Debrief: Dirk Gruebel

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Red Bull KTM Factory Racing’s Dirk Gruebel is in charge of leading Jeffrey Herlings, Tom Vialle and Rene Hofer into action. It was obviously a strong start for his side of the orange awning, which made the COVID-19 break even more heartbreaking. How has an operation so mighty handled the time on the sidelines? Gruebel discusses that in this exclusive MX Vice interview, as well as the proposed changes to the rest of the 2020 FIM Motocross World Championship.

MX Vice: This break would have helped you in 2019 – Jeffrey [Herlings] could have used that time to recover and make a run at the title. The same goes for 2017. If there is one year where you and your team do not want to have a break like this, it is when both of your guys have red plates. Not great timing!

Dirk Gruebel: Of course not, like you said. It definitely would have helped him in 2017 – he would have got to grips with the 450F and done a lot of testing. It would have helped us a lot and helped him get back on track. It would have been the same thing last year. You can cure an injury in a time like this. Guys like [Romain] Febvre who hurt themselves in the beginning can heal up and come back strong. We hold the red plates in both classes though, so this is definitely not doing us a favour. It’s not great to park two guys who are ready to go and fit for who knows how long. This is not good, for sure not!

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Ray Archer

Did either Jeffrey or Tom [Vialle] take this news about a break especially hard? Was part of your job to just keep spirits high at that point?

Well, Tom went home to France first. They wanted to be in their mother country but after a while they figured out they may be better off in Belgium than living in France, because France was pretty strict with lockdown. They saw more opportunities to do things like workout in Belgium and they could do that with Joel and Greg Smets – he has a good sparring partner there. They kept themselves busy and fit, which is a good thing for the mindset. Jeffrey was cycling like hell and training however else he could.

Everyone struggled to begin with though, like you said, as everyone thought that this would be a thing for two or three weeks and then we would be back on. Time told us differently. Even now we don’t know when we are going to return. It’s a severe virus though, so we just need to deal with it. You cannot just jump onto the next plane. That’s not even possible, because there have not been any planes flying lately. It is all very difficult.

Had they said that there would be no racing until August back in March, I guess both guys would have used March and April to rest so that they would not peak too early. It has just been a guessing game since Valkenswaard. 

Yeah, but they pulled a plug at a point. After two weeks they realised that this was not going to be over in a couple of days or weeks, so they put their programmes back and operated on normal fitness levels. Jeffrey started riding this week and he said that it was like old times when he came back from an injury, as he had to start fresh. Jeffrey had ten weeks off of the bike and his hands hurt after riding, plus you just don’t have the strength to hold on. You have to get yourself back into business slowly. They had a break, for sure, otherwise if you continue until the end of November then the end of the season would be tough.

How has it worked with Red Bull KTM in this break? You are not one of the smaller teams, obviously, so do not have to worry about pulling budgets together. Has there been much going on though? Has there even been work to do for the last ten weeks?

We all got parked a bit, you could say. KTM went very early, because Austria was one of the first countries within Europe to make a lockdown. We shut down on the motorsport side around March 15, so have not been into work for two months. Slowly now we are starting to come back and do some stuff. Hopefully in June we will start all over again. Our production is back up and running, which is a good thing, and it also looks like sales have picked up at dealers.

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Ray Archer

Everyone has been sitting home doing nothing, so now it seems that they are going out and buying motorcycles. That’s a good thing that I didn’t think would happen! Everyone is sat at home and some people have been laid off completely, so the last thing that you would think is that they would go out to buy a motorcycle. It’s obviously the opposite way around though, which is a good thing to hear.

The last MXGP calendar that came out was a bit confusing. Giuseppe [Luongo] then sent that email around to all of the teams, which cleared things up. It looks like we are going to have ten to twelve rounds and only race on Sunday. Those are good things, right?

That whole calendar thing with all of the venues that are still on, like Russia and two times in Indonesia… It looks like they still have contracts and as long as the government doesn’t say that you cannot run your event like they did in Belgium or Germany, then they are still on the schedule otherwise somebody would lose some money. If the government pulls the plug then nobody would lose anything, because there are no hard feelings or anything.

