Jeffrey Herlings of the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team has been missing in action since the November of 2021. It is incredible to think that the last time that '84' sat behind a start gate was at that unbelievable season finale in Mantova, Italy. An unfortunate fall at his pre-season photo shoot left him with a complex foot injury and, following multiple surgeries, he is finally working towards a return to racing in what are the twilight years of his professional career.
Herlings has been back aboard the KTM 450 SX-F for a while now and is refining the all-new bike, which he has not raced at the highest level, that has given others fits. In this exclusive Vital MX interview, he discusses the different parts that he is working through and how the return of air forks is on the horizon. Finding that sweet spot is pivotal as the 2023 FIM Motocross World Championship beckons. Not only will Herlings want to prove a point, after missing from competition for sixteen months, but he is also moving into the last year of his lucrative contract.
Surprisingly, he reveals in this interview that he wants another multi-year deal from a manufacturer and is not going to retire for a while yet! Good news. There is actually a ton to unpack here, as he also talks about the new look KTM Factory Racing team and offers his thoughts on who will reign supreme when the new season of Monster Energy Supercross begins. This Vital MX interview is available on the various podcast platforms, if reading is not your preferred method.
Vital MX: We have not seen you in a year. How long have you been back on the bike? How is your health?
Jeffrey Herlings: Yeah, I've been on the bike for like six weeks or so now. I did a bit of riding in the summer months, but then I had another surgery to try and get the previous injury even better. Some things did not go the way that they should have gone, with the surgery, so I had to do another one and that is why I didn't come back to race. I knew that I was going to need another surgery to be as fit as I could possibly get. Going back to your question, I have had six weeks on the bike and riding is going well. All is good.
What about your health? Do you feel fine or as good as you possibly can?
Yeah, I mean… I have had a few injuries by now. Everything was really, really good. My left heel is something that I still feel. They made a surgery to my other foot, which I shattered in 2019, and that is actually really, really good now. I do not actually feel anything when I am riding – that is pretty positive. I still feel it a little bit on the heel. It's not like I am really in pain, but I can feel that it is not like it used to be. I do not think that is going to make me any slower. I am starting to feel my broken bones now though, as I get older.
Like you said, you rode a little bit in the middle of the year. You were actually riding for a while there. I guess that will help you when it comes to testing for the new season. You got some more time on the new bike!
Yeah, definitely. There were not as many parts as there are now that the boys have done outdoors and the whole of MXGP. The guys have developed a lot of new parts, but I was injured when they started to become available. I had just had that new surgery. I am testing those parts right now, but we have had a lot of bad weather in Holland. The tracks are not great for testing. It is just riding through the mud and in the cold. I'm in Rome right now, but the weather is really bad here too. We are supposed to test this week but we have just been riding in the rain so far. I am still going to go to Spain and I guess that the weather will be fine there, so we can start testing even more parts.
The bike that I'm on now is already a huge improvement to what I was on at the beginning of the year. I just have not had the time to sort through all of those parts. There are a lot of things! I think that you can tune each 450F like you want to with the frame, suspension, linkage, hardware in the engine and ECU. There are a lot of things and different options to try. I am already really happy with the bike. To win at this level, we need to search for perfection and try to make the bike as good as possible. It is the same with the rider – I need to keep improving and try to become better. I have been off for a year and that is pretty long. I should not underestimate that.
I heard that you liked the new bike a lot on hard-pack tracks, when you were riding in the middle of the season, but felt it needed more work in the sand. Is that true? Do you still feel like that now?
To be honest, I have not ridden a hard-pack track since January. The weather has been so bad in Holland; I have only ridden in the sand lately. I am pretty happy in the sand. Sure, I guess that we can still improve. I am happier than I was at the beginning of the year though – that is also because it was a brand-new bike and I was one of the first guys on it. There have been a lot of people testing and racing the bike throughout this year – a lot of the parts came as well and that has made some huge improvements. I am pretty happy in the sand. Yeah, I am. I still believe that there is room for improvement, but I believe that the bike could be ready to race with how it is now. We need to keep improving. The rest of the brands keep improving and so should we.
Pauls Jonass went to a stock set-up, and a stock shock, halfway through this year. I heard that [Jorge] Prado is going towards something similar as well. Have you tested anything similar to that? Have you taken things that Pauls, Jorge and Cooper [Webb] have done this year?
I have not really been testing any stock things that I know of. Okay, there are definitely stock parts on the bike. There are a lot of things that we are still trying – and going to try – with the suspension. The next plan is that we are going to test with the air fork, as some guys are already running the air fork. I do not know if they are racing with it, but some guys have tested it and have been testing it for a long time. They seem to really like it. Everyone has been running the spring fork in the factory teams over the last few years. That is the next step [the air fork] and next thing for me to try.
