Saturday, April 20, 2024

TRANSCRIPT: TCF Interview with Justin Gerlach

On 22 June, The Checkered Flag spoke with Justin Gerlach as he prepares to compete in the Rallye Breslau and complete the application process to race in the 2024 Dakar Rally.

The full transcript of the interview is available below. Some text has been altered from the actual dialogue to improve readability and remove verbal pauses.

An article on the interview can be read here.


TCF: Tell us a little bit about your career so far, like how you got into rally and how the plans to race Dakar came together.

JG: Back then, it all started when I was five years old. I got a motorcycle for my birthday. I didn’t really expect it, but that’s probably where it all started. My parents decided that I should try that out. It just was a hobby for a very long time. I did some local races and just trained a bit together with my father. Just for many years, I switched to bikes, got a little bigger, but I was just like, ‘It was really a hobby for me.’

When I was like fifteen years old, I decided I want to do my driving licence, which you can make when you’re sixteen years old here in Germany, and I had the question of which bike I should choose, which is good for street and for off-road racing because I had some standards there and not every bike would really fit them. My father and I decided to do a rebuild of an old KTM EXC and modify it to be street legal and that’s where it all started really, with the big bikes, still at 125cc, but with a good suspension. 

Somehow, we got the idea to do the Rallye Breslau together with this bike at seventeen years and that’s basically how I came into the rally world. My father did rally in the 90s, and the year before I was born, in 2000, he did the Rallye Breslau the last time. Therefore, it was a cool thing for him to come back like eighteen years later together with me. He told me a lot about it and I was really excited just to be there.

TCF: Outside of your family, who else have been your biggest supporters in getting to Dakar or your career in general?

JG: Outside my family, that’s a hard question. The family is the most reliable support I have to say. Of course, as I told you already, my father and my mother, they are always there and supporting me by being at every race with me and preparing everything around. But other than that, I have a good friend who I got to know like a couple of years ago who just made my suspension. He’s a suspension guy, and right now with my Dakar plans, he’s supporting me a lot because he has a good connection. He used to be a Suzuki Junior Team manager and therefore he knows a lot of people, he has some experience, and he’s supporting me really, really much right now.

TCF: What is the registration process for Dakar like? What do you have to submit?

JG: From what I’ve heard from people because I didn’t register yet, it’s on my plan for after Rallye Breslau, but it seems to be a very, very easy process. It’s just like a run-through. You have the online questionnaire, you have to fill out with all your details obviously, and then for new riders, you have to submit a presentation from which goes out, ‘What’s your experience? What have you done already? What’s your motivation?’ It’s called the dossier du selection.

If you send out that presentation and all the requirements filled out, you have to make a down payment. It’s five thousand euros. Before you get accepted or anything, that’s like the first step you have to make, to have the €5,000; if you send that out, if you pay the €5,000, you are in the selection process. If you are in that, the ASO’s reviewing everything, having a look at every competitor and making a decision. If you are being selected—it’s like at the end of July, the selection process ends for the motorcycles—you get a place, maybe in Malle Moto, maybe in the mechanical or normal Rally2 class, depends on what you’re trying to do, and if not, you are maybe on a waiting queue that also can be so the whole process can go to the end of October. 

Basically, if you get accepted, there’s a payment plan, you have to pay a further €6,000 in September and then €7,000 in October and then there’s only two months left and you are busy doing everything. So it’s a long process and the process goes really until you are at the start line.

TCF: I remember hearing that it’s already been like a couple of weeks since registration opened and already there’s been over 100 applicants. How confident are you that you will be one of them?

JG: Yeah, I also heard that. You never can be 100% sure on what ASO decides. As you said, it depends on the amount of people who are trying to do Dakar in the motorcycle class and the experience other riders bring, but I’m pretty confident that I showed in Abu Dhabi that I’m able and capable to face the Rally Dakar. Personally, if you consider that it was my first World Rally-Raid Championship, my first real desert rally, I think to be in the consistent midfield shows that my riding skills and my physical capabilities are good and that I’m really, as I said, able to make it to Dakar. Also, which the ASO unfortunately doesn’t take into consideration is I already did the Rallye Breslau five times. They are more focused on the FIM rallies, but I think that also shows that it’s not like my first rally I did in Abu Dhabi and now I got the idea to do Dakar. I’m preparing for it for quite some years. 

TCF: On the topic of Abu Dhabi, how was the experience racing there and racing alongside the biggest names in the sport?

JG: Actually, it was really, really crazy. It was an awesome experience. It was like ten days in Abu Dhabi with the preparation, going to the race, and racing itself the five days, but it felt like ages. It took me some weeks to really realise what has happened in these ten days and it was so many new experiences, so many new people I got to meet, so many friends I have now and obviously in Abu Dhabi, it was really great racing. It was really great turnout that I’ve never really seen.

