MX Vice’s Top 50 Riders of the 1980s (By The Numbers) continues with its second straight British rider, who is probably one of the least famous of our racers from that time, 30 to 40 years later. Despite that, his talent should not be underestimated, nor should his accomplishents.
Words: Ben Rumbold | Images: Jack Burnicle
As our top 50 Riders of the 80s list is “By The Numbers” and those numbers are based on race wins, most readers will correctly guess the highest-placed British rider, and there will be no surprises when his name appears.
What might surprise you is who won the second-most number of GPs from any Brits in the 1980s – a good friend of our number one, by the name of Jeremy Whatley. The man called “Jem” challenged for world championship honours in his early 20s as well as dominating the domestic scene in the 250cc class. As a teenager he was dubbed “the new Neil Hudson”, and whilst he never got that FIM Gold medal he did ultimately take the British Open Class title later in his career, just as Nellie did.
Born: November 1962
Years Professionally Raced: 1982-1995 (250cc GPs 1982-84 & 86-90, 500cc GPs 1985 & 91-95)
Machines Raced: Suzuki, Kawasaki, Cagiva, Yamaha, Honda, KTM
GP Wins: 5 GP Podiums: 19 GP Moto Wins: 8 GP Moto Podiums: 33
Nations Selections: 8 – Member of MX des Nations 2nd-placed team 1986
Championship Medals: 1 Bronze – 1984 250cc World Championship
Hailing from similar Hampshire territory to Graham Noyce, he won everything in the fledgling schoolboy scene of the late 70s and early 80s, before making his GP debut at Hawkstone Park in 1982 aged just 19. In a GP won by ultimate champion Danny LaPorte, Whatley impressed by scoring a point, back when you had to finish 10th to do so!
This raw talent saw him onto the Nations team for both the 250cc and 500cc events in September. They needed 4-man teams then and Whatley joined previous World Champions Noyce & Hudson as well as fellow teenage prospect Dave Thorpe in challenging the reigning champs from the USA. These events were the ones dominated by Danny Chandler as the Americans cleaned-up in a far more dominant win than their maiden successes the previous year. In the first moto of the Trophee event at Gaildorf however, the teenage Brits were 2nd & 3rd behind Magoo! Directly behind Jem were such names as Harry Everts and Johnny O’Mara! He was ultimately our best overall finisher in 7th, and matched that performance a week later, even on the fire-breathing yellow 500!
Jem never had the physical size of someone like Thorpe or Hakan Carlqvist, but he matched that 7th overall at the 1983 MXdN as well, and although his best results all came on a 250, there is that feeling that he could have done well on a 500 had he managed to get a ride in that class earlier in his career.
Confidence buoyed from his good showing in the Nations events, Whatley attacked his first full season of GPs in 1983, still on a quality Suzuki machine, and just missed out on the podium with 4th overall at the Spanish opener at Sabadell. He scored points sporadically through the year, cracking the top three in a moto for the first time at Beuern in West Germany, but there was better to come! Still yet to celebrate his 21st birthday, Jem took a breakthrough first GP moto win in the 2nd race at Frauenfeld in Switzerland, earning 3rd in the GP behind German Rolf Dieffenbach and fellow Suzuki man Georges Jobe, who also clinched his 2nd world title that day.
1984 was the year that Whatley truly got amongst the best in the world. The old guard of Jobe and LaPorte had moved on and the 250 GPs were disputed amongst rising stars Heinz Kinigadner, Jacky Vimond, and Gert-Jan Van Doorn. Earning 2nd overall at both rounds 2 & 3, he went into the fifth round, the British GP at Newbury, lying 4th in the series. A healthy crowd witnessed a rare moment in 250 GPs when two Brits led the pack throughout, with Whatley leading a 19-year-old Andy Nicholls! Amazingly the Kawasaki kid took the win from Jem and they finished 1-2 in that first moto, and it was Andy’s only GP points score of the year! The second moto saw Jorgen Nilsson win from Jacky Martens – they’d clash heavily for a 500 title 9 years later – with Jem in 4th to seal a brilliant home GP overall win! This left him 2nd in points to Kinigadner, a position he would keep until the last two rounds. A moto win at Bielstein in West Germany, and the overall win with two 2nds at Nismes in Belgium weren’t enough to hold off Jacky Vimond for 2nd, especially as Jem scored no points at all in three of the last five GPs! Even so, he would celebrate his 22nd birthday as the owner of a bronze medal for 3rd in the world.
