If Jack Miller still comes across as feeling a bit awkward in his surroundings as the leading light of the Red Bull Ajo KTM Moto3 team then this is not evident on the track where the 18 year old Australian has set the pace so far in tests leading up to the beginning of the new MotoGP season in Qatar next week.
We’ve gone to Aki Ajo’s workshop, located in the old Derbi factory just outside Barcelona, and the race HQ of the squad and who have won two of the last four Moto3/125cc championships to meet Jack, and we sit down to talk in Aki’s vacant office. Outside we have a brand new KTM 250 EXC-F in a van waiting for him to show us some of his off-road/dirt-track skills at the facility a stone’s throw from the Catalunya MotoGP circuit but first we have some questions for KTM’s new straight-talking star …
Being in this team and at this level do you feel like you have arrived and it is time to deliver?
“Yeah, exactly. That’s the way I look at it. Some guys come here (to Grand Prix) and they are straight away in the factory team whereas I started off on a s***box basically and have worked my way up from there. I have been fortunate enough to have support from my parents and with having to pay for rides and stuff like that. I was lucky enough last year to get a half decent bike that handled quite well. It wasn’t the fastest thing out there but the handling was good and we did the best we could with what we had and it caught some attention. We started running it in positions where we really shouldn’t have been and then I got hooked up with the Red Bull Ajo KTM squad and it has been great ever since. Right from the first test at Jerez and Almeria last year it has been awesome to be in a team with so much support behind you. Even when I broke my shoulder last year in testing – it was from a past injury anyway – they were there and always looking after me. I didn’t have to stress too much and it was really a load off my shoulders!”
And that’s part of being a factory rider now … that whole support package …?
“It is, and I’ve never had a call from a team manager until I arrived here. Aki called me up at Christmas and things like that make you feel part of the team. The factory side of it is impressive too. At Almeria we did four days of extra testing, which I have never done in my life; it had always just been the three IRTA tests. Whereas this time I had those extra days to get my feet wet. It shows, you know. I went 1.2 seconds quicker around Jerez than I did on the Honda; it was ridiculous.”
“At Almeria we did four days of extra testing, which I have never done in my life; [...] I went 1.2 seconds quicker around Jerez than I did on the Honda; it was ridiculous.”
What about being Australian? Have you seen or felt people boosting your profile a bit more? Comparison-making to Casey Stoner and things like that?
“I think it is hard for Australians to make it here but there is an enthusiasm to make it happen. People want and need us in there (Grand Prix( so it (his nationality) helps a bit for that. We’ve had popular people in the past like Casey, Mick and Garry (McCoy) and all those guys…Wayne Gardner even. We’ve got a big history in the paddock so they expect good things from you.”
Can you take anything from your countryman, Arthur Sissis’ experience in Moto3?
“I think he struggled a lot last year because he could not come to grips with how the bike works and I know how he feels because there were some bikes that I just could not ride. Sometimes you gel with a bike and sometimes you are forever fighting it. I can see that after riding this bike (the RC250 GP) it really suits my style and allows me to be really aggressive and muscle it around. Arthur is more smooth-flowing, ‘let’s go along to get along’ whereas if you look at Luis (Salom), Maverick (Vinales) and Rins (Alex) those guys fought through and were ridiculously quick when they needed to be.”
Talk about your style …?
“I really muscle it about. And I think that comes from the dirt-track; using a lot of rear brake to really settle the bike. I haven’t had a problem with the KTM and actually really enjoy riding it. I think the chassis is perfect. We done a lot of tests to make it better, it is really improving even more and we still have a bit to go. I believe if you show who’s the boss then you can control it more.”
Talk about your style …? “I really muscle it about. And I think that comes from the dirt-track; [...] I believe if you show who’s the boss then you cancontrol it more.”
Is that one of the key points for GP? Being able to adapt to different conditions, circumstances and sometimes bikes and set-ups very quickly?
“Yeah and I have learnt so much with the factory team so far and through working with people like Patrick, my crew chief. If you look on the wall (points to posters of Marquez and Cortese) then there are titles there and he really knows what he is doing. He is also a really cool, calm and collected guy, gives you guidance and helps you adapt.”
Can it be a bit dizzying to work through though? As a privateer I imagine you have limited options but when you go factory there must be a lot more to try, experiment and develop?
“It can be a bit overwhelming sometimes but the guys are very happy with my feedback, not just my own crew but also the testing staff from KTM. KTM are a young company and it is refreshing to see that. Working with Honda in the past … they were quite slow with elements on their smaller class bikes – in MotoGP it is a different thing – but in the smaller categories they like to test everything a lot and it has to be really proven. I find that KTM are more dynamic and keen and here to win. They will be like ‘let’s try this and that’. We always have an arsenal of parts to test and try.”
Going back to the Aussie thing … if you look at Stoner’s story then he won KTM’s first GP (125cc in 2004) so have you found any parallels drawn between you yet?
“Casey won KTM’s first GP but he never won a 125 title … I want to win all three (Moto3, Moto2 and MotoGP) so I need to get this one out of the way first. No Australian has ever done all three.”
