[Ficeda]

DANIEL MILNER: THE CHAMP’S NEXT MISSION

2 years ago | Words: Andy Wigan | Photos: Bret Trigg Visual

A month back, after Daniel Milner and KTM issued joint statement to explain that the two would be parting company after five successful seasons together, we were expecting the multiple world and Aussie champ to announce his new deal literally within days. Turns out he did too, but some last-minute contractual delays set things back a few weeks.

Anyway, as we announced last week on Instagram, the former ISDE, A4DE and AORC champion finally confirmed widespread rumours that he’d inked a deal with the Fantic D’Arpa Racing Team to contest the 2022 EnduroGP World Championship, along with selected rounds of the Italian Enduro Championship.

So, was Milner surprised that KTM/Husqvarna/GASGAS couldn’t find a seat for him on one of their European-based teams? How did Milner’s Fantic deal come together in the end? And what are his aspirations for season 2022 in Europe? We sat down with the 30-year-old Victorian to get the good oil on the next chapter in his life; a chapter headlined by the lifelong desire to become a World Enduro Champion.

TM: Congrats on the Fantic deal, Daniel. Took a bit longer to finalise than first expected, eh?
DM: Yeah, these things often do. Covid adds a layer of complication, too.

What prompted you to start looking at opportunities to race overseas in 2022? Because you’d won everything on offer back here in Oz?
Well, it’s always been a dream of mine to be a world enduro champion, which means going to Europe. But when I started to look at opportunities – in both the USA and Europe – it also had a fair bit to do with the Covid situation here in Australia, and the fact that all the state border closures made it impossible for organisers to run the national championship. Also, after having the first round of the AORC canned due to rain, only two rounds of the championship ended up being run, and that didn’t meet the minimum requirement of three rounds to constitute a national championship. That meant I was doing a lot of sitting around at home, which sped up the thought process of getting out of Australia; to somewhere I was able to race. Having all that time on my hands also made me reflect on the fact I’m now 30 and have only got, say, another four years of racing in me. So there was no point sitting around at home because who knows what’s going to happen with racing here next year. Australia seems to freak out and panic more than most countries in response to new strains of Covid.

So, tell us about the process of putting yourself on the international moto market, and how the Fantic deal came about.
It actually came about through [former AORC champ, and Milner’s mate] Lyndon Snodgrass. He put me in touch with the guy who runs the Fantic team, Marco D’Arpa. After the 2019 ISDE in Portugal, where Lyndon did pretty well, Marco had offered Lyndon to race the Junior class in Europe on a Fantic 125 two-stroke, but Lyndon didn’t want to go back to racing a 125, so he took up an opportunity to race with the Babbitt’s Kawasaki team in America instead. Anyway, halfway through this year when I was having a wig-out about not racing here in Australia, Marco was one of several race team managers I approached via email. And of all the responses I got, Marco sounded the most excited. The Fantic D’Arpa Racing Team was after a 450 rider because the brand was just about to release their new XEF450 model. They offered me a one-year deal, and I took it pretty much straight away.

Were you hoping to get a multi-year deal? After all, moving your young family to Europe is a big deal in itself.
I understand why they offered me a one-year deal. They’ve invested pretty heavily in me for next year, and want to make sure I don’t get my arse kicked before thinking longer term [laughs].

Sure, but it was only a few years back when you won the ISDE Outright in Chile and kicked all the European riders’ arses in the process!
Don’t get me wrong; my goal is to come home with a world title. But I also realise there’s going to be a learning curve for me over there. Winning that ISDE in Chile was definitely good for my prospects, but I think the Six-Day and the Enduro World Championship are very different things, and success in one doesn’t necessarily translate into the other. Winning that Six-Day didn’t make me think I’ll be able to smoke everyone in the world championship. You’ve got to remember that the EnduroGP tracks are a lot more technical than what you get at most ISDEs, so I’ve been working on my tech-riding skills here as much as I can to prepare. The tracks at the Italian Enduro Championship – which I’ll also be racing over there – are generally really technical too. But I’m really excited for it.

What involvement has your former team manager at Yamaha, Geoff Ballard – and the MXstore guys that GB is now in business with – had with the Fantic deal?
I raced for GB when he ran the Yamaha off-road team here back in 2012, before CDR took over the team. That year with GB was actually my first factory ride, and I’ve always appreciated the guy’s experience and wisdom when it comes to bike set-up and fitting quality parts. I’m still using a Ballard’s tyre changer and a heap of tools that I got off him back then. Anyway, GB and the MXstore crew were keen to get involved and support me, so it’s cool to be back working with my old team boss. They bought me a new-model WR450F and gave me a bunch of parts they know I like, and new parts that I can give them some feedback on. So, the bike you see in the shots is basically a 2022 WR450F with those parts – including a tall seat to suit my lanky arse – and the plastics that Fantic sent me from Europe.

