Interview: Jeffrey Herlings – the comeback
One of the fastest offroad motorcycle racers in the world talks about a year-long hiatus from MXGP due to injury and his impeding return to Grand Prix action.
Jeffrey Herlings is significant. Where do we start? The 28-year-old is a five-times world champion (three in MX2, two in MXGP and joint 4th on the all-time list), the most successful Dutch motocrosser in the history of the FIM series that began in 1957 and holds 99 Grand Prix wins; only two away from Stefan Everts’ record total.
Also, importantly, he is Red Bull KTM’s longest serving racer in all disciplines. Initially signed as a teenager in 2009, Herlings made his FIM World Championship debut as a full-time member of the team for the first round of the 2010 campaign. He went on to set a bar of reference for 250cc speed in MX2 and then forged one of the most complete and dominant MXGP terms in the modern age with 17 wins and 19 podiums from 20 rounds in 2018. He ruled an unforgettably close and thrilling contest in 2021. #84 signed another contract renewal in early January 2023 to take his association with KTM to 2025 and 17 years.
For all his success and profile, Herlings has also tasted the dark side of motocross. Season-ending injuries in 2014, 2015 and 2019 meant pain, rehab and interruption. 2022 was particularly galling. A left heel break only weeks before the start of the championship put him to the sidelines for the first half of the campaign. A troublesome right foot lingering from his ’19 accident didn’t help his conditioning. He missed the chance to attempt 2022 AMA Pro National motocross in the USA during the summer because he wasn’t fully fit and eventually elected for reparative surgery that meant he was unable to run his #1 plate in MXGP for the whole year.
Herlings wrote-off 2022 and looked towards 2023. For a racing ‘animal’ it was a bewildering hiatus: the longest break so far from his profession. However, armed with the refined KTM 450 SX-F, a degree of readiness, a refreshed attitude and a settled future in the Red Bull KTM cradle; Herlings is now plotting his path back to the very peak of the sport. We called him up to ask about the status quo.
Jeffrey, the most obvious question is about the state of your health. Are you now 100%?
Well, I don’t think I’ll ever be 100% after the injuries I’ve had. I’m doing good but I can feel the left heel from 2022 and the right foot from 2019. I had little surgeries again last year and while both feet are not like they were before I don’t feel them when I’m riding and doing stuff. They are as good as they can be. We’re just in Spain now getting ready for season. The right foot was the worst. There were a couple of bones that had exploded. They grew back together but there was cartilage damage and it was not quite clean; there was a lot of ‘wild’ bone growth. So we did a clean-up operation last year and all the metalwork and bone graft came out. The foot generally is pretty complicated, and there is not a lot of space so they tried to give me more flexibility and I ended up with more movement and less pain even though the cartilage was damaged. The left heel was just a break…but it was misplaced so that’s why I needed a long recovery time. I had three surgeries, two of them correctively and needed to fix the position. Anyway, in daily life and riding I’m not in pain and it doesn’t make a huge difference.
2022 was a pre-season injury so, in a way, was it easier to deal with than 2019 where you came back and got hurt again?
Erm, it was also complicated last year because we had missed the start of the championship but then had the chance or the option to go to the U.S. but I had the accident at the end of January and it only gave me three and a half months to recover and train before the gatedrop over there. I only just got back on the bike in the middle of May and with a couple of weeks to get fully prepared. It was not enough time. Factors like the heat in the summer there and the short series meant I couldn’t get into it. I’d already missed eight rounds of MXGP by that point and my right foot had been bothering me for three years, so we mutually agreed to get both feet repaired as best possible for 2023 and with a view towards the new contract for 2024 and 2025. I wanted to get as healthy as possible for the next few years, so we invested that time in 2022 with a look towards the future.
You’ve been in Grand Prix since you were fifteen years old, even though 2022 was tough to take was it also positive to have a break from the pressures of racing?
Yeah, in May I knew I would be out of racing until February 2023 so it was a nine month break. It gave me some peace because I didn’t need to look at the training side of life, the physical conditioning, the diet, the riding, the media. It was nice in a way and really recharged the batteries but, because of Coronavirus we also had a break in 2020 and the season was delayed until June in 2021 so it was a long winter: in the last few years there have been a couple of instances where I’ve felt we had time off. But, I do feel fresh now and ready to go for at least another three years. People forget that I only just turned 28 a few months ago because I’ve been in this business and winning races since 2010, so that fourteen years ago. I’m already getting to be an ‘old guy’ in the class even though I’m just 28. I’m good for another few years!
The team has changed a bit for 2023 with new positions, new staff. How do you feel about that?
Well, everything is still very new so I don’t know how things will turn out and what to expect but the team was strong and it still is and I’m excited to see if we have been able to improve it even more.
Tony Cairoli was a teammate, a championship rival and is now the team manager. Has that been a bit weird?
Yeah! I haven’t really worked much with him yet [in that capacity] because I have just been riding and riding. I was out for so long that I just needed to get back on the bike so we’ve only been together a few days so far. It is strange because we fought each other for many years and now he’s in that Team Manager role, so I’m curious how it will be during the season but I guess it will be a completely different thing compared to when he was racing. To be out there you need to be super-competitive and thinking about the rivalry and as a Team Manager you need to be very open and ready for something very different. I’m actually excited to see how he will be in his new role. It’s early January and I haven’t experience much of it yet but it will also be a new situation for everyone in the team. We’ve had a management change with Harry [Norton] stepping in for Dirk [Gruebel], more mechanics and more riders because we used to be 2-3 in the past and now we’re four. There is a lot of change going on and I’m looking forward to seeing how it will turn out.
You’ve not raced the new concept KTM 450 SX-F at the highest level yet but you’ve ridden the bike a lot and tested. Are you happy with the package so far for 2023 MXGP?
I’m pretty happy. I’ve been mainly riding alone so I don’t quite know how it will be in race situations with a gatedrop and battling…but when I’m doing my laps I feel free and I’m very satisfied. There are definitely points we can improve and work on but I think the base we have is very good. My first race will be around the end of January. I managed one Spanish Championship meeting with the bike in 2022 and I know it’s not the highest level but I felt good in the motos. I think we will be very competitive this year, even though I know the others haven’t been sleeping. There are new bikes and development of current bikes that are winning GPs. I believe what we have will be very good and I want to show that in the races.
The launch of 2023 will be like the start of that amazing 2021 season: Tim Gajser as champion, Romain Febvre fit again, yourself and strong factory efforts from other brands. Only Tony is missing of course. Hungry for another tussle?
Yeah! I’m doing three preparation races in Spain, the UK and France to get some starts and so I won’t be ice-cold going to round one in Argentina. It is going to be weird, having been out of MXGP for that long. I can see myself building into the season. Don’t forget the fact that this year we’ll have sixty races instead of forty motos, with the Saturday Heats now counting for points. We will have time to get into the championship and it will feel very long. We need to take the first three races for what we can get and look to build up from there. There will be so many motos! I want to keep improving during the year.
Interview: Adam Wheeler/KTM
Image: Juan Pablo Acevedo