Exclusive: Matt Phillips Interview
Never one to beat around the bush, Australia’s Matt Phillips offers a candid insight into his new Sherco deal and the prospect of winning a third world enduro title.
Since his debut in the Enduro World Championship (EWC) in 2013 at the tender age of 19, Matt Phillips has won two world titles and came very close to winning a third in 2015. That makes him Australia’s most successful enduro pilot in the past decade, and one of this country’s most successful motorcycle exports of all time. And he’s still just 22 years of age.
Late last year, in a move that shocked many, Matt Phillips turned his back on the powerhouse Factory KTM Enduro team, and signed with the Italian guys he worked with in 2013 for his maiden EWC title. As we announced a few months ago, the young Aussie will race a Sherco 450 in the 2016 EWC – now re-branded as the “EnduroGP” – with Fabrizio Azzalin’s CH Racing outfit.
But what prompted Phillips’ contentious move to Sherco? Are the rumours true that he burnt his bridges with KTM? What’s the nature of his new deal with Sherco and the CH Racing team? And does he think he can win his third world title aboard the French-made machine? We threw these questions at the likeable young Tasmanian shortly before he flew back to Europe to prepare for the EnduroGP’s opening weekend in Morocco on April 9-10. And, as you’ll see below, MP’s answers make for fascinating reading…
TM: After winning the E3 world title in 2014 and then finishing a strong second last year, few were expecting you to part company with what is generally regarded as the plum ride in the EWC paddock. What prompted the move away from the KTM team?
MP: As you know, rumours started circulating by the middle of the 2015 season that I had signed with CH Racing to race the Sherco this year. In reality, we didn’t get the deal done until after the final race of the season. I think most fans of the sport tend to see riders in terms of the manufacturer they ride for. But at the end of the day, racers are simply contractors who assess the best offer on the table and make a choice based on that. It’s not only based on money; it depends on a range of factors that affect a rider’s ability to be successful in that environment. I really like the CH Racing guys and the way the team operates. We won a title together back in 2013, and that was the primary reason I signed.
“Matt Phillips is Australia’s most successful enduro pilot in the past decade, and one of this country’s most successful motorcycle exports of all time. And he’s still just 22.”
Are you saying the fact you’re aboard a Sherco is almost beside the point?
No, I wouldn’t say that. Believing you’ve got the machinery to win a world title is obviously a key part of the deal, and half the ISDE-winning French teams rode a Sherco in both 2013 and 2014. Basically Sherco came to me with a proposal to race for them for the next two years and help develop their 450cc four-stroke. Their ambition is to grow their company and they wanted me to play a role in that. Having won an EWC race or two, Sherco’s 250 and 300cc four-stroke models are proven. Their 450cc four-stroke has won a few stages of the Dakar Rally – so it’s clearly no slouch – but it hasn’t been developed to the same extent as the other models. Developing a bike is never an easy task, especially for a young rider, but they really made the point that they thought I had a good understanding of testing and that I was the right guy for this development project. So they pretty much said that I ticked their boxes, and then asked what they needed to do to tick mine. That gave rise to a heap of conversations about tyre choice, suspension choice, handlebars … you name it. And this was a process we repeated with several of the other brands, KTM included. In the end, we came up with a package with Sherco and CH Racing that worked perfectly for me. I’m glad to be working with a family owned motorcycle company, too, because in this day and age, that’s a huge accomplishment.
You’re known for being a big fan of Metzeler tyres. Was that a condition of the deal with Sherco?
No. The condition was that the team would be open to a deal with any brand of tyre. That meant we gave everyone a chance to test with us, which avoided any suggestion that I was simply fixated on Metzeler. In the end, after extensively testing tyres and mousse tubes on all sorts of terrain, we settled on Metzeler as the tyre of choice.
“KTM HQ seemed to put enduro racing on the backburner late last year as they focused attention on their Dakar Rally and MotoGP programs.”
There was a lot of talk about friction between you and the Factory KTM team last season, mainly revolving around differences of opinion with bike set-up. True?
It’s true that I was a little disappointed about leaving KTM. But you have to understand that a KTM deal comes with a lot of restrictions. Out of the box, the KTM is a very good product – which isn’t to say others aren’t – but as a racer, you need to be able to customise your bike specifically to suit you. The factory KTM I raced is nothing like a standard production machine, but getting it dialled to suit my preferences is just as important. Last year wasn’t about the team not wanting to work with me when it came to getting the bike set-up right. The problem was that the team had to operate within boundaries. People further up the chain of command had to sign off on any of the set-up ideas or changes to components that I was suggesting would work better for me. Also playing a part in this was the fact that KTM HQ seemed to put enduro racing on the backburner late last year as they focused attention on their Dakar Rally and MotoGP programs. Maybe a bit of complacency snuck into their thinking – which I can understand because they’ve dominated the EWC for years. But I think that detuned me and the guys on the team a bit. It was political rather than a lack of effort from anyone on the team. We still finished a strong second in the championship, and we learned a lot. And my hat’s off to Mathias Bellino, who rode very well to win the E3 title.
Can you be more specific about the bike set-up ideas and componentry you’re referring to?
I really wanted to do more testing with the suspension because I couldn’t get 100 percent comfortable with my set-up in 2015. Because I’d won the E3 title in 2014 with the same team, they were pretty much saying to me that what I was asking for was unnecessary. Like anyone, when you do something well once, everybody expects that you can replicate it. But for 2015, the engine and suspension packages didn’t work together as well as they did in 2014. We just couldn’t nail that harmony between all the elements last year, and that’s why I felt we needed more time to test different set-ups.
“If the Sherco deal was to end for any given reason, I reckon there’d be a spot for me on the KTM team straight away.”
^ Matt’s expertise on sand riding can be found in Transmoto’s 2016 March-April issue, on sale now.
So did you leave the Factory KTM Enduro team on bad terms?
No, I left the KTM team on good terms. I simply weighed up my options with all the offers we had on the table, and Sherco came up trumps for 2016. If the Sherco deal was to end for one reason or another, I reckon there’d be a spot for me on the KTM team straight away. In fact, I’d say it’s quite possible that I’ll be back racing with the KTM team in the future. But in the meantime, I plan to give everything I’ve got with Sherco to develop the bike and win a world title, and I’m working with a team of guys who are really motivated to do well. For me, this next two years represents a huge opportunity and a huge challenge. It could work out really well, or be the hardest couple of years of my racing career.
Can you give us an insight into the two-year CH Racing Sherco deal?
It’s actually a one plus one deal. We’ve each set out some goals we want to achieve this year and what we want from each other in order to reach those goals. But we’ve also left each other the option that, if it doesn’t work out as planned, we can shake hands and part ways amicably. I think it’s a cool and sensible arrangement, but it’s not an easy-out clause. It means that we both have to tick all the boxes. If they think I’m not puling my weight – not testing enough, not fit enough, for example – then they can let me go. Conversely, if I feel they’re not pushing as hard as I am to achieve the results, I can look at my options elsewhere. Having said all that, I know the caliber and positive attitude of the guys on the team, meaning I’ve got a lot of confidence that we’ll succeed, or at least take big steps forward this season. No matter what job you end up in – whether it’s racing motorcycles or whatever – it’s all about working with people to solve problems, move forward and enjoy the experience.
“This next two years represents a huge opportunity and a huge challenge. It could work out really well, or be the hardest couple of years of my racing career.”
Any truth in the rumours that you’ve been testing the 450cc engine in a 300cc two-stroke frame?
No, none. I can tell you that I’ve been testing some new frames for the 450, though. Y’know, it’s funny now that I’m with Sherco because a bunch of people have approached me and said something about the bikes being unproven. But I can tell you I did 40 hours on my 300SEF-R practice bike in Australia over Christmas without changing the oil, and the thing didn’t miss a beat. It’s bulletproof. I gave a few people a ride on the thing, and two of them ended up buying one from Motorcycle Scene – the Sherco dealer down here in Bernie, Tasmania. Admittedly, these guys were mates of mine, but it just goes to prove that the best way to sell any product is to get people to try it out for themselves.
All the best for 2016, Matt. Sounds like it’s set to be an interesting season, mate.
Thanks, Andy. Absolutely it’s going to be interesting. I never did like dull.