Grid talk – Ben Henry | Columns | Gassit Garage
Cube Racing owner Ben Henry talks about Tom Toparis’s WSS300 adventure, his role in rider development and what it takes to compete at the top
How did the European trip come about?
A team contacted me to replace an injured rider. It was a simple fly-in fly-out deal to race a Kawasaki Racing Europe-supported bike. Tom first raced at the Brno round, where he qualified 25th and finished 19th in his first ever race in Europe. Then I joined him for the Misano round a few weeks ago.
What was it like fronting up to a very competitive class of racing as a complete outsider?
Before I got to the track I didn’t know where I stood, but the Mototuning Mol team (a Dutch-based operation that has lead rider Scott Deroue sitting fourth in the championship) made us feel incredibly welcome and were very keen to get my input.
The focus was on general bike set-up and just keeping the rider calm about everything. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in some situations when there’s really no need.
Explain practice and qualifying.
The pressure is on from the first of the two free practice sessions to get a time down to go through to Superpole 2. With the weather taking FP2 away it was an issue. The 15-minute qualifying is enough if you are up to speed, but for us it was not the case. Half of the field in Q1 got a penalty, including us, so our FP1 time became our Q time and we started 33rd.
Talk us through the Misano race, where Tom achieved another amazing 19th, leaving over a third of the field behind?
It was great. Scott Deroue was racing for the win and Tom moved up 14 spots during the race. The toe piece on Tom’s gear lever broke off with three laps to go, halting his progression forward. I think with a bit of luck he could have earned a point. It’s a huge ask to race a 600 in Australia one weekend, fly to Europe, try and learn a track and adapt your style in 60 minutes total track time, then race at world level. Tom did himself proud and his future no harm.
Your efforts with Tom indicate you have a real commitment to get him a good ride outside ASBK.
Tom’s been very fortunate to gain a wildcard in WSBK WSS600 at Phillip Island, where he rode unreal and scored a point. Asia Supersport 600 was an experience, plus two Moto3 wildcards at the end of 2017. Now there have been two WSS300 rides this year. The production-based rides have been backed by us as a team. The GP rides were supported by a team sponsor, Leda Nutrition, who wanted to not only support Tom but see Cube race a GP! It was an incredible experience for us all. The reason I do all this for my riders is because I genuinely enjoy every aspect of racing. I enjoy building bikes and engines, seeing if I’m good enough. I enjoy bringing the people together to make it happen. It’s a win-win for us as a team and Tom as a rider.
What qualities does Tom have that mark him out as a future champion?
His learn rate, self belief and how much he loves racing. To put it in perspective, he’s raced 2.5 seasons to date. With roughly eight rounds a year, it’s not a lot. It’s easy to forget that. His self belief comes to the surface when the chips are down and he’s struggling. But send him back out and he’ll come up with something. It’s unusual.
How does an inexperienced Aussie get a ride in a major overseas championship?
From my experience, first things first, you need to be winning here. Not just one win but winning in general. Every rider will have their own unique story and pathway, but in short the absolute minimum requirements are: great people around the rider in every aspect, at and away from the track; good bikes – you can’t win on average bikes; and a mindset that is unwavering in your own abilities, but honest enough to assess yourself when you need to.
What’s the long-term plan now for you?
I really enjoy the Cube team. The young pups entertain me no end! Half the time I can’t understand their lingo, but all the same I enjoy it. I have developed a nice relationship with a few Kawasaki teams in Europe now, so it’s a much easier bridge to cross for my riders moving forward so long as they’re winning here. Of course, we need to supply them the goods to do so. I’d like to see a manufacturer recognise the value in our little Cube team. It has won in every class it’s run a bike in, as well as an ASBK Superbike Championship (with Mike Jones in 2015).
So maybe become a factory team?
I’m hoping to be like the Ten Kate team in Europe. The manufacturers couldn’t beat them, so they had to join them. Roll on the next race – I’ve built all-fresh engines!
Interview HAMISH COOPER