The lower ranks of GP racing, 125GP, 250GP, and Moto2, are not as well-followed in the United States as MotoGP, so when the Czech Republic’s Karel Abraham climbed aboard a Ducati Desmosedici GP10 and started putting down impressive lap times, a collective “who the heck is Karel Abraham?” was uttered out-loud. The 21-year-old law student got a proper roasting on his introduction to the premier class by english-speaking journalists (ourselves included), as it was revealed quickly that Karel Abraham is actually Karel Abraham Jr., where Karel Abraham Sr. is the owner of the Brno race circuit and the Cardion AB race team. Touching on a vein of nepotism, yes…daddy bought him a MotoGP race team was uttered by us.
Fast-forward to the beginning of this season at Qatar though, where I was standing on the wall at Turn 1 at the Arabian track during MotoGP’s last testing session before the 2011 season, and watched a young Ducati rider hold his own against the MotoGP field. Granted, the junior Abraham was not setting the desert sands on fire like Casey Stoner, but he was no slouch either…and this was on “the wrong bike” in the GP paddock. Throughout the season, he’s shaken things up a number of times, and on several occasions been the fastest Ducati in a session. When you consider that all of this is occuring in the 21-year-old’s first entry in the big show, Karel becomes an increasingly impressive rider.
Did his father buy him a MotoGP team? That may be the case, but the Czech rider is anything but a spoiled brat. Down to earth, friendly, and funny during our 30 minute conversation, Karel is perhaps an example of how MotoGP riders should be during interactions with fans and media. In a sport where riders switch into PR-zombie mode as soon as a journalist shows up, it can be incredibly difficult to get the true perspective inside the MotoGP paddock, but talking to Karel proved to be a refreshing reminder that MotoGP riders after all people like the rest of us.
It’s perhaps unfair that Abraham came into the MotoGP Championship with this stigma attached to him, as he showed to me this past weeekdn that he is at least one of the most relatable riders in the paddock. As for his raw talent and skill, the results speak for themselves really, as Karel is on his way to becoming MotoGP’s Rookie of the Year (sorry Crutchlow fans), and is currently ahead of Alvaro Bautista, Toni Elias, Cal Crutchlow, Loris Capirossi, and Randy de Puniet in the 2011 MotoGP Championship standings. That all being said, enjoy A&R‘s Q&A with Karel Abraham after the jump.
Q: How did you get into motorcycle racing?
No one from my family ever raced, so I’m the first one. I always just loved motorbikes, though I didn’t like cars that much. Growing up, we could choose to go to go-kart racing or pocket bike racing, and I just chose pocket bikes. It was quite late for me, I was eleven, and all the guys here [MotoGP], they used to race pocket bikes too, like Simoncelli — I think I even remember him from pocket bikes. When he started, he was maybe five, six-years-old. Most of the competitors are like this, but not me.
Q: And then later you moved on up into Moto2…
Every step we did, we did a little sooner than we needed to. So coming to 125’s was immediate, I was thirteen. Coming into the 125 World Championship, I was not ready to go there, but our philosophy is that the sooner you can come, the more you can learn, or the sooner you can learn, right?
So I came to 125, and I was not really good at 125, so we move to 250. I had an important test for 250, as my second year in 125 we had also a rider in 250’s. So I just rented his bike, rode it around Brno Circuit after the race, and did quite well for a first time riding the bike. So we decided to go there, and it was the best move we ever did.
It was again, not good in the results, but it was a faster bike, a more aggressive bike. My results were a lot better, and I was moving to the front — closer, closer, closer. I was a little bit unlucky because the last season of 250’s, I was finishing around fifth place towards the end of the season, and three or four of the top guys went to MotoGP (Simoncelli, Aoyama, Barbera, Bautista). So the next year, I was supposed to be fighting for the podium every race, or be close to the podium, but they changed to Moto2.
