In-depth interview: Bryan Connolly (Hitachi KTM Fuelled by Milwaukee – team manager)

After a number of years in the UK Motocross scene, Bryan Connolly had the opportunity to work in the GP paddock. At first he landed a job with Adam Sterry at the CLS Factory Kawasaki team but was then back to square one when the team closed their doors.

An opportunity then came to work at the Hitachi KTM Fuelled by Milwaukee team as Graeme Irwin’s mechanic – a year later and he’s now the team manager!

We decided to catch up with Connolly to discuss his new role with the team and all things MXGP!

GateDrop: Bryan, lets start with how you first landed a job with the Hitachi KTM fuelled by Milwaukee team. I believe you were Graeme Irwins mechanic for the 2018 season. What was it like being in the GP paddock and being part of such a strong team?

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Connolly: I was actually with the CLS Kawasaki team with Sterry. After Bryan (Mackenzie) retired I landed a nice job there with Sterry, I was going to be his practice bike mechanic. Adam and I got on really well and I got on well with his trainer Richard (Mike-Jones) as well. They pushed for me to be race bike mechanic and everything looked really good as we both had a three-year deal but then it only lasted nine months before CLS shut the doors.

I was looking for something and then I heard that Roger was looking for mechanics, so I met with him a couple of times and had a couple of phone calls before he offered me a job with Graeme.

GateDrop: Just on Irwin, what was it like working with him? He had little GP experience and got thrown into the competitive MXGP World Championship but knowing him Im sure he took it all in his stride and he had some good results before the injury at Imola…

Connolly: To be honest working with Graeme was really good. He’s one of the nicest guys and probably one of the favourite riders I’ve worked with just because he’s charismatic and his attitude. He’s happy, go lucky but when he needs to be serious, he is serious.

The thing is with Graeme, he needed guided a little bit but as a rider he always gave you 110%. He was a fighter no matter the circumstances and that year he had quite a lot of injuries. He had the burns, he hurt his back and there was a lot of things that people don’t know that went on behind the scenes with Graeme but he still gives you 100% on the track, he was pretty easy to work with.

GateDrop: You must have been doing something right because Roger Magee has since appointed you team manager of the team. How has your role changed, and did it take you long to adapt?

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Connolly: Firstly, I would like to take the opportunity to thank Roger for allowing me to jump in at the deep end without knowing if I could swim. Every day you still learn something new because there’s a lot of other things involved; it’s not just building a bike anymore. Instead, I am kind of overseeing the whole operation with other mechanics and sponsors. The role has changed from less hands on to more emphasis on the administration side such as speaking with sponsors, emailing, ordering products etc. There’s a lot of things I never really knew that went on during the day-to-day operations.

GateDrop: The 2019 season, I feel like Bas Vaessen was having a good year with plenty of top ten results but in the end it was a bit of a disappointing season thanks to injuries which was a bit of a blow for the team..

Connolly: 2019 started really good and we were on the pace and everything was looking good but just injuries for everyone. Conrad was unlucky getting involved in a second turn incident that took Bas with him. Bas was carrying the flag and we were going with one rider and he was giving us good results getting up there near the top five. Unfortunately, he had the first turn crash in Indonesia and that was it done; the season was over for him.

What a lot of people don’t know is that we actually had Eddie Jay Wade to fill in for Bas straight away and then he done his ACL just testing the bike. The second time he was on the bike he done his ACL, we actually still have the gear from Eddie’s supposed MX2 stint with the team.

After that happened, KTM Austria asked us to take Sandner because he’s Austrian and he gets help from KTM. They quite like him so we took him and to be honest he’s a nice guy and easy to work with. He gave us some good feedback from what he knows in Austria because he’s obviously done a bit of testing and it actually worked out quite well.

GateDrop: This year was a very strange season with midweek GP racing and triple headers – unknown territory for everyone but under the circumstances I think Infront done a great job. Where you happy with the job they done this year?

Connolly: I mean it kept us all in a job really if you look at it that way. For me, just getting racing and the number of races we managed to get done in a small amount of time was actually really good. If everything was clicking and going nice it was really good and easy to go but if you were searching it wasn’t as easy. In Latvia we had Adam just on-board and he was just getting to know the team and the team were getting to know him.

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Conrad was kind of struggling a little bit at the first two, so we rode every day in between and that was really hard for the mechanics to prep the bikes because we didn’t take the practice bikes there. We actually did for the next triple header because we learnt from that. It was hard because we were working every day for ten days straight – night and day getting the bikes ready to go.

It was good and I thought it was positive that we managed to do a lot of races but when you were searching, it was tough.

GateDrop: Coming into this year, it felt like a big season for Mewse – he started off slowly which is understandable after missing so much racing but towards the end of the season he started to get it together and produced some good results. Eighth in the MX2 World Championship, you must be happy with that in the end?