One nice little quirk to those GP-winning days, the first of Jem’s career, was that his good mate Thorpey also won his first two GPs on those very same days! Whilst Whatley won in Newbury, so DT was winning in Sweden. And on that memorable day when David swept both motos at Hawkstone Park in late July, he got the phone call that Whatley had also won in Belgium! It had been three years since Brits had challenged at the top of both championships, but as 1985 hove into view, Whatley decided he would forego the #3 plate for a crack at Thorpey and the 500cc class.
The deal for ’85 was a strange one – organised by Dave Grant in a private team which secured support from Kawasaki for Jem and self-exiled US superstar Danny Chandler! Chandler got in trouble with Kawasaki so Grant had to get help from KTM instead, although Whatley remained in green. It all started really well with 3rd in each of the first three motos, giving Jem 3rd overall at the Austrian opener behind the mighty HRC Hondas of Thorpe and winner Andre Malherbe. The following week at Thouars in France saw him 3rd in the opening race behind Malherbe and winner Chandler. The season went downhill for Whatley though, faster than Chandler himself did at that French track! Only scoring points again in Finland and Spain, he broke his wrist and had to write off the second half of his 500cc campaign. He did come back at the end of the year to pinch his 3rd British 250cc title from Dave Watson at a dramatic final round at Hawkstone!
Back to the 250 class it was for 1986 and, still only 23, Jem picked up a ride on the rapid Cagiva machine, with the Italian marque aiming at adding quarter-litre success to its amazing 125cc title win in ’85. He had to recover from a broken collarbone sustained at the Hawkstone British Championship opener, which made him miss the opening two GPs. However, he got back to form to take his first and only double moto maximum at round 5, among the glorious hillsides of the Sverepec circuit in Czechoslovakia. Jem followed that up two weeks later with a loudly-cheered second moto win at Farleigh Castle, although he lost the overall verdict to ultimate champion Vimond. He was 2nd again to Vimond in Switzerland, but sadly for Jem a double moto win for Van Doorn denied the Brit a second bronze medal and he ended 4th for the year.
There is a great story from the end of 1986, where Whatley travelled to Luxembourg to cheer on DT in the final-round showdown to retain his 500cc world crown. Thorpe was struggling in practise and Whatley could see it, so he leapt over the fence to give some vital instruction to his World Champion buddy! On Sunday, Jem’s advice was heeded and in using one of his lines, Thorpey passed a floundering Andre Malherbe to take the vital first race win that helped clinch title number 2!
After missing out on a Nations selection for the first time in 1985, Jem had earned his place on the team alongside Thorpe for the glorious 1986 event at Maggiora. By the way, how many times does this event get mentioned in this series?! It’s like EVERYONE was there! And Whatley more than held his own with solid 4-3 motos to back up team leader Thorpey as the 3rd 250cc rider overall. Only Ricky Johnson and home hero Michele Rinaldi were in front of him on 250s, and the Brits were 2nd on the day to the God-like performance from Team USA.
Unable to agree terms for a second season on the Cagiva, Jem returned to the familiar yellow of Suzuki for 1987, but it was to be a very disappointing season. The bike was bog standard, nowhere near as competitive as before, and only guest-riding Bob Hannah won a moto on one all year! Injury deterred Jem from travelling to the USA for round 9 and his season was done from there, although he did win his 4th 250cc British title and the Weston Beach Race!
The 1988 Suzuki, with help from their US star Johnny O’Mara, was much improved and immediately the Brit was back on the pace, winning the first GP from new 125cc Champ John Van Den Berk, and recording a top three moto finish in each of the first five rounds! 3rd overall at Czecho and another popular moto win on home soil, this time at a very soggy Frome in Somerset, saw Jem 2nd in the series, within 20 points of Van Den Berk with some strong circuits coming up for him!
Unbelievably for a title contender, Whatley failed to qualify at the Belgian GP after a sudden downpour hit the grassy circuit before he could set a good time! Fellow Brit Rob Herring took that GP overall which limited the damage, but Whatley’s title challenge looked over. He clawed his way back to 2nd in points again by the end of round 9 at Unadilla, but then a slow-motion fall whilst practising at his local Matchams Park circuit broke his leg, and ruled him out of the last three rounds in South America and Sweden. 5th in the championship was scant reward for his speed and the consistency which he had started to find, and Jem was never quite a contender again for a world title.
