After a bit of a hiatus, New Zealand has someone back in the blue riband of world motocross racing. Former MX2 world champion Ben Townley is back at elite level with the Suzuki World MXGP team.
The Kiwi, who claimed the American AMA 250SX East Coast Supercross Championship and won races at the AMA Pro Nationals and Motocross of Nations, has signed with Stefan Everts, the most successful rider in FIM Motocross World Championship history. The Belgian, who won 10 world titles and moved to Suzuki as general manager after a stint with KTM, wanted experience and snapped up Townley to partner Kevin Strijbos on the works RM-Z450.
A long and debilitating series of injuries took their toll on Townley in early 2013, forcing him into early retirement. His body may have been worn down but the competitive spirit burned on, and in 2015 he was coaxed out of retirement to represent New Zealand at the 2015 Motocross of Nations in France. There, he surprised himself and the rest of the field by finishing second and sixth to take third place overall.
"When I stopped racing nearly three years ago, I had no intention of racing again," said Townley from Qatar on the eve of the opening race of the 2016 championship.
"The injuries and things had got to me and I was building another life and now have three great children. But as time went on, the desire to race never really went away and after France [at the Motocross of Nations], I knew I was still fast.
"Despite enjoying my time with the family, I always knew I had unfinished business at the top level [MX1, now MXGP]. The opportunity came along late last year to race with Suzuki and Stefan."
The 30-year-old arrived in Europe in 2001 and within a year was finishing on top of the podium racing 125cc machines. By the time 2004 and the inaugural MX2 championship started, Townley was the man to beat and duly won the world title. The following year, he became the first rider in modern MX history to win a Grand Prix in MX2 and MX1. He's kept a hand in the sport during his non-competitive years away by mentoring and training young factory riders. He reckons his fitness is as good as ever, and has been putting in the practice kilometres on the bike. However, Townley is keenly aware that racing is a different prospect.
"I'm happy where I am with my fitness and know I'm quick on the bike. I'm aware racing is different to practice and testing, so we'll just have to see how it goes on Saturday.
"Stefan and I have been working on keeping the beast inside [himself] at bay for most of the race and only letting it come out when it's needed.
"We have a plan to see how the first five races go and then re-evaluate from there. At the moment, I'm working on getting a fast start and then settling into the races and trying to maintain position rather than going all out for the win.
"Of course in my mind, I still want to win every race, but it's a long season [19 rounds] and we're now looking at getting good points at each race. If things are looking good by the time we get to America, I'm just going to go for it." For some, the thought of Townley getting back in the heat of battle might be one charge too many, but team principal Sylvain Geboers knows what a professional the Kiwi is and is in no doubt he has the desire, passion and skill to challenge for the title.
"Reality will set in Saturday night after the race. I'm feeling good and we'll just have to wait and see how it turns out," said Townley.