Total Motorcycle presents, Rider Inspiration – Behind the Helmet: Michael van der Mark. A look into what inspired Michael van der Mark from a kid who didn’t attend classes and the journey from expensive truck driver to a 125cc racer and intense competitor to become one of the very best WorldSBK riders today. A great story, great person and a look Behind the Helmet…
After the last instalment of Pata Yamaha WorldSBK’s Wednesday Wisdom, we decided to take a night off and handed the recorder over to Team Principal Paul Denning to chat with Michael van der Mark in his motorhome at Imola. With Formula 1 Free Practice in the background on one TV, and Call of Duty: Black Ops waiting ready to play on another in the 26-year-old’s home-away-from-home, this is how the chat developed…
Paul Denning (PD): I had known the name Michael van der Mark since you started racing, but we didn’t speak properly until towards the end of 2016…
Michael van der Mark (MVDM): Where was it? Oh yes Laguna. Then nobody was allowed to know, I think, but now they can. Things also went really quick that weekend, you guys were clear what you wanted which was cool.
PD: It was nice because it was not complicated, it was clear you were ready for a new challenge – when things are complicated they’re generally not right. So as soon as we could, we made the announcement and started winter testing. You’ve since become a Yamaha rider and a Yamaha personality, but we never take the time to just chat and understand more about each other. I know you as a professional, but who is Michael van der Mark as a person and as a character?
MVDM: Boring. I always act like I’m boring.
PD: Really quite boring! Boring when you keep winding me up like a kid every weekend… But we’ve been in some places where *clearly* boredom is not on the agenda. Some places after a good result like in Thailand…
MVDM: Yeah, I can’t remember that *laughs*
PD: So what kind of kid were you? Both family life and interests but also school? Did you enjoy it?
MVDM: Which kid actually enjoys school? I wasn’t bored at all, but I did good – I don’t know how! Because I was always, not annoying, but I was not always paying attention. Even though I wasn’t paying attention, I was still picking it up.
PD: So it’s a bit like now, you rely a lot on your natural talent?! *laughs*
MVDM: No, no, no! I always listen, even when it doesn’t seem like I’m listening. Like if I’m doing other stuff [looks at his phone] – I will still listen. This is already how it was when I was young. I think also in school, I didn’t really have that many friends because I just liked to do my own thing – and now I think it is a bit still the same.
PD: Yes but you have very loyal friends as far as I can see. People you can trust and people you can have fun with right?
MVDM: Yeah, yeah, yeah – not many, but just good ones. So I did exams at 16, and the year after I went to higher school, but I was doing 125 GP so I only went there sometimes just for fun and to make teachers angry. To be honest, you’re supposed to go to school until you’re 18 and have a certain degree, but the Dutch government said okay he’s probably going to do something else – but I had to work, which was quite easy because I was already starting to work for my dad. I had no licence, but my father’s transport company had this big project where we had to move batteries for emergency power. They needed strong people so I was getting stronger every week moving these big batteries!
PD: And what about your family, you have a sister right? We never see her at the track, is she not interested?
MVDM: She’s interested! She’s six years older than me and now it‘s just that she has two kids and she’s busy… In 2014, she worked in the Honda hospitality together with my mum for one season and then she got pregnant. So yes, she likes it.
PD: Are you close?
MVDM: My sister and me are like 100 percent the opposite. Everything I do, she doesn’t understand and everything she does, I don’t understand – which is funny.
PD: We like to see your mum at the track because she’s happy and enthusiastic. Even though your parents no longer together, it seems like they have quite a cool relationship?
MVDM: I think it’s always interesting because they got divorced when I was 11 or something, but my mum is there and my dad is nearly always there at the races. But when you walk into hospitality, they’re always together chatting at the table. Which is a really good thing, I can really enjoy it.
PD: Talking about your dad, of course he was and always is a racer and riding those crazy old bikes – I think he just started racing an old Yamaha, right? FJ1200?
MVDM: Yeah I think that one, but he has a new big sponsor…
MVDM: Me. *laughs* So it’s turned around. They had quite big costs to change everything on the new bike and so when he asked me if I could help a little bit, I couldn’t say no. But now their budget is bigger than I expected! But I cannot really say no!
PD: What a cool thing to sponsor your dad’s own racing! And does he still ride well?
MVDM: He doesn’t train. He doesn’t look fit. But he just rides with his talent – and his experience – even more than I do!! He was quite good when he rode professionally when he rode 500cc GPs, he was always 11th or 12th – and only the top 10 got points. In those days with Freddie Spencer and stuff, the differences in bikes were huge compared to now. It’s really difficult, and I think he got a really nice opportunity to be a professional and to race GPs but not on the best bikes.
PD: What was your first touch with a racing bike? I never asked you that. Did learn to ride a PW50?
