Former world champion on returning to MXGP with Suzuki.
It’s official – after weeks of rumours and speculation, former MX2 World Champion and AMA Eastern Regional 250 Supercross Champion Ben Townley is returning for another crack at the 2016 MXGP championship after signing a deal with the Suzuki World MXGP team for next year. The move is a huge backflip for the Kiwi legend who swore back in 2012 that he was done with racing professionally, but his incredible fourth overall at the 2015 Motocross of Nations proves the 30-year-old still has the talent, speed and fitness to run with the best in the world. MotoOnline.com.au caught up with BT to get the exclusive interview on his new signing, what it means for him and his family and why he’s decided to emerge, once again, from retirement.
Ben, the news has just broken that you’re going back to race in Europe fulltime next year. That’s a huge turnaround for you. What’s the deal?
When I stopped racing motocross in 2012 I had no intention of returning, but I never lost my passion for it. I stayed in the industry, did some work with HRC in Japan and Honda Australia, as well as an ambassador-type role at Blue Wing Honda in New Zealand and mentored Josiah Natzke. Back in March I raced the Rotorua round of the New Zealand Motocross Championship and I had an absolute blast, then the next week I went to HRC in Japan and threw a leg over a factory bike for the first time in about five years. Those two things combined really rekindled the fire – as I was riding that factory bike I couldn’t help thinking that if I had the opportunity to race this and had a healthy body and mind, I could give racing another shot. Later on I put my name forward to represent New Zealand at the Motocross Of Nations and now we’re here. The des Nations this year has given me another shot at some unfinished business.
Like you said, you’ve had strong Honda connections for a number of years now, harking back to when you were a Troy Lee Designs Honda rider in the US. What was Honda’s reaction to the news you were thinking of a comeback?
Yeah, I’ve been involved with Honda since 2008, with HRC, American Honda, Honda New Zealand and Honda Australia. I’d spoken with HRC about it during the year and let them know my plans and intentions. They are obviously disappointed that I’ve signed with Suzuki but at the same time they’re extremely supportive of my decision to return to racing. Along the way I quietly talked to a few people and told them more about at it; I even had the opportunity to replace Ryan Villopoto at one point this year but I declined that due to my relationship with HRC. One of the few people I talked to about a comeback was a friend of mine at Suzuki. He was interested and wanted to see me back amongst it in the heat of the battle to see how I’d go. After Ernee he came and saw me straight away and it’s all started from there.
Take us through your Motocross of Nations campaign when you were hot on the heels of world champion Romain Febvre. What was going through your head at the time?
It didn’t actually feel that crazy or sensational, really. It felt normal to me, like this was where I belonged. It’d been a steady build-up to that point. I raced at Toowoomba and got my feet wet, then picked up some more speed at Coolum. I experienced a huge leap in my speed at Glen Helen but the heat zapped me and knocked me for six. Coming from our winter to the extreme heat of a Californian summer knocked me right around. My pace there didn’t look great on paper but I was running with the best dudes in the world and was as high as sixth at one point. At each event I could feel my form improving and it started to feel natural again. Even at Ernee I felt I got better and better each time I was out on the track. I felt fairly comfortable in second place in my qualifying race, and in the first moto on Sunday I was hanging with Justin Barcia before I made a mistake. That last moto I led for a while and it felt really comfortable. The heat wasn’t a factor and I had a really clear mind out there – I know that situation so well and it felt great to be back out front.
How are the nerves now that your comeback has all been officially announced?
I don’t have nerves about it, to be honest. The biggest factor in the whole decision is my family and that’s something you can only feel and experience when you’re a father. If I was single the decision would’ve been a no-brainer but I have three kids and a wife now, and the focus of a top-level athlete is quite selfish. That’s the biggest thing I’ve struggled with but Lucy has given me her support and I needed that to be able to maintain a healthy family life as well.
Yeah, it’s a big call to return to Europe, especially with three kids in tow now. How’s that side of things going to work out?
