Interview: Joel Smets

Joel Smets knows all about winning. The five-time world motocross champion is already a legend of the sport as a rider but he is continuing his winning ways as a member of the successful Red Bull KTM team.

Smets is now using his considerable experience to be help the current and next generation of the riders from MXGP world champ Jeffrey Herlings to new signing Tom Vialle who will take part in his first world championship season in 2019.

We caught up with Joel to talk about a hugely successful 2018 for Red Bull KTM, his thoughts on Jeffrey Herlings, the Americans at Red Bud plus the reasons behind signing young Tom Vialle and the U23 rule.

It was a very dominating season for KTM, how much satisfaction does that bring to you and the team? 

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I don’t want to sound pretentious or big headed but because KTM has been winning so much over the last couple of years, of course it still feels great but the satisfaction is less than say when you have to fight ten years for a title, if you understand what I am saying.

Coming into the season with Tony and Jeffrey, we were quite convinced one of the two could win the title, it could have went really wrong, they both could have got injured and in this sport that has happened more than once but speed wise and experience wise it was written in the stars.  Already several races before the end of the year we were sure about the championship because the points gap was so big, it was going to be either Jeffrey or Tony.

It was so much expected it was less emotional, of course we are satisfied and happy, and we are really proud we can keep on proving we are the best team in the paddock but it’s different than when you chase it for years and finally win it, that brings slightly more joy and happiness.

But that doesn’t mean we are less motivated for 2019, I know it’s  hard to get to get to the top but staying there is even harder. Every victory, every championship, you are one closer to your first defeat you know? We have to keep on hammering it down to stay where we are. 

It was a little bit similar in the MX2 class with Prado, with what he did in 2017 and then quitting school, he was going to be the man to beat, it was only a matter of staying healthy. I think getting that elbow injury in the winter even helped him, it meant he went into the first few races with not too high expectations and that kept him relaxed, so he could take his time to build confidence in the first few races and from then on it was clear he was the man to beat.

If he would have failed we still would have had Pauls there, he was by far the second fastest so yeah, that was a great season.

Prado v Jonass Pic: Youthstream

Pauls had a great start to the seasons and Jorge came on strong during the season, then they had that crash together in Turkey. As a staff at KTM is that a difficult moment, when the riders are battling so close and make contact and go down in the middle of a title fight – how do you approach issues like that? 

Well you won’t be surprised if I say we were stressing a little bit when those guys collided! That is something from before the season that was our big fear, the same with Tony and Jeffrey when they came together in England. We said, ‘hey guys you fight as hard as you want but keep it fair.’ 

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They kept it fair for 99% of the season, I think but we handled it quite well I think. We have a lot of experience with myself here and Claudio there, we aren’t 25 any more, we have dealt with difficult situations in the past and know how to stay calm. We dealt with it quite well and with a lot of mutual respect between the riders and the different departments between the teams because at the end of the day we are still one team.

From KTM’s point of view it didn’t make a difference if it was Tony or Jeffrey who or Pauls or Jorge, you still want to keep a good atmosphere in the tea. These moments were a bit difficult but we managed to keep it calm and that’s a strength of our team, that we have very strong personalities, extremely motivated riders but also a lot of experience in the other team members, it is a good mixture and good balance. 

Jeffrey Herlings had a phenomenal year, he was by far the fastest guy, only Tony could stay with him at times. He seems consistently motivated with an American intensity along with a GP style, he’s almost this generations version of Ricky Carmichael, how is he to work with and how do you assess his talent and motivation?

Technique and condition you can kind of teach and learn and get better but motivation, that comes from the heart. You can try as much as you want to motivate people and you can tell them how nice it feels in the winners circle but if the kid doesn’t have the fight, it’s gonna be difficult. 

Jeffrey really is, the same with Tony, they are both natural born rulers. They don’t accept anybody above them, they can’t live with getting beaten. I can tell you how bad Tony feels and how bad Jeffrey felt last year, as a person I have the same bad feeling, having lost a race or something and that motivates you to get better. Only the biggest stars get motivation out of a lost race, how that defeat bumps them up (re-motivates), that often makes the difference between a star and a superstar. They do not look for excuses or blame somebody else, they will look in the mirror and work even harder.

Herlings celebrates his title with the team and the crowd. Pic: Ray Archer

That’s  what Tony will do this winter, he saw that speedwise at several locations he was the same level as Jeffrey but somehow at the end of the day he got beaten, he knows where it went wrong and where he can still improve and he will be looking for these small little differences over the winter.

