World Championship leader Mika Kallio reveals the secrets behind his success in this year’s 250 cc campaign: A small and efficient crew of engineers, new developments for his KTM FRR 250 - and cold blood in the heat of the battle.
You have a comfortable lead in the championship. Are Mika Kallio and KTM the best combination in this year’s 250 cc championship?
Obviously, it looks like that at the moment. But it’s difficult to say exactly why we are leading so clearly. Everything just went very well so far, we had no crashes, no broken engines, and we always finished in good positions with quite a number of podiums so far. And this had been our plan from day one: To go for victory if we had a good chance for winning, but also to settle for safe points without taking unnecessary risks if we weren’t in the position to win. This worked very well so far, and the fact that we had good settings for most of the tracks and that I generally have a good feeling for the bike helped, too. But the championship is far from over, and we have to work a lot if we want to continue this way. We need to find more speed, we need to further improve the engine and the chassis, and of course, I can always improve my riding, too.
KTM’s racing department is a small structure in comparison. What makes the team so competitive?
Everybody thinks that you need a big factory and many people to be successful in racing, but sometimes the opposite is true. KTM made it to the top in this category in only two years, and in my opinion, the small size of the racing department was the key to that. It’s a small and efficient group of highly skilled people that work very well together and that come to conclusions and decisions easily and quickly. Two or three guys can decide on the spot to do this or that, to improve or change certain parts, and the turnaround time is always very fast. Big factories usually take much longer to get similar results. And as I said, the crew at KTM is very good. Apart from minor changes, it also has remained the same group of people for many years now.
2007 was your rookie year in the 250 category, and it turned out a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. What has changed this season?
I had my ups and downs, that’s true, and there were many reasons for that. But towards the end of the year, we had found the light at the end of the tunnel, and we knew that 2008 was going to be much better. The bike had developed enough to suit my style of riding, and we knew the areas in which to further improve. The biggest step was our new chassis. I felt immediately that this was very good for my riding, that I was now able to take advantage of my strong points again, especially on the brakes. After a year of hard work, I finally felt: This is my bike! I was getting better, I was gaining confidence, I was starting to get good results, and in return, my confidence grew even more. Everything started to come together in a very positive way.
Is it helpful to now have two KTM 250 teams in the championship?
I think it’s definitely better to have three riders than just two. It gives you more possibilities to test and evaluate things, and this speeds up the development of the bike. Aprilia have lots of riders and are a step ahead of us in this respect, so it’s good to have at least one more guy with us this year. For the actual set-up of the bike however, we all go our own way. The riding styles of Hiroshi Aoyama, Julian Simon and myself are too different to swap settings.
Are you surprised that Italian Mattia Pasini is second in the championship, whereas Aprilia’s top rider Alvaro Bautista is far behind in the point standings?
This is a big surprise for everyone. I definitely thought that Bautista was going to be the hardest guy to beat. But he had some bad luck, and also made some mistakes on his own, and this of course shows in his points balance. But I still think that he is very fast and a very tough competitor, and there are many races to come in this season. The question is not so much if he will win races, because I am sure he will. The question is if he can close the gap to us or not.
As far as Pasini goes, he has a history of being very fast, but also very inconsistent, with lots of crashes. Now he doesn’t seem to crash any more which is the biggest surprise. But it’s the same old story: You have some good results, your confidence level grows, and success somehow starts to feed on itself.
But still, you are the most level-headed rider in this category. What makes you so cool, calm and collected? Is this a special Finnish mentality?
It’s true: Most Finnish people are like this. Very calm, always. I’m also calm during the race. Even if something happens, if I run wide or make another mistake, I never lose concentration. I just say to myself: Well, I dropped back a little bit, but on the next lap, I will attack and overtake again. An Italian or Spanish rider might get hot about it, would react more aggressively. But in motor sports, it’s good to be cool, to stay concentrated and to calculate your risks at all times.
Are you like Kimi Raikkönen, Finland’s Formula 1 world champion?
I met him once or twice, but I hardly know him, and I don’t compare myself with him at all. Formula 1 is very popular in Finland of course, followed by Rallye and then MotoGP, but with every year, interest for motorcycle racing seems to grow a little bit. If I can win the world championship, this will be a big boost for our sport in my country for sure, but winning people over doesn’t play on my mind. I’m happy for everybody who likes motorcycle racing and enjoys the thrill of watching us, but I also respect the people that have other interests and follow other sports.
What interests do you follow when you are away from the races?
When I have time in summer, I like to retreat to our summerhouse, a cottage at a lake, where I play with my little daughter Mimosa, where I go boating and fishing, where I just enjoy time with my family, and, most importantly, where I switch off my mobile phone. I like simplicity, as I like the stew with meat, potatoes and vegetables, a hearty Finnish specialty that my mother prepares like nobody else. And of course, I like to stay fit. In summer, I go out on my bicycle or work out in the gym. In winter, I go ice-racing on frozen lakes, with moto cross bikes and spiked tyres. It’s fantastic!