Connolly: Very, I mean one good thing we got is that we have got Conrad signed up for another two years. With where he is mentally and physically, I think we are going to see good things. It will come, it is only a matter of time. We’ve got Swordy there helping, he doesn’t really teach Conrad how to ride a bike, it’s more guidance on preparation and the training to get him to be his best. I think Swordy has helped a lot.

In the first moto at Matterley Basin he actually got fourth and only 8 seconds off the lead, so he started off really good actually, but he lacked a little bit of bike fitness this year because he lost riding time at the end of 2019. Physically and on the bike, he was fit but when it came to racing, he lacked a little bit to put two good races together.

GateDrop: Just on Mewse, anyone you speak to will tell you how talented he is and weve all seen it but I think his biggest issue lets say is mentally. Would you agree and is that quite frustrating? Someone as good as Conrad shouldnt really be battling for P15, does he leave you scratching your head sometimes?

Connolly: I mean, not really because it’s hard and the pace, if you look at the times in MX2, first to fifteenth the times are always really close in timed practice. A few times Ben (Watson) qualified thirteenth or fourteenth and he won GP’s so the pace was really close. I think we just struggled a bit with starts, if we could get away at the front every time, I think it would be different.

On TV or at the GP’s, I don’t think we’ve actually seen yet what he can do like at the practice track. When he can do that, I don’t think people will be shocked because they know what he can do but the speed is pretty unbelievable.

GateDrop: I noticed towards the end of this year he was able to move through the pack if he got a bad start, that was sort of his Achilles heel before so you must be happy with the improvement?

Connolly: Definitely. Since I’ve known Conrad from 2018 until now, he’s matured a lot as a person. You have got to remember, his whole life has involved around this, he moved to Belgium when he was 14 or 15 years old being away from his parents and he was a bit young for that.

I think that was a big step in life and he’s sort of catching up now and he’s really matured a whole lot as a person. From when I’ve known him from 2018 to now, the way he carries himself and his professionalism has improved such a big step.

GateDrop: Just on Vaessen, he suffered big injuries at Indonesia 2019, he even lost feeling – just how bad was that injury and to come back like has is impressive!

Connolly: To be honest we have been quite unlucky with Bas. In Spain pre-season he was good, but he was obviously a little bit nervous racing the first GP. But the following week at Valkenswaard he was really good but then lockdown came. When we started back most the practice tracks we went to Bas was the fastest MX2 guy, faster than Conrad and faster than the factory guys when we were there.

Unfortunately, when we done the Arnhem International race in Holland, he had a big crash ending up hurting his neck and back again. He rode with that back problem for quite a long time and it took him a long time to get sorted out. He tried to race Latvia but was just in pain the whole time so in the end just had to park it in, take the time out and let his back heal properly.

After that he was just playing catch up, when those guys are racing every week, he lost quite a lot because he wasn’t on the bike at all and couldn’t really do any physical training. He lost a lot and then had to ride himself back into fitness and had to try finding the speed again, with those guys racing every week you sort of lose it.

Pic: Shot by Bavo

GateDrop: Everyone saw Vaessens pace at Valkenswaard this year before the bike broke and that sort of set the tone for the season for bad luck after an injury hindered his season, but we all know he has talent – you must be looking forward to seeing what he can do when fully fit?

Connolly: With Bas he has trained physical trainers for the winter, it’s the guys Swordy used when he was riding and he’s also going to be in Belgium/Holland a lot more this year too. We will work on better preparation, so we are more prepared as a team going in. We are a year further down the line from last year – we know each other better, what our down falls were and we’ve learned some things with the bike. We are going to try and build and hopefully we can come in with all the guys 100% ready. We obviously have a good team behind us to do it.

GateDrop: It was Adam Sterrys rookie year in MXGP this year, he was actually with the JD-Gunnex KTM team but left them after Valkenswaard. How did the opportunity all come around to sign him for the rest of the season?

Connolly: Basically, he had some problems with the team he was with before and he was looking around. We managed to speak to a personal sponsor of his and they’re actually a sponsor of the team now. We managed to put something together and to be honest for us it was quite an interesting opportunity because at that time the British Championship was still going to run. We could have had a chance at both the MX1 and MX2 British Championships so for us as a team, we thought to give something back to the sponsors.

It looked like at that time it wasn’t going to be a full season, if we got a guy in MX1, it would give us exposure in both classes as well as the EMX class. We just thought that we’d go with it and I think Adam can do a good job in MX1.

GateDrop: Adam is the kind of guy that seems to improve the longer hes in a class. MXGP is so tough and people might just look at the results now and not think much but actually he has good potential for the future – a bit of patience is probably needed!

Connolly: Definitely, I think we were searching a bit because we haven’t had a 450cc rider since Graeme and the bike, especially the chassis and engine has changed quite a lot. The data that we had from 2018 was irrelevant because the bike had changed a lot. We were searching a little bit to find what Adam liked and to be honest we did actually go the wrong way a little bit.

On the practice track something we changed was really good but when it came to racing it actually wasn’t as good as we thought it was on the practice track. We actually didn’t figure it out until the first Arco, we changed something inside the engine, something for the starts and the bike came out of the start much better for the next two. We were really happy that we found that, and we were actually testing when we were racing – that’s far from ideal for Adam.

