Australia’s Wil Ruprecht: World Enduro Champ (Pt 2)
If you missed Part 1 of this fascinating interview with recently crowned Enduro World Champion, Wil Ruprecht, you can check it out here.
Or, if you’ve already read Part 1, go right ahead and get your teeth into Part 2, where Wil lays bare the inner workings – and dubious practices – of some of the European race teams, and sets the record straight about why he was forced to be a last-minute scratching from the Australian team for the 2022 ISDE in France…
For more than a decade now, Wil Ruprecht has been a gun off-road racer. He won Junior titles in the Australian Off-Road Championship (AORC) in 2013 and 2014, the EJ title in 2016, and then the E1-class title the following year. But then, just as his lifelong dreams to race the Enduro World Championship began to materialise, he was struck down with a debilitating virus.
So, how did Ruprecht work his way out of the physical abyss? What was the secret behind his uncanny ability to adapt to racing in Europe? Who was his inspiration to become world champ? How does it feel to be just the fourth Aussie to become an Enduro World Champion? And is it true that he’s already jumped ship and signed on to race with the CH Racing Sherco team for 2023? We caught up with the down-to-earth, Taree-born 24-year-old to answer those questions and more…
“I knew that my speed was always there, but that I just needed to work out how to adapt to all the foreign things that comes with racing in Europe.“
Have you stopped to remind yourself that you’re only the fourth Aussie to ever win an Enduro World Championship title, and that you’re now part of that elite club – joining Shane Watts, Stefan Merriman and Matt Phillips?
To be put in a category with those guys who I’ve looked up to for so long is … well, it’s surreal. I remember when Merriman came back from Europe to race in Australia, I was a young teenager. I was very curious about the European scene and he had a lot of time for me and all my questions. After hearing what he had to say, I had my mind set on going to Europe to race. Or at least, that solidified my dreams to one day race the World Championship. And Matty Phillips was dominant in that 2013 through 2016 era. Stefan was a real grinder who could have ridden any bike to victory, whereas Matt made it look way easier than what it was. Those were the two guys who set the precedent; who inspired me and gave me a sense of what was possible for an Aussie to achieve on the World Enduro stage. I knew that my speed was always there, but that I just needed to work out how to adapt to all the foreign things that comes with racing in Europe. That was always going to be the biggest challenge, so it’s really gratifying that I finally got there and claimed a title. I don’t want to sound cocky, but I always knew I would be a world champion one day because I’ve always had the attitude that I’m prepared to do whatever it takes to make that happen.
“What riders get paid over here – how little they get paid, that is – would really surprise people.”
You’re saying you want it more than anyone else in the World Enduro paddock?
After being here for four years, I know I want it more than most riders. I’d say there are a few guys who want it as much as me, and then there are lot who aren’t even close. Once I understood that, it was just a matter of working out the game. If I was to offer any advice to the Aussies who come to Europe but don’t make it, it’s not that they aren’t talented enough as riders. It’s because Europe is unforgiving and people quickly forget about you. You see it with Steve Holcombe at the moment. He had some injuries this season, and suddenly no one thinks he’ll be able to win another title. But if you know the speed the guy can run and his will to win, you wouldn’t bet against him. He could win the EnduroGP class next season. Sure, racing in Europe is an experience that’ll improve your riding as an Aussie, but if you’re not hell-bent on becoming a world champion, then racing in Europe is probably not for you. Also, what riders get paid over here – how little they get paid, that is – would really surprise people.
How little do they get paid?
Put it this way, I’ve been in the top-five group of guys for a few years now, so you’d think I’d be on a good wicket. But the reality is that I’ve been scraping through this year, living pay-cheque to pay-cheque. I could have a much cruisier life if I was in the top three in Australia – getting good bonuses and doing a little coaching on the side. I’ve had my moments and questioned what I’m doing on occasion here in Europe, but being hell-bent on winning a title is what’s made me stick it out. There are only four guys with salaries in the six figures – as in, more than 100,000 Euros – even though the industry in Europe is way bigger than it is in Australia. And with many of the teams being Italian, the team managers all talk a lot and seem to work together to cap riders’ salaries.
“There seems to be a gentleman’s agreement that these teams won’t steal each other’s riders, and that serves to keep riders’ salaries down to a level that the teams think is ‘respectable’.”
For real? Isn’t that called market collusion? Which is immoral and bordering on illegal!
