The announcement that factory Suzuki would step away from MXGP shocked the dirt bike world at the end of last season but no-one felt it more than factory Suzuki boss, Stefan Everts.
The king of GP racing had taken over the factory Suzuki squad from Sylvain Geboers and in his first two seasons, from the outside looking in at least, things seemed to be going very well.
Stefan had the MX2 squad winning races and challenging for the world title with Jeremy Seewer, he had Hunter Lawrence coming on strong with huge potential and in MXGP, they had developed a brand-new motorcycle, found and developed a diamond in the rough to become a podium guy with teenager Arminas Jasikonis, and signed Jeremy Seewer to come through to the 450 division for 2018.
The team was also doing great with their image, open to the media, releasing some behind scenes videos and interview giving everyone a glimpse inside the squad. But then, in a flash, it was all gone and Everts was left with nothing when Suzuki pulled the plug.
Now a few months on, Stefan was kind enough to take some time to give his side of the story and revealed to Gatedrop that he was also taken by complete surprise and still can’t understand why Suzuki made the decision they did.
You get the feeling the rug was somewhat pulled out from under the ten-time world champion, who had lofty long-term ambitions with the team, and that he is still reeling from what has happened.
In part one of our interview, a typically open and honest Everts gives his thoughts on the Suzuki situation and on the upcoming MXGP world championship.
Stefan, I guess we will start with your thoughts on what happened with Suzuki?
It came as a big surprise. Now if I look back to things, I could have seen some signals. But when we got the news it was a big bomb that exploded. When I took over the GRP from Geboers it was not just for two years, we had long-term planning in our mind, say 15-20 years.
But things changed, everything is more or less finished, the workshops in Lommel they are all cleared out, all the material went back to Suzuki, it’s their property and the rest I am still trying to sell and get rid of.
For the future I have decided to take a year off and see what the opportunities are for the future but definitely I am not planning to run a private team, I am not interested to do that or going to work with riders for now. I just want to spend my time with Liam and his racing career and see what is coming up for next year and sooner or later I will want to do something else.
For this year it is time to regroup and put things behind us because it was mentally very tough for some months. Still, when I look back and see the pictures and videos, I still can’t believe they stopped everything.
I think we didn’t do so bad over two years from where we came and where we were going, it was looking good. I cannot understand it, I have no explanation for it.
It seemed all the more surprising because you had helped develop a new bike, you had young riders coming through and Jeremy Seewer looked primed to make the move to the 450 with Suzuki, with whom he had spent his whole career, was the timing very surprising for you?
Yeah, it makes totally no sense. They just launched a new 450 and we raced with that bike all year and then they stop everything, it makes no sense to me. I could do nothing about it, just accept their decision. I have to say that Suzuki took care of everything correctly with us. It was a tough decision that we have to accept and the rest was fine.
How difficult was it telling the riders what happened, given the fact you thought it was going to continue?
Yeah, for the whole team it was a big shock, especially to go and tell them. At the end some people, I wouldn’t say blame us, but they kind of put a knife in our backs, this is of course even more tough to accept. For the past few years all the people that were involved on the team, we try to make the best for them but you know the ambition is high and there is only one way for me and that is to go to the top and go winning sooner or later and somethings need to move.
Maybe some things we could have done in a different but in the end I didn’t regret the direction I wanted to go. I definitely didn’t want to follow Geboers’ direction because for me I don’t believe in his way because for me he never succeeded in winning a lot so I definitely didn’t want to follow his way. And his job as senior consultant should have been on our side and not on his side and this was a pity. So, yeah it was tough, it was really tough.
The timing was so wrong, if we had of known three or four months earlier, then the mechanics and riders would have had proper time to speak to other teams and find a way for their future, but by then (when it happened) everything was more or less decided with other team and riders. I am very happy that all the riders eventually found a team, maybe not where they wanted to be but at least they are racing.
And on the riders, some of them seemed to get on well with your way of doing things but others like Hunter Lawrence and Kevin Strijbos seemed to go their own way, how do you look at that with the riders that didn’t want to do things the way you wanted to do them?
You gotta respect that. I didn’t make a problem out of it. I know it’s possible, if you tell everyone this is the way and everyone needs to follow, I know that isn’t working for everybody. I had no problem with it.