I was a little bit unhappy that they changed everything I was used to already, and it takes some years to get used to the bike. So, they changed to Moto2, and I was struggling in the beginning — I was really bad. In the second part of the season, I got faster. I had a bad crash at Brno, and I couldn’t race for three races. Then I came back after two months of doing nothing, nothing for racing, and I was a little bit out of the feeling, and had some bad results.
In Spain, at Aragaon, I had a bad result, and I was a little bit angry about it. Then we came to Japan, and I had my first podium. I was really happy about that. I was still angry though, if I hadn’t crashed at Brno, maybe I could have made my first podium in my home, or I could have gotten a lot of points, because at the end of the season I was only four points away from sixth place, maybe three points [Karel finished 13 points behind sixth place finisher Gabor Talmacsi — Ed.]. The guy behind me was de Angelis by just one point, but in front was a point, eighth was another point…it was just so close to be sixth.
Q: I used to race sailboats, and we had this saying that if you wanted to get better, you had to race someone who was better than you. Coming into MotoGP, do you feel like it has made you a better rider?
I think the best place to learn how to race, how to fight, is MotoGP because there are so many riders you have to fight. They are just crazy. It never happens to you that more than one person overtakes you in a race — Moto2 is better for that. But in MotoGP, all the riders are so precise. They are riding so precisely, and they are so good. So, MotoGP is more difficult for sure.
Q: If you had to do it over again, would you have done another Moto2 season, and waited to come into MotoGP the season after?
No I wouldn’t. I would come into MotoGP. It’s interesting though, because the riders I was fighting with last year, like Bradl, he’s actually getting the title. He’s like 60 points ahead of the next rider. It’s just that there were riders that were fighting with me, who are now fighting for podiums, and fighting for the Championship. So maybe I’d be there too. Or, maybe I’d be unlucky like Redding, who is far away and having troubles, or like Iannone, who is having a lot of problems. I don’t know why he’s so far back.
Q: Looking at the results from the two season, it looks like it is harder to get a read on the talent of the riders in Moto2, since the chassis can play such a deciding factor.
That’s interesting, because I think that each chassis from the manufacturers are different, but they fit differently to each rider. In MotoGP, I never tried the Honda or Yamaha, or even Suzuki, just Ducati, so I cannot say if Yamaha or Ducati would fit me better. I just don’t know.
Q: What’s been the biggest hurdle in coming to MotoGP?
It’s everything. It’s the setup of the bike — the electronics, there’s so many electronics, and so many setups within the electronics. There is the tires which are…they were nice in the beginning, but they can betray you very easily. Very easily. They get cold so quickly. What else? Engines, tires, brakes, suspension, the engine power…that’s crazy.
Q: Describe for me the very first time you got on the Ducati.
It was probably a year and a month ago in Mugello. We had our first test with the Ducati and the test team. It was so good. It was so much fun. And of course, I was scared the first time sitting on the bike. I mean 250 horsepower under my ass. It was crazy. But I really enjoyed it — it was fun.
Again, it was like 250. We were not sure we wanted to go to MotoGP yet. We had to test the bike and see if I could do something, or if I’m very bad. That could also happen, right?
Q: Was there a moment while you were on it that you said, “Yes, this is something I have to go do”?
Yes, it was there at the test. The next test we did was at Valencia, and we were already signed already. Everybody told me to go, I was the last one to say yes though. I realize how much it costs, and how difficult it was going to be…and it’s even worse [laughs]. It took me time to make the decision to go.
Q: I think in the US when we first heard that you were coming up to MotoGP, people didn’t quite know who you were. Now that we’re halfway through the season, looking at the Championship point, you could be the Rookie of the Year!
We’ll see. I don’t really know what Rookie of the Year really means. I never really heard of it that much. Sure it would be nice to be Rookie of the Year, but it would be nicer for me to have some nice result throughout the season, right? That’s why I’m doing this. So we want to get better every time we sit on the bike, every time we get out on the track. Every lap we do, we want to get some more experience. That’s the important thing.
