle with Malherbe in Luxemburg, essentially for the title that day going back on forth on a natural circuit with off-camber, slick turns. Those battles seem to be when champions perform to their best and show their mental strength as well as their speed, what do you remember of that race? 

It was a different generation and the volume of people that used to go and watch and the atmosphere you used to get, it’s very different than you get now. Those days with Andre, he was possibly one of the only people that could match me with the hard flat ground, and the adverse cambers, so it was always going to be a very difficult race against Andre back in the day. They were super races, amazingly fair between us there was never any argy-bargy, it was always straight down the line between Andre and myself. Yeah, great memories, they are super memories. When I watch the old stuff back on YouTube, you forget how many people used to go, the crowds were just phenomenal in those days.  

You had a similar battle with Eric Geboers at Namur in 89 to win the championship, going through the trees in side-by-side, again those moments must be somethings you always remember? 

I do, I do. I also dwell on the fact I was winning in 87 and broke my shoulder, I was winning in 88 and I broke my collarbone. I kind of feel they were two years that got away from me but in hindsight when you look back over that period, it wasn’t a bad record. They were great times and I would have them all back in a heartbeat if I am honest because I thoroughly enjoyed it all.  

What makes a champion? In those big moments the champions always seem to rise to the occasion under pressure. What in your experience of being champion makes you guys deliver under pressure? 

It’s a mental thing, I think. Anybody that is in contention for a world championship, first and foremost they have got incredible fitness, so that’s a given. They have always got a good team behind them because without a good team you are never going to be in contention, so for the rider it’s all about dealing with the mental pressure of the race.  

Thorpe 89

From a very young age Bryan Wade, I used to do the training with Wade camps, and he always used to talk about racing under pressure, i.e., in your head. You see a lot of people lose their head and do silly things, they are not the people that win championships. Championships are always won with a cool head. And he would always say championships are won on your bad days not your good days – and that stuck with me.  

You then moved to Kawasaki in 1990 and I had read that Kurt Nicoll and his mechanic had built you a pretty bad bike to ride but you had already signed the contract? So how did it feel to come off the Honda unto the Kawasaki? I think you had injuries as well and you didn’t seem to quite have the same magic you had the previous years.  

This article continues below

The Kwacker was a development bike and the bike I tested on you would be quite right to say it was a bit of mish mash! But when we went to Japan, the bike we tested was completely different. And I think, whilst I won Grand Prix in 1990, I was never a contender for the championship. The bike was a development bike and in hindsight I should have stayed where I was but hindsight is a wonderful thing.  

I got myself together pretty good for 1991 believe it or not, I felt I was riding really good and then the conrod came out of the side of the engine on an uphill triple at Payerne, Switzerland. That dislocated my shoulder and that was pretty much the end then, it was a very difficult injury to try and ride with and the results just weren’t there. As with all athletes, you keep pushing and when the results don’t come your confidence drops and at that level, once your confidence drops, you are not really in the game.  

Thorpe 1990

Is it hard mentally to accept going from being the best guy in the world to these struggles, almost like a domino effect and you can’t climb up that hill again.  

It was disappointing for me because I felt I was probably putting a little bit more effort in certainly on the physical front and just not achieving the results. But I think things through quite logically and whatever made me special on the Honda had slowly evaporated on the Kwacker, it’s just the way it rolls.  

The British championship in the 80s seemed really competitive, almost like the MXGP guys now, you had the 250 and 500 guys together. How important was the British championship to you then and did you find the competition tough, it seemed like a mini–Grand Prix then?  

The British championship for me, Honda Japan had no interest in the British championship, it was only me pushing that wanted to do it because I was always proud to race in England. I’ve said it before and I will say it again, the bit that used to highlight it for me in the British championship, and I always use him as an example and he always laughs at me, but if we take Greg Hansen, there would be many races in England where he would push me very hard in a British championship and I could never quite get my head around that when we would go to Grand Prix a week or two later I would end up lapping him and I was never trying any harder.  

Thorpe and Nicoll

I found that there were so many super-fast British lads that rode amazing in the British championship that made it super competitive but when they crossed that little bit of channel, something changed. Whether it was the occasion, the tracks, I don’t know. I’ve talked to Greg about it before and I think we both agreed that if we could bottle that, whatever it was, we would have had far more successful riders in Grand Prix. 

That still seems to be an issue now, especially with young guys trying to make the transition – so you think it’s more mental? 

This article continues below

Without a doubt, at the end of the day you still have two wheels, a set of handlebars and the same bike that you rode in England. The Grand Prix tracks as we know are slightly different but there is nothing that our youngsters can’t adapt too. What disappears is probably that little bit of self-belief and confidence. You look at Bobryshev,  a super athlete, had an amazing career and still ultra-competitive in the British championship and yet every now and then he can throw in an amazing result in in Grand Prix. So, when I look at the guys he battles with in the British championship I think to myself, some of those guys should be able to throw a result in in Grand Prix but it just doesn’t quite happen and I don’t know why.  