It is just what you have to deal with. That is why Teutschenthal went off and St. Jean too, as everyone knew that it could not happen in May or June. That email afterwards was pretty good. They need to consider things like whether they are allowed spectators if we run later in the year. There was a rumour that France will have events with up to 5000 spectators soon, but things change every day. We are living day-by-day.

It would be good if we only have Sunday races or visit the same track two weeks in a row, on a Saturday or Sunday (whenever they want to hold it) with small spectators or something like that. That would avoid the expensive travel for everyone. It came out at one point that we would have ten races in a row so the teams freaked out and the riders freaked out – it would not be logistically possible.

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Ray Archer

Having MXGP and MX2 on the Sunday only would actually make a big difference then and for the entire team, not just the riders? You would be all for that?

Well, we would manage. They do it in the nationals and it’s still good racing. Now, for us with MXGP, you turn up on Friday at the latest and stick around until Sunday or Monday with not so many hours of racing. If we could compact that into one day, then we would rock up on the Saturday to build the structure and race on Sunday. It would be two days less of contact with other people, which keeps the risk down for any possible infections. I hope no one will get anything, but you need to minimise the risk.

Yeah, and if there is one thing that people say about MXGP it is that there is too much riding. We have seen that this can work when we have had wet-weather schedules in places like Charlotte too.

For sure. It works in the AMA and we have had it at some overseas in the past. You would like to ride more at some points, for bike set-up or testing, because you can use a free practice to test some new stuff. We have that race on Saturday though, and a race is a race. You don’t want to take a gamble and throw something on the bike that is not going to work. It is not fair for anyone.

The rider does not want to take that risk either. I could live with one-day events and I would favour double events at one venue as well, like two at Lommel and two at Teutschenthal or St. Jean. That would already be six races. If we can get eight or ten races under our belts, with the two that we have already, then twelve races would make us all happy this year.

The strangest thing that came from the email to the teams is that the MXoN is probably going to count for MXGP points. How do you feel about that? The two problems that everyone has with the ‘Nations being in the middle of the season is that no one would want to go and everyone there would not race hard. This fixes that but opens up a lot of other problems.

Yeah, I don’t really know how they want to do it. Everybody is out twice, but how does it count? If Jeffrey is in the MXGP class and Tim [Gajser] is in the Open class, then they could both win their classes. If they were both in the same class though then one would win and one would be second, which would mean that there is a points difference. I do not know how fair it can be or how they want to run that whole thing. I don’t know!

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Ray Archer

You also have the problem of gate pick. If The Netherlands qualify first, [Roan] Van De Moosdijk could take the first pick and then Jeffrey has to go to the outside and try to fight for MXGP points.

For sure! Everyone would think about their own thing there. If Jeffrey is in the title hunt, then he would favour his own result. That is just normal in the brain of a racer – they are going to favour themselves. In the big picture I do not think it is any good, I don’t know. There are way too many open questions, like you said. You could sit for a whole day and discuss things, but I do not think you would come to a conclusion where everyone is happy with that scenario.

Back to MXGP. Everyone is pushing for no flyaway races, but then that confuses me because everyone is kind of paid up for Argentina. Indonesia and China are obviously a little more open. 

Yeah, well that depends. Everyone likes going to Argentina – it is such a lovely track that has a great layout and is well organised. Everyone would like to go there, and to have a world championship you have to go internationally. In circumstances like this it just depends how much they do. It’s not that we need to cull money at the moment. Luckily, we are a factory team with a big company behind it. The private teams or half-supported teams with whatever brands already struggle sometimes, when we have four or five overseas. In a year like this where some sponsors maybe back out then I do not know if it is possible to go overseas five times.

This is a positive thing to end on. There is a lot going on, but you have two red plates, and everything is looking good. You will be able to go back to normal and chase two world titles eventually, so I guess that is the light at the end of the tunnel for you.

Yeah, hopefully! We are in a good position at the moment, like you said. If we race again and keep going like that then I will be more than happy, of course! If worse comes to worst, then I do not know what the decision would be. Is it a valid championship with two races? Is it legit? I do not think so, but that is for somebody else to decide. I am positive we will go racing again though.

Interview: Lewis Phillips | Lead Image: Ray Archer

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