Q: Would you say your season so far has met your expectations?
If you told me at the beginning of the season that I am going to do these results, to fight with these kind of riders, I would have been surprised, or I just would not have believed you. But as you get to fight with them, you are not happy with it — you always want more and more until you’re first, right? So I’m never happy with my race. Never.
I mean there’s been some races that I’ve been really happy with, like seventh place in Jerez, but also I say “why did I crash?” If I hadn’t crashed I could have been third, fourth, or fifth, fighting with Nicky Hayden. So, every race I finish, there is something to do better.
Q: You mentioned that you’ve never ridden a MotoGP on your home circuit. When you ride the Ducati on a track you’ve been to before, do you feel like you are having to re-learn a circuit over again, or is it easier than going to track you’ve never been to before?
I’ve raced most of the tracks, I know how they look, but the lines are different — everything is different. I wouldn’t say its like coming to a new track, like here [Laguna Seca], but it’s not easy. It’s not easy to learn the lines and everything, and some riders they get very mad when I try to follow them during the Free Practices, but I need it! I need it because I’m the kind of rider who feels much better to follow somebody. Not just someone faster, but it could also be someone who is slower and I’m trying to catch them. I just like to see someone in front of me, so I can try and catch them or try and see what they are doing. I really need it, especially the first year, because I don’t know the lines.
Sometimes when during Free Practice 1, I am so bad. I don’t know where to go, or which line to choose. And then we come to Free Practice 2, and I just look at someone in front of me and I say, “oh right, that’s the line,” and I go do it.
Q: Have any of the riders taken you under their wing and said “hey Karel, let’ go through here…”
No, no. That’s not how this works. When they see me behind them, they usually close the throttle, and well…yeah.
Q: When you’re describing learning the lines, is then really learning the bike or is it the track?
It’s both. I think in MotoGP, it’s always about everything. They [the other riders] are all Champions, or most of them are Champions. It’s never going to be easy to fight with them. It never is. Not even for Stoner who is leading the Championship right now. So not even for him is it easy.
Q: What are your goals going into the next half of the races?
I don’t have goals like “finish here”. It’s more fighting with the people, and being a bit better than them. It’s always about being a bit better. It’s tough though, so when you come to a place like Laguna Seca it is a different situation than say Sachsenring. Sachsenring I know, but Seca is such a different circuit, so it’s new for me. Every time it’s different.
Q: Is there a particular MotoGP rider you enjoy racing against?
Sure, sure it’s fun. It’s really nice to see that you can be faster than Capirossi for example. It’s a good feeling you know. It’s a very nice feeling to be in front of Valentino, even if it’s just during Free Practice. It’s such a good feeling.
Q: Do you get a hard time from the other Ducati riders about being faster than them?
They don’t say anything, and usually they have the experience. You could see in Germany at Sachsenring that when Valentino was 16th and I was 8th on the grid, that was very bad, but he has so much experience that he can push the gas and overtake the riders, and still overtake half the field during the race.
Q: Are you excited about the switch to 1,000cc in the 2012 season?
Sure I am because 1,000cc MotoGP is a more powerful bike. I’ve always liked it when I had a more powerful bike. It was always good, and when I changed to 250, Moto2 isn’t a good example, but in MotoGP…I always like more and more power. Sure there’s a limit to that, but we’re going to wait and see when we go on the new bikes.
Q: As a new rider does that help or hinder you?
It’s a process because the other riders will of course be learning a new bike, but they have a lot of experience. If you look at Valentino, he’s been riding in MotoGP for how many years? So sure, first year he remembers something from the 1,000’s, but with him, he just knows how to ride a bike. I think it’s a big advantage for against the riders who are coming next year.
Q: Do you think you’ll have a teammate for next year?
No I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure…you never know, but I’m pretty sure.
Photo: © 2011 Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved