With a string of strong results tempered with some ridiculously rotten luck, Kelso has shown he has the speed to make it and his switch to CFMoto factory team next year is proof.
The first full season of Moto3 was always meant to be a learning year for Joel Kelso. The two seasons prior were spent racing in what is now known as World Junior GP, a solid proving ground for the 19-year-old from Darwin.
Kelso talks about coming back to Australia for the Phillip Island MotoGP.
Competing for the AGR team on KTM machinery in his watershed year of 2021, Kelso snared three victories on the way to fourth in the championship, including a miracle win from 30th on the grid at the final round in Valencia. His speed drew the attention of several Moto3 teams, earning a wildcard with the CIP Green Power team at the 2021 Dutch and German Grands Prix, finishing outside the points but showing he had the ability to mix it with the series regulars.
Two more wildcard appearances earned him a contract for a full-time ride and by the time he arrives in Phillip Island, Kelso will be 18 races deep into a gruelling 20-race calendar. “Riding at home is going to be more difficult navigating everything else outside of racing, so for once, the racing will be the easy part!” he told AMCN just prior to the Aragon round. “I know the Phillip Island circuit, but I’ve only raced there a couple of times and it was when I was a lot younger. The home advantage is always a good thing, but mate, honestly, it will be an exciting weekend with friends and family and I just hope to be 100 percent fit.”
Peak fitness is one thing the young Aussie has not had within his control this season. After a run of very promising results in the opening five rounds, Kelso looked to be in a strong position. Points at Qatar followed by top-10 finishes at Argentina and Portugal hid a deeper story – there was real speed in at least one session almost everywhere he visited. Qatar: fifth in FP3. Indonesia: third in Sunday warm up. Argentina: fifth in qualifying.
But then came Jerez. After qualifying in P12 and looking good in Sunday warm up, contact between Riccardo Rossi and Ivan Ortola ended with Ortola’s motorcycle careering off down the straight into Turn 1, and ploughing in to the unawares number-66 machine of Kelso.
While Rossi received a long lap penalty for his part in the debacle, Kelso was lucky to escape serious injury, however he was unable to complete at either Jerez or the subsequent Le Mans rounds. After a swift recovery, came Italy and Spain and more points with a pair of 12th places.
Next, Sachsenring and a crash – but still showing speed with a P4 in practice. Assen produced a P10 in qualifying and a strong run in the front group – until proverbial lightning struck for the second time. Clipped from behind by the fallen bike of Adrian Fernandez, the CIP Green Power KTM jerked and flicked upwards in a savage highside, launching Kelso into the air, which broke six bones in his leg when he landed. It meant two more races without a chance to compete.
“This year has been quite difficult, we’ve had some big things happen to us. These two massive crashes that put us out of now four races, from being taken out or whatever, it makes it worse when it’s not your own fault.
“If it’s your own fault, you can accept fate and move on. When it’s not your own fault twice and you miss four rounds of the year, it’s never easy.” The six-week recovery tested the resolve of the young Aussie, who now knows exactly what it takes to bounce back from serious injury. For Kelso, the turning point is when you can get out of bed and regain mobility.
“Normally for me, it is when I can get back to training. Before you get back to training, you’re just sitting there thinking ‘gee whiz, this sucks!’ The moment you get back on the bike, you start to get that feeling again. For Jerez, I’d say it was a week. I couldn’t race properly but I could get on a bike, so I felt I could get back to business.
“In France, even in the three laps we could do, we qualified P7. So we were strong still, I just couldn’t do any more than three or four laps at a time, so I couldn’t race.”
The impact of the Assen crash had longer-term effects, with a lot of time spent at home alone in Palma de Mallorca.
“This year has been quite lonely actually, with the break. My housemate Sam (Whitford – Moto2 racer for the AGR team in World Junior GP), he had a big incident with a broken back, broken leg and broken shoulder. He was in a worse condition than me, stuck in Barcelona for three months. So, it was just me alone on the couch waiting out the time until I could get back on the horse, so to speak.”
That time came at Austria, at the physically demanding Red Bull Ring. “In Austria, I suffered a lot. I could do really good sessions that were just four or five laps, but in the race I lost all feeling in my foot at about the 10th lap and I started using way too much rear brake.”