Does having Tony still there help Jeffrey’s motivation and vice versa to push themselves?

Yeah it was the same in history, Roger DeCoster and Heikki Mikkola pushed each other or with Geboers and Thorpey they also motivated each other and the same with Stefan and myself. That’s your drive to win and when you are really pushing each other that only makes the gap bigger to the rest of the group. If it was just Jeffrey there or just Tony, I think the gap behind woudnt be as big,  but now they have to stand on the top of their toes to not get beaten by their opponent and the rest of group realised quite soon in the season they were fighting for the third step on the podium.

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That’s a completely different motivation level, if you have to go out and practice and in the back of your mind your are hoping to get the last place on the podium, that is different to going out practicing to win the championship.

The MX of Nations brought up a lot of pride on the GP side, do you feel that Herlings, Prado, and Cairoli, their speed is helping bring the rest of the riders speed up? 

That’s a tough one to judge, I do not feel honestly that apart from Tony and Jeffrey that the other guys have picked it up. I feel like, with all respect, they are top riders but Tony and Jeffrey are superstars. I don’t like to underestimate guys like Clement Desalle, Romain Febvre or Gautier Paulin, I really don’t want to underestimate these guys but they haven’t picked it up at all. Gautier did really well at the Nations but in the final moto he finished one minute behind Glenn Coldenhoff and Jeffrey Herlings, then you haven’t picked up. 

Pic: Ray Archer/KTM Images

Maybe you can say the opposite, if you take guys like Gajser, Paulin, Febvre, the top guys of the other teams they maybe as I said they lose motivation because they are fighting for third and that brings the group behind them closer to each other. Riders like Jeremy Seewer, Glenn Coldenhoff, Alessandro Lupino, these guys realise they can make top five if they fight hard. To me it’s like Tony and Jeffrey have pushed each other to the next level and the next group maybe lose the drive a little but the guys from 7th to 15th, I feel these guys have picked it up closer to the battle for third to sixth.

The Des Nations for you, I’m sure you were supporting Belgium too but you were working for Red Bull KTM with Coldenhoff and Herlings for Holland and they dominated the day, how special was that seeing what those two did and how conflicted were you also being Belgium and wanting them to do well?!

The dream would have been Holland, they had a better chance to win it, so team Holland winning and Belgium in 2nd or 3rd, that would have been a dream come true. And actually going into the last moto Belgium we’re second or third and really in the running for a podium step and I thought Holland might not make the podium with no results in the 250 class. I was super proud of Glenn, we have worked really closely for the last four or five years, to see how Glenn closed off his factory period, I couldn’t have wished for more and Jeffrey was just Jeffrey, he did a very strong performance and to see these guys coming out 1-2, really it was really the cherry on the cake for a fantastic season for us as a (Red Bull KTM) team. Of course there was still a disappointment of course because my heart is still for Belgium and to see them miss the podium and Clement and Jeremy have a bad last moto, that kind of hurt, so definitely mixed feelings there. 

On the American performance, I think eveybody was surprised they were not at least on the podium, nevermind win, but their riding styles are very different to the GP riders, is it almost becoming two different disciplines with how they ride on their track with supercross and the GP tracks?

Yeah but that says a lot about the level in the US, I have never been the guy that says we are better or the Americans are better, that goes in eras. Jeffrey and Tony are at the moment, motocross-wise, they are a level above all the other guys, the Americans in the MX1 class they are on the level of Febvre and Paulin, they are on that level but they are not on our level. 

Tomac. Pic: Doug Turney

You don’t have to look at tracks and things like that, you will remember how many times US has won on these tracks, they have won on tracks like St, Jean D’Angely, do you think there are a lot of tracks like that in America – I don’t think so. So they have came and won in Italy, you know what I mean.  If you have Ryan Villopoto and Ryan Dungey on your team those guys are a different level, maybe within five years when Tony and Jeffrey are gone maybe the US will rule again. Tomac is a real good rider, but in my eyes he is not Carmichael and he is not Villopoto, he is just one step below.

You see Ken Roczen, we all hope he is going to reach his old level again, but that is going to be difficult. I think Tomac is not on the level of the best Ken Roczen so if Kenny Roczen had been on his best level ever he would have been racing with Glenn and Jeffrey. 

Back in your day Belgium were able to almost pick the three best GP riders to go against the Americans and were able to beat them on a number of occasions, how enjoyable was that to go head-to-head with the Americans not even as Europe but as a small country like Belgium and each year having a chance to win with great teammates, what are the feelings on those wins?

