Jonas Folger Interview: The Comeback Kid

Every racing fan remembers the great battle in Sachsenring between local rider Jonas Folger and champion Marc Márquez. Folger, then racing for Yamaha in the Tech3 satellite team, gave the Honda rider a great fight, but had to settle for second place and the sympathy of the home crowd at the end of the thrilling race.

It seemed like the start of a promising racing career for the rookie, but five rounds later Folger announced he was suffering from a health problem that did not allow him to continue competing, and retired from the rest of the season. Although he had already signed on for another season with the French team, before the start of testing for the 2018 season, Folger announced that he would not compete again.

It was not clear what happened there, and rumors flooded the paddock that Folger had abandoned the sport because he could not handle the pressure. Folger had not reached the top category with a long list of titles, but Hervé Poncharal saw something in him, and as great as the expectations were, so was the disappointment.

Folger disappeared. He took time at home with his partner and daughter who was born when he was not yet 20. A year after retirement Yamaha put the German back in the headlines when they signed him to be their test rider for the 2019 season.

Slow return

Slowly, Folger started frequenting racetracks again. He arrived as a replacement for several rounds. In 2020 he competed in a full season for the first time since his break, racing in the IDM, the German Superbike Championship on the Yamaha YZF-R1.

For the 2021 season, the 27-year-old rider will return for the first time to compete at the world championship level, this time in WorldSBK on the M 1000 RR, BMW's new and improved Superbike weapon.

We conduct the interview in February, virtually using Zoom. I am in the kitchen and he is in the gym / garage with a simple T-shirt and without any branding from the team or the manufacturer for who he will ride. Because of Covid-19 pandemic he received no clothing, met almost no one, did not see or try the motorcycle, and only heard that it would be completely different from the S1000RR that was on the track in the 2020 season and did not reach the podium once.

"I know they made a lot of changes in aerodynamics with the winglets, I know they made a big step there, they modernized it," Folger says. "I know they also made changes to the chassis, the swing arm, the engine is more powerful, a new gearbox, so they made a lot of changes. It's true they had struggled the last years so it was important they took a step forward and I am very happy to be a part of it and join them at the right time. I will officially test the motorcycle in March in Portimao, after that in Estoril and then also in Barcelona so we will have some time on the motorcycle, I'm not worried."

Expanding the campaign

Folger will be one of the four riders for the German manufacturer, with Michael van der Mark and Tom Sykes racing in the factory team, and he and Eugene Laverty competing in separate satellite teams "We will all have the same motorcycle. I trust them but we also have a contract that says that," Folger explains. "It makes sense as if I do not have the same parts it's not good for development. It's the same motorcycle in a different color”.

It's not only Folger for who this will be debut season. His team is also making the transition with him from the German championship, along with most of his crew. He said it was spontaneous and started to build when he was a wild card at Estoril last season and his team manager Michael Galinski started talks with Yamaha. "We got to the stage of talking about hardware and everything and we started to understand that they have so many riders and if we go for Yamaha we will be the sixth rider on the starting line and we know how it works."

Folger and his team decided to cast their net wider. "We decided to look at other options, when BMW approached us and asked what our plans were. We fitted in to their plans because they want to improve the motorcycle, and with two riders it is not enough. Double the information. It's a 'win-win' situation for all of us" he says and adds that even before he arrived home after the weekend he had already been notified that they were close to an agreement.

Accidentally German

Folger, Bonovo Action MGM Racing, and the manufacturer are excited that for the first time, all three elements will be German, but Folger clarifies that the nationality issue was not the driving factor, and it's just a bonus and honor for everyone involved. He also makes it clear that his departure from Yamaha was not related to being unexpectedly replaced by Jorge Lorenzo as Yamaha's factory rider.

“I was not looking for a team with a Yamaha because I wanted to ride a Yamaha," Folger explains. "Galinski contacted me, and he has a good relationship with Yamaha Germany so he could get a good bike, so this was the package. We could have continued with Yamaha but the package they offered us was better at BMW. We had to look at what was best for us as a new team and a new rider in the Superbike Championship. Everything fit and worked out perfectly."

Folger sees the potential of the BMW as a major selling point. "It's true that the Yamaha motorcycle style suited me. It's true but in BMW there were only two riders and you could see they had good practice, from a good qualifying but were not really consistent. But if you can be fast one lap, or one session it shows the potential and that it is possible. The potential is there and it's another motorcycle but who knows? For me it is also an opportunity to ride something new, it is refreshing, a different character of a motorcycle and maybe it will suit me, we will see and I will have to quickly understand what the qualities of this motorcycle are and try to understand it on the track. I have the ability to quickly get the feel of the bikes I ride."

Higher level

During 2020, Folger and the team participated in two Superbike rounds, one at Barcelona and the other at Estoril, as well as racing in the IDM championship. Folger managed to score points in all of the WorldSBK races, but he admits he did not expect to fight so hard, even though he knew the level of the IDM national championship was nowhere near the WorldSBK Championship.

That makes sense, despite Folger pushing himself as hard as he could in every IDM race, despite winning all 8 races of the German championship. "I decided not to let myself be relaxed even when I was faster than the others. I did not tell myself that I was faster than the others and pushed 110% even when I was ten seconds ahead. I did not want to lose my level. But I'm in love with Superbike!" he says with surprising enthusiasm given his serene personality.

"I like the method, three races, three chances to win, but the biggest difference was the behavior of the tires," Folger explains. "It was challenging for me because the Pirelli tires are excellent for a couple of laps and then there is a drop in performance. I had a hard time with this feeling that I did not experience before, but as soon as I understood it I got better. I like the way the weekend goes, that I can come there with my caravan, a calmer atmosphere while still on the best tracks in the world. Who does not like that feeling? A combination of racing, fast motorcycles but with the possibility to rest and relax more than in MotoGP."

