Suzuka Sunday: VDM- The Boogeyman Of Superbike racing
First published in August 2018 this interview took place during the Suzuka 8 Hours where van der Mark teamed up with Alex Lowes to retain their Suzuka crown. The Dutchman had recently won his first WorldSBK races, a Donington Park double, and was now firmly established as one of the world’s top Superbike riders. What made van der Mark the man he is? His Indonesian hertiage, a racing family and a desire to get the most from himself all played a role…
The boogeyman strikes fear in children everywhere. Parents have long kept misbehaving youngsters in line by threatening the mythical creature will take them away. The origins of this monster are disputed, but the Bugi pirates of Indonesia are one possibility. With their fearless and ruthless nature, they terrified European sailors.
Michael van der Mark may have inherited more than he knows from his Indonesian heritage. The 2014 World Supersport champion, whose grandmother emigrated to The Netherlands when Indonesia gained its independence, brings an aggressive, swashbuckling style to the racetrack, and he is hell bent on winning another world title.
“It was funny how it all came out,” van der Mark explained. “I posted a picture of some Indonesian food on Instagram and people immediately responded by asking why I was eating it. I said I eat it a lot because my family came from Indonesia, and it all started from that. I’ve not been able to get over to Indonesia yet, but I really want to go. I’m sure from the reactions I get on social media that everyone would be really excited if I went.”
Van der Mark’s daring temperament on track can also be traced to his ancestors. “I don’t want to say I’m aggressive on track,” he said, “but I don’t get scared—I make them scared! It’s part of racing and what you have to do. If I weren’t aggressive, I’d never win anything. From my parents I got my dad’s talent for riding, but I look like my mum and act very similar to her too. I’m usually very quiet until I need to be sharp on the bike; I’m able to switch modes. That’s like my mum: She can be calm most of the time, but when she needs to be aggressive she’ll switch. That helps with my riding.”
Van der Mark’s riding has certainly prompted a lot of tongue-wagging this year. Whether it’s claiming his first World Superbike victories at Donington Park or winning the Suzuka 8 Hours, there has been one constant: commitment. Van der Mark shows little regard for reputation on the track, and his opening stints of the 8 Hours were a perfect example of this. He went toe to toe with three-time World Superbike champion Jonathan Rea in a battle that will be remembered as a classic.
With the track drying from an earlier rainstorm, a switch to slick tires was called for. Once the duo were on track together, they spent the next 60 minutes looking for any chink in the other rider’s armor. Any time Rea opened a gap, van der Mark countered with breathtaking moves in traffic. They swapped the lead, and when the stint ended the crowd wanted more. An hour later, they got what they asked for, a balls-to-the-wall stint.
“It was the hardest win for sure,” van der Mark said, “because you could look into the distance and see the rain coming. Then it would rain really heavily before drying quite quickly. The first stint was like a Superbike race. I was struggling with rear grip and Johnny looked so good, but he was struggling to overtake in traffic so we were really close. He’d try and pull away but I’d get it back in traffic. I probably pushed too hard in our second stint together, and with about 10 laps to go my tire was dropping. I was losing energy too so that was a tough stint. I was on the absolute limit, but he ran out of fuel so for both of us the pace was too high.“Donington Park [where van der Mark claimed his first Superbike victory] showed that when everything is perfect for us, we can beat the Kawasaki. That was another straight fight against Johnny, and there wasn’t any strange weather or other factors. I’m happy with the first half of the season, but obviously I’d have liked to have won more races. This is my second year with Yamaha and it’s improved, but so have I because I know each track with this bike. That experience really helps, and the base setting of the bike is very stable.”
That stability helps in a lot of ways, and it is one area that allows van der Mark to be himself. There is nothing worse than being forced to change who you are, and like any company employee, riders feel that pressure. They might be the highest-paid employee, but that’s all they are. They feel the same pressures as any other worker, and being seen to be busy is as important in a paddock as an office. Perceptions can become reality very quickly, and it’s something the 25-year-old has had to fight against. Talent has never been in question but his work ethic—or more precisely how he goes about his work—has been called out at times.
“During a race weekend,” van der Mark said, “I sometimes feel guilty for not staying in the garage and working with the guys but I know what I need to do in a race. I’m very short and straight with my feedback. I tell the team what the problem is and they try and fix it. If I was to stay with them, I’d just get confused and that doesn’t help us win. I work problem by problem and work on the biggest problem at any given time.
“I think a lot of people look at how I work and think that I don’t try as hard, but when you look at my results they’re always good. I work differently than other riders, but it’s the way I work and how I get the most from myself on a race weekend. Sometimes I feel guilty when I see other riders in the garage until late at night, but then I think that if I sat there for hours it would only confuse me and the team.
“The biggest change I’ve made since my World Superbike debut in 2015 is that I’ve matured and grown up a lot. Also we have a bike that keeps improving, and Yamaha is working hard. I have a great team and we’re getting more support. I’ve had a lot of teammates over the years and I was always fast with the bike, but now I’m improving in how I work with the team and how I improve the bike. That’s the biggest change for me. In the past, I was fast no matter what the bike was doing but now I’m fast because I understand the bike.”
Understanding is key to learning and there is no better place to put these lessons to the test than at Suzuka. The four-time race winner faced his toughest test this year, when injury forced Katsuyuki Nakasuga out of the race. It was the first time van der Mark embarked on the race as a two-man team. It was also the first time he started the race, and a heavy downpour 15 minutes before the start left the track soaked.
Mistakes were waiting to happen for the entire grid, but van der Mark was faultless. When combined with an all-new setup on the bike, including different handlebar positions, van der Mark delivered the ride of a champion who understands the pressure he was under to succeed.
“I love Suzuka and it’s such an important race for the major manufacturers,” he said. “When they call you and ask you if you’d like to involved in the 8 Hours, it’s almost impossible to say no. This is their biggest race of the year. It’s an endurance race with three riders, and we have to share the bike. The bike was set up for Nakasuga so it was perfect for him. Alex [Lowes] feels almost perfect with the Suzuka bike, but I struggled a lot.”
“If you can get the bike set up absolutely perfect, you can go very fast. I’m not comfortable on the bike so I can’t do that single fast lap time, but in a race I can do a similar lap time to Alex and Nakasuga and that’s what matters there. That can be the same for other riders and maybe we don’t see how fast they can go here. Johnny did an amazing lap time this year, but maybe the bike is set up just for Johnny, and Leon Haslam and [Kazuma] Watanabe have to ride his bike.”
Riding a bike that doesn’t feel like your own is tough in the dry but even more difficult in the rain. Fortunately van der Mark was taught a useful trick by his father when he started racing, and when the rain fell in the middle of the race it paid off in spades, as he consistently lapped more than a second faster than anyone else.
“When it started to rain during the race, I had started the stint on a dry track with a black visor and that’s very tough for a rider,” he said. “When I was younger, my dad always told me, ‘In the rain wear a dark visor. That way you can’t see things, and if you can’t see them you’ll be fast.’ I couldn’t see anything in the race, but it worked.”
As with many things in his life, van der Mark took the positives from both sides of his family and forged his own path.