I have always said during my career that winning a championship individually is the biggest achievement and satisfaction but in my days because of the reason you just mentioned, being a country of 10 million people and going head-to-head with countries with 80 million people or 300 million people like in the US, you feel like a step-child and beating the world, I can tell you, that’s just crazy!

Smets wins the Nations as Team manager Pic: Paul McCready

I’m at least as proud of my MXoN victories as I am of my individual victories. Even as a coach of team Belgium, I won it only once (as a manger) but I scored eight podiums out of 11 and getting these podiums with no world champions in my team and still on a regular bases ending up on the podium.  We were talking about satisfaction at the beginning of the interview and taking these podiums, sometimes second and third places we are celebrating them more than the win because we had to fight for it and only a few people would give us a chance, and getting there as a team. I really like the team game and getting the best out of every team member,  I really like that a lot, great experiences.

You were a big rival of Stefan Everts and sometimes Marnicq Bervoets, did you ever find it difficult you all getting on as team or where you able to be teammates and help each other?

Yeah that was never an issue, maybe opposite to what you would think. Once the individual championship was over we were getting together. We woudnt talk too much during the year but once the last race was over we turned the page and put our heads down and had that national flag in front of us and chasing that, doing everything together, you eat together , you sleep together, you race together and you get drunk together after the race! (Laughs)

Switching gears to 2019, your new signing Tom Vialle, possibly a surprise to some people but he had a good year in the EMX250 series this year, how has he adjusted and what did you see in him to bring him into a full factory team?

There is the fact that at the moment the riders that are floating around in the European class, we do not believe there is a new Jorge Prado or a new Jeffrey Herlings or Ken Roczen. So nobody is really standing out, we already have Prado and he should be able to fight for the title again and hopefully win it if he stays healthy, so we thought it was a good opportunity to maybe go more down the shelf with and see who we can maybe build with. 

We have been investigating quite well those riders, we have Mikel Haarup, he is with Husky so already in the family, Jed Beaton with Husky, Olsen with Husky, in the 125 class we have a few guys, we have Rene Hofer already going into EMX250.

We had been keeping a close eye on Tom because he was supported by Husqvarna France. He turned 18 in October but he has only one year or experience on the European scene, 2018 was his first year, he didn’t even do 85cc European championship. He raced locally and nationally in France, so we could see how he developed in the European championships, he had several podiums and a win in Russia plus a podium at Assen.

With that little experience and putting those results on the table already that was a big achievement. So we considered that and had a few test days with him and he impressed me quite a bit with his attitude and work ethic and also with his talent and his skills, you will find out when you see him ride for the first time on the bike- he looks pretty damn good! He’s not going to win GPs in 2019, that is not our goal, our goal is to build speed, experience and learn and go from there, but with the talent he has, the speed and the work ethic he should be able to make significant progress.

His dad was a top GP rider, how will his involvement be now that Tom is in a factory team, will his role change?

His dad was wanting us to step it up so he can step back. He has been a top rider but being in a father and son relation, he says to take that last step you have to sometimes be hard on your kid and he says as a dad  that’s not easy because you create friction in the family. Durig the day you have to be hard on your son then in the evening you have to all go to the movies, so that’s not easy. I was really impressed by the realistic point of view they have.

His parents are very mature and not the dreamer types you often have when their kids are a little bit talented. They are very realistic, I am in Spain now with Tom and his parents are not here and we are working well together, then he goes home he has his parents there and not his coach, that’s nice and something I really like. They also understand that it’s not because you have a factory bike that you are a star already, that is only the start of the long road and they are aware of that and that matches the approach I always had in mind and how I work.

Finally, what are your thoughts on the EMX250 class and MX2 both being U23 now and would you make any changes?

I am really in the middle on that, I don’t have a big opinion either way. I think both systems can have good and bad, of course it’s nice to see Mike Brown with his US National championship at 31. It would not change the sport a lot if that rule is there or not.

Like this year if the rule hadn’t been there, would Prado still have been world champion? I think he still would have won. If you look at the standings, probably in MX2 there maybe could have been an older rider in the top five but fighting for the championship, yeah every now and then that can happen, guys like Bob Moore, Chicco Chiodi or further back Harry Everts or Gaston Raheir who were small boys that are better on 125 or 250. But it would not change the sport a lot of that rule was there or not. I do not feel like the rule is really necessary but also saying I am against it, that is also not the case, I am quite neutral. 

Crockard leads Smets in an International race at Tinker Hill in 2001 Pic: Nigel McKinstry