The Smiling Assassin: Pauls Jonass
Two issues ago we looked at the weight of a milestone that Jeremy Seewer was carrying in pursuit of the MX2 World Championship. Rival, series leader and current favourite for that crown – Red Bull KTM’s Pauls Jonass – is also contemplating a major feat. If the twenty year old extends his run of red plates until the end of the season and the remaining six rounds of MXGP then he’ll not only be the very first Latvian to put his name in the annals of the sport but also continue KTM’s immense lineage in the class. The Austrians claimed the first title in MX2 and the four-stroke era in 2004 with Ben Townley and won every year from 2008, except for 2015, with five different riders: the 250 SX-F has been without a doubt the dominant quarter-litre motorcycle, and the rapier starts for both Jonass and impressive teenage teammate Jorge Prado this season have been a major factor in #41’s success.
Jonass, a former 85cc and 125cc Junior World Champion and European 125 number one, has been on the fast track for KTM for quite a while and despite the pressures that victory and expectation brings has managed to foster a gregarious and wonderfully open personality. It is hard to think of another athlete that is so outwardly confident and cheerful and accommodating to the smallest request; whether it’s a signature or an in-depth interview that means his patient father has to sit waiting until the Jonass clan can depart the circuit on a Saturday evening.
Pauls’ ability was clear-cut from the moment he showed up and schooled his 125cc European rivals in 2013 with seven wins from eight. In 2015 and his first term in factory MX2 KTM colours he found himself in a title duel with Tim Gajser that went down to the last moto of the final Grand Prix of the year.
There are some however that believe he’s lucky to be performing at the exceptional peak he has found in 2017 with eleven podiums from thirteen and six wins so far. Talking to Pauls during the early part of 2016 it was clear that his propensity for spectacular crashes (Sweden and Mexico 2015 and Thailand 2016 come to mind) and a reputation as a YouTube ‘star’ was a source of annoyance. Of course the scary get-off descending Loket’s notorious step-down jump in August last year hardly improved things and was the nadir. A concussion would have lasting effects that ended his season. It was a pivotal accident and crucial moment: Jonass has looked a different, more conservative and economical rider since the setback.
The well-publicised link with former Grand Prix winner Marc de Reuver in 2017 (the Dutchman in a mentoring/coaching/pressure alleviating role) has helped Jonass keep the world in check as he automatically assumed the position of team and brand leader in the category with Jeffrey Herlings at last ejecting out of MX2.
Jonass has done everything right so far. He has played a pacey percentage game that has paid off with a margin of almost a full Grand Prix in the standings. The races and laps (he has led 240 of them compared to Seewer’s 56; the next closest) will click down swiftly as the most important seven weeks of Pauls’ life and career lay ahead. A harsh wring of fate would be the only means to throw the Latvian away from his steady trajectory so far and he does not seem the type to mentally crumble when the going gets a little tougher. Motocross has rejected and dumped the dreams of other deserving souls however and Jonass enters Grands Prix in Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, USA, Holland and France with eyes wide open. He has been one of the most outstanding racers in the MXGP show in 2017.
So, a red plate holder since April. Does it feel like a long time you’ve been in control of this thing?
Actually we’ve been racing for a long time because the pre-season events began towards the end of January, and I have been wide-open on the bike since last October so it does feel like a while. Having said that we had two weekends free before the Czech GP and it felt like forever! I was like ‘why do we need a holiday? Let’s race, finish and have some time off!’ I really enjoy being out there and I’m looking forward to these last rounds. We have already done some tough races, like the overseas, and just the USA left. The schedule gets pretty intense from Lommel [this coming weekend].
Be honest now: is it difficult to keep taking things week-by-week? It must be a discipline to do that and not get excited by what could happen, the red plate and the championship points…
After races – say Sunday evening – it is nice to look at those standings and see the points and realise you are doing all that work for something and things are going in the right direction. When you get into the days after a GP then it kinda turns around. You think ‘actually he’s not so far away, it’s only forty points…’ and you know full well – all the time – that anything can happen in this sport and in only one race you can easily lose 25 points like this [clicks fingers]. I can lose many points and I can also gain many in just a few hours. If you think about it like this then it’s not that difficult to go at things week-by-week. If you look at Tony [Cairoli] then he is almost 100 points ahead so I think that is a different story.
Getting that mentality and approach to weekends must be tricky to handle depending on how you feel and what’s going on, Jeremy Seewer said pretty much the same thing…
It helps if you just look at what you are doing and don’t focus on other guys and what they are up to. I’ll go practicing sometimes and turn up to see Jeremy riding as well but I don’t watch him. This approach has worked for me so far so I don’t see the need to change it.
You don’t want to ‘play’?
No, there’s no need. I do my own thing and I have a good team around me, so I don’t play the games. I want to be as good as I can be every weekend and win the championship in the best way.
Well, it is all going to change when we get down to the last GPs and motos and the pressure goes up…
That’s a different story! And yes the last races are something else. But why do we need to start playing now? Let’s go racing, have some good battles and rivalry. The last GPs are different. It could be like Supercross and what happened with Osborne and Savatgy [the former made an aggressive block pass to overtake and win the 250SX East title on the penultimate corner of the season at Las Vegas], that’s for a championship! That’s allowed! Normally you’d get disqualified for something like that but it’s for a title. I think anyone would do anything to win it.
Would you do something similar?
Of course! Are you a winner or not?
What feels better? Leading a championship even though it is not quite won or taking Grand Prix wins and feeling the acclaim at home and within KTM?
Hmm, I think winning for sure. The feeling on the top of the podium is difficult to describe. Leading the championship is only something that exists on paper. OK, you have a red plate and it is nice to see it on the bike and gives that extra motivation-
But it is also more fans, attention, money…
Well, winning a GP is also pretty good for that. I start to feel that people are recognising me a little bit. In Latvia certainly but also now in Belgium and Holland and that motocross ‘centrum’. I go eating somewhere and I can sense the people on the next table nudging each other and saying ‘that’s the motocross rider’. In Latvia it is nice to see people recognising the sport. It was big at one point, decreased a lot but now it is coming back.
I remember being at Kegums for the Nations in 2014 and you were not yet in Grand Prix but there was a lot of fuss around you with TV crews and media attention. I was looking to see if Cairoli was in there somewhere…
Haha! It was only for some goon riders!
Can you imagine what it will be like if you can finish this year off the way you want to?
Yeah….it was already a big thing when I was second in the world championship  because that was something new for Latvia and had never happened before. I don’t want to talk so much about it now!
You seem a confident guy. You don’t hide away from anything or anyone, but you’ve always appeared to need a good support network. First it was Stefan Everts, then Joel Smets and this year you’re working with Marc de Reuver. Is that important for you?
Yeah, it helps so much. My manager is Kristers Serģis [five times FIM Sidecar MX World Champion] and he knows the deal. He doesn’t come to the races so much and I don’t meet with him that often but he is like a mental coach. But I also have Marc and my Dad and it is good to have people like that around me and I can call them any time and find the support I need. I call my manager and he’ll say one thing and it’s like it takes me to the next level.
Ooo, difficult to be specific and explain but we talk normally and he’ll make some comments and when we’re finished I feel like a different guy. He is really calm – like my Dad – and has those little bits of advice and goes pretty deep. Sometimes Marc says nothing…and that kinda works as well!
His character and sense of humour must help take some pressure away…
Of course, it does take it away and it’s nice when you can joke around at the GPs. We have a camper at some events and when we’re inside it doesn’t feel like we’re at the world championship. It feels easy and then we are able to flick the switch and get serious.
What is your weakness? In 2015 people might have said ‘he’s a rookie and not too smart with his decisions’ other people might say ‘that’s the guy with the big crashes’. Is there something where you feel ‘damn, wish I could sort that…’
Every week there is something. Even if I am winning I still feel ‘I could have done that better…’. It is difficult to point at one major weakpoint this year…maybe I’m too careful sometimes? In the past I was too crazy and too wild and now maybe too much the other way. Jeremy made a pass on me in Portugal and it was not clean because there was a bit of contact there and some guys said to me ‘you needed to block him and take him out in the next corner…’ but I think you also have to settle down sometimes. Perhaps he was better that weekend and the next one I’d be faster and would take him back.
On that subject then what makes you mad because you rarely seem to be pissed off…
I don’t know! I wasn’t happy in Portugal actually; that wasn’t the best podium ceremony for me but it was more towards myself. I frustrate myself if I am not doing something right or well. I am always thinking about what I can ‘repair’ or where I can improve. It is always difficult to be happy but then it is not good to always be mad; you need to find the balance. If you are always happy then it will also not work.
What was the low point for you? Was it getting close in 2015? Or maybe this time last year and the crash at Loket that ended 2016 prematurely?
I think losing the title in 2015 to Tim was not a low point because nobody expected me to be on the podium or in the top five in the championship, so to be battling for first and finally be second was pretty good. OK, for sure you are not happy when you lose and it was so close, but also I was pretty happy with second. The crash in the Czech Republic was a low point…but it changed me a lot. I think it was actually good for my career.
A ‘calming down’ effect?