Your relationship with the American media and the American riders, Maggiora in 86 is always what they remember but I believe you didn’t have a back brake which is probably why O’Mara beat you? People forget you beat David Bailey the year before, so your level was able to be on their level. How was your relationship with the Americans, would you have went testing with Bailey, Johnson and O’Mara in Japan? 

Yeah, we did test together with David Bailey, Johnny, Ricky – there was lots of times we were together. We are still good buddies now and I speak to Ricky a lot and Johnny and David occasionally. For me they were always the better athlete, a little bit more finely tuned, and because of supercross technically, in my opinion superior to us, but that didn’t always translate to race wins/event wins. Sometimes you click on a track and you make it work, that happened sometimes for me and sometimes for them.  

Thorpe chasing Bailey

I think Johnny in Italy, he was absolutely on fire that day, if ever there was a track that bike, that was going to be it. I didn’t particularly ride very well and yeah, I lost my back brake but it’s not really an excuse, I think Johnny would have beaten most people that day given a straight race.  

When you were riding with them, were you looking at these new techniques that they were using and trying to implement that or did the tracks in the GPs not really require the technique that they had developed for supercross? 

No not really, I wasn’t really that bothered about their technical ability on the bike because it related to supercross. What I was always really keen to learn from them was Johnny and David used to have a trainer called Jeff Spencer and I had a lot of respect for Jeff and when I was with them, I always tried to be a bit of a sponge around them and learn what they were doing and why they were doing it. They were super, super focused on their diet, that was one thing Jeff really pushed in them and I learnt a lot from them on the dietary side because whilst I was quite careful with what I ate I wasn’t as strict with stuff as they were.   

Now, the GP riders, their technical ability is one par and even more versatile outdoors, what are your thoughts on the current level of MXGP, but also, there isn’t any prize money and the guys below the factory level are struggling to get a decent wage? 

I have read a lot recently about Grand Prix money and I think there is a lot of money there at the highest level. But what has clearly happened is the factories have had to tighten their belts and you might consider you had two or three factory riders on really good money but when that money goes away, which if you are used to getting £10 and you are now getting £5, it seems like a big drop and if you don’t get your head around that then that’s where the problems are. It’s not only our sport that suffer with the money, there is lots of sports that suffer with the money.  

It’s a transition period and I think the best riders in world championship motocross get paid very well. The teams and probably more to do with the FIM and InFront, they just need to find a way of keeping that fringe ride involved so they are still getting some salary and how you do that, I don’t know. But that’s the key because there is only one winner but the rest of the riders make the race, without the rest of the riders there is no race, so there has got to be a way of making it work somehow. 

Thorpe chasing Geboers at Namur 89

The level of MXGP and even individual countries against America at the MXoN, did you think you would see the strength and depth of the MXGP again? 

Yeah, I don’t think anyone would doubt the European riders are the fastest in the world at the minute outdoor. I think the Americans, they have got a couple and they have got a couple of Europeans, Ken’s obviously super-fast, Tomac is super-fast but after that, I don’t know. You have the youngsters coming through from America, I think it will be back and forth. Some years the young riders coming through may take the outdoors to a new level but I think currently the Europeans have the edge. Indoors of course that’s completely different game. 

Would you like to see more Americans come over and try the world championship again? In the mid to late 80s there were a lot of Americans that came over and were pretty successful.  

Yeah, but they were probably Americans that couldn’t get the deal they wanted in America. I genuinely feel there (USA) is a massive market for the motorcycle industry and in Europe there is a big market for the industry and between the two they have got Americans to do that job and Europeans to do the job over here. And if a European can jump in and do good at supercross then I think they’ll go across and vice versa if an American can’t get the deal he wants then he will come and look to race in Europe.

Thorpe in 85 Image: Nick Haskell

It’s kind of always been the same and you look at the fly-aways that are there right now and while it costs the teams an absolute fortune to go, when you look at the volume of bikes those countries sell, you can understand why the factories want to go to those countries because some of them sell far more bikes in one country than we sell in the whole of Europe. So, there is a commercial reason to go, In Front and the FIM just need to find an affordable way to get the middle level of riders to go and the teams to go and find some way of funding it because I think that is what makes it super difficult to go Grand Prix racing at the moment. 

Was that a similar issue in your era? Where the middle level guys able to use the prize money then to make it easier to get by? 

I wouldn’t say it was any easier, back in the day if you qualified for the Grand Prix you got some start money and then on the day there was some prize money to earn. I guess for the 10-20th place person that made the difference if they were on the road, they could go from one Grand Prix to do and international to make some money to go to another Grand Prix to qualify, it was all a process. But of course, the world is a very different place now, in travel and everything, so whether that system would help I am not too sure.  

If you missed part one go here.

Interview: Jonathan McCready