We tried to give the best service for everybody and the riders the best direction they wanted to go to, for some it was maybe still not good enough but that’s the way it is. You always have some people you can never satisfy.
I remember reading your autobiography and your dad, even if you won a GP, would point out your mistakes and it wasn’t until the latter stages of you career that you realised why he was doing that – because he wanted you to become the perfect rider. Do you feel you were doing that with your riders because you had so much ambition for where you wanted them to be?
Yeah that is something I have done. I always gave my honest opinion about the race weekends. Every Tuesday morning we had our debriefing with all the riders, or most of the riders and I would tell them my honest opinion about how things go. And it’s not always saying, ” it could have been better.” But sometimes you have to be honest and tell them where the problem was and what had to become better and what they had to work on.
But there are a lot of people out there who cannot deal with that open and directness. Kevin was one of them, he didn’t like to hear the honest opinion. You needed to talk to him like, “you did good, you did good.” But for me that doesn’t work, in this way you will never become, and he is where he is because this is one of the main reasons.
And on Jeremy and Hunter’s chances this year?
I think Hunter has a good chance, a big chance. He is a super talented rider and he is a very ambitious guy, he really wants it. I think he has a realistic chance this year to go for the championship.
Actually this was a little bit of my planning with Hunter to go together with him for the championship, with Jeremy to go for it last year and then Hunter would have been ready to go for it this year. It would have been a nice fairy-tale, to go for two championships in three years, it would have been fantastic, but destiny made a different choice.
I think Jeremy will need at least a year of adaptation to the 450. It is a much heavier bike and what I have seen in the past, most of the riders, not everybody because of course there are exceptions, but you need to gain strength to be able to throw around that 450 and go at that high speed. It’s all about fitness, he has a little disadvantage with his size, he is not the tallest, so he needs even more body strength to compensate that. And also with the change of motorcycle and team is also an extra thing for him.
I don’t expect him to go and win GPs, I hope for him he can do some good results in top five and on a good day maybe a podium because for me he is a really nice guy to work with, he was a fantastic guy and a great rider. There are still things for him to improve but unfortunately everything stopped now (with his relationship with Suzuki).
Just on MXGP itself Tony Cairoli looks very good in pre-season, Herlings isn’t injured and has won in pre-season but Gajser had that big crash while Romain Febvre is looking good so far, who do you see coming out on top?
Tony looks already in great shape and his biggest strong point is his mental side, he has the speed, he has the fitness and mentally is by far the strongest, he is on a different plateau. But Jeffrey, if he can pick up from where he left off from last season, for sure he is a strong title contender and in my eyes he is the only one who can beat Tony for the championship, but it all depends on the mental game and that’s where Jeffrey is not strong, his mental side is going up and down a lot.
Then you have Febvre, I am a bit surprised, to me he looks different than in past years. I think his pre-season races went pretty good for him, he went steady. And if I listen to his interviews and stuff he seems to have grown up a little bit for me. I think he could have a good season, the past two seasons have been difficult for him. Maybe this will be the season he comes back and he will be strong again but to beat Antonio it’s not going to be that easy, but never know it’s long season and everything has to be right, but we will see.
It’s just unfortunate that Gajser got injured already. I would have loved to see him out there battling the guys so that’s a pity. I think for him the championship is far away, that chances are pretty much gone.
Do you feel you are involved a little bit in the championship this year with Tony going for his 10th world title to equal you?
I am definitely going to follow the GPs, I am not planning to go and see them but I will follow them on the internet. I still have a lot of passion for the sport and that will not change.
But yeah, he is going to get close and there is big chance he will equal my ten championships. I am happy that Tony is the one. For me he is by far the best ambassador for the sport, he is a fantastic guy, very professional sports athletes in many directions from the fans to press.
In 2006 I already said he will be the guy who walks in my footsteps and he did. I didn’t expect him to come that fast towards the ten championships. Eventually if he equals or betters my ten championships, it will not change my career. I have a lot of respect for Tony and if he makes it I will be there to congratulate him.
You can read part two of the interview on Stefan’s career here.
Interview: Jonathan McCready
Pics: Suzuki and Nigel McKinstry