Controlling the racing chessboard
Robert Jonas works side-by-side with Pit Beirer in deciding a whole host of KTM’s racing strategy, particularly for offroad, so we sat down to ask what it was like in an often harsh world of plans, contracts and gambles …
The white polo shirt is a giveaway. Robert Jonas has drifted from orange apparel to white and is now a more neutral ‘white’ with small logos of both KTM and Husqvarna in place. The Austrian is the main overseer of the entire KTM and Husqvarna offroad racing program and is Pit Beirer’s first lieutenant when it comes to deciding who races what, where and when.
With the German frantically dividing time between the company’s blooming competition activities and in particular a first MotoGPTM year that is in full march, Robert has been spotted at more MXGP Grands Prix and is an ideal ‘entry’ to find out a bit more about the inside workings of the racing world. We all see and know about the trophies, champagne and titles … but what about the thinking and difficulties that go into those success stories? Coffees at the ready inside a bustling Red Bull Energy Station we put the likeable boss to the test …
You were a rider yourself so you know about the racing environment but when you reach a position of responsibility like you have now does that mean having to learn how to handle people in the best way?
“Absolutely. I have to say I have a pretty good teacher for many years [Pit Beirer] so I learned a lot about this side of the job quite well.”
Some people see Pit as a strong fiery guy driven by passion for what he does, so were there times when you were able assess a situation and maybe do it differently? You both have different characters …
“Of course; in general Pit is a clear ‘black-and-white’ guy and this is what makes him so strong. Our motorsports department has been developing and has now reached a size that is incredible and an operation like that needs this kind of leadership. I didn’t share every single decision with the same opinion as him but most of the time – when you give it a second thought – you understand why he has gone a certain way. Of course, you cannot say that every single little decision was the perfect one but at the bottom of it, all you see that he was correct. I try to pick up as much as I can and I try to make decisions as he would. I am a different character but I decide things in the best interests of the company and how Pit would like to see it, not just what I think …”
What is the hardest part of the job: something like telling a young rider that a contract is not being renewed or perhaps ending an association with a team after a number of years?
“Both. It’s hard. Even saying ´sorry we don’t have anything for you´ if someone comes and asks is not simple. The hardest thing is creating an opportunity with some young riders involved and it just doesn’t go how both parties expected: at a certain moment you need to make a decision. You recognize that you might have put a big dream into the head of a young guy and it isn’t working. The dream is still there and you feel responsible for not making it come true. I’m struggling with that. It is one of the hardest parts.”
There must be quite a few emotions involved because for every win and title there have been missed opportunities – Max Nagl’s injury for Husqvarna while leading MXGP in 2015 comes to mind – or other potential that has not been realized …
“There are mini episodes all the time and it’s true there is happiness mixed with disappointment and even sadness sometimes like we saw at Loket [Czech Grand Prix] this year [a fatality in the EMX85 European Championship]. It brings you back to earth. All the disappointments and low moments are part of the game and you have to work through them. Of course, a situation with Max where a little stupid incident finishes a dream is tough to take and I felt for him and the team. I’m not sure if it is worse than a rider losing motivation and you try your best to sort something out and it doesn’t happen. You always try to solve problems and work things out.”
There must be some pretty big ‘highs’ though. You can watch Tony Cairoli or Jeffrey Herlings win a Grand Prix one week and then fly to the US and see Ryan Dungey win a championship for the first time …
“Yeah, I was born into this racing world and my Dad’s life was all about bikes. I had my first one when I was five so bike/riding/motocross has been there more or less my whole life. So it is already an unbelievable thing to have this job at the highest league of the sport and I appreciate it every single day. I realize what exactly working with Roger de Coster means because it is an honor and a pleasure. To have seen people like Ryan racing and winning and been part of that is very cool.”
The whole company can enjoy success but for you and Pit it must resonate deeper because you are the ones that brought the teams or athletes to KTM …
“Yes, it’s true but every achievement comes from a challenge. You take it, build it up first and maybe it doesn’t initially go as planned but finally you get it rolling and if there is a win or a title there is a lot of satisfaction.”
There are many examples of getting things right – the KTM 350 SX-F, Cairoli & De Carli, Herlings & MX2, Dakar, De Coster and the US and more – but tell me an example when plans and a strategy didn’t quite work out. Maybe the initial ‘big team’ experiment of Tortelli and Pichon in 2006? Or the Husqvarna Moto3 project?