I honestly do not believe that I have been testing any stock suspension, but we did a lot of modifications on the suspension. I do not know of anything being stock. Furthermore, we have so many things to try and test. There are a lot of things for personal feeling too – one guy wants a lot of power and one guy wants less. One guy want hard suspension and one guy wants soft. It is all personal. I do not even know what Prado is running or what Webb is running. With the American rules, then they will most likely be running a different frame to what we are. I do not even really know what they are running right now.
It is funny. You are on Red Bull KTM Factory Racing – just as you have been for your entire career – but you are not working with Ruben [Tureluren] anymore and Dirk [Gruebel] is not going to all of the races, which is a big change. That is bigger than most fans probably realise. There is a bit of an adjustment for you.
It is really weird. Dirk has been having some issues with his health for two or three years, so he had to make the decision. It is not that he wanted to make the decision – I do not think – but he was just struggling with his health and could not keep doing his job. I believe he is doing something at the factory right now, but I have not spoken to him in a while as I know that he has not been feeling that well. Obviously, with De Carli coming in… That used to be the Tony [Cairoli] side and then we were the Austrian side, but we are basically working together. It is actually an honor to work for Tony and he has a lot of experience. It's also good for testing.
I just take the plane from Eindhoven to Rome to get out of the rain and start riding in the good weather. Well, not this week. Most of the time! I think it is good. The language is a little bit of a problem with Claudio De Carli – he speaks Italian and I do not speak Italian [laughs]. His English is not the best yet. With Tony aboard, the communication goes very well. I also take it as a new challenge, as a lot of things have changed. We went from two riders to four too – a lot of things have changed over the last year. Some people went and some new people came in. I am curious to see how things will turn. This is also the last year of my contract with KTM, 2023, so this is an important year for me to bring some good results with an eye on the future.
It is crazy to think that it was only last year that you were racing with Cairoli and now he is your boss. I'm sure that there was an adjustment there, but has he been helping with riding stuff? Where has he been the biggest help?
His biggest help is that he just lets me do whatever I kind of want to do – that is the best thing. If you go against me… If I want to go left and he keeps telling me to go right, then I know myself and that is going to bring friction. Tony has really been letting me do whatever I want. I do not even know which pre-season races I am going to do, but he will let me do them and whatever I want. If I want to ride in Belgium, I can do that. If I want to ride in Spain, I can go to Spain. He was actually very smart to give me the freedom that I would like to have. When I ask for help or anything then he helps me where he can. It is crazy. I wanted to clean the sh*t out of this guy two years ago, basically, but now we work together. I have basically hated him for my entire career – he was so damn good and I had to work so hard to try to beat him. Now we are teaming up! It is actually an honor. I am pretty pleased with it all. It's a big change, coming from the people I used to work with to this new set-up. It is the same manufacturer that I am racing for but a completely new group of people that I am working with on a daily basis. Maybe it is a good change? We will see.
You mentioned your contract there. Who knows what the future holds, of course, but a lot of people wonder how much longer you will race for. You have been around a while now and had a lot of injuries, as you know. Do you have a plan mapped out? I wonder whether you could win the world title next year, go to Pro Motocross in 2024 and then call it a day. Have you got a best-case scenario planned out?
I've got a contract right now, with KTM, for 2023. In my dream scenario, I would do 2024 and 2025 in MXGP. I would have 2026 as an option to either race in MXGP or the outdoors in America. One of the two. Maybe 2024 [in MXGP] and then 2025 in either outdoors or MXGP. Something inside of me says that I still want to race a full year of outdoors, but by the time that it is 2025 or 2026… That is still three years from now. I do not really know what would have happened to myself on whatever brand I'm racing and a lot of things are changing with that new championship [the SuperMotocross World Championship]. The outdoors is just an eleven-race series in a three-month time period. It is so hard to plan that far in advance but, coming back to your question, I definitely want to race in 2024 and 2025. Maybe even 2026. I am going to call it a day after 2026, mate. I am going to lay in the sun somewhere.
That is actually good news. If I had to put money on it, I would not have said that you would go until 2026. Yeah, good news. That has surprised me a little bit.
I was already winning GPs when I was fifteen and I just turned twenty-eight, two or three months back. If I stop next year then I would barely be twenty-nine; I think that's pretty early. I want to do three more years and then I'll be thirty-one. I will either call it a day then or do 2026. I want to do a two or three-year deal, when this contract finishes, with whatever brand I am going to go to. That is probably going to be my last one, mate.
How tough was this year for you, mentally? Put MXGP to one side: I would imagine that watching Pro Motocross would have just killed you mentally. It was great racing and you would have wanted to be out there yourself.