MVDM: No, no, he never put me on a bike. He wanted me to really want to ride for myself. So I think it was when I was 7 or 8, we went on holiday in Spain and they had a go-kart track and they rented mini-bikes. I said, okay, I want to try. And I think immediately on my first time ever – I remember on the long back straight they had a little grandstand with people on it and the people were running away in fear! Then my dad went there to watch. From my first lap I was arriving after the long straight sideways into the corner. Like I never rode a bike before – I couldn’t put my knee down but I could go sideways. But I enjoyed it, and then we didn’t speak about it for a year. Went back again crashed, nearly cut my finger off, and then I was not bothered anymore! Only until 11, when I went to visit the Dutch TT in the Yamaha pit box and there was a show bike of Valentino’s… Then I really said, okay I want to race. He was waiting for me to ask him.
PD: So your first racing bike was what, a 125 two-stroke?
MVDM: Yeah Aprilia 125, like a street bike. I did the German 125cc National Championship in the second year which is quite funny because the guys back then were Markus Reiterberger, Marcel Schrötter and Marvin Fritz. There were many, many kids in the class back then that you still see racing.
PD: What point did it seem like this could be a career to take seriously?
MVDM: It took some years; I was just a young kid that really enjoyed riding bikes. I think my dad could see it, but he never really pushed.
PD: That’s how he is now, which is super cool. If he has something to say it’s really sensible and constructive. I think that’s a good attitude, because the overbearing parent we sometimes see in different types of racing can make it really hard.
MVDM: I think it’s the reason why many kids I was racing against, who were maybe better than me, are not racing anymore.
PD: You mentioned you worked for your dad’s truck haulage business. How old were you when you got your licence?
MVDM: I just found out last week, that my birthday was 26 October and my first official driving lesson was on the 25th! I got my car licence on the 1st of December or something. For my exam, we just planned the route. It was not even close to my house but we were working, then went to the exam place 10 minutes away, got my driving licence and went back working again. I could drive the van for my father’s company, then January/February I got my truck licence before I started racing again, then one month later I got the big trailer licence. So in maybe four or five months I did everything – by 18 and a half. But my first lesson was actually illegal! *laughs*
PD: You told me before it was funny when customers were getting a delivery and you’d turn up as just a kid – like “are you allowed to drive this thing”?
MVDM: One time, I was somewhere, and the guy was like “how did you get the truck in there”? And I just said that I was practicing. He said how old are you? 18. Do you have your licence? I was like no. He said why don’t you have your licence? I said my dad told me I just need to practice. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. The day after my dad went there and the guy said, “yesterday there was a kid here and he said he had no licence”. My dad was like, no don’t worry, he has a licence…!
PD: When you started racing with Ten Kate in the stock 600 series you were driving the truck for as well right?
MVDM: Yeah because the team only had one mechanic that could drive and I had the licence so…
PD: …Do you think that’s why they asked you to ride the bike as well?
MVDM: No, no, because I was an expensive truck driver! In the second year, I did the winter test also driving the truck for the team – from The Netherlands to Aragon, did Valencia, back home and then I went to Imola for the first race and back home. Every trip I did, the police stopped me because I was so young. Just to check – okay one time it was speeding at 63kph in a 60 – too fast. But the fine was cheap.
PD: Why don’t you offer to jump in our trucks now when the guys have a long trip between races?
MVDM: Because you don’t want to pay…
PD: That’s true. I don’t think I can afford you… Back to racing, obviously you came up through the ranks quite quickly. You’ve been through production bike, 125 GP, 600 after that right? Stock, then Supersport. Which was the biggest step and which did you learned the most from?
MVDM: It was a bit weird because my first ever race in stock 600 was the last race of the season in Magny-Cours and I did okay. Then I started the full season, and I won the first race. It was difficult because it took me until the last three races to be up there again – I won them – but I had to learn a lot, because I won the first race and you’re like oh, this is easy. So my first year in stock was the one I learned the most, because I made so many stupid mistakes. Then it was the same in Supersport. I finished on the podium in the first race, or even the second race and so every time the first year was the most difficult and I had to keep learning.
PD: When you went to WorldSBK, you were competitive straight away and Sylvain Guintoli was your teammate. A really experienced rider and you ran close to him all year. Did you expect to be immediately competitive?
MVDM: You’re young and you just want to show everything. So I think I finished fourth or fifth in Australia and I crashed in the first race. I knew again, it was going to be good but so difficult.
PD: Do you still get a thrill from riding your race bike or is the thrill more from the battle?
MVDM: Yeah, you still get a thrill, but not as much as before – but like you said it’s more from racing and when you pass someone, this gives the biggest thrill now. It’s still a privilege to be doing this as a job. I always enjoy it, but racing or a really nice lap gives the biggest thrill now.
