Interview part 1: Shaun Simpson – early days of his career
We recently sat down with Scottish Motocross legend, Shaun Simpson to talk about his amazing career. The Scot was racing Scottish Championships, Ulster/Irish Championships as well as the British series back in the day. Back then you wouldn’t have imagined he’d end up being a full factory rider in the MXGP paddock and win Grand Prix races but that is exactly what he went onto achieve.
In part one of our interview we discuss the early days of his GP career.
GateDrop: Shaun, let’s go back to where it all began racing Ulster and Irish Championships. Back then if someone told you what you’d go onto achieve in the sport would you have believed it? Doing what you have in the sport, when you look back you must be proud of yourself?
Simpson: I think growing up and being from Scotland, we were always far away from the main racing down in England. My Dad (Willie) was a top British Championship rider and raced the World Championships. When I was born, he still raced at British Championship level and did some GP’s in 1995 down in Vernonmount and Cork. I always went with him but I wasn’t allowed to properly race until I was 13. He kind of held me back a little bit but I think that was great. I needed to show him that I was motivated to ride, come home wash my own bike, take care of my own stuff and make sure the van was loaded to go riding the next time. Without that input my Dad just wouldn’t have let me do it so coming from that sort of upbringing, probably in the back of my mind I thought it would never happen really.
I always knew I liked riding bikes and could ride very well but I was definitely never one of the most talented guys on the bike. Even further on in my career, you would say that I was more of a grafter rather than it being someone it naturally came too.
Deep down I hoped that it would happen and that one day I would be on the world stage to win GP’s and battle with the best riders in Europe or in the World even. There were plenty of hurdles along the way that really held us up – tough times, injuries, looking for rides and trying to make money. But overall, looking back on the career I’ve had now of nearly 20 years at the top end of the sport, pretty impressive.
GateDrop: You were with Roger Magee for a few years and then that year after switching to the KTM, it all clicked for you! You might not have won a GP that year but you were very consistent at pretty much every track which led to fourth in the world. What do you think it was that clicked for you that year and did you surprise yourself that year to finish fourth in the world?
Simpson: Roger started a team for me in 2005, I’ve previously be racing for the Chambers KTM team and that didn’t work out for us in 2005. Roger started a team and very quickly we had a race truck and going to GP’s. It was a steep learning curve. The very first GP I went to in 2005 was Bellpuig in Spain and I never qualified. Roger wasn’t phased, he said let’s go to Portugal and try our luck there. I qualified and every other GP that year I did, I qualified. Going from that which was my first year on the team Lizard Honda and then the second year we had Gordon Crockard on the team. We tried to elevate the team that year with some better parts and stuff on the bike.
We had a lot of bad luck that year, the Kawasaki for me was the turning point because we could quite a lot more power out of the bike. Although I had a disastrous year being very up and down, there was moment of brilliance there which I hadn’t seen from myself before. I had a couple of seventh place finishes and there was even one race I crashed at the start and was actually a lap down but I sat right behind Andrew McFarland for nearly the whole moto and he was lying fourth place in the race. That was sort of when it twigged to me that I can run that pace if the bike is right, suspension is good and I feel good that I can really do this.
That was the mentality that I used going into 2008 on the KTM, I just felt so at home on the bike and we did very little to the suspension. We tried our best with the engine to get it competitive and straight out of the bat I just couldn’t get a bad start on that bike. I couldn’t really feel unsafe out on the track and riding at that level with that amount of safety and confidence in the bike, that just totally elevated me from being like a 10-15 guy straight up to being in the top 5 every single moto nearly.
You know, that was when I came, in my opinion, one of the main championship contenders for the following year. I then went onto ride for Factory Red Bull KTM.
GateDrop: With your results that year in MX2, you started to get attention and Factory KTM come calling. There’s a lot of expectations when a rider signs for the factory team and that might have been the first time you had to deal with anything like that in your career, how did you find being part of the factory setup?
Simpson: I mean I am a pretty humble guy and nothing really phases me that much but there was a lot going on. We had a lot of new parts, a lot of shiny stuff, a lot of things to test, a lot of people running around you which was very unusual for me. Up until that point it had only been me, my Dad took care of the suspension and the engines while my Brother took care of everything else as well as everything else during a GP weekend.
Going from that and being taken away from them for a short time, later they did get involved again. But it was an eye opener, I tried to take it as much in my stride as I could but straight away in 2009 I just did not feel nearly as comfortable on the bike as I did in 2008. We had a bit more power with the factory engine which I loved but the handling I just couldn’t feel 100% safe.
We went into the third three Grand Prix’s that year and myself and my teammate, Rui Goncalves in MX2 at that point, we were just struggling. We were between 10-15 in a couple of races. I remember having a meeting with the guys and Pit Beier said, ‘what’s happening here?’. We sat down and wrote a big list, that is when we brought my Brother back into the frame to get a bit more familiarity there. From there we made quite good progress over the next couple of weeks to the point me and Rui were on the podium at Valkenswaard. Unfortunately, after that I had a massive crash the Wednesday after that…
GateDrop: Yeah, you went through a fence didn’t you…?
