Danny Kent: How to build a champion

Published: 09 January 2016

Danny Kent is our first GP champion since Barry Sheene. So how did he get so good?

 

n the cut throat world of Grand Prix racing, talent is never enough. This is a fact to which Danny Kent, Britain’s first Grand Prix world champion in 38 years, can attest.

A fast teenager with a shedload of natural ability, Kent began his GP career on 125s in 2010, finishing fourth in the championship two years later in the first year of Moto3. Two seasons in Moto2 followed, the second a tough campaign that robbed him of his self-belief. By the time he returned to Moto3 at the beginning of 2014 he was in danger of fading into obscurity. He lacked focus, and couldn’t ride through machine deficiencies.

And then came 2015, and a run of five wins, three podiums and a fourth. Bar another win at Silverstone, the second half of the season has been trickier: a 70-point advantage whittled away by DNFs, qualifying woes, team trouble and sheer pressure. But at Valencia, watched by his anguished family, Danny Kent did enough to become the first British Grand Prix world champion since Barry Sheene. It is an incredible achievement.

 To understand how Kent has evolved from a fast but erratic teenager to Moto3 world champion, MCN Sport spoke to five men who have played a part in his career trajectory so far.

In Competition’s Ian Newton met 13 year-old Danny in 2007, when he was locked in a titanic struggle for the Aprilia Superteens title – another championship that went down to the wire.

“He rocked up as a little tiny tot and was immediately on the pace,” remembers Newton “He reminded me of Stoner because he was a bit of a rough diamond. I don’t think his mum and dad had a lot of money at the time, which is how the Stoners were. What you generally get with kids like that is hunger: the crucial thing.

“The championship was between him and James Folkard. They were head and heels above the rest. It went down to the last race. All Danny had to do was to finish second in all four races that weekend. In the last race Danny was lying second but got drafted out of the final corner at Brands by a little guy called Reece Rothwell. That took the championship away from him.

“He was obviously very upset. His dad was furious to the point he was threatening me. But fair play, an hour later he came over and apologised, which meant a lot. I can’t even remember what he was yelling about but it was pretty heated at the time.

“His family were hard on him, his Dad especially. But it was Danny’s determination that stood out, and his wanting to improve all the time. If he made a mistake he would get quite annoyed with himself, which mirrors what Stoner was like. It’s a good trait. They make a mistake and then quickly want to get over it and get on with it. He didn’t take any prisoners, even as a 13-year old. If there was a gap there he would go for it. You could see the kid had something.”

Alberto Puig was involved in bringing Danny across to Spain as part of Dorna’s MotoGP Academy in 2008, alongside Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger. From there Kent competed in the Spanish CEV series aboard a KTM 125, finishing the year a promising ninth overall before racing in the Red Bull Rookies Cup a year later.

“In the first year we made a selection of riders with Dorna and we picked him up,” says Puig. “At that time already he showed some potential. You could see he had skill to ride the bike. OK, it was the early stages but we helped. We were taking a little bit of care of him with our mechanics. I always have a good memory of Danny. I remember his family was quite stable. They were not really interfering with him, not trying to be experts with the bike, the team. This is very important.

“Danny has always been quite a nice guy, but he also takes his own decisions. He won’t follow what people say; he makes his own evaluation and he has his opinion. I think this is why he has become champion. He has a strong character, and if you combine this with skill you have something special. At the time it was difficult to see where he would go but I thought if he could find the right package he would not be like an average boy. You knew he could do better.”

Tech 3 team principal Hervé Poncharal worked with Danny in 2013 during his difficult year in Moto2 aboard the Mistral chassis. That year a lack of experience and total focus meant Kent scored points at just six races, the best of which came in Brno and Sepang.

“I was very impressed by him as such a young rider, doing what he was doing on the track. I told Roger Burnett, his manager, I would love to work with him. From the very first day we started to test I knew it was the right decision because I could see flashes of speed and natural talent. But then nothing is ever happening like you wish.

“At that time Danny was very shy and closed. He seemed a bit lost, not with his riding but with something. I always tried to ask him to come down to our place in the winter to train. He never came. I was sorry because I could see Danny was not really happy with life as a young man, and that was translating on track. There was tension between him and his personal management.

