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In-depth interview: Antti Pyrhönen on all things MXGP and Ice One Husqvarna

In-depth interview: Antti Pyrhönen on all things MXGP and Ice One Husqvarna
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Antti Pyrhönen is a man with plenty of experience in the Motocross industry as not only is he a former Grand Prix rider himself but he’s also the team manager of the Factory Ice One Husqvarna team.

You just need to have a look at the team’s setup in the MXGP paddock to know exactly what they’ll all about – very professional and the best setup in the paddock with their new team truck for the 2020 season and beyond.

Injuries made the 2020 season difficult for the team but the main thing is that Arminas Jasikonis is going to make a full recovery after being in an induced coma due to a high speed crash at Mantova.

Pauls Jonass also picked up an injury in Latvia which ruled him out for the rest of the season and he has a new challenge for the 2021 season after inking a deal with GasGas.

For the 2021 season, the Ice One Husqvarna team have signed up Thomas Kjer Olsen to partner Arminas Jasikonis when he makes a return to the GP scene.

We caught up with Pyrhönen for an in-depth interview as we discussed a range of topics.

GateDrop: Antti, let’s start with this season which was a very strange season thanks to COVID-19. I feel like Jonass showed good speed at the first few rounds but didn’t have the luck whereas Jasikonis was flying and had some great results at the start of the season!

Pyrhönen: It was strange and a surreal season with the COVID-19 virus, it was challenging on that side. We worked really hard since the Motocross Des Nations 2019, so we had a good pace after the ’19 season where to start because the guys were injury free. They finished sixth and seventh in the championship standings which give us the base to go further in the 2020 season. During the training season both of the guys were training really hard and were very motivated. We were able to step-by-step improve the bike and generally the team, so we had high hopes for this season.

AJ started out quite well as he finished third in the International Italian Championship races and was looking really good in pre-season races with no risks, he was just building it up. Pauls also had a really good training season and very very impressive speed. He for sure made a step forward since the 2019 season.

Things at Matterley Basin for round one didn’t start out super well. Pauls crashed on the start corner and AJ crashed at the second corner. Things started out the worst way possible, but both the guys were healthy, and we knew the results on the paper didn’t reflect on the level we had already at that moment.

We bounced back at Valkenswaard, AJ won the qualifying race and showed some impressive speed but wanted to bring a consistent result home, so he went 3-3 in the moto’s. With Matterley being such a bummer he wanted to ride a bit safe and bring home the podium. Pauls had the speed as well in the difficult conditions, but he had some unfortunate crashes.

A happy Ice One Husqvarna team celebrating a podium at Valkenswaard. Pic: Juan Pablo Acevedo

After Valkenswaard we actually went to Spain to get ready for Argentina but then the lockdown hit. The COVID-19 lockdowns came so we quickly had to make a plan B. This was to send all the material and the riders into their home country (Lithuania and Latvia). The guys without not knowing when the season would restart, they stayed motivated and kept working with our team trainer and worked on the areas that we recognised they could still improve.

We had another cold shower let’s say, another disaster struck when Pauls had a nasty crash in Latvia and the injury was heavy so we knew it would take several months, it was unfortunate. With Arminas we eventually got him back to Belgium and started further training together, we did one race in Czech Republic and two “second” pre-season races in Holland.

AJ went out at the triple header in Latvia, had consistent results there and brought home his second podium of the season as well as his first ever race win. We went out of Latvia with third place in the championships, so things were looking strong. Things continued to go strong as well in Faenza, AJ of course was well known for his awesome speed in the sand but even at Faenza in the rock hard conditions he showed that he belonged at the front at whatever track. He was posting fastest or second fastest times in qualifying and really awesome speed at the races. He was coming through the pack finishing between 5-10 let’s say.

We knew his potential was higher and that he can battle for race wins and constant podiums. The only thing that let us down were the starts, but we kept working on the starts. What happened at Mantova was terrible for AJ and for us. The season was over there so it was an unfortunate ending to our season. We all knew that if Arminas made it until Lommel we all knew the damage he could do there but that’s the reality, we didn’t make it that far and the season was finished at Mantova.

GateDrop: Obviously this year was a strange season with triple headers and midweek racing, but I think it’s fair to say that Infront done a brilliant job under the circumstances, what was your thoughts on the job they done so we could go racing?

Pyrhönen: To be honest, I think they done an awesome job. Under these conditions to organise these races and to find away to be able to put the paddock together at different locations, different countries. I think they did an unbelievable job and nothing else to say. I know it was not easy to make events happen during this COVID-19 time, we all know that, but they made it happen and I need to give a big credit to them for the job they did.

GateDrop: Jasikonis got on the podium at Valkenswaard in what was a superb weekend for him – winning the qualifying race and going 3-3 in the moto’s. He’s been on the podium before but for me that one was more impressive – everyone was there with no injuries and the way he did it – he blew me away! Did you expect that from him so early in the season or did it surprise you a little?