We’re working through all that that the moment. The schedule’s a lot different now to when I last raced the GPs – we don’t touch Europe for five rounds until mid April so we’re looking at how that will work. I might get to come home during the first few rounds, which will be great, then we’ll look at getting the family to Europe, but after that it’s a work in progress. It’s been a long time since I was based there so it’s going to take a while to get everything set up again. The team’s well aware of how important my family is to me and that they need to be a part of this. I need to be comfortable and my family does too, so accommodating them is a huge part of this deal.
Over the past three years you’ve been adamant that you wanted to only ride for fun. Why the sudden change of heart? Did money talk?
Money wasn’t a factor, no. I can’t go back to what I was earning at the height of my career and I’m not doing this for financial reasons. I’ve still got a huge desire to achieve being a world champion again and that outweighs the financial factor. At the same time I had to ensure my family wasn’t put in a vulnerable position with this move, but everything stacks up and I’m willing to give it another shot to achieve this goal of mine. To answer the first part of your question, that Rotorua race was definitely the start of the turning point for me. It was the first time in ages that I’ve really enjoyed lining up, being healthy, fresh and excited to go racing again. Coupled with the ride on the factory bike in Japan and that ignited it all for sure.
Was your long-standing friendship with members of the Suzuki team a factor when choosing to come under their wings?
Absolutely and a wing is the perfect way to explain it. This Suzuki deal ticks all the boxes, there’s not a single question-mark in the entire package for me, and that’s huge. It’s not just the bike or the equipment, it’s the personnel involved with the team as well. I’m so comfortable with all those guys and they have so much experience and wisdom. I believe it’s the best place for me with where I’m at to give 2016 a crack.
It’s no secret that you’ve been plagued with some nightmare injuries over your career. What are you going to do differently to ensure you stay healthy for an entire season?
Yeah, I’ve made a lot of costly errors during my career and that’s one of the biggest aspects we’re working on with my racing strategy. I have a lot of trust with the guys in the Suzuki team and I’m already at ease with letting my guard down, asking questions about strategies and seeking their advice. In the past I’ve only lined up to win, or in this part of the world [Australasia], to decimate everyone. There’s been a very clear, conscious effort to change that mindset and strategy and that’ll be evident from the outset. I’ve already started working on it already and putting that strategy in place: at Glen Helen I decided to pull out when I was in the points race where normally I would’ve kept charging like a bull at a gate, which would’ve only increased my chances of getting hurt.
And this Suzuki ride only a 12-month deal, yeah?
Yep. It’s a one-year contract for now. I have to prove to myself personally that I can contend at a world championship level, nothing more, nothing less. I’m not interested in doing this as a job to earn a living from it – it’s an unfulfilled desire, unfinished business I guess, that I want to knock off.
In a way it’s almost as if you’ve come full circle too. When you first went to Europe in 2001 you rode for Phase Suzuki and now you’re making your return in Europe on Suzuki.
[Laughs] that’s something I haven’t thought of, actually. It all started there and I had a great opportunity to start my professional career with Suzuki, so we’ll see where this journey leads.
So what are your goals for 2016?
First and foremost it’s to be in realistic form come the end of February, which isn’t too far away. I started that process seven months ago when I decided to give this another nudge. Now that everything is signed and sealed I’ve found another gear and am putting all the puzzle pieces together for the entire program. My second goal is to put myself in contention for the world championship by being a top five guy all season. I believe I can do that and I proved to myself at both Glen Helen and Ernee that I can be there to win a world championship. After that, I’ve got no idea. I’m treating this as a 12-month thing; we’ll pour everything into the next year and see what happens from there. It could be that I’m not where I think I should be. It’s a lot different now, with my age and family, so I won’t make that decision for another 12 months. You know me and that I’m an honest guy and there’s no point lying to myself… I’m not chasing this as a profession any more.
Fantastic. Well I’m bloody stoked you’re back and you’re going to have a tonne of support from both Kiwis and Aussies next year. All the best for the new chapter.
Thanks, Makker, appreciate it.