Interview of the Month: Signing the star – How KTM kept Jeffrey Herlings
We chat to Pit Beirer on the brand new three year contract for KTM’s Motocross star.
Only three races remain in the 2016 FIM Motocross World Championship and after leading the MX2 category for the entire campaign Jeffrey Herlings is soon hoping to wrap-up his third crown by the age of twenty one on the KTM 250 SX-F. The Red Bull KTM athlete will jump into the premier class of MXGP for 2017 and although contracted to the team for another year he was already attracting attention and offers from other factories for 2018 and beyond.
The Dutchman is one of the outstanding racers in Grand Prix and one of the most sought after athletes in global Motocross. KTM´s Motorsport Director Pit Beirer was therefore delighted to get ‘84’s signature last week for another term with the crew with whom Herlings exploded onto the world championship scene as a fifteen year old in 2010.
Here we decided to ask Pit about the process of securing a major name and talent in the motorcycle racing world …
Pit, this couldn’t have been one of the easiest contracts you’ve put together …
“No … first of all Jeffrey has been with the same brand and team from such a young age and I can understand if a rider one day thinks ‘I cannot stay my whole career on the same bike’. Nobody has done that before and it meant a bit of a risky situation for us. We are always doing the best we can for the rider but there is still that doubt and the whole story of the ‘grass is always greener on the other side’ for him. I think that played a role in why Jeffrey was interested in listening to other people and he got some big offers. I want to underline that they were pretty crazy but not as crazy as was written in the press; it was getting to a ‘MotoGP level’ and was not realistic anymore. He had strong offers and it is normal that a twenty-one year old kid sees the money, the challenge and the question ‘is the team so good? Or is it me that’s so good in the team?’. There was a moment in the negotiation where I just let it go. I said to Jeffrey that I was angry about the offers from the other guys because one and a half years before contract time is just too early. Imagine if he had signed for someone else? How can you create a nice marketing and feeling in the team around the rider when you know he is already going somewhere else? We have always been early in making offers and providing contracts to the other guys but not one and a half years before! That’s crazy. I had to go through many topics in our conversation but in the end I said: “you know where I am and the offer for you will be there … but don’t rush now.” I did not push it any further. That was around Mantova time [late June]. He had enough time to make up his mind and we also prepared an offer with some details that made sure he got exactly what he wanted and I’m not talking about money but about bike development, the right engineers and the right people around him to secure his future. To cut a long story short we decided by text message on Sunday before the Swiss GP to meet in my office and he came in at 9am and by 10am the contract was signed. So we were not fighting for the contract and there was no more talk; we made a quick decision and I am really, really happy. He had the chance to look around and see what others had but I said “if you don’t think you can find a better partner then come back”. He is stronger with us and we are definitely stronger with him. There are some secrets where we know him so well and what he needs to perform that I’m not sure somebody could replace that so easily.”
Was there a time when you were sweating a little bit that he could go?
“That moment when you realize he has offers and they are not from third tier teams! That cut me on the cold side because I did not want to get in a discussion about contracts one and a half years before it was time, and because of some limitations in the current contract it was all talk for nothing. Of course Jeffrey is ‘our baby’ and we have been growing up together. I would have hated to see him in another team; it would have been a personal disappointment on the ‘human’ side because we gave so much for him … and I think that is a big part of the reason why he stayed. He knows how much we want to work with him.”
You mentioned it wasn’t a MotoGP level contract but I imagined it must have involved some calls and discussion with Mr Pierer over budget and so on …
“Yeah but that homework had been done immediately and I could see a few months beforehand that the situation was coming up. I told Mr Pierer, the board and Kini that I would keep this kid no matter what. I got the full support and protection so that I did not need to return to them. When Jeffrey asked to meet it was the first week of holiday in the factory so I was well prepared but it [the deal] is also on a level where you need to talk to Mr Pierer and ask “is this level still OK for Motocross?” because what we spend in Motocross is earned from Motocross and this has been our strategy for all disciplines so far. So we won’t be spending Motocross money in MotoGP, that’s clear. MotoGP money has been earned already with the Street segment. It is on a high level but I am also not a manager who will push to keep the riders’ salary low because I was a rider and I know how much risk they take and how hard they work compared to some other sports. I think every euro we pay these riders is worth it as they put their heart and neck on the line for us. I am happy to pay a professional salary because the sport deserves this.”
You mentioned some details in the new contract. Can you talk about those? Does he have flexibility of choice with certain matters?
“For example he wanted to nail down the fact that the same guys he has around him will stay around him. We don’t need to bring in anyone new to make him happy and he wanted to make sure the team stays like it is with Dirk, Valentina, Wayne and Ruben in place and for him and there when he signed. “
I know you like to give your athletes freedom to talk and think about other series’ – Marvin Musquin and Ken Roczen were able to go to the U.S. – so did Jeffrey mention any changes or desires for other events or races?
“No, Jeffrey wants to become a Motocross world champion every single year when he is racing. In a contract discussion you end up loving that kid because every request he makes is geared towards winning the world championship and now he wants it in the MXGP class. It is so nice to see. What he is asking for is to win, not to have a comfortable life or have a swimming pool at the racetrack. It all fits in with the idea and vision he has and that’s why we are happy to make that extra push for him. There were no ‘strange’ requests. It was things like making sure the training sprinter, mechanic, fuel, tracks are all accessible for him. He is asking for these details whereas some other guys just push for more money. That’s where I get frustrated. Someone might offer a rider 10 or 50,000 euros more and they measure you with that offer and then when the contract is signed they want to come back and take all the other things like the workshop in Rome and track with Claudio De Carli, the workshop in Belgium, the Austria factory team, the vans, tracks paid for; all of this. Jeffrey wants a proper salary but he also wants all these details to be covered and that is not the same for every rider. We spend quite a bit of our budget for the work during the week and through the wintertime. He respects that and pushes for it.”
Herlings is almost a once-in-a-generation talent so it must be a slightly unusual process for you when it comes to negotiation …
“Yes. I’m a manager who also makes deals in other disciplines and highly ranked sports deals; MotoGP for me before was a pretty big sport but now I’m heavily involved! I hated as a fan of motorsports and things like F1 to read that a guy had signed a contract with another team but still had a season to go with his current team. It was so weird for me. We go racing because we love it and as a team we fight and work for each other. It is not about the contract and the money and because we have to get paid, we are together because we have the same target and we like each other. If I have a guy now who signs a contract for another team over a year away I’d actually prefer for him to leave the very same day. I had a situation with a top level European rider who told me about a big offer from a team in the U.S. and I took his contract in front of his eyes, ripped it into pieces and put it in the bin. This was in Teutschenthal four years ago and I said “if you want to go to that team, then go, but please leave on Monday, not next year.” If somebody doesn’t not want to stay with KTM then I prefer him to leave. We put so much passion into our projects that we will not pay people to stay with us. It is a free world and people can go … but on the other side I fight as much as I can to keep my crew and those that want to be with us. I will stick to that line as long as I am behind the desk in Mattighofen.”