Life In The Fast Lane - Stphane Mertens

Next week, the world famous Bol d'Or endurance race takes place at the Magny-Cours circuit in France. This fifth round of the QMMF Endurance FIM World Championship is the last 24hr race of the 2007 season and will be particularly important in determining which team will take the title.

In addition to the permanent teams fighting for this year's world championship, the Bol d'Or will welcome the two BMW Motorrad Motorsport teams that finished fifth and ninth at Oschersleben, as well as taking the Open Class victory. Watching from the pit-lane will be endurance racing legend Stephane Mertens. The 48-year-old Belgian was due to race for the BMW factory team this year but was unfortunately injured during a test session on one of BMW's own test tracks in southern France even before the season began.

As a former World Endurance Champion, World Superbike racer and twice BMW Motorrad Boxer Cup champion, Mertens is no stranger to victory. He has won a staggering 87 races and finished on the podium more than 150 times during his long career. In an exclusive interview, Mertens explains why he'll be living each lap with the BMW Motorrad Motorsport team riders next weekend at Magny-Cours

You must be very disappointed to not be racing with BMW this year?

Absolutely. Disappointed and frustrated. It's been a long haul [the accident occurred back in March] but I'm back on the road to fitness and I'm working on this every day. I can drive a car and I probably could ride a motorcycle but certainly not at a competitive level.

The racing world thought you were retiring last year and considering going into team management?

I had decided to retire at the end of last year - I am 48 after all - but then I got a call from Berti Hauser who told me about this new endurance project and this got me very excited. BMW wanted to make use of my experience and motorcycle development skills to help build a new team in the World Endurance Championship, as well as try to develop the new R 1200 S. I have lots of experience in endurance racing at world level and plenty of experience on sports boxers so I was only too happy to help.

So are you performing an 'ambassadorial' role for BMW, as you can't race?

Yes, I'm as much a part of the team as I can be. I was there at Oschersleben and I'll be there at the Bol d'Or too. It's frustrating for me being injured. After all, it would have been my 29th year of racing this year. I'm happy to help out, but obviously I would rather be out on the circuit, so I just have to be patient.

Are you working hard on your rehabilitation?

As much as I can. I had the accident at the first test I did for BMW earlier this year. It was a private test circuit near Marseille and as a result of the crash, I had a fractured pelvis, a broken shoulder and foot. I had to spend nearly two months in hospital and have been on crutches for nearly five months now. As I result I've lost a lot of muscle strength. I'm now attending a special rehabilitation centre in Luxembourg, which is very modern, with good facilities.

You've done all kinds of racing all over the world, but what are the special qualities needed to compete in a 24-hour race?

First, you need to be an experienced rider. It sounds obvious but in endurance, it is very important for the team and the bike to get to the end of the race. As a rider, you have to be able to avoid making mistakes, which is where experience plays its part. The pace is very fast throughout the duration of the race, so mental concentration is very important, especially towards the end of the race. Having a top physical condition is also vital, as it's tough out there and very hard on the body.

When you're out there racing for hour after hour, does it feel as if you're competing against other riders or just against yourself for consistent lap times?

Racing is always easier when you have someone to try and beat, so a visual 'fight' with another rider helps immensely and makes things more enjoyable of course! You can also be really motivated by the information that you read on your pit board, which can help remind you that you aren't out there on your own, although in one sense you are. A rider needs motivation because it's difficult at times when you are alone on the track. He needs to feel that his team is there with him and that he is getting the right information. An hour racing can seem like a very long time when you are getting tired in the middle of the night and your body is telling you that it should be sleeping.

How do you keep your concentration levels high?

Mental preparation is everything, and this is the same for short circuit racing as well as endurance. I learnt mental relaxation techniques from China and have also had several teachers to help me focus. Latterly, I've also developed my own visualisation techniques, which keep me alert whenever I'm out on track.

How do you cope with the noise, both on and off-track?

Noise is not good for recuperation, so I always wear earplugs when riding. In the early days I didn't wear earplugs in GP or World Superbikes but in endurance I realized that it was very tiring riding without them for long periods in the saddle. I also use earplugs when I rest, but I also put headphones over them for extra protection. At a racetrack, it's not just the noise of the bikes that you can here; there's the general paddock noises too - generators, loudspeakers, other people.

In the rest periods, is it possible to sleep or is there just too much going on?

In endurance racing, you usually have one hour's riding followed by two hours of 'rest', but it's almost impossible to sleep. I usually need physiotherapy after each session because I'm tall and get a sore neck from racing at high speed for sustained periods. I always need a good massage to get me ready for the next session. You also need to speak with the team, eat, and get to the pit garage at least 20 minutes before you are due out again. However, I do usually reserve one rest period for sleeping, and I need this most at about four or five o'clock in the morning. I used to never sleep when I was a younger rider but it's so important to know what your body needs. I am stricter now and need sleep more!

What do you eat and drink for the best energy release?

It's important to drink a lot, as you can easily become dehydrated. The important thing is to eat little and often, as well as consuming the kind of food and drink that your body can absorb in a short time but that also gives a good energy release. Solid food like bananas, pasta or high protein foods like fish or chicken are good, and I usually drink water mixed with vitamins and minerals.

Do you think it's brave of BMW to develop the modified R 1200 S sports boxer in full view of the media?

It's the choice of BMW to do it this way, and it's a brave one. The company has showed over the past few years with the Boxer Cup and Power Cup - and this year in the World Endurance Championship - that it has the spirit to go racing. BMW wants to be there and feels that the R 1200 S is the best bike to expose the possibilities. Their belief in this model has been successfully proved and its capabilities have surprised many fans and other riders.

Does the Boxer have any advantages over the four-cylinder bikes?

All of the top teams and WEC regulars are naturally very fast but the BMW Motorrad Motorsport team has done extremely well in its pit-stop routines. After just a few races, BMW is as fast as many of the top teams, but because its need to refuel is less frequent than most of the others [due to the better fuel economy of the Boxer engine] this can result in about six pit-stops less by the end of a 24-hour race. There are no speed or power advantages compared with the four-cylinder bikes but other riders have been surprised at the R 1200 S's capability in braking as well as its speed through the corners, where you can really take advantage of its strong and smooth torque. The technical track conditions suited the BMW at Oschersleben but this won't be the case at Magny-Cours.

What's the Magny Cours circuit like?

It's a nice track and the BMWs could do ok, but it's a quick track with a long and fast straight, so it will be more difficult for the BMW with a slight high-speed deficit. In addition, there will be a lot of French teams there as well as all the championship regulars. The BMW Motorrad Motorsport team performance and strategy have improved since the first race of the year at Le Mans and a top 15 finish would be a great result at the Bol d'Or - as well as a victory in the Open class. Personally though, I like fast tracks, such as Spa-Francochamps, Assen and Mugello.

Did you enjoy racing with Nate Kern and Brian Parriott at Daytona last year?

Yes, it was great to win this inaugural Moto-ST race on the R 1200 S last October. This was an eight-hour race and a real test for the new R 1200 S, which was pretty much standard. The new bike is such a good evolution of the R 1100 S - especially the engine with an extra 20 horsepower on tap!

What are your plans for when you're fit again?

Since my injury earlier this year, my goal was always to be back on the bike for the Bol d'Or. Mentally I'm ready to race again but my body just isn't up to it yet, so it's better not to take any risks. I would be out there if I could, believe me.