It looked like he might be the following year, however, as he opened the 1989 campaign with a stunning GP win at the classic Swiss circuit of Payerne, topping an all-Suzuki overall podium alongside new teammate Herring and Italian Michele Fanton. It turned out to be his last ever GP win, and 250 GP podium as well, as he slipped to 11th in the series that was dominated by Jean-Michel Bayle. If you search for Jeremy Whatley online, you may come across a horrendous video from the 1989 Czecho GP, that I seriously wouldn’t advise watching. Jem himself can’t watch it, and there’s no wonder why as it shows him on the floor, seemingly lifeless after a crash down a massively steep downhill, with bikes racing just inches past either side of him, and worse still a bunch of spectators trying to drag him off the track while he is still unconscious. His shoulder was dislocated in their efforts to move him, and it is shocking that this lack of professional medical help was still prevalent at GP level in 1989.
He endured an awful 1990, with his Mitsui Yamaha maintained by rookie mechanic Steve Dixon, but he rarely cracked the top ten at world level. So Jeremy opted for a change of scene and moved to a big 500 full-time at the age of 28 for 1991.
He had something of a career renaissance on the Action Workshop Kawasaki, finally clinching the Open Class British crown despite another wrist injury, and even finishing 2nd overall to ol’ mate Thorpey at the German GP on the bone-hard blue-groove of Reutlingen.
The Action Workshop team picked up ex-HRC Honda machines from Eric Geboers, and Johnson sponsorship from new signing Billy Liles, for 1992. In the words of team manager Julian Clarke, “he was brilliant on the stock Kawasaki, but with the new bikes he felt the pressure and his head went.” Three GP podiums, including a solid day at Hawkstone Park behind Liles and Jobe, were the last of his career, and he finished the year 9th in the standings.
On a private KTM in 1993, he again got 9th for the year through sheer consistency rather than speed, and finally called it time in 1995. A brilliant mechanic and engineer in his own right, he actually worked with the Crescent Suzuki BSB squad after his racing retirement, and also their World Endurance team as crew chief.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Whatley feature without mentioning the chip off the old block. Jeremy’s son Kristian took the MX1 British title in 2013, making the family only the second one ever to feature father-and-son British Champions, after John and Mark Banks. Kristian never went to GP level, mainly due to the lack of financial incentive in 21st Century MXGP. But his father was one of our very best in the 1980s and slots in nicely at number 45 in our list of the 50 Best… By The Numbers!
Like Rob Herring, Jem’s numbers are seriously harmed by injuries that led to him missing many chunks of several GP seasons. From the 7 full years he competed in, plus his wild card debut at Hawkstone in 1982, there were 83 GPs in total. His 5 wins over 6 of those years could easily have been added to without the injuries that ruled him out of at least ten of them. As with many European riders, the 8 Nations selections, whilst including some great results, brought no wins to help his percentage that counts to make this list. Whatley won 6% of the 250cc GPs held during his career, and more actual top-level races than any Brit apart from Dave Thorpe. He was a real talent.
Next week we feature our first rider from that mighty Motocross nation of Belgium, who flew under the radar of his many illustrious countrymen but still made his mark on the decade!
GPs counted: 83 – 5 Wins
Nations Events: 8 – 0 Individual Wins
Total: 91 Events, 5 Wins, Winning Percentage 5.5
Season By Season:
Year Class Record Champ Position Nations Individual Finish
1982: 250cc GPs 1 round, 0 wins 46th 7th MXdN & 7th Trophee dN
1983: 250cc GPs 11 rounds, 0 wins 9th 7th MXdN & 9th Trophee dN
1984: 250cc GPs 12 rounds, 2 wins 3rd 9th MXdN & 18th Trophee dN
1985: 500cc GPs 12 rounds, 0 wins 13th —
1986: 250cc GPs 12 rounds, 1 win 4th MXdN, 3rd 250cc Class
1987: 250cc GPs 12 rounds, 0 wins 16th —
1988: 250cc GPs 12 rounds, 1 win 5th —
1989: 250cc GPs 11 rounds, 1 win 11th MXdN, 10th 250cc Class