You’ve got plans to work with the MXstore guys to create a month vlog too, right?
Yeah, that’s the plan. With my previous contracts, I was restricted about what I could post on social media, whereas my Fantic contract has no social media clause in it at all. So the idea of the vlog is to show a bit more of my life; about an Aussie racing in Europe. Y’know, an insight into how I adjust to an all-new bike, new racing formats and Italian culture. We’ll be winging it a bit with iPhone and GoPro footage, so it’ll be interesting to see how it turns out. Anyway, it’s great to have the MXstore crew – the largest online parts and accessories guys in Oz – in my corner with this.

Given the five successful seasons you’d had with KTM, both in Australia and internationally, were you surprised that they couldn’t find a spot for you on a KTM team?
Yeah, I was a little bit disappointed about that. The KTM team in Europe had their two-rider line-up already locked in when we spoke, so they simply didn’t have any room for me. And I get that.

Yeah, but there are also a couple of sister brands under the KTM group umbrella, Husqvarna and GASGAS…
There are. And we’ve seen that, as a group, KTM is prepared to shift riders around into race teams with one of the sister brands. I was initially reaching out to see if those opportunities might exist for me. I would have been happy to ride on any of the three brands if the opportunity was there. But the opportunity wasn’t there. So I’m now going to try to make life a bit difficult for them next year by beating them; that’s for sure [laughs].

What do you say to those who questioned your “career-ending move to some ‘obscure’ brand”?
After I posted something in Instagram about me signing with Fantic, I saw a few of those comments, questioning my move. I guess all I can say is that they obviously aren’t yet aware that Fantic has won a bunch of world and national enduro titles in the past couple of years, plus this year’s MX3 World Championship and EMX250 Championship. As a brand, Fantic is punching way above its weight! The other appealing thing about the deal for me is that, especially as I’m getting older, I like the idea of getting involved with a manufacturer to help develop their bikes and build the brand. Without pumping my own tyres, I feel that I’m pretty good at testing and improving a bike; knowing what does and doesn’t work.

When do you head over to Europe?
On January 10. That’s when the team gets back to the workshop after their Christmas break, so I wanted to get cracking with things as soon as I possibly can. Our first event is a round of the Italian championship on the first weekend of March, and then the first EnduroGP round isn’t until May. My wife, Tori, has always said she liked the idea of living overseas if I got a deal, but she’s always wanted live in Europe for a while. So she’s stoked. In 2019, when our daughter was born, heading OS wouldn’t have been easy. But now that she’s two years old, we’re all up for it. The team is based just north of Milan in Italy, so we’ll be living in an apartment that’s close to the team workshop.

Apartment living … that’ll be a change for you, mate!
I know [laughs]. I’m a country boy who’s used to living out in the bush here in Victoria, so that might be a bit of an eye-opener. But the team structure is really good. I’ll have a van to get to the test tracks. Plus, we’ve already locked in an Aussie guy, Scott Lillis, as my mechanic. Scott has worked with Jason Anderson in America, and the BTO KTM team, before coming back to Oz to work with [factory Honda MXer] Kyle Webster. Scott’s wife is from France, so he took up a gig with an MXGP team for the remainder of this season, and will then be joining me for next season. I’m sure that having an Aussie with so much experience will make life a lot easier for me over there.

Do you know much about your Fantic teammates?
No, not a lot. I know that the young Swedish bloke called Albin Norrbin, who won the 2021 Youth Enduro World Title, has signed with the team for another year. And then there’s 19-year-old old Finnish rider, Pyry Juupaluoma, who won the 125cc class in the 2021 European Enduro Championship, and a Pomy guy called Jed Etchells who’s a former Youth MX champ. It’ll be good to meet those dudes.

What do you know about Fantic and their relationship with Yamaha, who effectively provide the platform for Fantic’s models?
Also, not a lot [laughs]. Nah, I’m pretty sure that Fantic and Yamaha joined forces about three years ago and brought that 125cc two-stroke out. From there, the arrangement escalated into the 250F and now the 450F. I’m even hearing rumours of a 300cc two-stroke in the works. I’ve raced Yamahas for many years, so it’s great to be back on a bike that immediately feels familiar to me. It’s a little heavier than the KTM I’ve been racing for the past five years, but the biggest thing I noticed after getting back on that Yamaha platform was how much more stable and planted the thing feels to ride in rocky, technical terrain. Honestly, the biggest thing I’ve struggled to adapt to is the FIM tyres, which is what you have to race with in Europe.

So, let’s take your Fantic XEF450 as an example. How does that differ from Yamaha’s WR450F?
The most obvious thing is that the Fantic’s plastics are quite different and, if anything, they make the bike’s ergos feel a little narrower than the Yamaha. The engine, frame, suspension and geometry are all essentially the same as the Yamaha, but I know the Fantic’s ECU – and therefore the mapping – is quite different. Fantic also uses quite a few different components – things like bars, grips, etcetera.

Stoked you’ve taken up this opportunity, Doogs. We’ll be following your progress with interest next season. And we’re expecting some funny shit in those vlogs, mate.
Thanks, Andy. Can’t wait to get this new chapter started.

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