“We did the season. In some practices, some races, we could see flashes of talent but the attitude was not there. Danny at that time was not a fighter. Every time I talked to him he was looking at his shoes and he said, “I’ve tried!” But after a certain stage there was no communication.

“Moto2 was a lot more physical than Moto3. His father was telling me, ‘He’s lazy, he doesn’t train’.  Clearly at that time he was more focused on his hairstyle than training. At the beginning he was with a girlfriend and non-stop texting her. You could see that the focus was not 100% on the race. I was very angry sometimes, because you know when you have a guy who is a very high level rider. I could see I had a diamond, but it was just unpolished. At some stage the confidence was gone. And when I understood that I said, ‘OK, I don’t want to wreck his career and hold him to [the second year of] his contract’. I still believe it could have been much better. And he could have been a success. But it was too early. He needed some time.”

Casey Stoner’s former 125cc crew chief Massimo Branchini worked alongside Danny in the Ajo Motorsports squad in his first full Grand Prix season in 2011, and then in Danny’s return to Moto3 in 2014.

“I think Danny is one of the big talents in the world championships – not just today but also in 2011. Maybe it was too early in 2011 to have good results. Still, immediately my feeling was, ‘This guy is coming and he will improve a lot.’

Why? The talent is clear when you see the data. You see the riding style. Danny’s big talent is corner speed. Compared to another rider it is very, very high. Maybe in braking he was not so strong, but it was not a big problem because he had a very smooth style.

“Last year [2014] in the Husqvarna team he started the season maybe without mental power. The Ajo motor sport group is very big and the Red Bull team was separate. Maybe he felt, ‘I am not the number one rider’. But it was not true; the bike was the same. I remember in Barcelona he didn’t take a point. He arrived 17th. But after, in Assen, he was close to the podium. This he improved himself. The bike didn’t change. Before, he said, ‘OK, in every practice the bike is sliding, the bike is this and that’. After, he said, ‘OK, the bike is this’. You need to focus the mind to go fast with this bike. Before, he found a problem. After, when he accepted the bike, he was calmer. The results came. From Assen to the end of the season he was fighting for the podium every week and we didn’t touch the bike. Just use the talent to ride. He was stronger in the mind, and realised he was stronger.

“You need the talent, which he has already. But you also have to learn a lot about working hard with the used tyre, working hard with a bike that isn’t perfect. You need to know that when the situation is not easy, you must still improve.

“When the bike was OK he was very fast. But when he had a problem he needed to resolve it himself. He needed to improve his fitness. Training is one thing he needed, but it was more mental training, not physical training.”

Crew chief Peter Bom looked after Kent in the Leopard Kiefer team this year. Havingworked with the likes of Vermuelen, Bradl and Crutchlow, Bom’s measured approach and vast experience was key in Kent’s march to the title.

“I was a little worried because he was going in the direction of being a really big talent without having delivered,” explains Bom. “So I suppose it was an interesting challenge. We shared information about each other and fortunately we had a good click.

“When we started the first tests, and even the first GPs, Danny was, you could say, damaged a little bit. He was like a crazy talent. We saw that quite quickly. But the way he behaved, that made me conclude that he was a little damaged in a way. He didn’t trust us. He didn’t trust the people working on his bike and making certain decisions. He tried to get involved with everything with me. That’s one thing I needed to sort out quickly with him. I said, ‘Please trust me.’ After some time, when he really took off, is when he completely trusted me.

“Maybe he got fucked around a little bit. I give him a task – go out, do five laps and concentrate on this or that. I will never change something on the bike without telling him just to check if he’s paying attention. Or always changing the bike and promising there will be a miracle. You can’t do that. It’s wrong – but it happens a lot.

“When he came he did not believe so much in himself, like a kid. He said he did, but you could see in the eyes that he didn’t. I have worked with a lot of riders, some of whom he knows. When I said I thought his talent is up there with some riders, and he should start to believe in it as much as I do, he looked at me like, ‘Really? You think that?’ That really surprised me, that he didn’t trust himself that much.

“We did just a couple of days testing at the end of 2014 and he immediately loved the bike. Maybe there was a little luck involved because we got the bike with a very strange base setting. He jumped on it, and more or less everything I did with the bike made him go faster. His confidence in me grew. Then he started to realise, ‘Fuck, this could become really interesting.”

Words Neil Morrison Photos Gold and Goose