Simpson: That is right and went straight into a tree.
GateDrop: Just how difficult was it to deal with that especially after making a little bit of progress and knowing you could have turned the season around – it must have been tough…
Simpson: I had the security of a two year contract and that was in my mind. I just said that year was done even though I’d be back for a few years at the end of the year but it was a serios smash. I was out for more than three months so the season was gone but the security of the second year of my contract so that was good.
It was quite an injury to overcome because I broke the tibia and fibula in my left leg, it really took a long time to come back. I tried coming back at the end of the season and still wasn’t 100% on the bike because they’d put me on a new linkage bike. From 2009-2010, that was when KTM decided to design their linkage and I was their test pilot for that to get some hours on it and to get some feedback going into the year after because Marvin (Musquin) obviously came into the team. I probably felt even worse with the new linkage bike that I did with the previous factory bike so I really struggled a lot at the end of that year.
The following year was really good. I had a lot of good starts and a lot of good finishes but nothing to really warrant the team, the bike or myself. At that point I actually had an underlying health issue that I couldn’t understand why. It wasn’t showing up on any of the blood tests or anything but once we figured that out, a couple of years later in fact, that’s when my fitness and stuff started to really come on. I was then known as being the guy could go the longest in the races but in 2010, I could barely string 10 minutes together without being completely knackered.
2009 and 2010 are definitely the two years I look back on in my career and think: ‘what could have been?’. It definitely wasn’t a waste because I learned a lot, grew up a lot but there certainly could have been a lot more that could have came out of those two years.
GateDrop: After being with Factory KTM, I think you had a few offers on the table but in the end it was a new chapter for you starting your MXGP career. You signed with LS Motors, I guess being a Belgium team and you were living in Belgium that made sense… how was it being part of that team? I think I remember reading when you first got on the bike coming from a 250cc you loved the power but you quickly found out against the factory MXGP bikes you actually needed more power…
Simpson: Ideally I wanted to stay in the MX2 class because I had one year to go on the age limit and I did have a couple of offers but they wanted to do two year deals with someone and I couldn’t do a two year deal. That was when I switched my mindset over to switching to a 450cc, I raced the 2009 Motocross Des Nations on a 450cc and loved riding the bigger bike. I just thought let’s go for it and go to MXGP.
LS Motors was great but bad at the same time. It was a privateer team and very understaffed, under budgeted but I had my dad and Brother working with me full time again which I really enjoyed. I kind of really knuckled down and got some really good stuff done.
It was exactly what you said, I thought there was loads of power on the Honda and then I quickly realised when the races started that I was actually underpowered. The budget that we had didn’t allow for us to get anymore power out of the engine. I was stuck with that and I was stuck with two setups on my suspension that I both felt equally good with but one was very good for acceleration and one was very good for breaking. We just couldn’t find a happy medium so I struggled a little bit that year but I had such a blast. I got through that year unscathed no injuries, my setup that year with my gear – one industries and everything looked great and I had a lot of fun.
I did have a lot of good results and I remember leading laps at Matterley Basin, the home crowd was buzzing. It was a really fun year but on the flip side getting paid was an issue, we ended up having to wait months and months after the season had finished to get paid so there’s all these things people don’t really get to see that goes on. As a whole, looking back on it, I had quite a fun year in my rookie MXGP season anyway.
GateDrop: One brand sometimes I even forget you were with was Factory TM – just how unique was that bike and was it completely different to what you are used too?
Simpson: It was very interesting to see. Straight away from me the language barrier was an issue. You know we don’t speak Italian and they spoke very good English but a lot of things got lost in translation. Again I was stuck in a situation where the engine on that bike was very good. One engine to another would be very different, they could build three engines and they’d feel very different but they were good. They were very good on the hard pack and very torquey which I really liked and enjoyed about it. But the chassis and the handling I just could not get on with it at all.
We tried lots of different stuff, we had parts breaking and the bike cut out on me a few times. The bike used that much fuel we had to build a 13 and a half litre fuel tank out of aluminum for Valkenswaard GP. It was that bike the fuel hose kinked and I didn’t even manage to finish the GP because I didn’t have any fuel.
There were a lot of things that went on but on the whole, the factory experience and the factory tour and being down there in Italy was very interesting and hats off to them. Those guys are running a serious operation down there but at the highest level of GP racing, they were missing a few parts that year and I took the brunt of that. The years after that they did seem to get their sh*t together a little bit more. They were able to finish the races and had the bike a little bit more setup. It was a tough one but the decision to ride for TM and parting company with them a third of the way into a season, was probably the trigger of the point of my career where I got on a Yamaha and that was the next chapter of my career.
You can list the the whole interview below on YouTube or Spotify:
Interview: Andy McKinstry
Images: Nigel McKinstry & KTM Images