Interview: KTM maestro Harry Norton – Part One

Engaging, thoughtful and hugely driven to succeed, our exclusive interview with two-time MX2 World Champion mechanic for Tom Vialle and new KTM technical coordinator, Harry Norton, is bursting with insight on a range of topics.

Part one of our chat focuses on areas such as his incredible success and relationship with Vialle, his new role working alongside Antonio Cairoli, his captivating journey from Australia to get where he is today and how the new season is shaping up for Liam Everts, Andrea Adamo and Sacha Coenen.

We also hear about Jeffrey Herlings, the incredible environment for success at KTM and how they manage the weight of expectation and pressure on the riders.

Edward Stratmann: Firstly, congratulations on winning your second MX2 World title with Tom. How did the season pan out from your perspective and how did you handle that epic finale with the Jago Geerts crash? That would’ve been a crazy moment.

Harry Norton: It was tough from the start, as Tom was really injured in the offseason so we didn’t get a proper chance to put in that base work that you really need. Obviously we had the new bike so we didn’t get a chance to test so much, so for sure we started the season a little bit on the back foot. But as the season went on, we improved the bike a lot and Tom also got fitter and stronger again.

It was a crazy year man. And that final. So in Sweden we were quite a few points down, so then Tom won that first moto and then I think the second moto Geerts won – so they left with having taken the same points. In Finland, he had a really good weekend. In France, he had a really good weekend and then we went to Turkey and it was practically even. So it was like winner takes all.

For me, this is where Tom is just really strong. Mentally, he’s a really strong young kid. When they crashed into each other, my bloody heart stopped mate. Honestly, all weekend Tom was calm, like in 2020 when we won the championship and he got docked cause he stopped on his qualification lap so had to start with the last gate pick. But these things don’t faze him.

He’s so mentally strong and even on race day on that championship day, you wouldn’t have known that it was. There was more tension in everyone around, but Tom was normal. He’s a good kid.

ES: On top of Tom being such a gifted rider and having such amazing mental fortitude, what also made you two such a good combination working together?

HN: I think you know, between myself and the group, the team we have around. We really don’t get too (stressed), we keep it light. We’ve been in that situation a few times luckily so you know we always keep it fun and keep it as light as possible.

Everybody on the team knows their job, they know what to do. You don’t need to talk about the fact that it’s championship day or there’s all this pressure. Everyone knows it’s there. It’s just everyone doing their jobs – business as usual.

ES: Obviously with this environment and how you deal with the pressure, this should hold Tom in good stead to be successful in America and you for your new job as technical coordinator. How do you see the future for Tom and yourself?

HN: I was there with Tom for his first week in the US, for the first days of riding supercross and for the first little bit of testing. I think he’ll do really well. I think it’ll take him a while to really race supercross, but he’s got such natural talent. He’s got a good head on him. I think with time, he’s going to be really successful.

ES: What about your new role?

HN: So next year, Tony Cairoli is the team manager and I will be the technical coordinator. So I look after all the technical aspects of Red Bull KTM. It’s a really cool step for me mate. It’s a hell of an opportunity, very thankful that KTM gave me the trust to pursue something like that. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be a hell of a challenge but one I’m really looking forward to.

ES: They were obviously really impressed with your work ethic and dedication, which is essentially what earned you that initial job as a mechanic in Europe after working your way through in KTM Australia. Can you explain how the journey has been for you so far as you’ve gone from strength to strength?

HN: It’s all been pretty natural, but there’s been a couple of key people that have really helped me otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible – like Rob Twyerould from KTM. I worked in a KTM dealer as an apprentice and then he helped me get a job with KTM on the factory team in Australia. Then I did three years with the Enduro team. From there, you build your contacts and I got to do some really cool events with KTM around the world and throughout Australia. And then I was ready to go. I was ready to travel the world to see what else was next.

I approached Rob and said “do you know anyone who has any jobs going?” Luckily he’s good friends with Dirk Gruebel, who’s the ex-team manager but a guy who’s still heavily involved in our team. He said “yeah we’ll take a shot on an Aussie kid.” That was that – four years ago now.

My first GP in Europe was also Tom’s first GP so it was really cool to start Tom’s life with Red Bull KTM and mine at the same time. We were together for the next four years, so that was a really cool time.

