Playing the motorsport mind game
Red Bull KTM MX2 Team Manager Dirk Gruebel has to deal with Grand Prix rookies to perennial winners and coax the best of his riders across a grueling nineteen race season. We asked about the intricacies of motivating and moving motocross athletes …
It has been hard to escape Dirk Gruebel’s lofty figure on MX2 podiums in the last half a decade. The German has overseen the continued dominance of the KTM 250 SX-F in the FIM Motocross World Championship but also directed the startling success (and dealt with the crushing injury lows) of Jeffrey Herlings (22, still now also in MXGP with the KTM 450 SX-F) as well as helped youngsters like Jordi Tixier, Pauls Jonass (20) and now Jorge Prado (16) reach the peak of the sport. Jonass leads the current MX2 standings and has won half of the motos in 2017.
From raw diamonds to surging powerhouses of potential and glory, Gruebel – who started at KTM with the fairly ‘simple’ task of working with Supercross legend Jeremy McGrath in the final months of his career – has had to handle a raft of personalities and athletes on different trajectories and has been well placed in his role in the motocross team for over ten years to give some insight.
“Some are easier, some are demanding and we’ve had some real characters,” he reflects. “If I think back then a rider like Sebastien Tortelli was really easy-going and I’d heard he was always like that but he also knew exactly what he wanted, whereas his teammate at the time – Mickael Pichon – was very demanding and critical of the setup of the bike and the team structure. I then worked with someone like [Enduro legend] David Knight and we just had to try and tame that guy! We tried to make some rules for him but his favorite sport seemed to be how he could try to break the rules! Once the helmet was on then he was totally 100% and he was and still is a lot of fun.”
As the head of a team Gruebel has to bring the group together … and that includes the talent. Initial trust and common ground is established through intense testing and pre-season periods and through the sheer amount of time spent travelling as a small and compact band. The team simply has to gel and be the right mix of temperaments, especially in a series like MXGP where the first four rounds involve long hikes to the likes of Qatar, Indonesia, Argentina and Mexico. With 38 thirty-minute and two lap motos to negotiate, the eight-month campaign can be a wide-ranging journey of elation and achievement but also pain and disappointment: Gruebel has to keep the boat afloat and on an even keel.
“If a race doesn’t go like they want then a sixteen year old can sit in the awning like they are mentally destroyed and firstly you need to offer some comfort and bring them back to a normal level of perspective,” he reveals. “When you have that then you can analyze [performance] what can be done differently. You have to be patient because I doubt the first thing they want to hear is a lot of negativity and what they did wrong. It can be a downward spiral and pulls then down more than is necessary. They are boys. You need to give them a level to build up again, not just throw them over the edge.”
The demands – physically and mentally – of Grand Prix motocross are acute, perhaps more than any other motorcycle racing discipline and it doesn’t take much time around KTM to sense a tightly knit ethos to keep the operation at the highest level of performance for as long as possible. Gruebel might have a strong relationship with his riders but also needs to be ready to crack the whip if necessary. “They stick so much with us and their families that I think the team staff become part of a close circle,” he says. “You get close to riders but you also have to be able to tell them they’ve been struggling in the last three-four laps that they need to be harder and go through the pain barrier: it is not easy.”
“Fourth place in a Grand Prix is still not bad for a rookie like Jorge but in the big picture a podium is important for us as a brand and a team; this is what we work for and what gives us the drive and the riders need to understand this as well.”
When the spoils come – and they have been plentiful for KTM in MX2 with five different world champions and eight titles in nine years – then the team management also have to try and keep a riders’ feet on the ground: one mistake in motocross can change a season in an instant.
“Pauls learned the hard way last year,” Gruebel reveals. “We always tried to keep him calm but in the races he went a bit too wild, crashed too much and had some injuries. This year he is a different guy, and his preparation over the winter was also different. He is happier with second position. It is good to see how they develop. Jeffrey was the high-flyer for years and years and slowed himself down with the injuries. This year in MXGP was a reality check … although the way he was riding in January before he hurt his hand meant I was quite confident he would be in the top three of the class because he was at the same speed and level as Tony [Cairoli]. Ottobiano [pre-season Italian Championship round] was the wake-up call because he was riding that 450 like a 250 and it really kicked him in the ass. He struggled big time in the first GPs because the results were not coming and he was not used to that feeling. Being away from the podium was weird and it took time. It was good he went through that to make him appreciate a win; the MXGP class is pretty strong this year and it is an achievement if you win there.”
The idiosyncrasies of individual riders mean that some are organized, some are late, some are messier than others and each has their own methods of preparation. Gruebel and his staff have to be flexible to meld the whole show together. Victory is the ultimate motivating force for the entire collective but there are also other – powerful – tangible forces involved with racing. “You get used to winning with Jeffrey Herlings but to me it still feels like a big achievement every race that we do win,” Gruebel concludes. “And then to see Jorge in a big black hole and then just a few weeks later win his first GP: that’s a pleasure and still so emotional. If the kid is crying away on the podium then you also have some tears swelling up. It is nice to see, and this year we’ve already had first places with Pauls also.”