Interview of the Month: “It feels unreal” – Matthias Walkner, Dakar 2018 Champion
It’s like a fairy-tale. In 2017, Matthias Walkner finished runner-up at the Rally Dakar. A year later, after working hard on both his fitness and navigation, he returned to the Dakar on the new KTM 450 RALLY machine he’d helped to develop. After two weeks of riding in one of the toughest Dakars ever, Matthias clinched victory – an Austrian rider on-board an Austrian machine, with an Austrian title sponsor!
The KTM BLOG caught up with the 31-year-old on his return to Salzburg to speak to him about how it feels to clinch his first Dakar win.
First of all, 2018 Dakar Champion – how does that sound?
“Unreal – absolutely unbelievable. I thought at the start of the rally maybe I could get top-three. Even at the halfway point I was aiming for the same target. As the second week went on I started to believe that I could claim the victory and to be honest it was slightly scary. Things went perfectly though, call it skill, call it luck. But now I’m back home and the celebrations and media attention are still going on, I still find it hard to believe. I feel very lucky and very honored.”
You are the first Austrian to win the Dakar since Peter Reif won the truck class in 1997. The first Austrian to ever win the bike class. And to make it even sweeter, you’ve won on an Austrian built motorcycle with an Austrian title sponsor. What exactly does that mean to you?
“It’s amazing. The reception I have had ever since returning home is unbelievable. I have been so busy, but it has felt great and the reception from the fans is incredible. I was in Schladming last week and there were over 50,000 fans there and when they are all shouting your name, the emotions are overwhelming. I’ve never felt anything like it. I was sat at the table there with Peter Schröcksnadel, president of the Austrian Ski Federation, and members of the Austrian Government. It was surreal, but an amazing experience and we had some good laughs, too. One of the feelings you get is that when the fans congratulate you, they really mean it. Motorcycle racing fans are the best in the world, they understand what you have been through and what it means to win a race like the Dakar. When they say well done, you know they are sincere.”
What do you think it means to KTM to have their local boy win the biggest race on the calendar?
“I have been with KTM for many years now, as a racer, as a test rider. The family feeling you get within the company is huge. We have all known each other for a long time and we have worked very hard for years to help make this happen. To be able to justify and reward all that hard work with a win means a lot.”
We all know the Dakar is tough and the first objective is to finish. The first week was tough, how easily did you take things during the first week, in the sand of Peru?
“The first week was so hard, you have no idea. I wasn’t feeling my best at the beginning of the event and so I was struggling a little with my physical condition on that first week in Peru. There were times when I even doubted if I would be able to finish the event I was feeling so tired. After the rest day I was able to regain some energy and that helped a lot. In those tough conditions I generally try to ride at about 98 %, conserve a little speed and a little energy but most of all don’t make any big mistakes. I think this is what helped me to the win.”
At the half way point, what were your thoughts?
“I still hoped for a top-three, but I didn’t even consider the win. The times at the top were so close, everyone was pushing and at the halfway point there were still five or six riders who could have taken the victory. In the history of the Dakar there has always been one stage that has had a massive effect on the results; that point came on stage 10. I don’t know if I was luckier than the others or just riding smarter, but I came out of that stage without making the same mistakes as a lot of the others and it gave me a big advantage.”
That win on stage 10 gave you a comfortable gap over your competitors, a lot of top riders went awry on that day. How do you achieve the balance between ultimate speed and careful navigation?
“It helped this year that I was riding the whole rally pretty much alone. It wasn’t often that I was in a group or travelling alongside another rider. It meant that I was able to stick to my own speed and trust my own navigation. Although you can put in a really fast pace when following others, the scope for making mistakes becomes far greater. From blindly following the guy in front and relying on him, to just riding in the dust that a group of riders kicks up, it makes it so much easier to make mistakes. On that stage, about 10 km from where those guys got lost, there was a neutralization and I said to the team I didn’t understand how they could keep up that pace without making a mistake. As it happened it was only a few notes later that they went badly wrong. The pace at the top is so high, everyone has to push that little bit harder to stay competitive.”
Were there any issues with the navigation, I know some world championship events in 2017 were criticized for inaccurate roadbooks?
“I think it’s on the limit in terms of the information we get. I understand they have to make things as tough as possible without impacting safety, but I would prefer for just a few more detailed notes on the roadbook. Having said that this year it worked out well for me, but it is a lot of work when we have to cut and add our own extra notes to the roadbook. It’s something that we, as riders, will have to look at with the organizers in the future.”
