I conducted this interview with Jeremy McWilliams in the lead up to the 2016 Island Classic, and on the eve of the 2018 edition of the event, I thought it pertinent to again publish the more interesting excerpts from the long and wide ranging chat I had with the affable Northern Irishman.
It was conducted as we sat out a storm together at a circuit hidden away in a Thai jungle. The occasion was a KTM launch, thus we start out talking about his long association with the Austrian manufacturer before progressing on to subjects such as his racing career and, of course, the yearly highlight that is the Island Classic.
Trev: How long have you been working with KTM now?
“Ahhh…..since about 2006 or 2007. In 2005 I was supposed to ride GP with them and Roberts. They’d asked me to ride for them, but then Dorna revoked the contract and gave it to Shakey. But I’d kept in contact with KTM all through that period. I was disappointed not to ride for them in the first instance.
“Then in the next year or two, when the RC8 came about, I was invited to the launch of that, and then some set up days for magazine testing. I did the set up work to you know to help the RC8 against the opposition at the time, you know we were doing well with it in those tests. That then developed into brochure work, the launch material and video. Their on-line stuff etc.”
Trev: And now it has morphed into spending time with their tech boffins working on the electronics. Fine tuning the electronics of the traction and ABS systems. And now also developing the set-up of the latest electronic suspension.
“When I started with KTM none of that was available. So as time has moved on, and technology has improved, it seemed logical for KTM to get me involved in it. Because of my racing past. In the traction control and ABS stuff, the MTC etc., it’s always something I wanted to get my teeth into in regards to development with a manufacturer.
“It has been great with KTM. I can’t do everything they do, but I’ve worked with them in various parts of the world, along with Bosch, on the 1190 traction control systems and right through the development process of the 1290 Superduke, and more recently the 1290 Super Adventure where I also helped map the electronic suspension system and its responses.”
Trev: Well you did a good job, KTM have gone from having virtually no electronic aids whatsoever, and even patchy EFI, to leapfrog the entire motorcycle world to be now at the absolute forefront of motorcycle technology when it comes to electronic rider aids.
“That was also to do with a fresh approach from KTM and how they tackled these systems. They realised it just couldn’t be an okay system, it had to be one of the best. It had to be top of the range. As you can tell from riding their current systems, they are pretty much as good as you can get.
“They’re always striving to be better and better and there’s always new ideas in the pipeline, and I hope to see more of that work in the future with the upgrades etc.”
Trev: And you’re still dabbling in some racing, you’re team had some success at the Island Classic last time around. It was quite an emotional win for team U.K., Ryan was a bit overcome. Be interesting to see if Team UK can back it up in 2016.
“Yeah, it was nice for Ryan to win the overall. It was fitting that he won. He’s been supporting us for a number of years and not really been in the individual limelight, so it was very special for him.
“For me it was special to win the team event. In the years gone past it was kind of always swaying towards the Australians. But when the points scoring was reduced to just the five top riders, we took it away from you.
“What would be good is to see a return leg in the U.K. That would be super. We’ll not let that drop, we’ll keep on pushing to see if that can happen. I race now to see if I can see if I can sort of steal a win or a podium. I’ve been lucky to do that in the last few years.
“Obviously I love the Island Classic. But I also love Australia. I love Phillip Island, it’s my favourite track. I try to keep my hand in.”
Trev: And Belfast still home base for you? Or just outside Belfast. You seem to be in Australia so much…you’d near be getting citizenship. Someone mentioned you’d like to move down at some time.
“I would definitely consider moving. I love Australia, it’s a nice way of life, I don’t need to tell you. We love getting down for the Island Classic and every year it’s becoming a longer and longer break. Each year, spending some time with friends in Perth. And ahh..you know there’s definitely some opportunities with the brand there as well, so I’m exploring all opportunities at the minute. But I kinda need to do something more permanent with my life.
“But first things first. I want to work more with KTM and where ever that takes me. It will take me back to Asia again with the race team. But yeah…there’s plenty of nice opportunities which keep me moving around and I’ve got absolutely no worries about travelling around the world at any point. I think I’d miss it if I stopped.”
Trev: Just to wrap up on a few random things, what’s the best moment in your racing career.
“There’s been a few. Winning the 250 GP At Assen rates highly. The pole positions at Phillip Island, there has been three of them. They were pretty good…but you need to back them up….if you can’t get them to the podium it doesn’t make much sense.