PD: When we test you do so many laps and work really hard to get through the program. Your lap times are so consistent which means you’re not on the full limit but close to it, because it’s always there at a competitive level. When you sit down and speak to the guys, you’re discussing such detail. I’ll speak to you and say “how is it”? And you’ll say, ack – I’m bored. *laughs* For someone outside, it must be an amazing thing to understand that.
MVDM: I don’t want to sound really cocky, but it’s sometimes long days. And I’m bored because you have always many things to try which may be faster or maybe not for now, it’s for the future. So this is why sometimes I get a bit kind of bored. At the end, I am not really bored because I am doing everything fast and within a few tenths of a second.
PD: I think you’re quite lucky because when you leave the box after a session you can switch off completely – which is healthy. Do you find it easy to switch when it’s time to focus and when you’re away?
MVDM: Yeah, but sometimes it’s so easy for me I feel guilty that it looks like I don’t care. Because I can switch it so quick, it also means when I’m really angry it’s only for a few minutes, so there’s some positives. I see Alex always working hard on the details, but if I tried it like that I just can’t – just tell me what I need to do, and I tell my crew ok – this and this and this, this is my problem. They tell me what they’re thinking and they show me – then ok “stop now”. Sometimes a few days after some extra things come. So I just call Lez and say, I’ve been thinking about this or that.
PD: For some riders their approach is the same almost every time they ride. When it’s time to race you’re very different, getting yourself in the zone, being quiet and focused. You look like you’re ready to fight. Is that kind of how it feels?
MVDM: You have to be strong where you have to be strong. If I try to do this every session, I don’t quite go crazy, but it’s difficult to maintain. When it’s the race, it’s the time you always have to finish strong. That’s why, I don’t do it on purpose but it’s how I feel when it’s time to fight. It’s how I feel in the moment.
PD: You’re always really strong at the start of a race, passing and putting yourself in good positions. What’s the feeling like in those first laps?
MVDM: Always thinking, thinking ahead, trying to learn from all this. Okay it’s sometimes aggression, but normally there’s always something prepared – there’s always a plan. Okay sometimes it happens on instinct, but most of the time when I attack someone I’ve already thought about it, I’ve already seen something.
PD: Like last year when it was the Ducatis of Marco Melandri and Chaz Davies that ran wide and you just sent it up the inside of both of them?
MVDM: Portimao yeah – I saw it coming already a couple of laps before. I knew it was going to happen, maybe not that lap but I knew it was going to happen.
PD: Race day is what gets you excited and motivated. That enthusiasm, would it be the same if you were racing in the Dutch championship as an amateur for fun rather than an official rider for Yamaha?
MVDM: This is the reason why I won’t do a motocross race. I can ride and train with a motocross bike and enjoy it, but if I were to do a race, the same intensity would happen. Like when I’m training and someone passes me, not that I don’t care but I just let them go. If I do a race and I arrive in the first corner, then I have to be the first.
PD: Which is probably not a good idea… *laughs* This has been really interesting! We have some questions for you to say the first thing that comes to mind…
PD: Motocross or Supermoto?
MVDM: I have a supermoto for sale if you like.
PD: So you mean motocross. *laughs* Indian or Chinese?
PD: Rotterdam or Amsterdam?
MVDM: Rotterdam, but don’t tell the tourists, we don’t want them.
PD: Blondes or brunettes?
MVDM: I can’t say anything other than blondes, if I want to go home *laughs*
PD: Morning or evening?
MVDM: Night time.
PD: Wine or beer?
PD: Two-stroke or four-stroke?
PD: Night club or stay in?
MVDM: Depends, not always night club.
PD: Racing or testing?
MVDM: Testing… no, always racing!
PD: Assen or Donington?
MVDM: Ahhhh! … Assen. Because that’s where it all started.
PD: And! There’s not many tracks you get the opportunity to make the kind of pass you did with Jonathan Rea at the last race there as well.
MVDM: They always say ‘this is because it’s your home track’. But if anyone counts Jonny’s laps and what he’s done there over the years with Honda and in testing, so – *shrugs* But this pass is my secret, don’t tell him.
PD: I think you gave that secret away!
MVDM: No! Well, maybe, but they still need to do it. Because the same corner with a standard R1, I’ve done it flat out – it’s easy.
PD: Best team manager?
MVDM: Ronald [Ten Kate].
PD: That was predictable…
MVDM: No Ferry [Schoenmakers] from stock 600, because he paid me €400 to drive to Imola. Well, I made him pay me…
PD: Thanks Mikey – that was fun.
MVDM: I have to say in Dutch – geen probleem.
– A big thank you to Yamaha, Pata Yamaha WorldSBK and Michael van der Mark for bringing us this week’s great Rider Inspiration Friday story and we wish them all the best of success!