Ahead of his home GP, Joel Kelso is putting all the talk of his future to one side and focusing on a maiden podium in front of family, friends and fans
The 2023 season represented the opportunity of a lifetime for Australian Joel Kelso. Now in his second full year riding in the world championship, the 20-year-old stepped into the well-funded PruestelGP CFMoto squad, complete with full KTM backing. With a year of experience at this level under his belt, the rider from Darwin was intent on building on a promising campaign.
But as the season enters its final stretch, Kelso finds himself some way from where he wants to be – 21st overall. There have been just two top-10 finishes and 19 points scored. What’s more, he lost his seat in his current team and his chances of staying in the world championship next year are dependent on paying hundreds of thousands of Euros for a ride in a Moto3 team.
“Terrible, quite frankly,” is how he describes the year to date.
Yet despite his curt assessment, Kelso’s year hasn’t all been doom and gloom. The diminutive rider, who is referred to as Naranjito (little orange) by Spanish colleagues, has proven repeatedly that he has the speed, qualifying on the front row four times. And he’s regularly fought among the leading names in certain parts of races (he finished the British GP just 2.2sec behind the victor, yet scored no points). But it’s fair to say he had expected to score points on more than three occasions by the time the Japanese Grand Prix rolled around.
“We had a great start to the season,” Kelso tells AMCN. “In Portimao we were going really well and feeling really strong. Then the incident after the flag put us on the back foot and we’ve been struggling ever since then. We’re fast this year. We’ve done four front rows.
‘We’ve got the speed to be here and be in the paddock. But in the end, I haven’t been putting it together in the races for one reason or another. It hasn’t been easy. We needed to do better and it should’ve been better but coming back from injury is never easy and, to be frank, in the races I just haven’t been there.”
As he mentions, there are extenuating circumstances. Plenty of them, in fact. A crash into race winner Dani Holgado after the chequered flag in Portimao, where he had just finished ninth, caused a left ankle break, which led to Kelso missing the next two races and being far from physically fit for the two after that.
“I still had a lot of pain until around Assen,” he says of the ankle injury. “Mugello and the Sachsenring were quite difficult. The French GP also. I wouldn’t even classify Jerez as a return. That was just to get back in the game, really. That was a difficult moment. Still to this day, it disturbs me a bit but nothing major. It’s more just annoying really.”
What’s more, Kelso wasn’t helped by Moto3 tyre supplier Dunlop’s decision to mix up its front tyre allocation at certain rounds midseason. Stuck with a softer front tyre than he was used to, confidence with the front end disappeared. Then add in stresses related to finding a seat for 2024, and the possibility of calling time on his European racing adventure, and it’s easy to understand why we haven’t seen the best of Joel in recent months.
“We came back (after the summer break) and we did two front rows after that,” says Kelso. “We showed we’ve got the speed but in the end in the races it’s been difficult. I really struggled with the bike in the first race back in England. That was really difficult. The different compound of tyres just didn’t flow with our set-up that we had in the bike. We struggled from there onwards.
“After that Austria was not too bad. We just didn’t have a good feeling. With the soft tyre in the front, it was horrible for us. Ever since the medium tyre came back, we’ve been struggling in the races, just myself. But before that, I can’t put the blame on myself. That was the maximum I could’ve done with how I was feeling on the bike, and what I could manage.
“When I came back from the summer break, I had a good feeling in Barcelona and Misano. But I just needed to be more aggressive and to get my elbows out.
“Then it comes down to stuff going on for next year. That also doesn’t help – it just makes everything worse. In practice and qualifying we can pull something out of the bag, but in the races, it hasn’t been going easy.”
In May, Kelso took to social media to seek out any potential sponsors that could help with expenses involved in racing at this level.
“The costs associated with travel, equipment, and training can quickly add up, making it difficult for young and aspiring racers like myself to pursue their dreams,” he wrote. Speaking to AMCN, Kelso revealed this stemmed from another early season issue that was far from ideal.
“We had an incident at the first race of the season. Unfortunately, we had to change one sponsor. That was a big hit for us. We came back from the flyaways and we had to make a change there for other reasons. We chose to leave two sponsors we had, a decision we made with me and my team. Then of course I need to live, train and do the right things. It goes toward training. We had everything planned out but to lose a couple of sponsors was a difficult hit for us. For example, a reason we don’t have a lot (of options) to continue next year is because we need the sponsorship.”
It’s not as if Kelso has been alone in his struggles. Despite a strong start to the year, and a podium in the third race, teammate Xavi Artigas – now in his third year at world championship level – has been down on his luck, too. The Catalan hasn’t managed a single top ten finish since the French GP in mid-May. But Kelso, whose crew chief this year is Javier Alba Sola, a former technician he worked alongside in his days in JuniorGP, insists he cannot blame the CFMoto PruestelGP team.
“Inside the box everything is well and good,” he says. “I’m really happy with the crew that I have around me and working on my bike – my crew chief and data engineer, I’m really happy with them. It’s been good, but from Portimao one thing led to another and we’re in this situation where we’re in a nightmare at the moment. And I’m not just talking about on the track; I mean outside the circuit as well.”
Kelso faced his fair share of adversities in his attempts to get to the world championship. At the age of 14, he understood moving to Europe was necessary to advance his career. Those formative experiences of living alone in Italy aged 15 helped him face the hardships of 2022, an injury-strewn debut season in the world championship. But now in his 20s, Kelso is mature enough to admit his current struggles aren’t all down to injuries.