It was my second time in the desert. I’ve been to Dubai for five days, two years ago, but I’ve never seen such high dunes in Abu Dhabi. It was a really, really good experience, and when we look at Dakar, it was a very good thing to be in the Empty Quarter already and to face the terrain, which is really, really similar to Dakar. Also, I have to say to show in comparison to the big teams and to people who were in the big teams, it was very nice to show that you can also do it on quite a low budget. My father and I were a team, my father was always with me, and we started from the Berlin airport with two bags and a set of wheels and mousses and that’s it basically. I met a friend in Abu Dhabi (Maki Rees-Stavros) who prepared the bike for me and gave me his tools, but we were really a two-man show with a rental car coming down with a bike. To show that this is possible also with such a race was just amazing.

TCF: While in Abu Dhabi, who would you say were like your closest friends, or like even among those, the new friends that you made there? Like what riders?

JG: From the other competitors?

TCF: Yeah, yes.

JG: It’s hard to name them all, but if I have to think of one, it’s Ashish—Ashish Raorane, the guy from India, he did Dakar already two years ago. I was riding with him a bit at some stages and I felt like he was really, really experienced and a really good rider, but he was also very, very helpful and friendly. Other than that, he is still answering a lot of questions for myself right now in the application process. So yeah, if I have to name one and I don’t want to forget the others, it’s him.

TCF: Moving on to Poland, you’ve run Rallye Breslau for the past five years now, and you’re set to do it again next week. For you personally, what makes it so special for amateur rally racers?

JG: The Rallye Breslau is the biggest rally in Europe, I have to say, and that’s fact. It’s still a very, very difficult rally even though it’s another style of course than a desert rally. It’s five days of very, very challenging routes and, to be honest, a lot of already Dakar riders came to Breslau to prepare. If I have to think of some, it’s like Mirjam Pol or Paul Spierings, Tiziano Internó, Arūnas Gelažninkas who won Malle Moto two times, they all came. They are just for preparation and for people who come from Europe as myself, there are not many rallies who are up in that level and Rallye Breslau is a really good one.

For sure, I have a personal connection. It has been like my first rally and I know the people. They call it the Breslau Family, and that’s true. The people are very, very friendly and I just know everyone and people are already asking me what to do and how to prepare for that. People are writing me on social media and I feel very connected to this rally.

TCF: Even though Breslau was in a different environment from Dakar, do you think racing Breslau helps you prepare for it and how?

JG: I think very much, yeah, especially as I said, if you come from Europe, you have to find possibilities to train, and the good thing is the Rallye Breslau, also the organisation itself, swapped their style of roadblocks that is really similar to the FIM and FIA roadbook standard. So when it comes to learning how to navigate, the Rallye Breslau sounds really, really good. I have to say the navigation of Breslau is more difficult than at Abu Dhabi from my experience, because you have a roadbook which is that size [gestures with hand], that’s really big, and in Abu Dhabi, we get a really small one. I think at Breslau, you don’t have to go twenty kilometres straight. Sometimes, you have the next turn after fifty metres and to get all that process during riding and being up to speed is really, really difficult. So yeah, especially for navigation, it’s good, also for riding for sure, but you can’t ride or you can’t train riding dunes in Europe, so you have to find other solutions.

TCF: What would you say is the goal for Breslau? Where do you see yourself performing? How do you see yourself doing there?

JG: Next week you mean?

TCF: Yeah, like how do you see yourself finishing? What’s your goal?

JG: I looked at the list of competitors who are registered. It’s already more than fifty, which is a big number. It’s getting more and more every year and they are very new faces. I can’t really estimate how good they are, what’s their experience, but I finished P9 last year and my personal goal would be just to improve, especially from riding but also from the place in the end. If I be around somewhere P5 to P10, that would be really, really good for me, and that’s my personal goal. But for sure, as you also know, the rally is very long and everything can happen. I just hope that I’m fine after the week, I have no physical problems, that I’ve no technical issues. I’m trying to prepare for that and everything comes after. 

TCF: You also recently did the Fenix Rally as a co-driver. Even though it’s different from riding a bike, do you think that there’s anything you can apply from co-driving a car to racing a bike?

JG: I think so, yes. It’s a really different experience than riding dunes on a motorcycle. I did it like the week after Abu Dhabi, so I have a very good comparison. I was in a Land Rover Defender, so at first, the field of vision is so small compared to on a bike. To express what you are seeing and what you’re interpreting from the roadbook to someone who’s driving and who has to understand what to do, it’s really difficult and you learn how to also have a specific look at details in the roadbook. When you’re riding on a motorcycle, you see it in a second and you know what to do, but you have to really be more careful when you are the navigator.

Also, obviously just every minute you spend in dunes, in a car on a motorcycle, helps you to be able to read the dunes. Every dune has direction and sometimes it’s just helpful to have an idea where it goes after the dune. My rider and I were quite successful because I had the view and the knowledge because I was in Abu Dhabi the week before, and I had a good part with that and so we were quite successful in Fenix Rally. 

Credit: Justin Gerlach

TCF: Returning to Dakar, what are your thoughts on next year’s route and the new rules like the 48-hour stage?

JG: I talked to a lot of people about last year. I’m trying to gather every information I can. As it seems, it was really, really challenging last year, especially also with the rain and with the weather conditions. I don’t really expect it to be any less challenging next year. But from what I’ve heard and from what I’ve read, there are like 60% new routes and I think that’s really exciting because no one really knows what to expect and even less than normally. Even people who already have been there last year don’t know what comes.

