The Big Stepper: How Ben Watson became Grand Prix’s hottest prospect
In the summer of 2016 Ben Watson was sat at his home in Lambley, Nottingham with his left foot wrapped in plaster. After smashing and breaking the navicular bone and several metatarsals in Argentina early in the season Watson spent months immobile and on crutches. After a debut term in 2015 rife with hard lessons, mechanical trouble and setbacks it was not the platform the teenager and highly rated junior prospect needed. It was a sour and sobering time.
Watson learned to deal with the harshest element of motocross. He was out of sight but not quite forgotten and 2017 supported by Hitachi KTM and some close personal sponsors – together with fleeing moments of top five speed in MX2 Grand Prix – righted the path. By last summer #919 was in Yamaha’s field of vision. Watson filled a nice hole in the company’s strategy for the class and the Kemea Yamaha crew of having riders on three different tiers: a title fighter, a developing talent, and a promising young rookie. Seva Brylyakov was the championship or race-winning hope, Watson was the intermediate and Belgian hotshot Jago Geerts was the YZ250F pilot without pressure for 2018.
Signing that factory-backed deal reoriented Watson’s world. He relocated to Belgium and was surrounded by the assets and means to hike his performance and professionalism up to a higher level. Perhaps most crucially of all he aligned with the team’s coach and trainer and former World Champion Jacky Vimond.
Watson had been hyped from an early age and after exploding into recognition at fifteen years of age with EMX250 race-winning glory and potential had been forced to learn patience. He has only just turned 21.
In MXGP this year arguably no other rider that has shown as much progression. Although he has posted (too?) many fourth positions and peers like Calvin Vlaanderen have also made hay, Watson has excelled in almost every respect: his consistency, his speed (Saturday practice and qualification has witnessed drastic improvement), his race approach and his single-mindedness: just watch his chase of Thomas Kjer Olsen in Portugal or the charge to second place in Indonesia. Kemea have had their plans scrambled somewhat. Watson has turned into the team leader, Brylyakov has sadly succumbed to another injury and Geerts has also picked up a maiden podium trophy as Watson so satisfyingly managed in Russia.
Amidst all the subversion of expectation Watson has devoured opportunities to learn about racing near the front of the pack. The Red Bull KTM duel between Pauls Jonass and Jorge Prado has taken headlines but Watson and co have been trying their hardest to rustle the orange coop. The Brit has certainly been the most regular rider of Japanese machinery in terms of making himself a nuisance among the Austrian-engineered bikes.
At the heart of Watson’s transformation from a burgeoning star on the edge of the MX2 top ten to a Grand Prix winner-in-waiting has been his union with the quiet, astute and immensely knowledgeable Vimond. The Frenchman has lent his perceptive glance on the complexities of the sport and the individual to riders like Sebastian Tortelli and Josh Coppins and tried to coax the best of Benoit Paturel while in his Kemea tenure.
“It is hard for me to find the right words to explain about Ben…but what comes to mind right now is that he is one of the smartest guys I have been able to work with,” Jacky says. “He really shines in the aspect of his mind and learning, and for me it is very interesting to work with guys like that because you can go deeper and look at focus; rather than saying ‘just take this line…’ That’s not the best way to train guys. Ben believes in the process of getting ready for each and every race to take confidence and to get stronger and stronger. It’s nice to work like that and you can see how much he can improve.”
Watson – one of the taller riders in the division among other ‘giants’ like Vlaanderen and Olsen – is quiet, smiley and timid sometimes, and Vimond was surprised by the ‘growth’ of his new charge towards the end of 2017.
“We were watching him and we could see he was a good rider but we didn’t know much more,” he offers. “Last year he’d have some nice races where he did well at the start of the moto but would then drop away. He’d begin in the top six-eight and finish ten-twelve: I thought I would have a lot of work to do with him but as soon as we started with the physical work his body reacted really well and very quickly. It was unusual. His confidence also grew very fast. We still have to make some progress with intensity.”
“There are a lot of good technical riders on the Grand Prix track and it’s only when you really start working with a rider that you start to learn about his potential and how high it can go. I don’t feel that Ben is near his limit; and that’s really nice.”
Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of Watson’s flowering 2018 has been the way he attacks a track and a Grand Prix moto. It is rare to see him losing positions and more often than not the blue machine is the one on the charge. The meek talented kid is now an expressive livewire. His confidence is manifesting itself very visually and Vimond says this is linked to his life in general.
“We need to make him a little but more ‘the leader’,” he opines “and I don’t mean on the track but in the life. Things like not being the last one to arrive at the restaurant but be the first, the one organising the table and the group. I push him to do that. In the beginning it was quite difficult for him. Now he is finding himself more and is then able to show that on the track. I want him to have more of a taste of being at the front and to fight for it. I want to keep to his current rhythm and I have to respect it because he has made a good step. He’s done a good job.”
Vimond is modest about his role. “It has to come from him. All the good qualities as a racer he has inside, and you just have to help them come out. That’s my work. When he’s going upwards then we’re doing a good job.”
“I’ve always known I’ve had the ability but in the last years I’ve always been quite far from being able to show it and achieve something,” Ben admits from the confines of his camper at the Grand Prix of Germany, round eight at Teutschenthal, a small place where we talk as parents finish a BBQ meal outside. “A few times last season I felt I was riding well and close to some of the top guys’ pace but I was very inconsistent. I had weak times in practice and Saturday’s generally.”
“I don’t know if there has been one big thing that has changed because so much around me has; from moving to Belgium, working with Jacky and having full-time practice and race mechanics and being based with the team,” he muses. “I cannot really pinpoint one thing. It has been quite a surprise though, and for the team also! Obviously nobody is complaining! My main goal for the year was to reach the podium and I did that six rounds in. …”
There is getting used to be a factory rider but then having the confidence to take full profit of it…
Yeah, but I think if it was the other way around – starting in a factory team and moving private – then that would take a lot more getting used to. I’m used to doing things by myself and my previous team did everything they could for me but some set-ups just have more support. It did take some adjustment but it was not an environment that felt really strange or alien. There were a lot of details that I was really ready to embrace and it was pretty easy.
Was it mainly about freeing your mind to worry only about aspects of riding?
Sure. After riding now I just go home and relax or I train with Jacky and we talk and think about how I can be better and what we should try working on. Like I said a lot of things have changed but I am definitely enjoying it and find I can achieve more this way.
What’s your take on Jacky and how you work together?
He has made a big difference, because we spend a lot of time together. I wake up and we do either recovery work or training and riding in the afternoon. He’ll tell me the programme and I’ll go and do it-
That’s quite a leap of faith…
I have a lot of trust in him because I have seen how he has worked with other riders previously and obviously he was world champion himself; even if a lot has changed since then. I put all my trust in the team and Jacky and I’m prepared to see where it takes me. Right now it is going good. I felt that positivity from the first weeks in the winter. He’s very good in terms of listening to me. If I say to him I feel I have done too much or maybe not enough then he’ll be cool with that. It is not like we have a strict regime where he says and I do. For sure not. Seva [Brylyakov] is now out but we were working together with him and both really enjoying it. It’s nice to let someone else to plan all the training and all the logistics side! There have been many times where I’ve thought ‘well, that’s completely different for me’-
The amount of riding that I’m doing. Last year it would be once a week during the season and now it can be twice or none at all. It varies all the time. In the winter we did a minimum of four long days of riding a week whereas last year it would have been when the tracks are open in the UK. That’s why moving to Belgium has been so good because the only day the tracks are shut is Monday. Otherwise you can ride until it gets dark. In the UK everything is sessioned. In Belgium we’d ride all day and Jacky was able to section the track and we could pull on and off to work on special places. The winter days were long but I trusted what we were doing.
The move to Belgium was a pretty big deal…
It was a little bit easier than I expected actually because my brother Nathan was living there on his own when he was racing in Grand Prix. He said it was tough. It was hard to relax in the evening because he was on his own and bored. So I expected the worst when I came and obviously had to leave my family and everybody at home; which meant everything that had been done for me before I suddenly had to do by myself. It was a big step in my life and not just my career.
Is there a danger that being in Belgium is too much though? Is it difficult to switch off because you are still in ‘motocross country’?
