The process, excitement and danger of a race start with Jeremy Seewer

“It is instinct: split second timing and feeling that can be the difference between winning and losing” Monster Energy Yamaha’s Jeremy Seewer explained a MXGP race start

 

The first few seconds of a motocross Grand Prix are exciting, tense, nervy, crucial and perilous. The explosion of engine torque and noise draws a line of 30-odd 100kg motorcycle together, sometimes separated by mere centimetres and into what is often a tight first corner that filter out the bold from the bravado, the fortunate from the fallers and the lucky ones from the losers. The rasping din of the bikes rapidly eases into a quiet ‘whoosh’ as the racers come off-throttle and then wind-on the power hard again in a crescendo of volume on corner-exit: the race is on.

 

For fans, cameras and teams a race start is one of the most thrilling parts of an MXGP moto. The Pole Position holder from Qualification on Saturday may have the first choice of slots in the metal-floored gate and the process itself looks fairly rudimentary (engage gear, depress start suspension device, hit launch control and wait for the metal to drop) but riders dedicate a lot of time, technique and practice to the art. It also influences bike set-up. The investment is worth it. On some of the FIM World Championship’s older and tighter circuits the parity between the very top teams, machinery and athletes means the metres and clear track earned through a ‘holeshot’ is a very valuable (and safer) commodity.

 

Most of the seasoned Pros in MXGP will know well the feeling of being ‘ramped’ by a treaded tyre, hit by a footpeg or having a section of their anatomy swallowed by a part of another motorcycle. For several years the FIM have made chest and back protectors obligatory in Grand Prix to protect against such scrapes and circumstances: simply put, a start is not where you want to crash or tangle with a rival (even though it is an extremely common occurrence and, luckily for the most part, without serious repercussions). In MXGP riders will make almost sixty race starts on average a season, taking into account the two motos per Grand Prix and Saturday shorter Qualification Heat sprint.

 

To gain more insight into the thinking and methodology of this essential component of the sport we asked Monster Energy Yamaha’s factory rider Jeremy Seewer to provide more details… 

 

The sighting lap is when the ritual kicks-in…

In MXGP, where the timing is so precise – to the minute or even the second – the process for the start begins from the sighting lap. All the same moves and same rituals go into place from that first slow look at the track and a check of the lines and how things look after the MX2 race. When we get back from the sighting lap most of the riders, normally myself included, go to the toilet again! There are always units behind the gate and sometimes there is a queue! By the time you are back to the bike there is usually just a minute to go, so a few last words with the mechanic. He has a headset and is connected to the rest of the team that might be at different points on the track so that could also be the moment for a final tip or piece of advice. You prepare your goggle, check it again, then hit the start button. You make sure everything is ready and you try to be clear in your mind and put the full focus on that moment.

 

Everyone is different in that time before the sighting lap. Some talk, some don’t and the gate is a busy area…

I’m quite relaxed but I’m also focussed. I’m not going to be acting weird or making jokes but I can talk to others. It is strange because you also don’t want too much involvement with other people at that time. Before the sighting lap is probably the most relaxed moment, and doing things like TV interviews is part of it an absolutely fine. You might chat with a friend or another rider and in the past we used to take time to prepare the ground in the gate slot we had chosen, of course there is no need for that now with the metal floor mesh.

 

In the gate itself you have to stay calm, you might need to wait…

If you have qualified well and are one of the first riders in then you have to sit there as the rest of the gate takes their positions. In that moment you go through your marks and what is key for you; that might be 3-4 difficult points on the track. You go through the lap again in your mind and the line you want to use to be as prepared as possible. I started using a small block for my foot. At first we were told it wouldn’t be allowed on the metal mesh but I spoke up for the smaller guys! When the gate was dirt we could build a small ramp or something to help. So we needed something different. You’ll see riders moving and shaking, checking gloves and other little habits. I always do the same kind of stretching. I don’t know why! It’s just a ritual. It kinda helps to remind the body ‘it’s that time again…’ If you do the same movements then it is like a ‘snap’ for the body and your state to get set for the race. I always do the same things but it is nothing too crazy or exhibitive. I won’t be revving the bike too much or being too nervous. I’ll be zoning down everything I have and what I am towards getting out of that gate as quickly as possible.

 

What’s going on with the bike? A few buttons…

The start button on the front forks that compresses the suspension and locks the bike down until we are going is quite an important thing; especially these days with the metal mesh flooring. We are getting lower and lower on the bike because there is a lot of traction. There is also a button on the handlebar that we’ll activate to set the electronics especially for the start with a different engine mapping. I don’t know too much detail actually but I know it switches the power delivery to help with the perfect start. We have a rev light indicator on the front of the bike to let me know where I have the throttle set but I tend to go more by feeling: we do so many practice starts that by now plus-or-minus 2-300 RPM is more or less the same.

 

It can be all about reaction time…

The difference between the gate dropping and something like a traffic light changing is that you know the gate will always fall between five-six seconds. It won’t be eight or nine. When the 15 second board goes down I’m still relaxed. We get set; I count to three and move my body into position to go. The one or two seconds left are the important ones and you need to be ready with your reaction: if that gate moves you need to get out of it. I’m always in second gear and then what happens next depends on the soil you hit. In sand you always get a lot of wheelspin so you can move your body back because you need more pressure on the rear and then shift gears pretty quickly. Somewhere like Matterley Basin has a downhill start and the ground is quite tacky, so if you lent back there then you’d just be doing a wheelie or having to pull on the clutch and you lose drive. It’s an instinct thing, and it changes from GP to GP because of the different conditions. Even the gates can be different: there might be a slight gap between the mesh and the dirt or a lip that bounces you upwards. It is all about reaction and body movement. You can practice for any situation but the real start – and when it counts – can be about that split-second movement and feeling.

 

Do we practice, practice, practice…?

It can depend. If you are struggling with them then you’ll do a lot but if you know your starts are good and you are mentally strong then you don’t need so many. I remember in Sardinia during pre-season testing I did something like 50 in one week – a lot – but I did very few between the first Grand Prix in Argentina and the British Grand Prix, where I took the holeshot in the Qualification Heat.

 

We don’t know right away if we’ve made the holeshot…

I think you have to wait a bit to see if you have made a good one, there are too many factors involved to know if you’ve done it or not. The jump out of the gate is the most important and you quickly realise if it is good; sometimes you get an inkling that it will be a holeshot. The truth is that with the mesh these days we are all in one level row after few metres. You need to make the difference as you build speed; it’s difficult to say how! Your position, balance and movements are all instinct. I had to change my style a bit for the 450 coming out of MX2 because there is more power.

 

It is dangerous?

It can be, especially in the MXGP class where we all know that the first corner is where you can win or lose a race because it can be so hard to pass on some tracks. There is a lot of elbowing and it can be dangerous rushing into a fast first turn when there might be twenty riders coming together into one point. You know it is risky, but you also know it is an essential part of the sport: that’s why you have to do everything to try and be there first. If you are outside the top ten then you can see some scary stuff and incidents that are out of your control. You have to be smart to read everything around you because there might be ten things happening at the same time and at high speed.

 

A start is exciting but…

I think a big jump or somewhere you can throw a big whip is still one of the best feelings in motocross. The exhilaration of the start comes when you get it right and it feeds into a good result. There is a lot of pressure on this single moment and if you handle it well then you just feel ‘free’ to make it to the first corner. If you ‘miss’ the start or you are deep in the pack then it is frustrating and you know you will have a lot of work ahead.