GateDrop: Stephen Sword is with the team this year as the rider coach, he seems to be helping them mentally. You must be pleased to have him on-board – hes been there and done it! 

Connolly: Exactly, it’s another level of professionalism that Stephen brings which is second to none. He’s done it, he’s lived it, he’s won and raced at the very top level. He knows the feeling and knows what you need to do during the week to be the best at the weekend.

We joke around, there’s a picture of him when he won at Spain on the factory Kawasaki, he’s got the world championship red plate going across the line with both hands in the air, I like to show the guys that picture to show he’s done it. If they listen to him, it’ll go well, to be honest he’s a great asset to the team.

Pic: Ray Archer

GateDrop: Heading into 2021, whats your expectations for Mewse, Vaessen and Sterry? Im sure at domestic level you want two British titles but whats the goals for GPs?

Connolly: The goal is obviously to go 1-2 in the British Championship in MX2 and for Adam the goal is to win the British Championship. In the GP’s, we just want to get one of them on the podium and to start we want top five results. Let’s start with top five results, get one of them on the podium and then take it from there. There’s no doubt that with the speed both of them have got that a win isn’t out of the question for either Conrad or Bas. We just need things to go our way as well I believe.

With Adam our goal is to start by going for the top fifteen and then just take it from there. Hopefully we can start knocking on the door for the top ten but there were a lot of guys missing this year. They’re going to be back next year but then again, a lot of guys went out too, so my expectation is top fifteen and to knock on the door for the top ten. Again, it’s all about the starts, there’s no lack of depth in that class, it’s just unbelievable at the minute. Just to score points is actually really really hard.

We also have Ethan Lane who raced for us on the 125cc last year, now he is EMX250 our goal in the beginning is just to qualify into the main races and build going forward he has a nice style and is not scared to work so will be nice to see what speed we can get out of him.

GateDrop: The team obviously run an EMX125 rider, two MX2 riders and one MXGP rider. I remember interviewing Bervoets after he ran Guillod in MXGP alongside the MX2 riders and he said it was very very tough. How do you find running riders in multiple classes? You must be very busy!

Connolly: After MX2 when the thoughts are fresh in your head on what you can improve or what you seen, you want to get back and tell the guys or speak to Swordy to let him know what I’ve seen. You are then straight back to MX1 to tell Adam what you’ve seen in MX2 to try and help his race.

It was actually good this year with the EMX on the Saturday because it wasn’t quite as busy but obviously when all three classes are on one day, it’s hectic. We aren’t actually doing the EMX125 class anymore, we will be running Ethan Lane in the EMX250 class. For us as a team we don’t have any 125cc experience and that’s something you need to be really switched on with. We’ve got a really good MX2 bike so for us as a team it was a conscious decision. It’s one less set of parts to go EMX250.

But going back to your question about how busy it is, yeah on the race weekend, it’s pretty unbelievable. You do some amount of miles walking, talking – it’s just hectic. There’s no other way for it.

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

Connolly: Well, first and foremost I’d like to see a British GP on there, that’s the first thing because for us as a team, having a home GP seeing the British guys in front of the British fans who are second to none.  I believe it will be on there from what I’ve heard but at the minute it’s not.

The fly away races, for me I like starting with the fly away races. I really like the Qatar and Argentina stuff because it feels almost like a practice day because you are together with the team and everyone is sat underneath the tent they provide. Everyone is close together so it’s almost like a practice day so I actually really like starting with the fly away races. It’s kind of like a soft introduction to going racing again, when you’ve got the tent and the riders have got their campers it’s a little bit more split up. It’s just nice to go away together and have the team, we spend so much time during pre-season together it’s almost like an extension of that when we go to the fly-away races, so I actually like starting with them.

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. Whats your thoughts on it?

Connolly: It’s been happening for as long as I’ve been in the sport and I’ve been in it for a long time now. You only have to look that a few factory teams have took a rider that pays to help out with budget, there are some really good riders that have paid onto teams, the only negative I can see is it makes it harder for the mid-level riders to get what I feel they are worth. But the top top guys are still making good money

But even going back to the factory teams most are owned and operated now by successful business owners so that in itself tells a story sure the factory put up a lot of money along with energy drink company’s and such like but it’s not as easy to get outside the industry sponsors we are lucky that we have managed to get backing in the form of big companies Hitachi and Milwaukee both huge companies outside the industry not taking anything away from any of our partners without we could not go racing!

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

Connolly: We are the show if you like, without the teams you wouldn’t have a race so Infront wouldn’t be a company. For me, they do a really good job with the presentation and stuff, there’s a lot of infrastructure and it’s really good in that respect. I think that the riders could do with being paid by a bit more than what they get so prize money would be a start. The entry fees, they are just expensive straight away. I think to enter the MXGP races is already €10,000 euros before you even go to one of the twenty races.

Interview: Andy McKinstry

Main pic: Ray Archer