ES: That’s great to see all the hard work both Tom and you put in has certainly paid off.

HN: Yeah, his family man, they’re the best. The last four years have been really tough for our team. Last year we lost Rene (Hofer) in an avalanche. So that was a huge blow. And then Jeffrey’s (Herlings) had some pretty serious injuries the last couple of years although he obviously won the championship in 2021.

We have a really cool team man, a really strong group. We have a lot of new for 2023, but I think we can still have that core as our strength, so 2023 should still be a good year.

ES: Having learnt so much and with the team being so outgoing and happy imparting their knowledge onto you, this clearly makes for a winning environment and recipe for success. This new role sounds like a great step in your personal development, is this how you feel about it?

HN: For sure, and that’s the great part about KTM. Yeah, I’m the technical coordinator of our team, but the people that I have around me in Tony and the company and Dirk, the manager from before, are all helping me. Our team coordinator, Valentina, she’s been there for 20 years, so she knows everything. Within the company, there’s ex-mechanics and people that have been going to the races for our team in different roles – whether that’s mapping guys, our suspension guys or engine guys – for many years. So I have all this support network around me so it’s a pretty cool position to be in.

ES: Sounds like this is pretty much the dream job for you working at KTM.

HN: I always had the dream to work for KTM. I had a photo of this team on my wall when I was like eight years old. It was like one of those dreams that you think are like (impossible). I come from a really small town in South Australia and it’s crazy to think about travelling overseas. And then to live overseas, to work for a team of this calibre then to get to be involved in the real day to day workings and the decision making of the team is still mind blowing to me. I want to continue this, this style of work I really enjoy.

ES: You would be pretty excited having Liam Everts, Andrea Adama and Sacha Coenen in the team this year alongside Herlings. What are your expectations for them in 2023 from your perspective?

HN: I think it’s always best for these younger kids to keep it really simple. Focus on developing themselves and keeping a real close focus on themselves and not so much worrying about everything else around. Really working on building their strengths and addressing any weaknesses. Definitely going towards that goal of always top five but being realistic about where they’re at.

For all the guys, it’s just a matter of managing expectations and trying to handle the pressure. There’s a lot of pressure that comes with the name Red Bull KTM as soon as you step into our team. So managing that expectation and managing that pressure and making sure they can focus on giving their best every time. The team will provide everything they need, it’s just a matter of them being able to put that stuff on the side and focus on riding the bikes, which is what they’re good at.

The people we have involved you know, Joel Smets is the trainer of Andrea and Sacha, and Stefan is working with his son Liam. Then we have Tony Cairoli as our team manager so it’s pretty amazing the amount of experience we have in our group. We’ve got Tony with nine world championships, Stefan with 10 and Joel with five. That’s an insane group of people to go out and lead these young kids.

Everyone leans on each other, everyone helps each other. It’s pretty cool man and for myself as a fan of the sport, it’s pretty cool mate.

ES: How’s working with Sacha, and his brother Lucas, who’s on Husqvarna but who you’d obviously still have a great insight on how he’s going? How impressed have you been and how bright do you see their futures as they’re definitely incredible talents?

HN: They definitely have bright futures that’s for sure. They’re very young, they’re very fast. They’re going to be impressive for sure. Like I said before, the biggest thing is going to be managing expectations and making sure that they are calm.

Any of these young kids you know, when they get up to MX2 and they ride for Red Bull KTM etc, it’s just keeping everyone calm. You know, if they get injured, it’s not good for anybody. I think that’s the biggest goal. Ride how we know you guys can ride and stay off the ground and then let the results be what they will be for the first little bit and then as we go through the year, chase some more goals and look at where we’re at.

ES: This patient, measured approach that minimises the pressure, is a smart, proven way to work, especially with the young riders. So you appear to have them sorted for 2023?

HN: Every rider is at a different point so everything is very personal and you need to really look at where they’re at and be honest about it. So we have Jeffrey Herlings in the team, so the expectations of Herlings to Sacha Coenen can’t be compared. They’re two completely different things. You always keep that in mind and be open about it. We have such a strong group of experience like Joel Smets, Stefan and everyone around so there’s a lot of understanding about the process of what works and what doesn’t.

Stay tuned for part two with the Aussie that will be released shortly, which contains plenty of Herlings chat, stories on Vialle and much more.

MX Vice | Editor