So that is the big prize …?
Stoner was a dirt-tracker and you mentioned it as well. What is your background off-road?
“I raced motocross and then was a four-time Australian dirt-track champion. I was runner-up in State titles for motocross. I was really quick at both but never really had a focus on either. I used to do it all for fun. I got injured a lot. When I was fourteen I had already broken 27 bones! And nearly all coming from motocross. I love motocross but I would just push too hard and end up on my head.”
“When I was fourteen I had already broken 27 bones!”
So you diverted your attention away from the dirt for the sake if your health …?
“Sort of. I was at the point where I was sick of breaking myself and also sick of getting back to the point where I was healthy and fast and then getting injured and facing another six weeks or two months off. It depended on what I broke! We got an option to do dirt-track and I tried a bit of supermoto but then had the chance to try a road bike and was invited down to Tasmania for the first round of the Australian Superbike Championship.
I think I finished seventh or eighth in my first race although I did have two crashes. Afterwards I thought ‘f**k, this is alright!’ I didn’t mind it at all and thought it was something completely different. I really enjoyed it and we continued on. I finished fourth in the championship despite having to miss four races because I was too young at fourteen to race in one state. It all fell together like that. I won the Junior Championship on a 125. It was really cool but I got to the point where I thought that it wasn’t going anywhere, and it was just the same stuff and same places each year.
I had a mechanic who had worked with Norick Abe (late GP rider( and he talked about Europe. So we decided to try it and brought our bikes over. We built a trailer and put them in a container and it took four weeks and something like 4000 euros to get them out of customs. We took them to the first round of the Spanish Championship and I had only done 1500km on a road bike – guys in the Spanish series do more than that testing – but I qualified on a very under-powered bike and finished the race. I ended up getting one point.
I then rode for a German team at the end of the year in the penultimate round and I qualified seventh and finished eighth after blowing the clutch on the start. I was way back but fought my way forwards. The night of the race I was in the paddock on a bicycle with my mates, did a stoppie and went over the bars breaking my wrist so I couldn’t do the last race the next weekend. Not the best way to end the season! But we came back strong next year.”
“Riding an unregistered scooter with no papers (laughs). Silly, but it seems like fun and games now and I cannot thank my parents enough for putting up with me.”
So this is your fourth year in Europe. Do you miss home a lot?
“A lot. But the way I look at it is that ‘this is the way we have to do it’ … and it’s not a bad job really! I won’t complain about it. People are sacrificing all the time. Some have to get up so early every day to work a full day and others are pushing 9-5. Whereas I have the best job in the world. I get to travel and race … so to live away from home for eleventh months of the year is not that bad to be honest and if you go pretty good then you can retire at 27 like Casey … Not that I’d want to.”
After 37 appearances at GP and seeing some of the high stakes of that world do you sympathise with why Stoner became a bit disillusioned by it all. What’s your take on the MotoGP scene?
“I love the show. It is all part of it and I don’t really understand how Casey … well, I can understand how it can all be a bit too much – but I like the way Rossi deals with it. I don’t want to say anything too bad about Casey but one of the first GPs I ever went to was in Holland and I saw these little kids waiting. Now I know a bit about what is it like when you come out of the garage or the pit, especially in somewhere like Brno when you have 30 older guys holding pictures for you to sign, but on this occasion the kids were waiting there with a t-shirt and asking him to sign but he just rode past them on a scooter and hopped into his motorhome and I was like ‘that’s a bit much, come on…’. Just stopping for a moment would have made their day or even their year. That’s the way he is … whereas I like the show and to be a bit of a clown.”
Lastly, for all the people who cheer for you, watch and follow you, can you describe what it is like to be at the front at a Grand Prix like Mugello or somewhere similar where you just see and hear banks of people. Is that atmosphere and being in it racing the ultimate buzz?
“During the race you don’t see or feel much of the atmosphere. In fact if you see an empty track it is pretty scary! Especially for the first time. I remember at Sachsenring when I led sixteen laps of that race … it was the longest sixteen laps ever and it was not in the best conditions. It was sketchy and dodgy but such an amazing thing. Somewhere like Jerez when you come around that stadium section between turns ten and eleven on the warm-up lap and your eyes are ginormous trying to take in that huge wall of people … it is incredible and such an amazing feeling to know that they are there to watch you race. It is pretty cool to think about those people and then all of the ones watching at home.”
After a few photos we head off to Montmelo. Jack is straight on the gas with the 250 and makes an enduro bike look flighty and agile around the motocross track. He plays around on the jumps and once or twice we look away as we can only imagine a furious Aki Ajo reacting to any further injury news to his Grand Prix star. Thankfully Jack has it all under control.
How was that?
“A lot of fun and I’m surprised. The bike is very light for Enduro. I normally prefer the 250s because I like to play with the bike. Riding something bigger like a 450 or more is great for trails and when you’re going quite far but for motocross and having a quick run-out then you cannot beat the 250s.”
As we said. All under control …
The 2014 MotoGP season starts on March 22nd at Losail for the Commercial Bank Grand Prix of Qatar.