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Romain Febvre at the 2017 Grand Prix of Lombardia
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Digging out: How MXGP World Champion Romain Febvre pulled away from a crisis

Aug 232017

It had all been going so swimmingly for MXGP star Romain Febvre. In 2015 the Frenchman blasted MXGP, and became the first rookie champion and the first for Yamaha since 2009. His attacking speed and confidence caught the division by surprise and the Belgium resident carried on the momentum during the first phase of 2016 as he filled the role as the only challenger to the equally lively Tim Gasjer. The ’16 Motocross of Nations was claimed again for the three-man tricolour squad with Romain again in the team.

2017 has been a mystery however. Monster Energy Yamaha’s flagship signing was misfiring and groping in the dark, fumbling for results, feeling and a search for a cure to the podium-less streak in arguably the toughest field seen in MXGP this century. #461’s predicament of slipping from MXGP leader to top ten-middler was a classic case of confidence-crisis and an athlete losing his way and trying a myriad of solutions to rediscover the mojo. Therefore there were few bigger smiles on the MXGP rostrum this year at the recent Grand Prix of Sweden where Febvre finally broke through the malaise and grabbed his first trophy in a year and first moto victory in fourteen months. The toil behind the scenes had been rewarded and spoils eagerly savoured.

Sitting down to interview the popular but often stern racer was a delicate matter. It is fairly obvious that he has faced a singular line of enquiry since the launch of the FIM World Championship in Qatar: what went wrong? Mindful of the fact that it is a riddle the racer has himself puzzled over together with his team as well as dealing with the interest and sympathy of fans; chatting with Romain is also like also being aware of an elephant sitting too comfortably in the corner of the Yamaha awning. Searching for a subject other than his struggles in 2017 and how he is trying to become the principal blue blur of MXGP again feels like skirting around the issue. Sweden proved that the end is in sight however so we wondered if he might be able to dissect the method of ‘the comeback’…

 

"I don't tend to spend much time or attention on all the people questioning aspects of what I am doing."

You must have become pretty tired of everyone’s questions and concerns this year…

Yeah! But it’s normal. Everyone knew I won the championship and then everything was good last year until my crash and then the end of the season was good again. So for sure this year has not been easy. I don't tend to spend much time or attention on all the people questioning aspects of what I am doing. It is normal that people see I am struggling and want to know why. Even if you do everything well then you’ll still have people examining what you do. I don't really care.

What about the process of turning things around? How do you find confidence and form again? Is it done in your head? In the gym? With the team?

Mentally, when you feel good in practice then it transfers across. When I’m comfortable in practice then I know I’m OK. It is just a matter of time. This winter I was really good and managed to follow my plan exactly as I wanted. Then the early crash I had at a pre-season race in Italy gave me a painful neck and it took some time to heal from that. I didn't lose my confidence but I did step back a little bit and rode a bit slower. The season started quickly and we saw during those first motos that I was struggling with the bike and without that crash in Italy maybe we would have seen that before and in the Italian Championship races. The situation was more about my neck and how I felt on the bike rather than just the bike itself. We took a while to trace the cause of the problem [that he couldn't feel comfortable] and now it is time to move on from that and to be better next time.

Do you ever feel you were going around in a circle?

Sure. It was almost like that from the beginning. I was looking at myself and searching for the problem but it wasn't really there. In that process I changed my training and a few other things in practice and racing and didn't see any difference; it was probably even a bit worse every time! I was scared to make a mistake and lose the good parts I had in the package. So we had to really look around…but when we changed the bike from the German Grand Prix we found a lot of improvement. In the end it was an alteration we needed to make on the bike from something I had brought around initially. It was a big learning experience. I think we are already now looking forward to 2018 and we are working with Michele [Rinaldi, Team Principal] on the project to develop it correctly and try not to make the same mistake.

"I think most of us in the class are improving every year. I ‘jumped on the train’ later than the others this year."

You started so well and so hot in MXGP so was this almost like a reality check? To learn more about development as a factory rider?

Yeah, it is difficult to see it like this though. ’15 was a special year and in ’16 I could have been world champion again if it wasn't for the crash. For sure life is much easier when you have a lot of confidence and you felt great on the bike and I had that for two years. We were always starting at the front of motos and we were nearly top five every time. I could see that at every GP I could be one of the fastest and it all came together. We were ‘off’ from the beginning of this season and I missed the speed. Everything gets complicated when that happens. 2017 has been a bad year, even if it is not finished yet! We have done more testing and we keep working. The goal has been to find something that works for the start and also the riding.

Thinking of some bright spots of your riding in MXGP like passing Cooper Webb on the outside of one of the Glen Helen hills or winning so effortlessly at Ernee for the Motocross of Nations: are you still operating at that level this year? Is it just that people are not seeing it so much?

It is difficult out there. I think most of us in the class are improving every year. I ‘jumped on the train’ later than the others this year. Not in terms of technique but I was slowing down in the motos and dropping off while the others were pushing on and getting faster and better. I was in the opposite direction. We used the old bike in some races and I felt an improvement but then I personally had to catch-up because the level of performance is not going to hit a high ‘just like that’. Now things are going well but I still need some speed. Good starts will make life easier and we are trying to find the best compromise between starts and racing and it is not just one easy fix.

"If you made a bad start a couple of years ago it felt easier to still be able to come back."

Injury is one aspect of the job but when results are not coming – what you are paid well to deliver - is this a dark side of being a professional athlete?

Yes, it is like having a bad race…but one that doesn't stop for a long time! The worst part is not really knowing where the problem is. It was really hard. I’m happy in another way because Yamaha gave me some great support in realising that we had some sort of problem and they didn't just leave me to figure it out by myself. They also didn't think ‘Romain is having an off-year’ or ‘he isn’t preparing well’. The team and the guys at Yamaha Motor Europe really tried hard to problem-solve with me and it was a big help. I appreciated I had that support and I wasn't just by myself behind the bike thinking ‘what’s going on?’

You mentioned how tough MXGP is now. Is it really that competitive? Even compared to 2015?

It has always been difficult but it seems the start of motos is now even more important. If you made a bad start a couple of years ago it felt easier to still be able to come back. For me this is the only way MXGP has changed this year because the level of competition has always been high. This year not many riders have been injured and there are more people ready to race.

The Nations takes place at Matterley Basin this year and you won your first moto on a 450 at that track in 2015: a nice little sign?

I really like Matterley but I hear the track will change a bit for the Nations. Yeah, I won my first moto there…but we can also say I lost my chance at a second title there last year! We’ll see at the Nations and I hope we can defend that trophy again.

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