Well, actually, when I saw the speed of [Chase] Sexton and [Eli] Tomac then I did not feel so bad about not being there. Those guys were flying. When I watched MXGP then I felt that the guys in the USA were faster. The 'Nations is always going to be a mudder. Michigan was a mudder and we all know that the American riders are not that strong in the mud, most of the time, because they do not race it as much as we do. That series [Pro Motocross] was really good to watch. It was a really nice championship – Eli and Chase were always so close. MXGP was a bit boring. I was injured, Prado was a bit off to me, [Romain] Febvre was injured, Tony has retired, [Gautier] Paulin has retired and [Clement] Desalle has retired. There were not any big guns racing. It was just [Tim] Gajser riding around and winning most of the races. It was a bit boring. Seeing the racing in the USA, they looked fast.
Speaking of the USA, we will get into some fun stuff. We are forgetting about you now. You did not even race this year! Supercross is coming up. Who have you got your money on? Sexton took a step up this year and Tomac is always fast. What are you thinking heading into Anaheim 1?
My ideal scenario would be kickstart Kenny [Roczen] winning A1. I think it will blow the roof off if he comes back on his Suzuki and damn kickstarts that thing to the main event win. I do not see Kenny winning the championship. Championship-wise, I think… I don't know. I think it is Tomac against Webb for some reason. I do not believe that Webb has the pure speed, but I think that he has the desire and heart to win. He seems to be pissed off at the results that he had and that last year did not work out well. He took that summer off, I think, to really get ready to try to win this thing. If he wins this then I think it is from commitment and hard work. I believe that Sexton will be the fastest guy around, along with Kenny. I think that mainly Sexton will be the fastest guy, but he still crashed at multiple races last year and even injured himself. I'm not even sure about that. I do not think he is consistent enough right now to do the full seventeen-round series. I do not know, man. It could be Eli, Chase or Webb. If you ask me today, then I think it will be Webb or Tomac.
It still makes me laugh when I think about how similar you and Webb are. I feel like if we could cut open your brains, they would both work in very similar ways. You both get very pissed off when you lose and ride at your best when you have a point to prove. Do you view it in the same way?
Yeah. I know Cooper a little bit. I spoke to him a bit throughout the summer and I just think, with the way that we spoke, that he is angry to start winning again. I feel like he really wants to win and prove a point to everyone – KTM, all of his partners and the whole industry – that he has still got it. Last year everyone said, "Okay, Webb is kind of done." I do not even think he won a main event, then he was out for outdoors and had his baby. I think that he is a bit the same way [as me] but he is smarter. When he could not win, then he gives it a bit less and comes in fifth whereas I would crash my brains out. We do look a bit similar.
The MXGP season is still a long way away. We have had a long off-season this year. Well, especially for you…
I have had a year and a half of off-season.
Stupid of me to say that really! You still have around one hundred days until Argentina though, so what is one thing that you want to work on and fix? Is it something with the bike, your technique, mentality or something else?
I just want to do a lot of races. I definitely want to do four or five races before heading into the first Grand Prix, just because I have not raced in so long. Even now when I get on track… When I am riding alone then I am good, smooth and fast. I do not feel comfortable once some faster guys go onto the track. I have not raced in over a year and I feel like I need to do some races to warm up. I am even fine if I finish fifth in those first races – I do not care. By doing that, I know that I'll get warmed up before the first races. I think that it is necessary to do some warm-up races when you have not been behind the gate for that long or ridden with fast guys. I still need to do that. KTM's supporting me really well with whatever I want to try. They are trying to supply me with whatever I want to have changed on the bike.
Getting the bike as good as possible, as well as myself, is what I really want to work for and aim for. I am going to head to Spain after Christmas, most likely, for a month and a half to be there alone. I'll really work hard and kind of in silence. I'll work on my fitness there and get ready for the first races. Like I said, I want to do a few. We will see what the championship holds for us. It'll be a long series again, twenty races, and there are so many rumours about having the qualification points, so that means that there are sixty races. It is going to be intense and long. I know what to do, to not get injured. It has not been working in my favour for most of my career but once I do that then I think I will be close to the goal.
Do you get nervous? When it comes time for you to race again, both at warm-up races and the first Grand Prix, do you think you will be sat on the start line and feel more nervous than usual? Is that not something that you really get affected by?
Not really. I do not really care what people think or say at this point or even before. When you are winning you are a hero and when you are not winning then you are zero. I do know what it takes. I know, and the people around me know, that I have been out for a year. You cannot expect me to have five hundred days without racing and come back to smoke everyone. We need to get back in that rhythm and racing scene to get it done. When I am testing now then I am like, "What is going on mate?" I have not ridden that much. Starting the day at nine and finishing at four… I am like, "Bro, I've just been sitting on the couch for almost a year and getting my feet repaired." Now I am getting back into a routine of waking up, training and having some breakfast. It is just a routine that you need to get back into and it is the same with racing. The years go by so quick. In the other years when I did race full seasons, it happens so fast. I need to get back in the rhythm, back in the zone and then we will work from there.