Yes, and I had a lot of time to think about everything. I had a lot of time to fix my head-
Did you worry much in that period? A broken arm might be OK after five-six weeks but a concussion and head injury can be a bit of a mystery…
Actually when you asked me about a ‘low point’ now I have thought of one. After the crash it was Lommel next [Grand Prix of Belgium] and I knew I would not be OK to ride there so I thought ‘that’s alright: the next one is Switzerland’ and I was running, cycling, training and feeling good for that race in Frauenfeld. I went riding on Wednesday for the first time just before that GP and it was like ‘what?! I cannot do it…’ I’d jump and it felt like someone else was on my bike. My head was in another place. My Mum was in Belgium at the time and she saw me head off that morning in a really good mood and come back as a different guy, one who was thinking ‘it’s over…I cannot ride’. When you have pain then you know you cannot ride well…but physically I felt great. So it was hard to deal with. I turned on MXGP.tv that weekend to watch the Swiss race and when I saw the MX2 guys line-up I switched it off and went outside. I should have been there.
You must have had a lot of questions…
Yeah. I went to the neurologist to get checked out and she said ‘two months off the bike’ and it was like a release for me because I was just waiting and waiting and trying the bike but it still wasn’t working. So when she said ‘two months’ I made a click and thought ‘OK, next season…’
Grand Prix continued but you had to walk away…
I went back to Latvia and spent almost a month there. I was still training but then took a one week holiday and went to Turkey by myself
Yeah, I just laid on the beach. I didn’t have Netflix or anything. I read some books-
What did you read?
Ah, just some psychological books, [shyly] it was necessary at that point. It was the turning point for me. People were asking me ‘what are you doing there by yourself?!’ And I said I just needed some time for me. I needed to think about everything and put it in the right place.
Not really. There were some parties going on but I’m not a party guy. I took energy from the sun!
Would you do it again?
Yeah. It did get a bit repetitive after four days but I did the same thing: massage in the morning, pool, ate, and fixed my body and my head.
Pre-season 2017 and everybody was looking at you, Jeremy Seewer and Benoit Paturel for the championship this year. Now it’s August; has the year progressed like you thought it would?
At that time of the year I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like. I was so focussed on what I was doing there-and-then. I won a few pre-season races and I wasn’t over-confident but I went to Qatar and won. I knew I hadn’t ridden a lot and I could improve from what I did in Losail, the season had started but I still didn’t visualise myself being in the position I am now.
You’ve won six GPs this year but the first was in Qatar. Was it the ultimate confidence booster?
I don’t know…because Paturel was always on my rear wheel there. For sure it felt good to win my first GP but he was there all the time.
We spoke about a possible weakness but it seems your strength this year has been consistency and the concentration to be top three every week. Jeremy Seewer must be wondering how to beat you, especially because you are so strong out of the gate as well…
Yeah, the KTM is such a good bike now. We always get good starts and it helps so much. If I look at the championship then the results have been quite consistent – if we take out Indonesia [the Pangkal Pinang circuit was flooded and the GP finally cancelled] – and it is almost like a perfect season with many top three results. That was the goal and to avoid as many big crashes and mistakes as possible.
Aside from Jeffrey Herlings then you have to go back to Marvin Musquin in 2010 as the last rider to stay in MX2 and defend a title. If things go well then you’ll stick around in 2018?
If you look at MXGP at the moment then it’s clear I still need to grow a lot to battle with the guys there. I’m sure I need another year in MX2 and with the 250. In the winter I might ride a little bit with the 350 or 450 to get used to it because we all saw how Jeffrey needed to adapt. He had been on a 250 for so long and, well, the 450 is different and MXGP is a different class where you need to be so strong and smart to race there.
So the goal towards 2018 is to take the ‘4’ away from the 41?
That would be cool!
Would you run a #1?
[hesitantly] Yeah, why not! I remember Valentina [Ragni, Team Co-ordinator] asked me after 2015 if I wanted to change my number to a ‘2’ for 2016 and I said ‘what?! I’ll only change for a 1!’. I think it is pretty cool to see a ‘1’ on the bike. But we are talking too much now!
Lastly, as you say anything can happen in MX, but 2017 has been a great year for your career so how will it feel to get to the off-season and can you imagine taking it all in?
While fishing in my local lake? When it was my home GP I remember being back there and two-three hours every evening just heading over there to fish. [thinks] I don’t know why motorcycle racers have to do a ‘boring’ activity away from the track. I don’t like golf…but I think it is to do with adrenaline and just letting your body calm down a little bit. I like doing some crazy things – like snowboarding – but this also carries a risk.
Photos by Ray Archer