Living within an hour’s drive of KTM’s headquarters, Red Bull KTM Rally Factory Racing Team’s Matthias Walkner is Austria’s next big thing in international rally competition. A member of the KTM family for more than a decade, the 30-year-old rider from Salzburg enters his third Dakar Rally knowing he has what it takes to battle for the top.
Proudly following in the footsteps of his mentor and seven-time Dakar competitor Heinz Kinigadner, Walkner took the rally world by surprise winning the 2015 FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship during his debut season of international rally competition. With his participation at the 2016 Dakar Rally ending dramatically while he was third overall, the Austrian enters the 2017 event looking to challenge for the podium.
We caught up with Matthias moments before the KTM 450 RALLY mounted rider packed his bags for the trip to Paraguay …
Matthias, do you feel you’re 100% ready to battle for top honors at the 2017 Dakar?
“I feel stronger and more mature than ever and I feel I’m ready to show what I’m capable of. I’ve worked hard to return to full fitness after my injury at the 2016 Dakar. The effects of the injury were tough on my body and I might never recover 100% of the movement in my knee, but that’s just something I have to get used to. I want to do well at the 2017 Dakar and I’m happy I now have the experience to make it happen. I’ll keep working hard until the very last moment so that I’m fully prepared to take on this amazing challenge.”
With Dakar getting increased global attention, how important is it for an Austrian rider to do well on a bike that’s made in Austria?
“KTM riders have been winning races and championships across the globe, but I think in my case the fact I come from Austria makes it a bit more special. Working for KTM as a test rider since 2004, I’m a part to this company in more than one way. I’ve lived some of the best moments of my racing career with KTM and I feel I am a part of the orange family. I have good friends within the company’s R&D department. Red Bull is also an Austrian company and they’re fully backing our effort. Both Red Bull’s and KTM’s headquarters are almost an hour’s drive from my home in Austria. In my case, the fact that Heinz Kinigadner has been my mentor in rally racing is super important. Heinz is a legend in Austria and all-over the world. It’s so cool having these people around me.”
Are you satisfied with the progress you’ve made following the injury?
“After breaking my femur last January I stayed away from my bike for almost 30 weeks. My first race for 2016 was the Atacama Rally in August. It was a tough event but I managed to get sixth overall in my first race after more than six months away from a bike. Then I came back at the Morocco Rally and showed I could go head to head with all the top rally guys. Along with winning one stage in Morocco, I managed to make some big improvements on the bike and in my riding. Since then I’ve been feeling great on my 450 RALLY and I can’t wait for the Dakar to begin.”
Coming back on top after your injury at last year’s Dakar must have been hard …
“Finding myself on a hospital bed while being third in the Dakar and then having to spend six months away from the bike wasn’t fun and I’d prefer it never happened. Taking the positives out of it, one thing I’ve learned is that I should always remain 100% focused. The way the crash took place kind of made me realize a few things. It was an early morning stage and we had the sun hitting our eyes. It was really hard to see what was in front, so I wasn’t even going fast. 15 kilometers in the day’s special stage I saw a small shadow that ended up being a big hole. Thinking about it now, there were so many things going on inside my mind before the crash. After that I learned I should only focus on what’s important and leave everything else behind. I also learned that despite the Dakar being a two-week-long event, things can change quite fast.”
As the 2015 Cross-Country Rallies World Champion, have you ever felt extra pressure to deliver the results expected during the Dakar Rally?
“No, for me it was exactly the opposite. Winning the world championship in my very first season in rally racing has been a great achievement, I believe. From what I know I was the first rider to make it happen. It showed I have the potential to battle for the top in rally racing and it reduced a great amount of pressure. That’s how I approached the 2016 Dakar and that’s also my mentality for the upcoming event. More than feeling any extra pressure I just want to do my job as best as I can.”
Speaking about race mentality, which do you consider as your strongest points as a rally racer?
“Everyone who knows me will say I’m a hard worker. I think that’s the best part of my attitude towards racing and life in general. I work really hard to prepare myself for every challenge and always try to give my best no matter the conditions. I’d say that my biggest opponent is myself. I’m satisfied only when I feel that I gave everything I could. If I’m happy with myself I know the results will come. Some people might be more talented than others and that’s something you can’t change. At the end, what’s more important for me is to always try to perform at your very best. I’m also glad to have a team of professionals around me with whom we share the exact same mentality. What matters is how hard you try and this goes to every member of our team. We’re lucky to have a great atmosphere within the Red Bull KTM Rally Factory Racing Team and everybody does their best.”
In 2016 you raced the Dakar with #14 as a tribute to your fellow countryman and former rally racer Heinz Kinigadner. Are you keeping the same number for 2017?
“I’ll race the 2017 Dakar with #16 on my KTM and my teammate Sam Sunderland will use #14. There’s no particular reason for this, it’s just that I wanted a small change. When I decided to race with #14 I started getting loads of questions about Heinz and me wanting to continue his legacy. Heinz is my mentor and remains a good friend. I just prefer keeping a low profile and have people mentioning my name for the right reasons. After my injury during last year’s Dakar I also got a lot of people saying it’d be bad luck to go on with the same number. I prefer to keep all the negativity out so that was maybe another reason to make this change.”
Looking at the upcoming Dakar, what would be the biggest challenges of the race that starts on January 2 in Paraguay?
“For me the biggest challenge will be the long stages in high altitude. After a short stay in Paraguay we go across to the Bolivian mountains and that’s where the toughest part of the 2017 race will be. There will be five stages over 3,000 m of altitude. Even the rest day in La Paz will be tough for us. La Paz is situated in 3,500 m and it should be hard on our bodies. The race will also be more compact in 2017. We have one stage less to cover roughly the same distance as we did last year. For sure days will be longer. There’s just so many things that make Dakar tough, from the long liaison sections that can mess up with your head to the weather and temperature changes. I remember once we had a stage in the Andes and we had to ride 300 km in -10°C. I’d never felt so cold in my life. It’s all part of this huge adventure that is the Dakar.”
How did you prepare yourself for this great physical and mental challenge?
“To be fit to race the Dakar you need to start working months in advance. It’s a year-long commitment that’s a lot harder that what most people see. For example, to better prepare my body for the high altitude I’ve been sleeping in a special tent for some time. This tent has an integrated mechanism that reduces the amount of oxygen to make air conditions similar to those in high altitudes. I’ve also spent time in a hotel in Austria that’s above 2,500 m. I did a lot of running, cycling and all-mountain skiing around the area. Even during the race, there’s just so many things you need to pay attention to. From your riding to the food you’ll be eating each day every little bit helps. During 2016 I focused all my attention towards better preparing for the 2017 Dakar. I think that everything is in the correct place so that I go out and have a good Dakar in 2017.”
Kicking off on January 2 in Asunción, Paraguay, the 2017 edition of the Dakar Rally will see all participants set off for a two-week-long adventure of 8,818 km through Bolivia and Argentina.