Tim Gajser interview – in from the wilderness

One of the best riders in the modern age of MXGP is in the disorientating position of racing away from podium contention. For Tim Gajser, 2023 was always going to be a reset year.

When Tim Gajser crashed at Pietramurata during pre-season for the 2023 MXGP season and snapped his right femur, the world champion’s routine and reason-for-being went into a spin. The Slovenian knows injury, he knows recovery and rehab, and he also knows what it’s like to miss Grands Prix and go through the miserable aspect of motocross. But the physical issue took longer to heal than expected and Gajser has now attempted four rounds with a best moto result of 5th. Even with the pragmatism surrounding his comeback from the Italian accident and the knowledge that there is relatively little to take from the 2023 campaign, it is a bewildering scenario for a factory rider who has been consistently running at the front of two Grand Prix categories for nine seasons.

Gajser was the first rider ever to win back-to-back MX2 and MXGP titles and the third athlete this century to claim the premier class as a rookie. He was just 20 years old when he walked to P1 in 2016. He further cemented his profile with three more crowns in 2019, 2020 and 2022 while being part of the quartet that made MXGP the most exciting and unpredictable racing series in the world in 2021.

As we talk outside his camper in the paddock in Uddevalla on Saturday evening, Gajser looks as fit and care-free as ever, but the veneer of invincibility – of self-assurance – that he has crafted over the previous seven terms in MXGP looks a little softer. He is refreshingly modest about his status, even though he is in shape and back in the gate. Asking a titan of racing like Tim to ruminate on the state of his ‘Achilles heel’ is like peeling back a fascinating layer of an athlete’s psyche. It is also unusual to witness this animal of results and high standards gingerly making his way back to familiar ground. It highlights the immense worth of esteem and belief. Motocross racers tend to downplay their injury concerns but Gajser is frank about his progress. The crash and the fracture could have been a career-ender.

This article continues below

“It’s going…slowly,” he smiles. “Physically I am OK but mentally I am not yet where I should be. I need to build confidence. To show myself again that I can do it. I know I can be fast, but I also need to make results to back it up. I don’t have any problems with the leg but sometimes it is sore. If I compare both legs then they are not the same but step-by-step we are getting there. It was a difficult injury and I was quite a long time away from the bike and from the racing. I knew when I came back I would not be on the top or fighting for the podium but there is also not a lot of pressure: we are almost treating this season like a training period. I am also testing during the races, which is something I never had the chance to do because I was always in a fight for a championship and when you are in that position then you don’t want to risk these things. It is a different kind of season; one I have not had before.”

How does it feel to be out there and not have the championship somewhere in your mind? It is very unusual for you…
It is weird! Even coming to the races and not thinking about points…ever since I was in MXGP, and even MX2, I always had that. There was always a title to go for. It is a different kind of year. I was in a routine of moving from season-to-season, and around Covid the calendars changed and there was a period when there was not much of a break. It was hard to recover from that intensity and recharge the batteries. From one point of view I was missing racing while I was injured, of course, and I’d rather be at the races than sitting back home on the couch waiting. But from another point of view my body recovered and I could taste a bit of a ‘normal’ life. I’d never had that. I was glad to come back in the Czech Republic. I had missed being with the team and with the fans.

What does a lack of confidence mean for you; is it related to how much you attack a track or a rival?
Confidence is difficult to describe. It’s just that little ‘extra’ that you need to be on top or to be winning races. I would say confidence is just believing in yourself. Believing that you can win. That you see yourself winning before you do it. I don’t know how to explain but when you come to some races you just know you are going to win! It’s like that! You have a feeling. Life is good, everything is good. It is strange to talk about it…but it’s the feeling that each weekend will be ‘your day’.

You are older and more experienced now but can you compare this situation to 2018 when you were coming back from another pre-season accident [a broken jaw and concussion] and when it also took some time to rediscover confidence…
Erm, wow. Two different injuries. That one was also really scary but I wasn’t away from the bike that long. It was a few weeks. I missed the first round and then I was back racing. This one was way-more brutal. At the beginning I did not expect that it [the recovery] would be so difficult. I thought it might be two months or so until I would be back on the bike and then building up to racing in three. But everything didn’t go to plan and the bone was not healing like we were expecting. It took more. I didn’t ride for four months, and five months after the crash I was racing again. I didn’t really know how serious the injury was at the beginning…but the femur is the biggest bone we have in our bodies and in motocross our legs are like a second suspension; you have to work a lot with them. It was not easy to come back…and to regain the muscle.

So now you are like the world’s best ‘test rider’?! One who can win a Grand Prix?
Ha! Actually…we’re not testing big things. We are trying different settings during the races. We can play a little bit with suspension. In past years we were making the base during the winter and when I felt comfortable then we stuck with what we had. We didn’t change anything, a few clicks and that was it. Now we are heading in different directions and searching for even more comfort….and I like that! I know we have a lot of space to improve with the bike. The power of the Honda is great but the stability and the suspension: if we have even more than we can hit the bumps quicker and it is not dancing around. These kinds of things. We couldn’t do that in past years.

Article: Adam Wheeler

Image: Bavo