Interview: Julien Bill discusses his racing career – past and present
Before Swiss talents of Arnaud Tonus, Valentin Guillod and Jeremy Seewer burst onto the scene there hadn’t been too much Motocross talent coming from that country. However, Julien Bill was one of them and he has lots of experience racing GP’s from a young age being part of team’s such as Dixon Yamaha and Martins Honda.
The Swiss talent had some really good results and was a consistent top ten World Championship rider in a stacked field. When he signed with Factory Aprilia it was the beginning of the end in terms of running at the sharp end of MX1 but then he switched to MX3 to become the first Swiss Motocross World Champion.
We caught up with Bill to discuss his career and more.
Gatedrop: Julien, you rode some Grand Prix’s in 2004 on a KTM but 2006 was your first full season after getting a chance with Steve Dixon. How did the deal with Steve come about and what was it like being part of his team – what’s your memories from that year?
Bill: Well, in fact my first full GP season (MX3 World Championship) was in 2005 as a Factory KTM Red Bull rider in Jacky Martens’s team, with Yves Demaria and Sven Breugelmans as team-mates. I spent my winter and season living in Belgium at Lommel and that definitely helped me reach another level. I got 3rd that year tied in points with Demaria who got 2nd.
After that great season my wish was to go to the main top class which was MX1 (today named MXGP). KTM wanted me to stay in MX3 with Jacky’s team but I refused. I’m not sure how the deal came with Steve but I remember I was good friend with Billy (Mackenzie) and I think he was cool on having me as a teammate and talking to Steve about me.
It was a good move for me as it was a good team and I was just committed in going MX1 no matter what. The atmosphere in the team was really cool with young mechanics, mine was Mikey and Billy’s was Ben (now somewhere in MotoGP I think). The bikes chassis didn’t suit me so well and I remember I struggled a lot with the bike, I often had uncontrolled front end loss and crashes.
But all and all I think I did pretty good as a rookie with a bunch of top 10’s, some 6-7-8 places, and believe me that year the MX1 class was stacked. I had fun with the guys and my season was great I think!
Gatedrop: Coming from Switzerland, was it difficult to make it as a young rider in the World Championship – what was the hardest thing?
Bill: Yeah, of course it wasn’t easy! Our country is small, not so many tracks and people are not interested in motor sport so much. Also, I got to hear so many times, “Oh you come from Switzerland, you must be rich it’s easy for you” (laughs). Unfortunately, no I wasn’t. Our federation is not doing anything to help the young generation to reach the high level of GP’s and that still hasn’t changed today. If you compare with France for example, they have so much for the kids to help them grow up faster and better. Luckily I’ve been racing in France since a young age and that helped me progress tremendously. The level there has always been one of the best in Europe and they have GP tracks everywhere.
Gatedrop: When you came to race the World Championship, it was always on a 450cc and not in the MX2 class – why was that?
Bill: That’s a good question. In fact in 2003 I was still racing a 125cc with KTM mainly in Switzerland and France and at the end of the season we’ve got to test the new models with KTM Switzerland in Villars-sous-Ecot. I was there with the 2 other KTM Switzerland riders, Philippe Dupasquier (who almost always rode 125cc, his favourite class) and Christian Chanton (who was the 500cc rider).
After trying the new 125cc I decided to try the 450cc just for fun. After just a few laps I had like an eye-opener and told myself: “Dude this bike is so much fun, it suits my riding style better, I have to go in that class”. The lap times didn’t lie later that day, I was so much faster than those guys, it was clear in my mind! It wasn’t the plan at all at this moment, but I knew Philippe wasn’t so happy to ride the big bikes and I just went like, “hey guys, what about me racing the 450cc and Philippe going back to the 125cc”. It started right there and this is why I went from the 125cc straight to the 450cc. I then never thought about going back on a 250F.
Gatedrop: You got an opportunity with Martins/Factory Honda a few seasons after your stint with Dixon Yamaha, a big opportunity, how did it feel to secure that ride?
