"Danny is probably the most talented rider I have ever worked with," Peter Bom, Danny Kent's former crew chief at Kiefer told me several times last year. Bom has seen plenty of talent in his time: he also worked with Stefan Bradl at Kiefer, Chris Vermeulen in World Supersport and World Superbikes, Cal Crutchlow in World Supersport. World champions all, and to this tally he added Danny Kent.
Less than a year after helping him win the Moto3 world championship, Danny Kent asked the Kiefer team for a new crew chief, abandoning his collaboration with Peter Bom. Kent felt that Bom had been slow to pick up on the changes in the Moto2 class during Bom's three years in Moto3. Stefan Kiefer obliged, and Kent started the season with a new crew chief and a Suter Moto2 chassis.
Three races into the new season, Kent has left the team. He competed in two races for them, scoring three points in the first, crashing out of the second. At Austin, after a miserable few practice sessions, Kent refused to race. The team could have seen the decision coming, perhaps: Kent had finished 29th in morning warm up, 2.5 seconds off the pace of fastest man Taka Nakagami.
Later that afternoon, in a series of tweets, Kent explained his decision was because of "irreconcilable differences", which had prevented him from reaching his potential. He said he was still hungry, and believed he could be competitive in Moto2. Team boss Stefan Kiefer told Dutch Eurosport, "personally, I do not think this is correct, but that's what he decided." In a press release later that day, Kiefer stated that the decision was "difficult to understand from the team's point of view."
The truth is out there
What really happened? Is the Kiefer Racing team really that bad? Is the Suter uncompetitive? Was Kent right to leave the team? The fact that Kent's teammate Domi Aegerter finished Sunday's race in fifth, just under eleven seconds behind the winner Franco Morbidelli, suggests that there is not that much wrong with either the bike or the team. However, if Danny Kent felt he could not be competitive on the Suter with the Kiefer team, then he was automatically right about that: 90% of racing at this level happens in the mind, and if a rider believes they can't compete, then they can't, no matter what bike they are on or what team they are with.
In many ways, Kent's 2017 season was a mirror image of 2016. When I spoke to Kent at the IRTA Test in Jerez back in March, the Englishman was happy and confident. He spoke of how much he liked the Suter, saying it had better rear grip than the Kalex which allowed him to steer the bike with the rear. The downside, he told me, was that when temperatures rose and the track got greasy, that rear grip went away, and with less front-end grip than the Kalex, it was tougher to manage the bike.
Kent may have been competitive at Jerez, but he was nowhere once the racing started. The same thing happened in 2016 as well: after the Jerez test last year, Peter Bom told me that Kent had been very quick indeed and felt very confident. Once the season got underway, Kent started to struggle. That led to friction with Bom, Kent complaining that the bike never felt right, and that as he was the Moto3 champion, he knew best. By the end of the season, Kent was asking for his crew chief to be replaced.
When the going gets tough
The fact that nothing changed between 2016 and 2017 suggests that the problem was not with the team, nor with the crew chief, nor with the bike. The problem was with Danny Kent. In what is arguably the toughest class in motorcycle racing, Kent didn't do the work or have the mental toughness to keep picking himself up and dusting himself down to try and fight again. He tried to rely on his talent, but in Moto2, talent alone won't get you very far.
If Moto3 is a test of talent, Moto2 is a test of character. It is a pool populated by either piranhas or prey: if the pack sense any weakness, smell any blood in the water, they will tear you limb from limb. The challenge riders face in Moto2 is to find the strength to push at the limit during qualifying, to ensure a good starting position, and the endurance to push in the race, the courage to risk pushing early to try to escape the clutches of the howling pack behind.
Valentino Rossi gave a good explanation of why Moto2 is so tough in the press conference at the Circuit of The Americas. "Everybody has the same bike, more or less everybody. Especially the same engine, the same tires, the same brakes and everything. So it's more difficult to make an overtake. Always the races are very tight and it's difficult to make the difference."
It's tough in the middle
That is exactly what mid-pack Moto2 riders will tell you. If passing can be tough at the front, it is positively brutal in mid-pack and further back. Everyone knows that you can't make up any time with the engine, so you have to take risks on the brakes and with your lines in the early laps, then try to be as precise as possible in the second half of the race as you try to make up ground.