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Pyrhönen: To be honest we knew it was just a matter of time when it came. AJ with his training pace, his condition and his general level was a podium level – this was just a fact. At Valkenswaard, Latvia 1, Latvia 2, Latvia 3 and even Faenza. Whatever the race, his level was not a surprise. He had a level and the potential to battle for podiums and race wins. The only weakness he had was the starts, this is what everyone has seen. Everybody knows his speed and that he was able to come through the pack even making passes in the last five minutes. The starts were our Achilles heel.

GateDrop: Obviously at Latvia Jonass got injured and that was his season over. When was it decided that he wouldn’t continue with the team and was it a hard decision to make – he has a lot of potential?

Pyrhönen: For sure, with Pauls, we really liked to work with him, and I think we did some really great results during his rookie season. In 2019, he did three podiums and did an overall podium at the Motocross Des Nations as well. We need to remember that he came into the season with an unfortunate ACL injury, so I think he did an awesome rookie season. I’m really sure that he could have also had a really great season this year if he didn’t get the unfortunate injury in Latvia.

For sure, it was a very tough decision not to continue the path with him because I believe in Pauls. We had a luxury situation to be honest, we had the possibility to select between Pauls, Arminas and Thomas Kjer Olsen. We needed to make the decision and the fact is that we wanted to keep Arminas. We also wanted to respect Thomas history with Husqvarna as he’s been with Husqvarna already 4-5 years and we wanted to give him a chance to step up to the MXGP class.

This was a challenging decision made internally but we also knew that Pauls wouldn’t be left with nothing. We knew he had the possibility to go to GasGas and on that side it was only an internal change so it was agreed that he could continue his career with another great team. So, on that side it is all good, all good.

GateDrop: At Mantova during the MXGP of Lombardia, that’s the day Jasikonis had his huge crash and as a result went into an induced coma. Just how scary was that for yourself and the team? It must have been very emotional…  

Pyrhönen: It was the blackest day of my career as Motocross team manager or in general the blackest day of my entire Motocross career as a team manager or a rider. This is the truth but to be honest at that moment the emotions I needed to push aside. We needed to stay functional for AJ’s sake because I needed to stay strong for him.

He was brought to hospital with a helicopter in a coma and that meant behind the scenes many things needed to be organised, many things needed to be taken care off. On that side, as much as the emotions wanted to appear, we needed to stay professional and functional to sort out things behind the scenes.

When Arminas was brought to hospital it was evaluated that the hospital was able to take care of him. One of the first things that we knew we needed to do quickly was to get his parents over to Italy. It was very important for us and we quickly agreed with Kimi Räikkönen (The F1 driver is the team owner) that we could fly Kimi’s private jet to Lithuania and fly his father over, so his father was landing to Italy straight away on Monday morning. We knew we had done everything we could for AJ to have his family together. He was getting care off in the hospital the best possible way and then we started to pray that he’d fully recover. That is what happened, and we are very thankful for that.

We had unbelievable support from Kimi, from the factory – Pit (Beirer), Robert (Jonas) and Heinz (Kinigadner) and from all the MX community, huge respect and thanks for that!

Pic: Juan Pablo Acevedo

GateDrop: He is a very tough guy! Can you just give us an update on AJ and his current condition? Looking at the MXGP calendar, when do you think we can see him make a return?

Pyrhönen: AJ’s recovery has just been unbelievable; we all know how strong he is and how strong his will is. Since he’s been in a coma his will was so strong, he actually woke up from his coma earlier than what the doctors expected. He woke up by himself very strong and since that every day his recovery has been unbelievable.

At the moment his stage is absolutely normal, he’s capable of already doing some physical training whether it be running or some gym, physical exercises. He is happily living with his girlfriend and things are absolutely looking positive and really good.

But when he is able to return back to riding or racing, I don’t want to put a date on it because we don’t know but as much as I know AJ, I think it’s going to happen sooner rather than later.

GateDrop: Just on last year, after the injuries to both riders the team didn’t draft in a fill-in rider. I believe you approached Max Anstie and Zach Osborne to do the last 6 rounds with the team but that didn’t happen in the end. Why did you decide against drafting anyone else in and was Van Doninck considered? At the time I was thinking he’d be great!

Pyrhönen: Indeed, we tried a possibility to get Zach over, this was logical because he has been many times over with us at the European Supercross races or the Motocross Des Nations he has done with Husqvarna. Zach is a pleasure to work with and he’s at an unbelievable level so it would have been nice to see him in Europe. It wasn’t possible, he had a very tough season and as well with the COVID, the travelling restrictions made things very complicated.

I also called Max, I know him very well and we have a great relationship, we know that Max would have been very good also at Lommel so I asked him, but he had commitments in the U.S with his current team so that always needs to be respected, that is clear.

