At the highest level of motorsport, every rider involved needs to be supremely talented, but when world championships are on the line, motorsport is as much a psychological game as a physical one and a mental edge is as important as a gulf in talent.
Kiara Fontanesi has been the dominant force in Women’s Motocross (WMX) for a number of years now, clinching the title in four consecutive seasons between 2012 and 2015, but what goes into being such a successful athlete at this level? The Checkered Flag caught up with her at the MotoGP British Grand Prix at Silverstone to find out.
Fontanesi enjoyed quite the weekend with boyfriend Maverick Vinales storming to his maiden MotoGP win on the Sunday and the Italian believes the two different disciplines provide very different mental challenges, over and above the obvious physical differences.
“I think mentally, it’s approximately the same. When you’re fighting for a championship, either in motocross or here (MotoGP), it’s the same. Maybe in MotoGP, it’s more mental because the lines are always the same for many, many laps so you need to be focused all the time. You cannot lose concentration. You can commit yourself to break one metre earlier in motocross or one metre later because you can change the line. Here you need to be focused and stay there all the time, otherwise you can lose the race, so maybe it’s more mental. Physically I think motocross is harder, even if it’s dangerous. It’s very easy to get injured. Normally when you race in another discipline, you need to take care a lot.”
Although temperature and weather conditions can change matters, a MotoGP circuit will always present the same challenge from one lap to the next. In motocross though, riders are constantly aiming at a moving target as sand, gravel or mud is displaced.
As Fontanesi explains, that causes a rider to think on their feet. While Copse or Stowe will always have a fastest line that MotoGP riders need to stay on, Kiara told TCF that any given corner on a motocross track offers numerous solutions, forcing the rider to use their experience and intelligence to decide which is the quickest.
“It depends on the track but in motocross, you probably change between two or three lines in a corner. You can do one lap inside, the next outside, the next in the middle depending on which one is the best or if you need to pass or not. Also if you want to try to push to open a gap, there are so many different lines to try and many lines on the jumps.”
“It depends on the situation”, she continued. “Sometimes, you plan in your mind that if the lap before, a rider hasn’t been so fast and you’ve seen another line, you already know a lap later than you can try the outside. Also it depends on if you are fighting someone. If you are behind for one or two laps, you see where you can pass and a lap later, you can pass from the outside or inside. But it changes so much, compared to MotoGP where you change the braking and use the same gear for every lap, in motocross maybe you can do the same corner in second gear and the next lap in third gear. It changes a lot.”
Behind any quality rider is a quality tyre supplier and motocross is no different, with Fontanesi explaining that the rubber plays as significant a role in MXGP as anywhere. With so many different terrains and challenges to face across the season, tyre manufacturers face an overwhelming task to meet the different requirements from venue to venue.
With Dunlop taking Fontanesi to title glory in the past, the 22 year old feels she has the perfect platform to be competitive on track but admits the different surfaces provide intriguing tactical challenges as the season unfolds.
“It counts a lot, not like in MotoGP but it’s counting more and more in motocross because ten years ago, it wasn’t making the same difference. Now, the choice of the tyre makes a lot of difference. My favourite tracks are on sand and when you ride on sand, you only have one tyre. There you don’t need to care about the tyre so much because you only have one option but there have been races where the sand wasn’t so deep, for example Mantova in Italy, where I did one race with the Scoop tyre and one race with the normal tyre. It needs to be a smart decision.”
After four glorious years culminating in championship success, Fontanesi switched from Yamaha to Honda for 2016 and has endured a difficult campaign, losing her crown to Kawasaki’s Livia Lancelot. The adjustment has proven tougher than Kiara had imagined but true champions are defined by how they bounce back in the face of adversity and she says valuable lessons have been learned which will serve her well in the future.
“I had a big change because I switched from Yamaha to Honda and this was the main thing to make me win again. I was struggling a lot because I have no experience on the bike and of course we were not at the same level as last year with the bike. I had a lot of bad luck also and I was struggling all the year with ups and downs but I’ve learned a lot from this year because when things don’t go how you like, you need to set up the mind to be stronger and learn again so it’s been a positive year for me, even if I didn’t win.”
Ultimately, a rider can never say they are the finished article when they are competing at such a high level. Fontanesi is living proof that even when a rider is totally dominant within their field, they can still find new ways to improve.
Having experienced the joys of victory, the pain of defeat is now serving as motivation for Fontanesi as she looks to reclaim the championship in 2017, and the road back to the top of WMX has already begun.
“I want to go back next year and win the championship again. This year when I finished the championship, the day after I started training for the new year. After you win four titles in a row, then you lose the championship because of some things, not because you’re not fast enough, it doesn’t make you so sad but it makes you want to work again.”