Differences are counted in hundredths of a second rather than tenths, and half a second will often cover ten or fifteen places. A single mistake or running into traffic on a qualifying lap can drop you eight, nine places on the grid, making your life even tougher in the race. Every lap has to be ridden at 100%, to get the rider up to speed mentally, and to ensure they are ready once qualifying and the race starts.
Doing that requires an insane level of fitness, which means spending the break between races training, studying, practicing. Tito Rabat did endless laps round Almeria in pursuit of his Moto2 championship, lapping in the morning before track days began, during lunch break, then again for an hour after track days finished. Johann Zarco traveled round Europe from track to track with a Yamaha R6 in the back of a van. The VR46 Riders Academy youngsters race flat track at Rossi's ranch, then lap Misano on Yamaha R6s.
Even then, there is no guarantee of success. Riders have to take that fitness, and the sharpness they learned by riding bikes at speed, and leverage that every race weekend. They cannot afford to take any time off during a Grand Prix weekend: they have to be 100% focused at all times, always searching for an edge over their rivals.
High stress demands mental toughness
That focus, that existence is incredibly stressful for young men and women who are, for the most part, in their late teens and early twenties. The mental strength to deal with those demands and the stress they create is what makes the difference between success and failure. Sure, there are good teams and bad teams, but there are more tenths to be found between the ears of a rider than in the suspension settings and bike geometry of a Kalex or Suter.
And sure, often the bike feels strange. It won't turn in like the rider wants, or it doesn't have the stability they expect under braking, or the rear won't grip and drive. Danny Kent faced significant problems in his years in Moto2, but they were no different to the problems faced by every other rider on the grid. Talk to any rider, be it MotoGP championship leader Valentino Rossi or Patrik Pulkkinen, last in Moto3, and they will immediately launch a litany of complaints of what an absolute heap of junk their bike is, and how their rivals have an unfair advantage, obviously riding near perfect machines.
Those who get lost in agonizing over their problems find themselves stuck in the bottom half of the field. Those who get on with the job of riding what they have and work their way around problems are able to make progress, and improve. The lot of a motorcycle racer is never a happy one, but a successful racer just gets on with the job in hand.
The way to win
All of this is what Kent failed to understand, and what he failed to adapt to. In part because his excess of natural talent, but also perhaps because of the way he won his Moto3 championship. In 2015, Kent's season got off to a good start in Qatar, then he went on to win the second race of the season (ironically) in Austin, then again in Argentina, winning by the biggest dry margin ever in a Moto3 race at the time.
By the time they returned to Europe, Kent had a margin of 17 points in the championship. He won again at Jerez, and with the exception of Le Mans, was either wining or on the podium at every race through to the Sachsenring. Leaving Germany, Kent had an advantage of 66 points over Enea Bastianini, and 88 points over Miguel Oliveira, who would end the year in second place.
Where had Kent's dominance come from? Though Peter Bom remained cagey, he explained that they had found an advantage by departing from the bike geometry recommended by Honda, which Alex Márquez had used to win the championship the previous year. It was a choice which made HRC nervous, but as Kent kept on winning, they tolerated it. Kent's confidence blossomed, and that confidence gave him three or four tenths even before he jumped on the bike.
Others catch up
By mid-season, the other Honda teams had figured out that they, too, needed to abandon Alex Márquez' setup, and were competitive with Kent. At Misano, KTM brought a new chassis for their Moto3 bike, which improved the handling, got rid of most of the chatter which had plagued the bike, and transformed Oliveira into a real threat.
Kent was still competitive, but a combination of complacency and nerves saw his fortunes slump. He won one more race, the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, but after that, unnecessary crashes and poor decision making meant the championship went down to the final race in Valencia. Even then, Kent could only manage to struggle to ninth. It was enough, and Kent became the first British Grand Prix champion for 35 years by a mere six point margin.
Did Danny Kent deserve his championship? Absolutely. He did everything right: he worked closely with his team, trusted their advice, and listened to them. And because he listened to them, he gave good feedback, telling them what they needed to know while not getting distracted. His success gave him the motivation to put in the hard yards, to do the fitness training, to retain his focus and keep his eyes on the prize.
