Matt Phillips’ Fifth Title?
This weekend, the 2017 EnduroGP World Championship heads to Spain for Rounds 3 and 4 of the
series – a country that ought to hold fond memories for Australia’s Matt Phillips. Back in 2013, after a couple of nervous rounds in Chile and Argentina, Matt Phillips found his mojo in Spain, where he posted his first ever 1-1 result in the EWC’s Enduro Junior (EJ) class. The then 20-year-old repeated the 1-1 scorecard the very next weekend in neighbouring Portugal, and then went on to win the 2013 EJ-class title – a first for an Aussie rider. Fast forward to 2017, and Phillips is now a four-time EWC champ (EJ in 2013, E3 in 2014, E2 and EnduroGP in 2016), which arguably makes this 24-year-old Australia’s most successful dirt bike export of all time.
Despite a crash and rear brake problems, Phillips limited his losses by running 4-3 in the notoriously tricky snow- and ice-covered tracks encountered at the EnduroGP World Championship’s opening two rounds in Finland, and the reigning champ heads into this weekend’s Spanish rounds in equal-second place in the EnduroGP standings (behind Finnish snow-riding specialist, Antti Hellsten). But we can’t help think the Sherco-mounted Tassie Devil is about to do exactly what he did back at the Spanish round in 2013…
Devil May Care
Leaning back in his chair, Fabrizio Azzalin orders another bottle of wine from the passing waitress and resumes his story. Like most Italians, the CH Husqvarna team owner has a dramatic streak. He speaks with a strong accent and flamboyant hands, and he has us buckled over with laughter. It’s the Sunday night of the Enduro World Championship in Portugal – Rounds 7 and 8 of the 14-round series – and the newest addition to Azzalin’s race team, Australia’s Matt Phillips, has just gone 1-1 and consolidated his lead in the EJ-class standings. Along with Aussie enduro stalwarts, Geoff Ballard and Peter “Foodge” Burrell, I’ve joined Phillips and a few of the CH Husky team guys at a restaurant in the local fishing village to celebrate their victory. The table is overflowing with traditional Portuguese dishes – fried sardines, garlic squid and grilled groper – and no one’s bothered with minding their manners too much.
Azzalin tops up everyone’s wine glasses and launches into a series of hilarious stories about “the Stefan Merriman years”; about the Australian’s unconventional training techniques and bike set-up, and the other two world titles he should have won with CH Husky a decade ago. It’s clear that Merriman opened the powerhouse EWC team’s eyes to an alternative way of doing things … and to the riding talent in Oz. Azzalin signed two other Australians – Chris Hollis and now Matt Phillips – in the years since, and I ponder the coincidence that all three have also raced for Geoff Ballard’s Yamaha team.
“I think Italians and Australians both understand that there is a time to be serious and a time to have fun,” Azzalin says, referring to the two nationalities’ cultural affinity. “Having riders who know how to enjoy themselves – and win, of course – is very important to me nowadays. Matthew Phillips here … well, he’s a fun guy,” Azzalin says with a wink at his young charger, who’s busily de-boning an oversized sardine at the other end of the table.
Phillips hasn’t said much all night, but he’s hung off every word of the conversation. The 20-year-old has fast become a student of the sport; a sponge for everything EWC. But don’t think that he’s overawed by the occasion. The kid is itching to create some EWC history of his own.
The seafood banquet takes us late into the evening, leaving Phillips and I no time for an interview. We decide to catch up the following day at Lisbon Airport instead. What was I thinking?
After fighting five blocks of gridlock around Lisbon Airport, I finally make it to the terminal where I’m due to meet Matt Phillips. Knowing he communicates almost exclusively via social media, I try to Facebook message him. But the airport’s Wi-Fi signal is piss-poor, and he’s nowhere to be seen. Increasingly desperate, I beg airport staff and even the Police to make PA announcements. They refuse. An hour later, still no Phillips. And with less than two hours until his flight’s due to leave, it’s not looking good.
Then, just as I’ve all but given up, I spot a stocky-looking character in a red T-shirt and headphones. He’s casually checking the departures board, so I make a beeline through the crowd toward him. “Wondering when you’d turn up,” he says, all smirk and smart-arse. “Let’s do this thing, Wigan. Got a flight to catch soon, mate!”
I suspect he’s been snoozing in some obscure corner while I’ve been doing flustered laps of the terminal, but I resist the temptation to ask where he’s been hiding. “Hello, Matthew. Nice timing. Just arrived myself,” I tell him. I lied. As we wander over to find a quiet corner in an airport café,
I reflect on the fact it was just two years ago that Phillips first travelled without his family – an interstate trip from Tassie to Newcastle. It’s a stark reminder about the kid’s meteoric rise in the off-road scene and the leap of faith that his recent move to Europe represents.
Growing up in the small township of Wynyard in Tasmania’s northwest gave Matt Phillips the perfect leg-up for a life that would revolve around dirt bikes. “I got my first bike at five and rode around the paddock most arvos,” he says. “Where I grew up was only 200 metres from an infinite supply of riding terrain – trails, extreme stuff, quarries. So for me, going riding was always easy. I didn’t ride motocross tracks with groomed upramps. I was just freeriding; hitting something and landing on something else. Riding was all about fun. And I’m all about fun.”
That he is. I’ve always known Matt Phillips as a good-natured bloke; a practical joker who’s also capable of rolling with the punches. But when did the young Phillips get serious about racing? “Well, there’s all sorts of levels of serious,” he says, philosophically. “When I was young, I had a really good mate called Dylan Burgess. If he beat me, I’d nearly cry, and vice versa if I beat him.”
At this point, Matt goes quiet, almost as if he’s holding back tears. Turns out he was. “Dylan died when we were 13-year-olds, and that changed the way I looked at racing,” he goes on to explain. “When something like that happens, you can either hate turning up to race or love it even more. It made me love racing more. That’s when I became determined to do well.”
In 2006, Dylan Burgess went on a group expedition in the remote wilderness of Tassie’s west coast, when a four-wheeler became stuck on a river crossing. Five people were washed over a waterfall, and Dylan was one of three who died in the tragic accident. Phillips doesn’t know too many details because he’d rather not. “When Dylan died, it gave me a different sort of motivation. So I suppose you could say I got serious then,” he says, returning to my initial question. “Dylan was a cheeky, smart-arse ranga, so I just tried to take the things I learned from him – like his passion and determination – and apply it to my racing from that day forward. I still think about him a lot.” The story makes me reflect on the 2008 Junior MX Nats in WA where I first saw Matt Phillips tear a motocross track to shreds. The nuggetty 15-year-old was way faster than everyone else, but an untimely red flag prevented what seemed a certain national title. Same thing happened the following year, when he crashed out of contention. “Not winning those Junior titles was a hard pill to swallow at the time,” he concedes. “I had good opportunities and really good bikes, it was disappointing not to convert that into a title or two.”
It became a bit of a theme. At the 2010 FIM World Junior MX Championships in France, Phillips captained the Australian team to second place, but mechanicals and big crashes cost him dearly in the individual results. It’s not as if he still laments those lost opportunities as a Junior, but there’s something in his eye that confirms he’s not about to let the same thing happen again.
Unlike most young motocrossers, Phillips spent more time in the bush than cutting laps around motocross tracks, so he was never averse to broadening his racing horizons. “I also raced a bit of off-road with the Tasmanian Enduro Riders Club,” he recalls. “I even got the opportunity to race Seniors when I was 14, which gave me some very strong competition early in my off-road career.”
It was only a couple of years later – at the 2010 Australian 4-Day Enduro (A4DE) in Portland – that Phillips’ off-road abilities would really become apparent. Though it was more a case of drifting into enduro, rather than a conscious decision to switch ‘codes’: “A Tasmanian team entered in the 4-Day that year. I’d just got my licence, so they asked if I’d join the team. Dad was into it because he liked the idea of a road trip with a good bunch of guys. Plus he was a little over the motocross scene as we’d put in a lot of effort for little return. We bought a Honda CRF250R, borrowed an 18-inch rear wheel and rocked up at Portland. All I wanted to do was beat Ben Burrell because he was the young off-road guy who was in the magazines,” Phillips says, with a giggle. “I didn’t tell anyone back then, but that was the hidden agenda.”
The 4-Day evidently gave Phillips an insight into a different racing culture, too. “That event was a real eye-opener for me,” he explains. “I discovered how down-to-earth everyone in the off-road scene was. Geoff Ballard was one of the first guys I ran into and he was always up for a chat. Then I met Burrell. He was riding for GB, and a super-nice guy.”
Phillips stunned everyone when he finished second in the E1 class and seventh Outright at the event – just eight seconds adrift of Daniel Milner in fourth. Not bad for a 16-year-old at his first 4-Day! After one off-road event, Phillips was officially on the radar for Australia’s off-road team managers, but the young Tasmanian was yet to embrace the idea of racing off-road full-time. In his mind, he was simply having a bit of fun between motocross races.
In the 2010 MX Nats, Phillips had been running at the front of the stacked Under 19s class, battling guys such as Ross Beaton, Harley Quinlan, Josh Cachia and Hamish Dobbyn. “Mid-season, we turned down an offer from Suzuki because we wanted to stay loyal to Honda, and Errol Willis got the ride,” Phillips remembers. “That was a bit of a turning point. Had I taken that ride, I reckon I’d still be racing motocross. As it happened, I had a crap back-end to that season. I blew a couple of gearboxes and finished fifth Overall. And I knew a fifth place in the Under 19s wasn’t going to get me much of a ride the following year.”
MX vs OFF-ROAD
But the motocross dream died a slow death, aided and abetted by offers from those who’d witnessed Phillips’ lighting speed. “Toward the end of 2010, Craig Anderson offered me an Open-class ride for the Super X series on his Berry Sweet Honda team,” Phillips recalls. “That was a great experience. I beat Mike Alessi in a couple of races, so I was pretty pumped,” he says with a laugh. “But I didn’t do enough with the ride for it to get me anywhere.”
Ironically, it was the time spent in Newcastle with Anderson that led to Phillips’ opportunity to race off-road full-time. “That was my first trip away from home, so when Jess Gardiner asked me to come for a trailride with her and some friends, I was up for it. After the ride, they kept saying, ‘Why don’t you come and race enduro?’. Jess was riding for Geoff Ballard’s Yamaha team at the time, so I’m guessing she put in a good word for me.
“The next thing you know, Geoff and I exchange a few emails and phone calls. He then put a contract on the table for me to ride the Pro E3 class for him. I had no idea what to do,” he admits candidly. “I was still all about the motocross dream, but suddenly I was looking at the first paid contract I’d ever been offered. Dad always thought I was a better enduro rider, so I decided to take the contract with Geoff and ride the YZ475F for the 2011 season.”
Phillips didn’t squander the opportunity either. He figured things out pretty damn quickly, claiming four Outright round-wins in the back half of the year. In his rookie AORC season, he went on to win the Pro E3 title and finish third Outright, behind his two very experienced teammates, Chris Hollis and Stefan Merriman. And he’d done it aboard a beast of a bike that wasn’t exactly user-friendly in the bush. What many forget is that Phillips would have won the Outright that year, had he not been contentiously disqualified at one round for pushing the bike backwards because of a tyre problem.
“Yeah, it was a pretty good start to my off-road career,” he says modestly. “Even with the DNF, I was still a chance to win Outright if I’d won both rounds on the final weekend. As it turned out, they cancelled Sunday’s racing because of torrential rain, and Merriman’s Saturday win meant he got me for second Outright. All in all, though, it was a good year. Plus I got picked for the Aussie ISDE team.” The kid was an overnight sensation. And at the ISDE in Finland later that year, he showcased his abilities on the world stage. Incredibly, Phillips won a bunch of tests and looked set to finish fourth Outright until a final-day work-period cock-up pushed him back to fifth in E2 and ninth Outright.
THE LURE OF EUROPE
It’s no wonder that CH Husqvarna team boss, Fabrizio Azzalin, began to ask questions about this Aussie kid. “After the Six-Day, I was kinda feeling out what was on offer for 2012, in Australia and Europe,” Phillips recalls. “Husqvarna’s Australian importer, Paul Feeney, and Fabrizio suddenly offered me the chance to race the EWC in Europe. I felt really pressured to make a decision. Everyone had an opinion and they were all saying different things to me. I mean, I was 18 and had never travelled overseas by myself. I still had motocross in my ear and in my heart, but I didn’t know whether the EWC opportunity would be there the following year.”
In the end, Geoff Ballard’s advice helped Phillips make up his mind. “GB was pretty upfront in saying I wasn’t ready for Europe and that I ought to stay one more year in Australia. I’m thankful for that now, because I definitely wouldn’t have been ready for Europe. That said, the 2012 season in Australia was tough.”