The race was yours to lose after stage 10. Stage 11 was cancelled, which must have been a relief, but mentally what was it like during the last few days knowing that the victory was yours providing you didn’t make any mistakes?
“Those last few days were really hard mentally – I knew I had so much to lose. It was like riding with a gun to your head, you try not to think about it but it’s impossible and most of the time you can’t help but think about what is going to happen. All I could do was try to stay focused and not do anything crazy, but at the same time not go too slow because if I lost too much time and then had even just a small problem, I could have lost that victory. It was nice not to have to push so hard in those final stages. They were very fast with lots of stones and to make a mistake whilst pushing would have been easy. Even if I knocked it down to say, 96 % those couple of percent on a five-hour day still translates as a few minutes, so you can see why you can’t back off too much.”
On the final day, during those last few kilometers before the finish, what was going through your mind?
“There were so many things going through my mind, but most of all it was like a dream coming true. Of course, you still worry about every little thing – the bike, your pace, and not to make any silly mistakes. That final stage was really fast and the fans were great but it was still easy to have a crash, even after backing off a little bit.”
Quite a few seeded riders retired due to crashes this year. The rally seems to have been as tough as the organizers promised. With the rally so competitive now do you think riders have to take more risks to get ahead?
“The problem is, racing in off-piste rivers and canyons is so dangerous because you never know what is coming next. Often dangers are not marked so clearly on the roadbook because you can be 100 meters to each side and end up riding completely different terrain. To have so many off-piste sections and sand dunes in an already tough race like this can be very dangerous as you simply don’t know how hard to push. I think that’s evident this year from the amount of injuries sustained, too. Van Beveren’s crash was a great example. The river where he crashed looked flat and you could ride it fast, maybe 120 or 130 km/h. There were so many hidden rocks there though, he was unlucky and hit one really hard. It could have happened to anyone – a couple of meters either side and he would have possibly won the stage.”
40th edition – certainly one you’ll never forget. All things considered, from your perspective do you think it was a ‘special’ Dakar?
“It was definitely special for me. I think the event is going in a good direction, but for me this year was the limit in terms of navigation and the terrain used. Some days this year were more like an enduro than a rally – I prefer the fast, open sections to the tight technical sections or camel grass. I think about 50 % of the riders finished the race and if that is the goal, then they have done a good job, I just think they need to make it tough without losing that wide-open Dakar feel.”
KTM not only rolled out an all-new bike for Dakar 2018, but it proved to be very reliable. How good was the new KTM 450 RALLY?
“It’s worked really well, but as you said the biggest success has been the reliability and its performance over two full weeks at the Dakar. It gives you a lot of confidence and it feels a lot safer. I did have two serious crashes during the rally. Luckily, I was ok, but the bike handled it especially well too, with no major issues and always stayed reliable to the end of every stage.”
From temperatures below freezing at heights of over 4500 m in Bolivia to 40 degrees heat in the sand dunes of Argentina – how do you prepare yourself mentally and physically for the extreme conditions?
“For the heat there is not much you can do, it’s important to stay hydrated and as long as you are fit, that’s about as much as you can do to prepare. For the cold we have a lot of good equipment these days – heated gloves and underwear and a really good rain jacket, these things help a lot. For the altitude I try to train for a couple of weeks running up to the Dakar here in Austria and I believe it helps a lot.”
This is KTM’s 17th consecutive victory at the Dakar, results only made possible thanks to a true team effort. How important is ‘team spirit’ within the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing setup, and why is it such an important part of KTM’s success?
“The team spirit is really important. Every member of the team has his part to play and right from the moment when you ride into the paddock at the end of the stage everyone knows what they need to do. KTM and the motorsport division work so well together, it’s easy to forget that KTM are not as big as some of the other manufacturers. The key is that family feeling at KTM, the close-nit community that all share the same passion for racing and in this case, the Dakar. It’s easy to throw money at a project, but without a good team backing up the investment, that money is wasted.”
After such a crazy few weeks, you are now back home in Austria. What are you looking forward to doing now?
“I plan to stay at home here in Austria for a little while and enjoy the winter time. Go car driving and do a little bit of drifting. I think it’s really important to set aside some time to spend with friends and family – it helps me to relax and gives me new energy for the coming year.”
Photos: PhotosDakar.com | Heiko Mandl