Bill: Well, after I split with Steve for different reasons he knows, at the end of the 2006 I didn’t find any good offer as it was too late in December to find a ride. So, I’ve ended with a Czech team called Delta Kawasaki back in the days. I’ve spent the winter and first few GP’s with them, but it wasn’t going well at all with the bikes and the team. Antoine Meo was riding for Honda Martin that 2007 season but got injured badly with his knee I think. He was out for a few months and his bike was free. I got a Call from Paolo Martin to ask if I was interested to do a test with them. Of course, that immediately sounded like heaven for me so I said yes! Fast forward a few weeks, the team was happy about me on their bikes and so I was myself. They decided to welcome me for the rest of the season.
Results didn’t wait to come, that bike was awesome and so was the team. I got several top 5, a 3rd place moto in Namur, a 4th in Loket, a 5th in Ireland, it was a really good season! I got to work with Jacky Vimond as well, on the training and mental side. His help was huge and that was a big gain for me during the week and at the races. In 2008 the team became officially the HRC team with real 100% works bikes from Japan. Man that was crazy! A real dream come true.
Unfortunately with this come the Japanese engineers, and as a factory team you have to follow some rules. I wasn’t able to get good starts at all this season, as they wanted me to use the anti slippery clutch system on starts no matter what. I think it was one of the first teams to use that system back in the day. It wasn’t working well yet and I struggled. I think somewhere about half season I decided with the help of my mechanic not to use it anymore, but again unfortunately for me, it was the beginning of data acquisition, and the Japanese guys could see on their computers I didn’t turn the button on at the start gate – but I was having good starts again. So they kind of went blind on that matter and let me start without it.
Gatedrop: At Loket in 2007, you had your best ever GP finishing fifth overall, you must have great memories from that day?
Bill: Of course. In fact I have mostly only great memories from that season. Like I said, I’ve got some other great moto’s with 3rd, 4th, 5th etc. Loket was a really good overall for me, but all season long we mainly had great weekends!
Gatedrop: In 2011, you decided to switch to the MX3 World Championship, why did you make the decision to step away from the main MX1 class?
Bill: It’s simple, when you ride for the bests factory teams in the paddock and you’ve had no results with your last team (Aprilia) nobody wanted me anymore. I guess they thought it was me and not bike. So i said to myself, “Okay, you have 2 options now – you ride with a B or C team in MX1 and you already know you won’t have the results you had in the past, or you can go to MX3 with your own team and bike choice and try to fight for a World title”. My decision was made quickly.
Gatedrop: You became MX3 champion, just how did it feel to clinch that title – what was the level like in that series at the time?
Bill: It was a dream come true! You know, I think any kids in the sport some day dream about being a world champion. It’s a big accomplishment! Also, no one had ever been a Motocross World champion in Switzerland before me. So, to open the way is always something special! I mean I am in the official FIM record book next to names like Ken Roczen, Tony Cairoli and Ryan Villopoto. It will stand forever and I think you can’t add anything better than that. Back in 2011 the Factory teams like KTM Red Bull weren’t there anymore, but level was tough. I mean, I was fighting for top 5-10 just 2 years earlier in MX1, so you can imagine with a good bike that I wasn’t far away from that level still. I believe it gives a good idea of the speed in this championship. I think we deserved to race at the same place and same weekends as the MX1 but Youthstream decided to separate it unfortunately.
Gatedrop: You’ve raced the Motocross Des Nations in the past, what’s your memories from that event?
Bill: Yeah, the MXoN has always been a special event for me. I’ve always loved the atmosphere and the crowd was always nuts. I mean you have to live it at least once. Budds Creek in the US is a highlight memory for me because I had a dream of racing there for many years and to finally be on those US dream outdoors track was really cool!