Phillips won the E2 class at both the AORC and A4DE last year, so why does he look back on it as a tough year? First, he failed to post any Outright wins. And second, he succumbed to distractions. “Once I’d made the decision to stay in Australia, I was really focused on training hard and I thought I could step it up and beat Toby Price,” he explains. “I had just assumed I’d be riding the YZ450F, as that’s the bike I’d got my best results on. But Yamaha Australia had other ideas, as the all-new 2012 WR450F was a hugely important model for them. For commercial reasons, they made me race the WR450F, even though I just didn’t gel with the bike. It’s a great bike with an awesome engine, but I couldn’t get comfortable with the way it turned. I blamed GB and Ray Howard [YMA’s Motorsport Division Manager] for not trying hard enough to get me on the YZ-F. I even threatened to quit if they didn’t let me ride a YZ450F at the German ISDE that year. I lost all my motivation and my training suffered. I was angry and unhappy. I was just over it,” he says, with more than a little candour.
On reflection, Phillips isn’t proud of the way he handled the situation, and he’s aware that his attitude shift didn’t go unnoticed in the AORC pit paddock, either. “I made a bit of a dick of myself at times last year because of that anger,” he concedes. “In hindsight, it was unfair to put so much pressure on GB and Ray. If I’d let go of the idea I had to race the YZ-F at the start of the year, I probably would have come to terms with the WR-F much earlier. “Looking back, those tough times in Australia last season prepared me for Europe this season,” he says. “Last year taught me stuff about dealing with people and about how to improve my race bike’s set-up. Y’know, the funny thing is that, if Yamaha had allowed me to ride the YZ450F last year, I wouldn’t have come to Europe. So they pretty much did me a favour.”
FABRIZIO ON THE PHONE. AGAIN!
Phillips got his way and rode a YZ450F at the German ISDE in late 2012. It might have been on a stock bike with his suspension fitted, but Phillips was the best-placed Australian. He finished fourth in the E2 class and seventh Outright, spearheading Australia’s best ever ISDE result. No wonder Fabrizio Azzalin still had an offer on the table for the young Aussie. “I’d ripped the footpeg mount off my frame in Germany,” Phillips recalls, “which means I needed to re-drill and tap the frame and put a Helicoil in it – all in a 10-minute work period. As it turns out, Mauro – the guy who’s now my mechanic on the CH Husqvarna team – helped me with the job. I managed to stay cool and calm, and I think he noticed that about me. Staying calm under pressure is a huge thing in the EWC, so I’m sure that helped me get the ride in Europe. Even before I’d tested a Husky, I made the decision to race the world championship. I’d signed a contract with the CH Husqvarna team by November.”
So, what sort of coin does a hot prospect like Matt Phillips get offered to race the EWC’s EJ (Under 23) class? “Well, I could have earned more sign-on in Australia,” Phillips says, matter-of-factly. “Actually, even if I win the world title this year, I still won’t earn as much as I would have if I’d won back in Oz. Yamaha Australia generally pays riders well, but I didn’t want to hang around simply to earn a paycheque. And I knew I couldn’t win a world championship in Australia. The potential to earn good money comes if I can score an E1, E2 or E3 ride next year and collect some bonuses.”
PLAYING THE CONFIDENCE GAME
With CH Husqvarna being such a high-profile team, did Phillips feel the pressure of expectation from the opening round? “Initially, they put absolutely no pressure on me,” he says. “It was almost like I was the hobby rider on the team. If I ran towards the front, that’d be a bonus.” But it wasn’t long before he went from EWC newbie to EJ-class standout. “I wanted to get a feel for things at the two South American rounds before going too crazy,” Phillips explains. “I suffered from nerves and ran fifth at the opening round in Chile, and backed that up with a third the following day. Then, the next weekend in Argentina, I went 1-2 and that did a lot for my confidence. We fitted factory KYB suspension, different clamps and a different profile front Michelin. All of that improved the way the bike steered and how comfortable I was to push it. After Spain, I got to the point where I expected to win. It was a bad day if I didn’t win.”
As they say, confidence breeds confidence. At the super-dry and technical event in Spain, Matt Phillips dominated with a 1-1 result. He then repeated the unbeaten record in different conditions the very next weekend in neighbouring Portugal and stretched his championship lead.