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With Brent, there was eventually a decision to call it off for the season so there was no chance anymore. At that moment when Zach didn’t come, we decided internally that it’s been a challenging season and with the COVID challenges that it was best to call it a day for the 2020 season. With a new rider that has not been riding with our bike and has no experience with our bike it became too last minute to be ready for it, let’s say.

GateDrop: Looking ahead to 2021, the team have signed the talented Thomas Kjer Olsen. He’s built for the bigger bike. How’s he currently looking and what’s your expectations for him in 2021?

Pyrhönen: Indeed, he is looking really great with the 450cc, he is for sure made for the bigger bike. The general expectation is to work hard together and improve race by race our level and pace. We will try to have a complete and consistent 2021 MXGP season. We believe in him and it would be nice to see him quite at the front.

Pic: Husqvarna

GateDrop: The team will have two riders in MXGP next year despite AJ’s uncertainty, was it even considered signing a third MXGP rider with someone like Van Horebeek available? It might have took the pressure off the other two riders…

Pyrhönen: No, it was not really a possibility because we have a commitment for a two-rider programme. We definitely want to stay behind AJ and support him the best possible way we can and make sure that we have the package ready for him when he is ready for his return. Basically, having a third rider wasn’t an option. We want to stay behind him and I’m quite confident that this is the right decision.

GateDrop: Infront recently released the MXGP 2021 provisional calendar, considering the circumstances at the moment, there’s quite a lot of fly away races on there. What’s your thoughts on the calendar and what would you like to see change if anything?

Pyrhönen: If it stays exactly how it is, I am absolutely happy because then we know what’s ahead of us. I hope that we can have a complete race season and a race calendar but of course we need to wait and see how it ends up. We still need to see how the COVID situation goes and go from there – we’ll need to react the best possible way and be ready.

GateDrop: You obviously used to be a Grand Prix rider yourself. Compared to your days, how would you say the sport has changed and evolved such as the tracks/bikes?

Pyrhönen: For sure the sport has evolved a lot, that is clear. It is way more professional these days on many aspects – the teams, they have unbelievable resources at the moment, and they are really pushing hard. Everyone has great mechanics, training mechanics, trainers, suspension people – the whole package has developed so much and the benefit from it all is that the rider is more ready. The rider together with the bike is way more fast than it used to be, this is my opinion. It’s just evolution what has happened.

The bikes are very fast but generally the whole package is so much more ready. The package with the rider, the support and technical support that the rider gets, they have nutrient trainers as well as physios. The whole package together is so tuned at the moment and it shows with the awesome speed.

Pic: Juan Pablo Acevedo

GateDrop: I agree, the bikes are very very fast these days. Do you think that’s leading to more injuries? The faster they go the bigger the impact for the riders or would you put the injuries down to something else?

Pyrhönen: For sure, it is affecting the injuries, that is clear. They go at such a high speed; the end result can be very heavy when they hit the ground. On the other hand, there has also been some bad luck this season. There can be seasons we have an unbelievable number of injuries and then there’s other seasons we don’t have as many. This year there’s been lots of bad luck with these crashes but also, I need to mention that we also had some good luck.

All the crashes that happened to Jeffrey (Herlings), Glenn (Coldenhoff) and AJ, they could have ended up way worse. From that side we were quite lucky that these guys will be back healthy again.

GateDrop: After announcing his retirement, Gautier Paulin commented on the MXGP rider salary mentioning about riders paying for rides. This sort of thing has been going on for a number of years but perhaps more now than ever. What’s your thoughts on it?

Pyrhönen: I am an old Motocross racer myself so me from anybody would like to see the Motocross riders earn lots of money. I honestly believe that they deserve it, it’s a really thrilling, high risk, real sport – you need to be ready and to put the work in.

On the other hand, being in another role as the team manager, the teams and the industry need to be able to fund it. This is just a reality that our industry is still rather small, and we are a marginal sport. At the end of the day, in my opinion, the rider salaries have increased and looking at the bigger picture I think it’s going in the right direction. The riders are earning money and especially the top riders, they are getting very well paid.

GateDrop: Is there anything you think Infront could do to help the situation? It must be very tough for the private teams especially – perhaps brining back prize money or lowering the entry fees would be a good way to go?

Pyrhönen: I know Infront does everything they can to make our sport visible, successful and having best possible situation for teams and riders but, for sure it is not easy for them either.

Running any Motocross team whether it’s a private team or factory team. Everybody has the same challenge but of course the private teams have an even bigger challenge, that’s for sure.

To help the situation I hope that we can attract more outside industry sponsors and support. Hopefully with the great work that the media in our industry and Infront are doing, I hope this can bring more awareness to our sport. With more awareness we could attract more outside sponsorships and partners. This would be very welcome to all of us.

Interview: Andy McKinstry

Pics: Juan Pablo Acevedo

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