The New Gem: discovering KTM’s new motocross starlet
Tom Vialle almost came out of nowhere to announce himself as KTM’s new fizzing star at FIM Motocross World Championship level. How did an eighteen-year-old rookie shock Grand Prix? We asked …
Red Bull KTM have identified, helped and benefitted from the brightest and the best in the FIM Motocross World Championship since the turn of the century. Names like Townley, Rattray, Searle, Musquin, Cairoli, Roczen, Herlings, Tixier, Jonass, Prado easily drop out into a scary list of phenomenal racing talent.
In 2019 the world champions still set the bar with Herlings, Cairoli and Prado in the factory team but the announcement of eighteen-year-old Tom Vialle as the replacement for Pauls Jonass (who switched to Husqvarna for his first season in the premier class) had many fans and close followers of MXGP scratching their heads. Surely the young Frenchman – who had shone briefly with two moto wins in the EMX250 European Championship – would be better placed next to Rene Hofer as part of the KTM Junior Racing Team in EMX? The hot seat alongside Jorge Prado in MX2 – a wonder, in contrast to Vialle, who has been groomed from the age of thirteen by the factory – is one of the most coveted saddles in Grand Prix and hardly the place for a debutant.
Vialle has quickly, quietly and emphatically scrubbed the doubts. In the first four rounds and his first four Grands Prix he has already led the world elite, holeshot motos and taken two podium finishes: A record on par or better than many of the athletes on KTM’s glittering roster.
“I pushed for him,” says Team Manager Dirk Gruebel. “We had some options and even some ‘sightings’ of other riders but it is important to think about the person you can work with and the potential they have. I was really happy with how the winter and development went and also how he adapted to the team: It was nice to see.”
Red Bull KTM selected Vialle, son of former GP racer Frederic, from a small shortlist for 2019. One day of riding and talking with KTM MX Manager Joel Smets was enough to convince the former five times world champion that #28 could be a worthy addition to the squad. “Of course, we kept an eye on him in 2018 but I did not talk to the family that much …,” Smets admits. “I’ve been working with him now since November 1 and I can see there is physically a good base and he has real potential. I can see how his body recovers from training that there is a decent progression margin. He has good style, very smooth. It seems like he should push a bit more but then you look at the stopwatch and you think ‘oh!’”
A small clue as to Vialle’s ability to adapt was revealed through his placement as part of the Lieber KTM Team in EMX250 and from a privateer Husky effort. He quickly began to develop thanks to the support and setup around him. “He made big progress with the Lieber team,” says Gruebel. “I remember watching him riding a sand track at the beginning of 2018 and it wasn’t too impressive but then he spent some time with the Liebers in the Belgium area and really stepped up his training. Everywhere he went with us this winter then there was no problem.”
Watch Vialle ride a motorcycle and his technique and ability is immediately obvious. His slight and small frame could be seen as a limitation in his first season but it is also an advantage in the MX2 class where bike power is at a premium and a rider’s weight and stature is part of the competitive package. The rider, the team and his family are working on his race stamina; Tom is aware of the importance of the physical side: “The physical level is really important and MX2 is ten minutes more each race compared to the EMX. I had some good training in the winter with Joel. I know that after five Grands Prix it will start getting better and better.” Vialle has his pros but there are other positive traits that are harder to see.
Understandably coming into 2019 Vialle was facing scrutiny before a wheel had turned in Argentina for the first round. Some riders wait their whole career for an opportunity with an outfit like KTM: A team that has won the MX2 World Championship eleven times in the last fifteen years and with eight different riders. “We have seen other guys who have felt the pressure of the tent,” says Gruebel of the reality of existing and working under the official orange awning. For Vialle – surprisingly – the pressure and the expectancy was not a hindrance or an obstacle. If it was then he didn’t show it. In fact, his maiden podium result came at the British Grand Prix and the very first round in Europe with the added crowd, industry presence and harsher spotlight compared to the relatively isolated surroundings in Patagonia.
“In the same way that Jorge can leave you open-mouthed with what he can do on the bike I am the same way with Tom and how he has dealt with the ‘factory circus’,” Smets voices. “He is so relaxed and I thought internally he might be really nervous for his debut but … it was crazy: I think I was more excited and anxious than he was in Argentina! It’s impressive and it is an important talent as well.”
Vialle’s demeanor is also about belief derived from a vital winter of preparation. It was a whirlwind of discovery and learning but it also shaped his orientation for the races. In this respect Smets, Gruebel and his staff have curated a fine egg. “He has stayed really cool,” the German opines. “He did some tests in the winter and I did not want to overrun him with too many possibilities for the bike. We went step-by-step and he has a good package. If he is ready for something extra and more advanced as we go on then we will take more steps but he needs to grow into that first and get comfortable in the team.”
“We know he can go fast with what we have given him, and sometimes new riders can get lost if you give them too much to go in their own way. Firstly, he needs to live up to the abilities of the bike and then we can do more. He is demanding and he knows what he wants.”
Don’t underestimate the role and experience of the team in smoothing Vialle’s transition to Grand Prix life. For Gruebel and co the rookie was a different type of project after concentrating on world championship winning pedigree for at least half a decade with Herlings, Tixier, Jonass and Prado. “It cannot be like that every year where you are spoilt by having two title contenders!” Gruebel smiles. “We need to take care of the youngsters and Tom is one of those now but I think he will live up to the billing. It is still exciting because winning is really nice but sometimes also the way to win is just as nice. It is our job to guide and help riders and it is great to see how some develop.”
Vialle had to contend with a factory bike and while the emphasis has been more on acclimatization rather than development it was still a different set of tools for the youngster to deal with. “On the suspension and the engine; it was not easy to get used to,” he says. “I had to learn a lot about it.”
“I judge a rider by how hungry they are to get on the bike and if you change something then how they can feel it and give feedback,” Gruebel adds. “If you have a guy that gives good feedback quickly then it is easier to get them moving faster forward because you know the direction. Tom was pretty easy with that.”
From Vialle’s side the presence of his dad and family – the people who were key and central to his racing before the KTM chance arose – is another factor. Red Bull KTM have witnessed different types of family scenarios; some overbearing parents, some the opposite. With the Vialles the chemistry seems to be promising. “Tom had a good education and is a nice person but he is also very realistic and humble,” says Smets. “They knew from the first day when the contract was signed that this was just the start, and they were not at the top yet. They have their feet on the ground.”
“It is something very different for the family,” Frederic Vialle observes. “Last year we had a stock bike and were on a privateer team, just me and Tom. So, a factory team is very different: two mechanics, Dirk, Joel and the winter training, living in Lommel … I just keep an eye on Tom now because the organization around him is so good.”
“Many riders have pressure but we look at it like we have a very good team and a very good motorcycle – the KTM is very fast – and with these tools if you have a good rider then he should make a good result,” he understates.
“The family situation helps a lot,” stresses Smets. “Even in my day racing I could see how situations with parents could go very wrong and then since retiring and watching young kids then a lot more. Ok, it’s not easy to be a mum or dad of a sports guy that is at a high level but the Vialles are very stable and they know that hard work is the only way to ‘get there’. It is not flashy bikes or equipment or a Red Bull helmet that will make you win: It is the hard work that will decide if you make it or not.”
What next? Vialle has already caused a stir with his results. “That surprised me a lot and clearly he is making a big improvement, coming from the European Championship it is not easy to already be so good in the first two rounds,” Tony Cairoli said of Vialle’s first podium walk at round two. “I’m really happy for him and I hope he can continue in this stride and be on the podium a lot more: I think he can do it, he is very technical and focused and I don’t see many mistakes.”
The team are still being protective. “We shouldn’t make the mistake to create too high expectations,” warns Smets. “We must have realistic goal setting.” There is also frank awareness of his weakness (his level of English is another area to work on). “He maybe has the same problems that Jorge had in 2017,” Gruebel assesses. “He is riding good and has talent but maybe does not have the strength yet to push all the way until the end of the race. If he has a good start then he can run up front for a while and hold on as long as he can. In his first year Jorge won four GPs but also didn’t finish four GPs. He wasn’t strong enough but he also developed and the more he races the better he’ll get.”
“He has a very nice style and is a good starter but just needs to improve his speed,” opines Vialle Senior. “The gap between EMX and GP is seen in the strength of the riders and the physical condition. The bike is very fast and he needs time to adapt. He will take so much experience in the next months. I think he has the speed over one lap and he has the technique but because everything is so new for him he needs as much racing as possible … and to avoid the crashes.”
In the first phases of MXGP in 2019 Red Bull KTM are again flying. Prado is undefeated, Cairoli holds the red plate and Vialle has, amazingly, stepped up to be their peer. It is a slightly surprising situation for the racing team and the management but not an unusual one considering the impact of their former racers. Somehow the magic keeps being mixed.
Photos: Ray Archer | P. Haudiquert