“Back in 97/98, riding the private 250, I managed to finish second to Harada, beating Valentino and Capirossi. I probably rate that higher than the race at Assen. It was Sachsenring. It was a private 250 Honda. I qualified fifth or sixth, and finished second. Nearly dumped it on the last lap. Nearly dumped it in front of Valentino. He was having a laugh about that afterwards, I think he was World champion that year. It was nice to do that on a private bike.”
Trev:: And what’s the most special, the one that conjures the most emotion for you in some way or another.
“The third on an Aprilia in Italy. On a twin cylinder Aprilia with the factory in 2000. That was obviously…for them to get a bike on the podium at their home GP…and it was a twin cylinder as opposed to all the fours. They rated that pretty highly, as I did as well……”
Trev: and you loved that bike?
“Yeah…I loved that bike….In some place it just worked….I mean it shouldn’t have really worked at some places….like Mugello….because it was completely outpaced, but it had such a high corner speed and agility on track…….I’ve had lots of great memories….”
Trev: Another highlight or memory that stick out?
“The day Mick Doohan came up to me and said…. I was fourth quickest at Argentina on a very, very stock Yamaha 500. In 1994. And we’d just come from….I’d just had a few words with him in America…at Laguna Seca……I’d got in his way in morning warm up……..And he’d gesticulated as only Mick can do…..and I chased after him and I stood him up…… Right again…and he wasn’t too pleased at that…..and I was kind of expecting him to come and get stuck into me……but he didn’t……..
“Then we went to Argentina…the very first time we’d raced near Bounes Aires. And on the Saturday morning I was fourth quickest. We were walking across a paddocked area….and he was walking towards me….and I thought….oh..hear it comes…he’s going to have a go at me. But, he said to me…You know…”Well done…that’s impressive to do that on that bike”……..,and since then we’ve had a mutual respect. And since then we became more friendly.”
“Little things like that you never care to think about or mention….things that happen……..the fact that I was lying fourth……Sean Emmett had been given the Lucky Strike Suzuki of Darryl Beattie. Darryl had cut his toes off in that bad accident. And it was the battle of the privateers that year…..So I had to beat him as well. He was on the Lucky strike Suzuki and I beat him. I finished in the top ten. That year, it was then that I realised that this is something that I should be doing. I scored six consecutive top ten finishes on that Yamaha.”
Trev: So that Yamaha would look good at home you reckon?
“It would…but it’s not there any longer…. It’s been sold….I’ve seen it on an auction site……..there’s a guy that keeps bringing it to shows…..I keep going back and having a look at it…but it looks quite dated now.”
Trev: and what’s the one you’d most like to set fire to?
“I think you know that one……that Aprilia Cube…….that was really…….that just hurt me day in, day out……every time that I tried to ride that bike….it hurt me……it broke my ribs, or dislocated my collar bone……I struggled on the cube…that was 2004.”
Trev: and your favourite rival?
“Wow….That’s a difficult question.”
Trev:Nowadays your mates with most of the guys, that have been rivals on the track….
“You’re really not that friendly when your in GP’s. You are more friendly now, it seems like you’ve got a lot closer……but I think it would have been……there’s been quite a few that I’ve ended up good friends with them…….Alex Hoffman….Andrew Pitt….I’m good mates with Pitty. Leon Haslam is one of my best friends…I see him quite often. I took him under my wing when he was very young.”
Trev: Who have you come close to decking or who have you taken a swing at?
“Oh plenty…I’ve taken a swing at plenty….back then you were just told not to do it again……..But plenty…I’ve taken a swing at a few of my rivals…….Yeah…I mean poor Hoffmiester…..Hoffman….bore the brunt of it once when he knocked me off……..you do sort of form a bit of a mouth when you’re behind the helmet that you regret after….but I don’t really hold a grudge against anyone any longer. But back then you had to hit the riders you were up against to keep the fire in your belly……”
Trev: 51 years old now?
“Yeah….51 now…..I wish I knew back then what I know now………I’d have been a different person.”
Jeremy McWilliams and other UK stars such as John McGuinness, Ryan Farquhar and Conor Cummins will try to defend their Island Classic International Challenge victory this weekend at Phillip Island. In 2016, the International Challenge will include a team from Ireland for the first time, joining Australia, the UK, New Zealand and America. Each team will have a squad of nine riders but only eight will be able to take to the grid in the four International Challenge races — two on Saturday and the balance on Sunday. For more information on the 2016 Island Classic, including full entry lists and schedule, click here.
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