Since the inception of the FIM Motocross world championship in 1957, racers from the United Kingdom have won 10 FIM Gold Medals: Dave Bickers (1960, 1961), Jeff Smith (1964, 1965), Graham Noyce (1979), Neil Hudson (1981), Dave Thorpe (1985, 1986, 1989) and James Dobb (2001).
It’s a great history, yet it seems a bit odd that the nation has not produced another world title since Dobb’s 125cc triumph in 2001. 19 years later, Ben Watson is looking to change that. First entering the 250cc world championship in 2016, within two years Watson was with Yamaha, scoring his first Grand Prix podium in the MX2 Grand Prix of Russia. He was a fighting fourth in the 2018 title chase before suffering through an injury-sabotaged season in 2019.
As a member of the Monster Energy Yamaha Factory MX2 Team for his final MX2 season, the 21 year-old and his YZ250FM were fast in the first two Grands Prix of 2020 at Matterley Basin and Valkenswaard before the pandemic sent Watson back home.
Q: Ben, how and where are you?
BEN WATSON: Well, basically, we only did two races before it all stopped, huh? I mean we had all the testing and winter preparation done, and everything went really good, and then obviously I had that small hand injury. I cracked two bones in my hand again. It’s really hard to say if it is a new injury or an old injury, so we’ll see how it goes. I missed four weeks on the bike, so it wasn’t ideal before the first race of the season. I placed fifth at the first Grand Prix here in England and was fifth at the second race at Valkenswaard, and the whole coronavirus came about and everything has been stopped since. I’m back in the UK at the moment and just doing physical training and actually riding on the bike at the moment. I’m just going to head back to Belgium and start the dirt bike training as soon as I can, basically.
Q: So it was somewhat serendipitous that the COVID-19 clampdown came when it did as it allowed you some time to heal up?
BW: Yeah, exactly. I mean I got back to the point where I was riding through pain and getting ready to fight again, and then the virus all came about. Yeah, I’ve definitely just tried to keep positive through it all and for me, it’s about time to get back to 100 percent again.
Q: At Valkenswaard you displayed strong speed and consistency for fifth overall. Even though the coronavirus sent everyone home immediately thereafter, did knowing where you were at amongst the competition provide you with some peace of mind?
BW: Yeah. I mean, I missed a lot of time off the bike before the racing, and it was not ideal conditions. In qualifying I got docked up to about 15th position because my bike failed the noise test, and a few little things took me back. The starts there are really important, and I managed to come through pretty solidly. I just had two consistent races and no real mistakes. I was five in the first race and four in the second race, so I was pretty happy with that. Normally with a long season with 20 races, if you can be consistent with a five and a four and keep building, that’s a good performance.
Q: What have you been doing to burn time off the clock during the shutdown?
BW: I’m at my parents’ house which has quite a lot of land, so I’ve been doing a lot of things outside. I’m not really a guy who sits and watches Netflix or plays PlayStation. One thing that is cool is that I bought a new Smart Bike Trainer and I’ve been able to do some indoor cycling and do some races on there. Honestly, it has been so fun and I’ve spent hours inside on that thing. I get my adrenaline going on there. I’ve got one and my brother has got one, and we race each other. That’s what I’ve tried to do, really. I’ve just tried to fill the time with things I enjoy doing.
Q: Have you been in close contact with the Monster Energy Yamaha Factory MX2 team?
BW: Definitely. I’m still in contact with the team, and although we’re in a different country, we talk a lot. The team guys just need to stay safe. The support is always there from the team and Yamaha, so I’m thankful to have such a good group around me. It’s the same for everybody in this situation, I think. We just have to stay positive. What can we do?
Q: Do you think we will get back to racing this spring or summer? And if we do, what’s your goal?
BW: I think we are going to get back and I don’t think it’s going to be a full season like MXGP1, where it is normally 20 races. I’m sure that’s impossible to fit in now with how tight it is all going to be, but I believe a lot of the teams are working together just to try to create a 10-round series or something and to squeeze it all into three-and-a-half months and just try to run the championship. Even if we run into November or the beginning of December, I think the teams will be happy about that, just as long as we get a championship and then we can focus on the next year and still have time to prepare and test.
Even if we start in October, let’s say, you still have that same goal and want to be a champion at the end of it. That goal, for me, is the same and it is to become a world champion and to just keeping fighting for those podiums, and like I always say, make sure I enjoy it.
Q: And this season would mark your last in MX2, correct?
BW: Yes, this is my last year in 250s. I’ll be 23 years old in June, and for me, I will also be riding for a place next season, but I try not to think about that. You’re riding has to do the talking on that side, and I just want to focus on finishing this season out and getting solid results, and I think that part of it will come.
Q: Do you know much about Great Britain’s amazing motocross history? What’s it like to be a world-class motocross racer from your nation?
BW: Yeah, I mean we’re already a small country, but we do have a big population. I’m not actually that clued up on racing from the past. I mean my dad was racing and did a few GPs, but I’m not really that knowledgeable about previous riders or anything, but I do know that we get a lot of support from the British fans and they’re especially amazing. They’re always cheering you on at our home GP or the Motocross of Nations. For example, when I raced the Motocross of Nations in America in 2018, there were so many English flags and so many friends I know came out and made the trip to Chicago to follow Team Great Britain at the Motocross of Nations. There always does seem to be a lot of support for us.