For Misano, Kelso explained that his strength and fitness was starting to return. “I felt really good in Misano, maybe with five laps to go I started to struggle with the foot – but nothing major, just a little bit of fitness to regain.” A mechanical problem with the brakes meant Kelso had qualified back on the 10th row, down in second-last place. The resulting points finish further displayed the determination and grit required to succeed in international competition.
“We’re bouncing back now, passing 16 riders in the race coming from second last, it was a good race at Misano. By the time we get to Thailand we will be able to bounce back fully.” There was also a measured maturity, balancing expectation with reality, saying, “You can’t expect massive things when you come straight back. It was a big break, after breaking six bones in the leg it was never going to be an easy recovery but now I’m excited for what the future brings.”
The future has been revealed as a change in team for 2023 – to the CF Moto Pruestel GP outfit, partnering Xavier Artigas. On hand as the sports director is former 125cc World Champion Tom Lüthi. Kelso was particularly excited at the prospect of working with Lüthi, who has over 15 years’ experience in the MotoGP paddock having only retired from riding at the end of last year, in a career that also saw him finish twice as the Moto2 runner up.
“Next year will be the year for a red-hot crack,” he says. “Honestly, the goal is to be in the front in most of the races and I think it’s a doable task for me. I want to show my speed, so I’m grateful to have the opportunity at CFMoto to fight for podiums.
“After passing on the news to the CIP crew that I will be leaving at the end of this season, now it’s just about putting in the work. We’re really hoping we can get a podium together before the end of the year. I feel it’s at that point with my crew that we will get to that result sooner rather than later.
“It’s incredible to look back to the beginning of 2021, even in January I didn’t know what was happening for that season – sponsorship can be very difficult to source, but the AGR racing team trusted me.”
This season has been an even bigger rollercoaster, but once again the trust that all the hard work will pay off is always there.
“It was unfortunate, the ‘mishaps’ you could say…it really affected us. Now we have the flyaway races again and a chance to catch up with all the people that have supported me, so I’m eager to see where we can go in the next few rounds!”
MotoGP or bust
Joel Kelso has always had his heart set on competing in the MotoGP paddock – which meant the conventional racing career progression available in Australia had to be reconsidered.
Like Casey Stoner and Jack Miller before him, Kelso had to seek out the prototype racing scene in Europe. It means big money and big commitment and Kelso rose to the challenge every time.
Like Stoner and Miller, Kelso started out racing flat track before heading to the MRRDA, racing a Metrakit 70 as a nine-year-old and found immediate success. His story was the subject of the documentary Little Racer and by the time he had left our shores, he had amassed 14 Australian titles.
Before the demise of GP classes in Australian competition, Kelso picked up the Moto3 / 125cc national title in 2017. At the time, Kelso was mentored by Jake Skate under the JDS Moto banner – himself desiring a career working on GP machinery. Kelso rode several rounds in ASBK Supersport 300, but the GP paddock beckoned. With the ‘Path to MotoGP’ through Asia Talent Cup or the ultra-competitive Red Bull Rookies Cup still emerging for Aussies, the team decided to take matters into their own hands.
In 2018 Skate took the JDS Moto team to Italy to compete in the CIV championship with Kelso and Jack Mahaffy. Kelso started in Pre-Moto3 on RMU machinery that used a TM250 dirtbike engine, which the team had to source.
“Seeing what riders had to go through to try and find a good stepping stone to race in Europe, I thought it would be a good thing to develop a pathway,” Skate said at the time. “So when Australians want to make the move, they can do it with an Australian team – an Australian crew chief, things that would make them feel most comfortable, especially bearing in mind they are still young.”
It worked. With his potential demonstrated, Kelso returned to Italy in 2019 and was drafted into the Team Leopard Junior Italia team (as was crew chief Skate). He raced the Moto3 class in CIV and also the European Talent Cup, gaining valuable experience on tracks around Europe. Between injury and living overseas without family, the challenges were constant.
Kelso switched to the AGR team for 2020 and embarked on a new challenge, taking on the FIM CEV Moto3 championship – now known as World Junior GP.
Returning for another year with AGR in the CEV championship, Kelso made his mark (the mark was more literal for Darryn Binder, after the South African rode straight out of pit lane causing a collision with Kelso at the German GP). Three race wins and a pole position in CEV earned Kelso several Moto3 wildcard appearances before a full-time ride with the CIP Greenpower team was announced for 2022.