From what I’ve heard about the 48-hour stage, the Chrono Stage, I think that’s spicing things up a bit. You have like 600 kilometres to do or so and have two days just until 4:00 PM. That, I think, from what I have in my head right now, that’s really, really cool. You have no connection, no phone, and you have to be a bit off the connection to other riders and you just have to focus more on yourself and on your reliability more than on a normal marathon stage. It’s really, really cool and exciting from my point of view. 

TCF: I’ve seen and talked with a few riders who were accepted to Dakar, but then they also had to raise funds to pay for travel and bike rental and all that, and that can be like $100,000. How do you plan to afford the trip?

JG: I finished my bachelor degree last year before Abu Dhabi, in October, and the reason I made it to Abu Dhabi was that I’m working hard now as an industrial engineer and I’m trying to save every euro I can. It’s hard to pay for racing I have to do still and also to save for Dakar, but it’s the first thing I’m working and earning money.

Then I’m planning on doing quite some sacrifices which no one can really understand here in Germany. More people are asking me if I’m going crazy. I plan on selling my car, plan on selling my own motorcycle, to close all my savings accounts I have, I’ve paid in them since I was fifteen when I was starting my first job in the motorcycle workshop. I try to gather as much as money together as I can. Still, I have to live somewhere, obviously, but I’m taking all down. I’m taking everything away which is possible. Then I’m taking a credit to have money for the bike because I don’t want to pay for an entry fee with a credit, but for a bike which has a value still after the race, that’s why I’m taking the risk to have a credit. Otherwise, I’m having some partners who are supporting me already and still need some more to be able to afford everything. I’m happy to have already convinced partners to follow my dream of becoming the youngest German to ever compete in Rally Dakar and hope to convince others still and that there are others who are sharing their dream also with me.

TCF: What other races do you have planned this year after Breslau?

JG: It’s Rallye Breslau, then I’m doing the German cross-country series here in Germany, which is like enduro-style cross-country races. To be better prepared for Rally Dakar, I do it in the two-cylinder class with the KTM 950 which weighs even more than a rally bike, it’s about 210 kilos I think. I’m trying to get used to heavy bikes and big bikes, so therefore there are still four races in Germany I’m doing this year. Also, I’m planning on doing a Roadbook School, still in Dubai, with the DUUST Rally Team which will help me also with even more ERTF navigation style and more roadblocks in the dunes and really, really professional coaching from previous Dakar riders. So that’s my plan for this year until Rally Dakar because I think, well, I’m planning on buying a KTM Rally Replica and therefore, from what I’ve heard from people, it’s really, really important to have ridden that bike before Dakar. You can’t show up there with a bike you’ve never ridden and it has some really… It’s tricky to handle but it’s a very specific bike so I’m really trying to get some hours on that in the dunes. So that’s my plan now.

TCF: It might be a little too early to look into the future, but what do you want to do in the future after Dakar? Like, if possible, would you want to race the World Championship?

JG: As you said, it’s quite early to think about that, but for sure I have some thoughts. The Dakar is the one I’m looking forward now and the biggest point on my to-do list for sure and dreaming since I was seven with my father looking at all the Dakar summaries in Germany at Auto Schwarz since I could think of that. But afterwards, I think I can’t stay away from racing.

For sure or not, even though I might have accomplished that dream, it’s going to be really hard, but I’m pretty sure I will come back to racing some races of the World Championship for sure. If everything works out, if I have the background, if I have the possibilities, why shouldn’t I do the whole championship? I think there are other really, really interesting races other than Dakar or Abu Dhabi. I think Morocco is really interesting, also to go to Sonora Rally really excites me thinking about that, but with the possibilities I have right now, I’m just trying to do Dakar and that’s the biggest challenge I have ever faced. It’s really crazy what amounts of work you have to put in there just to be there for twelve stages, fourteen days to do all that. Sometimes, I ask myself how I came into that and the next morning, I wake up and I forgot everything and I’m really sure what I’m doing here. It’s just probably, every rally addict has the same thoughts and problems, if you can consider that as a problem.

TCF: Before we wrap this up, is there anything else you would like to add?

JG: Any specific thing?

TCF: Yeah, just, anything that comes to mind for you. 

JG: On my plans for the Dakar specifically, I’m trying to bring my father if I can do it financially because, as I said, he’s the one of the biggest supporters actually until here. I also mentioned my father did some rally racing back in the 1990s and he also met his idols back then which were like Fabrizio Meoni and Richard Sainct and my whole childhood he told me about the moment he met Fabrizio Meoni for the first time and what a really kind guy he was. But he often says he also would have wanted to do Dakar but couldn’t do it because he had family responsibilities and I was on the way. So I also see it kind of as an accomplishment of the dream which has been passed on by my father and to take him there also. I can’t imagine how it must feel for him that his dream lives on and I can really accomplish that. As always, we two are going to be a team. He’s supporting me in each and every way he will do, I’m pretty sure, and as a team, I hope we can make the dream come true.

Interview on YouTube