Watchful eye

Although he looks to the future and the new beginning, it is impossible to ignore the past, what Folger went through on his way back to the track and how difficult the process was for him. "The hardest thing after a long break is to go back, no matter to which paddock, because everyone is looking at you and all eyes are on you, ‘How is he doing’, ‘Does he feel good’. So it was the biggest challenge for me, to get into the paddock and not get stressed out from everyone watching and talking."

It was like that from the moment he started testing again, Folger says. "That was the feeling even when I started testing for Yamaha. It was a test period for me. Slowly each time I became more relaxed and I felt everything was going well. Valencia, the test in 2018 was tough, I remember that day well. It's the past, but today I feel good after collecting good results, track time and now I'm ready for the new goal. I want to make life difficult for the factory team. To challenge Van der Mark. For me, for BMW and the team, it seems that they will be happy if our results are in the top ten."

Mens sana

Now that he is back, everyone also knows what really happened in 2017. Folger suffers from Gilbert's Syndrome, an enzyme deficiency in the liver which does not affect daily life for most who have it, but for Folger it caused fatigue, loss of appetite, weakness and other symptoms similar to jaundice.

He agrees that the reactions to his illness were reminiscent of the treatment Casey Stoner received in the 2009 season, and mental difficulties and an inability to cope with stress were mentioned. "I think people forget that we are human and no matter what problem you have in your body or mind. Unlike people working in other industries, we cannot go home and say we need a week or two off, because as a rider you have a lot of commitments. I think many times riders have had similar cases, and were really late realizing what the health problem was and then it's too late."

People are quick to jump to conclusions, Folger says. "At the highest levels of any sport, an undiagnosed problem very quickly turns from a physical problem to a mental problem. Because everyone asks what is wrong, where are the results and so on. It is not easy to understand and respond quickly when not understanding what is going on in the body, and in my case it was too late. My body was already so empty that I had to stop, and even after that I could not know if it would take two months, two weeks, half a year. It could take five years and it is different for everyone."

No choice

Folger's condition became so bad he simply had no option than to stop. "At one point I realized there was no point in continuing, and no one could tell me I stopped because I did not want to do what I had to do, but because I was not in a position where I could do them. It made everything even harder. I was where I wanted and dreamed of being all my life and then I had to make a decision to stop."

It was the toughest decision he had ever faced. "It's hard for me to even describe how it felt. It was the most difficult decision of my life. We are all human. Maybe there are other athletes who would raise their hands and say it was for them but I took the time to rest, faced the problems I had and after that I came back and decided to compete again after a few tries. A new start with new energies and I want to do it again and then you can also feel that feeling inside. "

He is happy that today everyone knows that the obstacle then was physical and not mental, because in this sport, it is like admitting difficulties and no rider wants to do that, "I did not have mental problems, but physical. The problem was that when I became weak, it became mental. Maybe for someone else it would have happened differently, maybe other riders were stronger but I was always traveling, always on the road, I never had a person by my side guiding me, always alone and maybe at some point it had to happen."

Coming back stronger

It was an important life lesson, Folger explains. "Now I understand what others may have known before because of the way they grew up. Finally I am happy, I realized the worst thing that could have happened was if I had never understood and thought there was no way out. And I am on my way back. I grew as a person and have dealt with so many things in recent years. Not many people have to deal with it and when they are in such a situation you find answers and solutions as long as you think and analyze it correctly.”

Gilbert's syndrome is under control in Folger. "I am one hundred percent fine. You can see it in the blood, it will not go away, but I have the answers, I know how to deal with it and against it. I did not know about this disease until I found out I have it, and until you push the body over the edge, you do not know you are sick and it becomes intense and extreme under pressure. I have a special training program and after the first year where I learned how to live with it, everything became more normal. I do not focus on the problem but on the positive wave I am on."

And he is so happy to have found his way back. "I love racing, I love the social aspect, whether it's training in Spain or in the paddock, it's a big family. I love the community while competing at the highest levels and know that I am good at it and that's my job, I earn my salary doing that, that's just wonderful."

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Good luck, Jonas. Encouraging story, thanks Tammy, delightfully told. Surprised and pleased to find Folger’s name alongside Eugene Laverty in the WSB lineup. Glad he’s not just there just to make up the numbers. I hope he and Eugene go well. 

A) love it, inspiring. I need this right now personally.

B) Folger on the sweet BMW with extra beans could be a dark horse on the tail of a Green and a Red bike. Wouldn't that be a great story?

C) want an idea about how much better the M is? Look at what Hicky just did and said over in BSB preseason. Big step in motor. Updates come together as a very nice package. Folger may leapfrog the mid pack early this season. 

It's good to know that Jonas knows what the problem is, has a solution, and is on the comeback trail.

To have reached your dream, to be competitive, and have it wrested away from you, and especially not knowing what it was, must have been extra cruel at the time. That whole mental?/physical? aspect...

We tend to expect superhuman things from the riders at the top, and that expectation is mostly rewarded. But we can forget that at the core level, they are simply human beings first and foremost.

I also loved the fact that you used "Mens Sana" (Healthy Mind) as a heading to the paragraphs on what happened.

Awesome article, Tammy! I loved watching Folger do well at Tech3. I'm sure there are other racers no longer competing in MotoGP we'd love to be updated on, whether they're testing, retired, or racing in a different series. Thanks again.

More of these first-person, candid articles, please. Thank you, Tammy!

Kudos Jonas for his candor and for sharing his introspection, too: "Finally I am happy, I realized the worst thing that could have happened was if I had never understood and thought there was no way out."