Another great memory I have from the MXoN was my last race with the HRC bike at Donington Park in the UK. I had to fight and pass Chad Reed who I’m a fan off and that stands out in my mind. I got 3rd overall in MX1 class individual result that weekend, that was sick! In my era I was the only fast GP rider from Switzerland, so it was hard to expect a great team result, but I had fun anyway and always liked it!
Gatedrop: Looking back at your career what races stand out the most and why?
Bill: Difficult question, hard to pick just some. But obviously I would say my best MXGP’s results in 2007-2008, my years as a Factory rider at KTM Red Bull or HRC Honda. Oh and also the MX3 GP in Finland in 2011. Milko Potisek was one of my main rivals and he used to play mental games a lot on his social media talking trash, saying in this case that this weekend would be his as he was a sand rider and it was sand race.
In the 1st moto I crashed right in the first corner and was dead last. I remember I didn’t even look at my mechanic’s pit-board once during the whole race. I was just so focused and in a hurry to recover maximum points for the championship. Suddenly I saw him in front of me leading with only 3 or 4 laps to go, I passed him and won that moto. I guess he knew from lap one that I was dead last from his mechanic’s pit-board and I still believe today that I destroyed him mentally that day, this was the turning point of the championship. I won all the other GP’s after that.
Gatedrop: When you look at MXGP now, how would you describe the level and the job Infront are doing running MXGP?
Bill: Nowadays I’m just a fan watching it on TV, and I think this doesn’t represent the real speed they have when you watch them live on track but for sure they are scary fast! Bikes these days are so good it’s unreal. We’re lucky to be enjoying riders like Cairoli and Herlings speed and talent on a dirt bike, those guys really look amazing on track. They are really good ambassadors for our sport for sure!
Infront Moto Racing is doing great in some ways I think, the sport has evolved a lot with their work which is good, with paddock structures, TV and growing events, but I don’t agree on a lot of other points too. Riders having no price money at all with results whether they win or not, too much overseas races in far away countries, too much costs for the teams, riders paying to get a spot in a team and so on. I mean who pays to get a job? Come on. You’re paid to do it, not the opposite! And that’s without talking about the risks and sacrifices we do. Many legends of our sport have tried to make a change over the years, but it’s never happened unfortunately.
Gatedrop: MX3 is no longer a class anymore but the EMX Open class is being introduced, what’s your thoughts on that series?
Bill: I think it’s great, simply because it gives more teams and room for riders to enter the paddock and get a ride, but I’m not sure the interest is big in that class. Of course, there is the old school hardcore 2 strokes fans, which I agree and like the sound and stuff as well. But I believe that this is also giving the riders who rides this class a fake hope on getting picked by an MXGP team. I think it never happened so far and I don’t think it will. So they will stay sucked in this championship.
Gatedrop: Pre COVID-19, you made the decision to race Motocross again this year, you must really love riding a bike! What’s your plans post the COVID-19 pandemic?
Bill: Yes I did! In fact I left Switzerland to live full time in Malaga, Spain about 3 years ago. My after career project was to open a motocross track with a riding school. The thing is that papers and permissions are way more complicated than I thought to get and everything is going super slow here.
For my riding school which is already running, I needed to do something so local people get to see me and know me more. I think when they get to see me on a bike it gives a better idea than anything else. I missed riding since some time already and I tried to find an opportunity to ride after 4 years off the bike – that’s a long time I’m telling you! After a few months I found some help, especially from Full Gaz Energy drink from Belgium, and Motos Ortiz in Marbella which is a local KTM dealer. I slowly worked on getting my own structure up and race again. I have to admit it has been tough but now that it’s all good and running smoothly i’m pretty happy I made the decision to do it.
I have a lot of fun training and racing, and my speed isn’t bad. I just needed some time to find it back and get some arm pump issues behind me. Now i’m waiting impatiently that this sad crazy COVID-19 story comes to an end so we can go back racing. I’m highly motivated to show what I can still do and I love to prove people wrong despite my old age (laughs).
Interview: Andy McKinstry
Main pic: Anthony Sutton