“I had two big crashes last year (one at Jerez, the other Assen). And one big one this year. In the end I’ve missed five or six rounds in less than two years of riding. It’s been a difficult time. But I don’t blame it on that. It’s ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’ really. But I could’ve done better, of course. Those things playing in my favour would’ve made it easier. In the end you can only dictate your own results.
“It’s been a big learning curve. Looking back on it, I definitely could’ve done things better. I won’t put it all down to injuries. It’s not great, and it hasn’t helped us, but it’s been good for me to learn once I’ve reflected on it. It’ll be good for me in the future, wherever that future is. Hopefully I can right some of the things we’re doing wrong.”
As Kelso mentioned, continued talks over next year have not helped current form. So, what’s the situation for 2024? Initially Kelso appeared in line to continue with his current PruestelGP CFMoto squad. But the team informed him in Austria it would not be retaining his services, with Italian Riccardo Rossi drafted in instead. For his part, the Australian admits the negotiations weren’t handled in the best way.
“I’m really happy and can’t thank KTM enough for all the support,” he says. “How can I say it? The shit hit the fan. And it could’ve been a lot better if everything worked out. But it’s nothing to do with KTM. They did their part, which was a really big role. From my side, we didn’t make the best situation out of it. Now we’re in a pretty shit situation where I need to bring budget and that’s the only way to stay in the world championship at this moment.”
Asked how his search for a seat on the Moto3 grid was going when speaking to AMCN during the Indian Grand Prix, Kelso quipped, “I’m asking myself the same thing! I need to make the decision about that aspect of my future to see where it lies. We have to make the decision and run with it, even if that means not staying here. It’s not easy. It doesn’t help me on track, but that’s one thing as a racer I need to improve.
“One thing that would’ve helped me in these last two years would be being how I used to be (when I rode) in the Junior World Championship – that was just doing my job out there, which was winning races. I feel that hasn’t been happening so we need to get this thing about my future out of the way and go from there.”
Pressed on his options for next year, Kelso revealed he has three plans in place.
The first is a current team in Moto3, but that would require him to bring an eye-watering sum of money. The second would be a spot in the European Moto2 Championship. But again, all teams are asking him to bring serious money to the table. The worst case scenario is returning home to Australia.
“I’ve got Plan A, B and C. If I decide to stay in the World Championship (is Plan A). Plan B relies on other people. I need to understand what’s going to happen in that aspect. But that’s not up to me; that’s down to budget once again in the Junior World Championship. If not, obviously the C is to pack it up and say we’ve had a good run. But that’s definitely not what we want to do.
“My motivation is better than ever to do good results and stay in the world championship. Hopefully an opportunity comes up!”
Despite a tricky recent run, Kelso has pinpointed Phillip Island as a chance to prove he belongs at this level. He’s set himself some lofty goals.
The eighth place he scored last year on the Island – his first ever home GP – remains his best result to date at world championship level. It was 12 months ago when Kelso circulated for the race’s first half in the lead group, before four riders edged clear to fight it out for the win. Recalling that windswept October day fills the 20-year old with emotion.
“I love the Oz GP,” he says. “It was amazing last year. I’ve not got many words, but it puts a smile (on my face) just remembering it! It was a couple of things: obviously I love the Phillip Island circuit and have ridden there since I was a kid. It was a beautiful experience last year and I’m hopeful we can do the same this year.
“I think the biggest difference is just having everyone out there, supporting me – the fans, the family. I haven’t had all my family together probably since I was about 11 years old. It was almost 10 years since we had last been all together in the paddock. That’s always an extra motivation. You’ve got to put on a result when you have the kids there, supporting you. They’re dreaming to be where I am in the world championship and representing the Aussie flag. That gives you a boost, an extra drive. That’s what everyone loves about their home GP, especially me.”
That love was born 10 years ago, when Kelso first took in the Australian GP in person. His abiding memory was getting an elbow slider from idol Marc Marquez, even if he wasn’t exactly supposed to be ferreting around the world’s best riders at the time.
“I don’t know how much I can say about that because I’m not sure if I did everything correctly when I was there,” he recalls with a cheeky grin. “I remember I was about 10 years old and we couldn’t get some paddock passes. So we’d sneak into the paddock somehow to meet Marquez. I tried to get as many knee sliders and elbow sliders as we could. My first memory was probably Marquez giving me his elbow slider – that was super cool. Now being in the paddock with him and saying hello when we’re walking past is cool. It’s funny how time passes.”
A home GP often brings greater pressure, expectations and demands, not least on a rider’s time over the four days. But rather than feel apprehensive, Kelso is relishing the chance to perform in front of a sizeable home audience.
“Honestly, I didn’t find it that difficult last year,” he said. “It was obviously a busy time. But in the end Moto3 riders can’t complain, especially when you look at the schedule of some of the MotoGP riders! It’s just a good weekend and you’re happy to do everything. You only get to do it once a year and you never know when it’s going to happen again, especially if you don’t know about your future. It’s one of those things – you love it, you want to soak it all up and absorb it all.”
And that means Kelso is aiming high. Considering the speed he’s shown in qualifying this year, the experience he has of his home track, and his desire to put on a show for the home fans, he’s hopeful of scrapping among the leading names.
“Yeah, sure. 100 percent,” he says when asked if his current package will be suited to the Island’s long, glorious curves. “I think we can do a good result this year. I don’t want to put pressure on myself but I’m sure seeing all the Aussie fans out there supporting me will really push us up and hopefully we can get on the podium!”
Interview Neil Morrison + Photography Gold&Goose