Yeah, in that way it is hard. If I had a day off in the UK then I’d always do something with the family, my girlfriend or meet my friends. In Belgium I don’t really know anybody apart from the team and a few British guys living there like Shaun Simpson. To be honest though when I do have a day off then I need one and I don’t mind just vegging out and doing nothing. I’m enjoying my life.
Marnicq [Bervoets, Team Manager] said he wanted to see you showing more aggression in your mentality. Do you feel you’ve done that?
A little bit. I think they believed I was too much of a nice guy with my riding. They wanted me to be ‘more of a man’ I guess! And become more aggressive, like you said. I don’t know: I guess that is just in me from the way I have been brought up. I think a few things are changing – and for the better – in that respect.
Is it new ground for you to feel that you should be in the top three and one of the fastest? On Saturdays in 2017 you were a bit of a wimp…!
Saturdays were terrible and I was lucky if I was in the top fifteen and now I’m fighting for the top three all the time. Now when I come in and see the [time] sheets my first reaction is happiness and that is still a weird feeling for me even if it has happened at most rounds. I had my best qualification race result with a second and when I came over the line it felt like it was something new. The team have told me many times “believe in yourself…” and to realise this is where I should be.
Do you feel that level of belief is now 70-30? Is it going up?
I think so. Recently I finished sixth in qualification and I didn’t feel that good about it. But if I go back to the start of the year then I would have been thrilled with that in Argentina. Each weekend I keep producing good form and it’s making me believe more, and now I have a different level of expectation. I know I am better than sixth.
Does success sometimes also mean more frustration then?
Not really, or perhaps it does at the time, but if you stand back and look at progress or how you were performing the previous year then the bigger picture makes you happier.
And that means also looking at darker days like in 2016 where you spent the season on the sofa with a badly broken foot…?
Yeah. Thinking of qualifying sixth and not being that happy is nothing compared to something like 2016. Sometimes I look back at 2017 results compared to what I am doing now, like Arco di Trento I was 15-17 and then this time I was third in practice, fourth in qualification…[trails off]. You stop sometimes to think. The step I’ve made in such a short period of time is satisfying.
Is it also risky having achieved a goal so early in the season? Thomas Kjer Olsen won in Latvia last year and then missed the podium for the rest of the campaign…
Not really, I was quick to set new goals. I have a wider picture to be looking at and working towards every day. The feeling I had when I was on the podium and during the long journey home from Russia was amazing and gives you more drive each weekend to get it again… maybe with your family there.
Talk more about that feeling…
It was such a big goal as a kid. I just wanted to be on the podium – I don’t know why and I didn’t obsess over a win. I always had it in my mind. When I rode over the line in Russia I thought ‘argh, fourth overall again’ but then rode up to the pit wall and the team were going mad, so I just dropped the bike and was dancing around like crazy. It was a lot to take-in and it felt like a lot to do – interviews, podium, press conference – in a short amount of time. It was all a new feeling that I hadn’t had before.
But you’ve won races, beach races and stood in front of people with cups…
Yeah, but I’d rather have one GP podium than having won any other race. It is a world championship and not many people have done it. It means so much more.
Is it too much to think about a final top three position in the world championship?
Last year I was hovering around sixteenth-seventeenth in the championship and then finished fifteenth. I was quite happy with that. I was the fifteenth fastest MX2 guy in the world let’s say. Now I’m currently fourth and everything has changed; all the goals and expectations went away after that first race in Argentina. I surprised myself a lot. So I had to reset and go again.
Do you have bragging rights at the Watson dinner table now?
Yeah! And no…it is really nice to have that sort of thing. I remember travelling with [former teammate] Jake Nicholls last year and I’d had a good race and he’d had a bad one. The team were joking with him and he kinda snapped back saying “how many podiums have you had then Ben?” obviously I was like [sheepishly] “yeah…none”. Getting up there is something you can remember forever. Even this week I was texting Shaun about going to play golf and I went out riding and completely missed his message and didn’t reply until the next day. I apologised but he joked that I thought I was the king now that I was hitting GP podiums! [instantly] I’d never be like that or be big-headed or think I am better than anyone else just because it’s happened now. I’ll just keep it inside and quietly keep working to get a few more for myself.
Photos by Ray Archer @rayarcherphoto