Decline and fall
But that long stretch of the last few races were a sign that he was struggling with the pressure. Every rider on their way to a championship feels it, even the greatest. But how they handle it is the mark of the man (or, perhaps one day, woman). Compare and contrast Danny Kent in 2015 with Brad Binder in 2016. Both riders had big leads and strong advantages. Both gained their confidence from dominant wins early in the season. But Binder held his nerve, and wrapped the title up at Aragon. Kent got caught in unnecessary battles, crashed, and ended up taking the title fight all the way to the wire in Valencia.
Those early signs of trouble exploded in 2016. After a very good preseason, Kent struggled badly. His best result, sixth in Qatar, came in the opening race. He didn't finish six races, and finished out of the points in four more. He was usually qualifying on the fifth row, or further back. That's the point in the field where the start turns into something resembling the old computer game Road Rash, played in deathmatch mode. The two or three tenths between there and the second and third row makes a huge difference to the ease of riding, but that was time Kent was never able to find, for whatever reason.
There were a lot of reasons. There was talk that he wasn't training hard enough, and that he wasn't focused. He spent far more time on his phone, chatting to his girlfriend and his friends, than he did studying data and working on setup. If the way to fix Kent's problems was the rigorous application of hard work, Kent did not appear inclined to put it in. His 2017 season was more of the same.
And so in Austin, Danny Kent pulled the plug. Disaffected with the way his season was going, and with no prospect of progress, from his perspective, he decided to leave the team. He says he still believes he can be competitive in Moto2. If it was just a matter of talent, he would be absolutely right. But it isn't. There is much, much more to it than that.
Now, Kent is looking around for new opportunities, and hoping for another chance in Moto2. He will not be given one. For when Kent walked away, he confirmed the prejudices that team managers in the Grand Prix paddock have about him. The problem for Kent is that he does not just have the Kiefer strike against his name. His year in Moto2 with Tech 3 was similarly mediocre, for much the same reasons. Team members would privately joke about Kent being more interested in his hair than in his training. Those kind of jokes make their way through the paddock. All racing paddocks are one great big gossipy sewing circle, and news and rumors, good and bad, spread fast.
So Danny Kent finds himself without a ride. His reputation precedes him, meaning team managers will now only look at him if he brings money with him. That is an ignominy a world champion does not deserve. But no one will touch him in the Grand Prix paddock, unless he can prove he has changed. His best hope is to head to World Supersport, and find a ride that will let him beat Kenan Sofuoglu. If he can't do that, then he is in real trouble.
Through a glass, darkly
I feel a great deal of sympathy for Danny Kent. He is a likable and supremely talented rider, and was always open when I spoke to him. He has an infectious smile, and Peter Bom has happy memories of the year in Moto3 where the two shared a room, and joked and worked their way to the title. But his trouble is he has always relied on his talent, which was enough to take him a very long way indeed.
Something similar happened to me, as a young and stupid teenager. At school, I got through exams without working, on my wits alone. Then, at university, I failed utterly, twice, because I didn't put in the work and didn't have the right attitude. It took me until my thirties until I had grown up enough to understand that hard work was a necessary ingredient for success.
My skill set – a way with words – is not subject to the vagaries of aging. Danny Kent is not so lucky. There is a very limited window of opportunity for success as a motorcycle racer, before time takes its toll on body and mind. At twenty-three, Kent is still young enough to have a good few years ahead of him. But to get the chance to demonstrate once again just how talented he is, he needs to learn the other skills a racer needs: dedication, focus, self-belief. The willingness to learn, and to analyze your own weaknesses, and the self-confidence to believe you can fix them. Those qualities are a good deal more difficult to learn than just riding a motorcycle very fast.
I hope he succeeds.
Danny Kent was asked for his reaction to this article, and issued the following statement through his manager:
"I don’t expect anyone to understand the position I’ve been in and what has passed over the past 17 months since winning the Moto3 World Championship. It’s easy for people to point the finger - and I take my fair share of the blame - but it’s not the whole story.
"I find it difficult to swallow when personal digs are being made at me, with regards to fixing my hair or messaging my girlfriend. In the bigger scale of things these things affected nothing and so I don’t see the need to bring them up. I don’t want to dwell on the past, I know where I have to improve to get back to the front and I don’t wish to talk negatively about others in the paddock.
"I’m looking to the future and yes, it may be difficult for team managers to instill their trust in me but I can assure you I’m not giving up and I will push hard to come back at a competitive level in the right surroundings. DK”
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