The Grand Prix of Russia takes place on June 13th and means that the 2021 FIM MX2 Motocross World Championship is getting closer at last, so we decided to ask our three Red Bull KTM Factory Racing riders in the category – Tom Vialle, Rene Hofer and Mattia Guadagnini, all on the KTM 250 SX-Fs – six key questions as round one draws near.
In November 2020, and at the culmination of just his second season as an MX2 Grand Prix rider, Tom Vialle became Red Bull KTM Factory Racing’s ninth different FIM MX2 World Champion and delivered the 13th gold number plate for the KTM 250 SX-F. For 2021 the Frenchman is hoping to be the brand’s fourth double-champ since 2009! Still just 20 years old, Vialle is now the de facto team leader in MX2 and will be looking to expand his collection of eight Grand Prix wins, all taken in Red Bull KTM colours.
Even though society was very much in the grip of the crisis, how was the winter as World Champion?
To become world champion felt like the best thing ever and it really sunk in during a month of holidays where I just stayed in France to be with family and friends; which was really nice. I didn’t do so many interviews or much travelling because of health-19. There were a few things we missed like the traditional FIM Awards and the KTM Christmas party in Austria. It was a shame but at the same time it was a very easy and relaxed time before starting to train and think about 2021.
You must have welcomed the break because 2020 was an intense season of many races in a short space of time and a close duel with Jago Geerts…
Yeah, for sure. The last part of the season was really difficult because it felt like a lot of races, but there was extra pressure because of the health situation around the championship. We were doing a lot of testing and I was trying to do things as safely as possible but mentally it was extra weight. It was a good battle with Jago and when he made a couple of mistakes in the middle of the season I kept really focused and did my best.
2020 must have shown how every mistake and every point counts: it was a close-run contest between the both of you up until the last few motos…
Yes, very much so. The goal was to be world champion and not to win every GP. I knew I had to learn to accept 2nd or 3rd on the podium, lose a couple of points but then focus to win or gain them back the next weekend. It was not easy! It was my first year fighting for the title and it was important not to over-think things. When we came to Lommel [the penultimate triple header] I was already thinking about the championship at this point and being careful to ride a bit more safely.
So, will you carry #28 or #1 in 2021? And are you ready for a different challenge of defending the crown?
I want to keep #28 so that’s what it will be! For sure 2021 is a bit different, but then again I spent most of 2020 with the red plate so that kind of pressure is the same. Don’t forget that when you are riding you don’t see the red plate! Everybody wants to beat you, but I think I had some of that last year as well: I kinda like being in that position. In 2020 it was mainly me and Jago so it was difficult to take points from him and to feel a bit safe with the lead. It only happened when he started to make a few mistakes. I think in 2021 there will be a few other riders even if [Thomas Kjer] Olsen and [Ben] Watson moved to the 450s. We’ll see. It’ll be an interesting year but I believe Jago will be the first guy to beat.
You are leading the team again but with 2021 being your third year in MX2 is there even more work to do with development now?
Yeah, we have been working a lot with the KTM 250 SX-F and developing the race bike. I’ve actually been riding with our new engine recently, which will help us a lot in 2021. I feel good on the bike. With Rene [Hofer] we’ve been working through set-ups and made good progress.
Do you have one eye on the MXGP class? If you win again in 2021 then you’ll have to move up for 2022 regardless…
Sure, we’ve been thinking about this a little bit because, like you said, if I win again this year then I’ll be on the 450. We have seen with Jorge, who was a double MX2 champion – even if he had a hard 2019 winter with his broken leg – that he was able to be quite fast and at the front in MXGP. Olsen looked good as well in his first pre-season races with the bigger bike. When you change the motorcycle then it is like a ‘reset’: it’s a new machine, new year, new category, new rivals so it brings new motivation, let’s say. I’m really focused to win this year and we’ll see for the next.
The 19-year old Austrian showed his steely mentality and commitment to his craft by posting top five race results in the first few motos of his Red Bull KTM Factory Racing career at the start of 2020. Hofer displayed the credentials to trouble the MX2 category in his maiden season but the campaign was swiftly ended after the health-19 enforced break when he snapped his right upper arm and shoulder in Latvia for round three. After a careful period of convalescence, a revitalised and determined former European Championship race winner is bubbling to renew his attack on MX2 for 2021.
What was the big lesson from 2020?
More than any lesson I just gained more experience. I know what’s coming for 2021 and I also know I have the speed to run at the front of the class. It means I can be a bit calmer going into the season.
Was the shoulder injury the biggest obstacle to deal with to-date?
I hurt my pelvis quite badly in 2018 and that was a big one but the shoulder is complicated and not that easy to recover from. It’s a big part of the body and the range of movement means it is not the most stable! It took some time, but I did long days at the Red Bull Athlete Performance Centre and that really helped me with the rehab and to the point where I can ride pain-free. Mentally I don’t have any worries about pushing myself. I’m all-good for the season.
It’s been a long time since you raced a Grand Prix Since when have you been able to ride and train like normal?
The first time I rode was just after the new year. I took it easy for the first month and since the end of February I have been able to ride to a certain speed again. I recently did a race in Italy, for the first time in nine months! It was quite tough. Racing is super-different from training but I’m not concerned. We still have some time to get ready before a busy season begins. I’ll keep working on it.
As a rookie in 2020 perhaps the team did not ask too much of you when it comes to the bike and technical side. Has that changed for 2021? Do you have more input now?
Actually, it’s more or less the same because KTM are really good when it comes to making the race bike very personal and I had that for 2020. It wasn’t the case of me riding a bike that had been made for Tom. It wasn’t like that. I could choose freely, and we have already made some improvements. I believe we have things pretty much sorted on the technical side which means I can concentrate more on my riding. We did frame, engine and suspension testing but it was nothing major because we already had an amazing bike last season.
In 2020 you were an unknown Austrian rookie in the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing set-up. Will there be a little less spotlight and expectation this year?
I think having the results from Great Britain [5th and second moto result of 2nd] and Holland [9th with a first moto finish of 4th] helped before I picked up the injury. They let me know where I was and what I can do. It was pretty good for the mind. I’m calmer than 2020, that’s for sure. Tom has to go for the championship and I think I have a bit more freedom to gain experience instead of having that pressure to always be first. I’m still a little bit of a ‘second rider’ and that means I can go race-by-race and improve during the year. For sure with Mattia [Guadagnini] we have a strong third MX2 rider and I believe we can all meet our goals.
At the end of 2021 what would have been a good season for you?
The first goal is to get a full season in the books and to try and be injury-free. Then I’d like to try and get as many podiums as possible. On my good days I think I can make these results happen. For sure there will be some ups-and-downs but it would be great to get that podium feeling once in a while.
Billed as Italy’s next star in the making, Mattia Guadagnini gets both the best opportunity of his short career as well as to taste the ‘hot seat’ next to idol Tony Cairoli as part of Red Bull KTM Factory Racing in 2021. Guadagnini’s credentials are very promising: EMX125 European Champion in 2019 and EMX250 runner-up in 2020, winning three races in his first campaign on a 250cc 4-stroke motorcycle. The 19-year-old is the sole rookie in the team for 2021 but follows a potent tradition of exciting talent to steer the KTM 250 SX-F. Don’t be surprised to see great things.
Tony Cairoli must be a reference for you as a young Italian racer. What’s it like being in the same team as him?
Since I started riding bikes as a four-year old I always watched him and he was my hero. He’s always been with the De Carli crew and it was my dream to one day be part of the same set-up. I liked Tony for how he rode the bike and how he seemed as a person away from the track. So, to be here riding with him is amazing! Tony is an open person and very friendly. It was strange for me because I always saw him from the outside and never really knew him but now that’s different through our work. We’re spending a lot of time together and with the team and I really like it.
There is expectation that you will be Italy’s next big MXGP star. How will you cope with that pressure and spotlight in your first GP season?
In the last few years we haven’t had a rider that has reached anything like Tony’s level so just being in the same Red Bull KTM Factory team means people will have expectations of me. I know I will have some pressure but I don’t think it will be too much for me, purely because this is my first year and I have to go step-by-step and progress. I think with good work and good people around the results will come. Having Tony as a teammate will help. I want to learn as much as I can and I know the first races will be tricky but then I want to get better as we go.
2021 is only your second year on a 250. How have you found the KTM 250 SX-F factory bike? How is it different to what you have experience so far?
It’s a bit different but you have the familiar feeling that you find on the stock version. The engine has a different character and the set-up is altered a bit, such as the suspension. It wasn’t easy for the first few laps to get a feel for the factory bike but once you change your mindset then it feels so strong and so useful. I felt like I could push more and more. I noticed the difference with the suspension as well when the track was getting more technical. The bike helped you to go faster and faster. It’s something pretty crazy for me. I don’t think I could ask for anything better.
You have the MX2 world champion as a teammate. How will be working with him?
At the moment we have not had much contact because it hasn’t been too easy to move around. His rise from the European Championship to his position is so nice. It shows what can be done when you are with the Red Bull KTM team and in the right conditions. He was the best guy in 2020. He was good before but with that team he became a world champion. It’s great. I only hope I can do the same! He is a good example to follow.
What type of circuit is good for you?
I think I am very good in the sand but it’s not my favourite type of track. I really like circuits like Matterley Basin, with good hard-pack and big jumps. Anyway, the sand is a strong surface for me.
At the end of 2021 what will have been a good season for you?
I think finishing in the top three of the world championship will not be too bad! The most important thing is to show improvement and not feel too much pressure. I know I need to go step-by-step and if I’m near the front in the final rounds of the championship then this would be perfect.