You said it, not me. What I’ve observed is that there seems to be a gentleman’s agreement that these teams won’t steal each other’s riders, and that serves to keep riders’ salaries down to a level that the teams think is “respectable”. Things might change in the next year or two when Triumph and Ducati join the paddock. Hopefully, that’ll shake things up a bit. At the moment, though, there are only kind of four manufacturers who pay pretty well, and I was on one of those teams. But … well, let’s just say that you really need to pay attention when you’re signing a contract with a European-based team, especially when it’s a two-year contract! You need to be vigilant about that.
Can you elaborate on that?
If I’d signed midway through this year to stay on with TM for 2023, it would have made what I was paid this year a lot better. But I decided to move because I wasn’t happy with the way some things were going. After that, the team fell back on some small-print clause in the contract, which meant I still didn’t make 50,000 Euros salary for the year. I was able to make some decent money with the win bonuses, but the way the team conducted themselves was pretty disappointing. That’s why I didn’t see a future in this environment and why I knew I needed to get out. A lot of people were critical of my decision to change teams for next season, but the simple fact is that it was starting to limit my potential. There are a few of us now running the same pace at the top of EnduroGP, but I want to be in an environment with the resources that’ll help me take it up another level. I want to get to the point where I’m in my comfort zone when those guys are going flat-out. I feel that there’s another level of speed to be found, and that I haven’t tapped into that yet.
So, let’s talk about the 2023 season. There’s been no official announcement yet, but rumour has it that you’ve signed with Sherco.
Yep, that’s accurate. I’ve done a two-year deal with the CH Racing Sherco team. You’re right; it’s not yet official, but there’s been a lot of talk in Europe about it, so it might as well be official [laughs]. I mean, when I look back on my three years with Boano – a year on the two-stroke Beta and then two years with TM – I’m super-thankful for the experience. It was a rocky road and I learned a lot of hard lessons along the way, but it shaped me for the better. All I’m focused on now is looking forward; on becoming the best enduro rider in the world.
CH Racing – the same Sherco team that Matt Phillips had his 2016 title success with! And New Zealand’s Hamish Macdonald will be your 2023 teammate, right?
That’s right. The same team with most of the same mechanics too. Hamish will also be riding the E2 class. With guys like me, Hamish, Josep Garcia and Steve Holcombe, the E2 class will be stacked with talent again next year. Hamish will be riding the 300 because he wants to ride something familiar after coming back from his knee injury. I had the choice to ride whatever I wanted because Sherco is also focused on the Outright results, so that’s why I’ve elected to continue racing a 300cc four-stroke too.
“The day after I’d made it clear that I wasn’t going to re-sign with TM, my team manager said the factory wasn’t prepared to supply me with anything for the ISDE.”
What’s the real story behind you not being able to race the ISDE this year on the Aussie team? There were all sorts of rumours about what went down. It was the first time Australia had competed in a Six Day in three years, and you’re forced to withdraw from the team because you couldn’t sort a bike!?
That was a big disappointment for me, for sure. Basically, what happened is that the TM team’s mechanics had been burnt-out from doing the ISDE the previous two years. They usually take their summer holidays in the two-month gap in the World Enduro season, but the Six-Day is bang in the middle of that, so I do get that they would rather take that time off. Anyway, about a month out from this year’s Six-Day, it became apparent to me that they weren’t really interested in going to the event. So, I spoke with my team manager and reminded him that supplying me a bike, tyres and spare parts for the Six-Day was in my contract. I mean, obviously I wanted to race the event because I’d already committed to the Australian team. Plus there was a lot of expectation riding on that team because, on paper, we were a really good chance of winning. As I told the TM guys, I was happy to load the bike and tyres into my van and drive to the event in France, where the Aussie team could then look after me.
And even then, they weren’t prepared to help you out?!
Well, around this same time, I’d been in talks with other teams and I’d made it clear that I wasn’t going to re-sign with TM. The day after that, my team manager said the factory wasn’t prepared to supply me with anything for the ISDE. I reminded them that it was in my contract, but they gave me the old, ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ look. They know they’ve got you by the balls. What, am I going to take these guys to court to force them to honour the contract and supply me equipment for the Six-Day? The court fees alone would have probably been bigger than my salary! The whole thing was very disappointing, and just another example of why I made the decision to make the move to another team. Honestly, there were half a dozen similar examples that confirm I made the right decision.
But you kept trying. Didn’t you offer to rent a bike from TM to race the ISDE?
Yep. I asked them how much? They said that, as a factory rider, I was not able to race a standard bike; because that it was in my contract. And that was that. I’d explored all avenues, but simply couldn’t make it happen. And I’m really sorry to everyone in Oz for having to withdraw from the team at that point. I had no choice.
Thanks for your time and your candour, Wil. And enjoy that well-deserved couple of months back in Oz with family and friends!
No worries, Andy. Yep, can’t wait to get home.