“That’s a difficult question. In the beginning, the Husqvarna Moto3 setup was pretty nice. Aki [Ajo] did a good job and I had the feeling it was going well. It was for brand awareness and it worked out well. In the second year, I was not convinced it was the best decision and it wasn’t working; so perhaps that is an example for your question. The  motocross team was 100% a learning experience and was perhaps quite a typical way that KTM approached racing at that time before Pit took over. It was clear to us that it couldn’t really work that way, buy expensive riders, and expect that they perform with whatever you give them. You have to have a good bike and a good team and have it all in place before you even approach things like that. We gained that experience.”
What is it like to negotiate deals? People must see how big KTM are into racing and not have an idea about the limits you have …
“Sure and especially now with riders we are experiencing all sorts of situations. There are riders who just want to come whatever the deal and some with managers in the way who are just after the money. Some riders have good managers that consider the quality of what is behind a proposal whereas some just don’t care. We definitely prefer the guys that care about what we have been building and what we provide and have success as the first priority.”
You must have to talk and deal with a lot of staff as well, from practice mechanics to management like Joel Smets and Antti Pyrhonen. Do you like to interact with the riders much also and keep a strong relationship or do you stand in the background and let other people worry about that?
“It completely depends on each case. On race day it helps nobody if you interfere too much because a rider is so familiar with his team and their process, so you cannot just come there and try to be the ‘smart guy’ and bring ideas in. What I feel responsible for and what I try to do is help wherever we have a problem. I would not interfere at all in something that is working well – and it is not needed anyway – but if things are not clicking right then I try to help as much as I can in a supportive way. This is what I like also. I have to chase fire sometimes!”
Is there quite a paternal feeling sometimes? Particularly if a rider is struggling with form or injury?
“Sure. It is not easy to keep a close personal contact with all the riders simply because of the quantity we have in orange and white at the moment but we make an effort. Someone like Davy Pootjes [MX2 rider] is an example because he has had a very tough year and I really hope this black cloud of bad luck he has had following him around is gone now.”
Do you think some people might be apprehensive around you? You are upper management with the means to start and finish careers in KTM. For guys that are young and not quite mature enough perhaps there is that ‘headmaster’ feeling?
“I don’t think so. I haven’t recognized any feeling from riders like that or difficulty making contact. I also think I’m a pretty easy person. It’s true that the higher up you go [in management] you might get a bit more respect and I see Pit as a guy that a lot of people respect but I don’t see it as a problem for him.”
You worked close with Pit then drifted to head up the ‘white brand’ and then came back more central to the racing division of KTM and Husqvarna. So where do you think the next chapter of the story lies?
“Honestly I never intentionally followed a direction to build a career in this world. It happened when I was able to work alongside Pit. Maybe I didn’t even fully realize what my job would lead to and how it would develop at the time. For many years, we just did our best to build something and it was my work and my life. I didn’t have the intention to take over or be responsible for one sport. I felt we were working for success and in whatever position I had then the target was the same. Taking over responsibility for Husqvarna was really nice because we did it from scratch, so to say, and Mr Pierer gave us the brief to do it and I had the honorable task to represent Husqvarna and be the face for this brand for a couple of years. It would definitely hurt me if I had to give up on something that we spent a lot time constructing and thankfully, that was not the case. I’m heading up offroad – and this is what I like. I couldn’t decide between either brand; it is really a 50-50, so again a good decision by Pit to put me in this position for a couple of years because it means we’ll be taking good care of Husqvarna as well.”
Are you a good numbers man Robert? I imagine filling and organizing a budget sheet must be a bit of a headache …
“Yeah at the beginning of the ‘budgeting season’ it can be a bit chaotic but we have really good people in our department who support a lot and many key budget decisions are made by Pit as he is a pretty good guy with numbers and figures; it is one of his strong points!”
Lastly – as we always see in racing – there is a generational shift. Ryan has stopped, Roger and Tony Cairoli are getting older, riders come and go. Is it time yet for you and Pit to sit down and make a new plan and find a new strategy?
“Sure, you cannot just sit down, lean back and watch how things go. Ryan’s decision shows that things can stop quicker than you expect. Luckily, we have the next guys in place, even in America. It looks like Ryan didn’t leave such a big hole because both Marvin and Jason Anderson are doing an amazing job. If they can work on some of the little weak points they might have then we can perform well again next year and go for another title. As long as we have guys like them in place then there is not too much to worry about. But, yes, there is a generation change and there will always be and in Europe Tony is ‘there’ and we don’t know for how long because I feel he is far from ‘done’ with racing yet. Jeffrey is as hungry as he could be. The MX2 program changes quickly because the guys need to move up if they win it twice or they reach the age of 23 years. You just need to keep working and planning, even a few years ahead, although it can be difficult to go too far on because riders develop very differently.”