Matt Phillips is the first to admit that his success is largely due to the experience and advice of the team behind him. “Mate, the guys on my team are classics. They’ve all got a dry sense of humour and know how to keep things fun. But they’re very professional and have so much knowledge,” he explains. “Fabrizio has won world titles with guys such as Stefan Merriman, Anders Eriksson, Antoine Meo and Juha Salminen. And my mechanic, Mauro, has worked for every single one of those guys. Mauro’s often telling me to dial it back; to keep things under control and consider the bigger picture. It’s a great environment and I’m very proud to be a part of
this team and its heritage.”
Phillips also speaks highly of his teammates and spends much of his time hanging out and training with Matti Seistola, who’s got a place in Spain. “Both Matti and Juha Salminen have helped me understand that going fast is about doing all those little things as well,” Phillips happily admits. “It’s about breathing right, taking advantage of walking the tests and hitting your marks. I’ve also learned to become a more controlled rider and smarter with line selection.”
Which is true. From the sidelines, Phillips appears a far more measured rider than the wild-man-against-the-rev-limiter we saw in Oz. “I think I flow a lot better and I’m looking for more inside lines rather than wide-open outside berms where you can come unstuck,” he says. “There are
so many guys going fast over here that if you have one get-off, you lose a bunch of positions.”
The next time I catch up with Phillips, he’s back in Australia as the EWC takes a 10-week break between the final two stops on its calendar. Phillips has had a ding-dong battle with Daniel Milner at the 4-Day in WA, finishing third Outright after copping a questionable time-card penalty. But he doesn’t seem too fussed about it. His mind is firmly focused on international matters; on the upcoming final two rounds of the EWC in France. With 2-1 and 1-3 finishes at the Romanian and Greece rounds of the championship, he’s built a comfortable 29-point lead as he heads into the final two rounds, which take place just after this issue of Transmoto hits the newsstand.
A TITLE WITHIN REACH
I ask Phillips if he feels like wrapping himself in cotton wool to minimise the risk that an unthinkable injury could derail the oh-so-close title. “Yeah, that’s played on my mind a bit because I don’t have to win in France; I just have to be there and finish. It’s definitely made me not push as hard with my training. The break has been good in that it’s let me spend time with friends and family back in Australia. It’s reinforced just how much I owe my family for all the opportunities they’ve helped me get in the sport.”
Phillips makes it clear that he doesn’t want to get ahead of himself, but I press the point and ask whether he’s allowed himself the luxury of thinking what a world title would mean. “It would mean a lot – for me, the team and my family who’ve supported my racing so much,” he says, before reining himself in and qualifying the comment: “But it won’t mean much if I don’t get a deal to race the EWC next year. You can only try to keep improving, and I want the opportunity to compete against the best in the sport.”
Naturally, Phillips has kept a keen eye on his times compared with the frontrunners in the E1, E2 and E3, but he points out that he’s had to play a bit of a juggling act of late. “My main focus has been on doing what it takes to win the EJ title, so I’ve kept a little in reserve. That said, I still need to improve my pace to compete with the big names in the E2 class, which is where I hope to be next year. And with the merging of the Husaberg and Husqvarna teams, there’s going to be fewer EWC rides available on top teams for 2014.”
It’s clear that the CH Husqvarna team has a soft spot for the likeable young Aussie, but has there been any sort of commitment to a 2014 deal yet? “I’m waiting on an email that I’m hoping will confirm my deal,” he says. “If all goes to plan, I’ll ride a 450 in the E2 class for the CH Husqvarna team with Matti Seistola and Lorenzo Santolino as my teammates. Aside from E2 being the premier class, I think the 450 suits my riding style and 85kg weight better. Those E2 guys have been my heroes, but that kinda makes me want to beat them now.”
Phillips isn’t the sort of bloke who eases himself into anything, so I ask him whether an E2 ride in 2014 would be a ‘development year’, or does he see himself as a legit title contender immediately? “I’d fly under the radar a bit, which means there’d be less pressure on me. You’d have to say that I might lack the experience required, but that won’t stop me trying. I’ve got nothing to lose!”
It’s a philosophy that’s worked for the kid in the past. Let’s hope it serves him well in the years ahead.
This content was originally published in Transmoto’s print magazine in October, 2013 (Issue #36).