At the end of the 2003 season Joel Smets made the difficult decision to move from KTM and take up a new challenge with Team Suzuki and their new RM-Z 450 four-stroke.

Here the multiple world champion describes his visit to the Suzuki factory in Japan, his first impressions of the new bike and how he is approaching the 2004 Motocross Grand Prix season...

Q: How was the trip to Japan Joel?
Joel Smets: Japan was a lot different from what I was expecting. I had never been to Asia before and I thought it might have been more 'eastern' but I felt some European influences more so than American.

We were out there for around ten days and spent about five of those riding and visiting the Japanese Championship. The people were very polite, respectful and very small! It was an interesting trip.
Q: What have been your impressions of the new bike?
JS: The best way I have found to describe it is like making a good vegetable soup. First we need to find the right vegetables but this doesn't always mean that the soup will taste delicious.

In Japan we were looking for the best vegetables, parts and components and I believe we are at the stage now where the ingredients are good and we have to make sure we get the correct mix. Then it is a matter of adding the final few herbs. I can't tell you right now if the soup will be excellent.
Q: So what was the 'tastiest vegetable'?
JS: Ha! Well, from the start the engine did not feel like a rocketship but it was comfortable and is proving to be very reliable. I expected the handling to be a little better than it was but this has been one of the biggest areas we have managed to change; I think I will need more time than I anticipated to adapt because the last Japanese bike I rode was back in 1992 and most of the manufacturers tend to have a lot in common in terms of handling. I have not ridden with a linkage for the last six years so I have to adjust back to the system we have on the RM-Z.
Q: It must make life easier being based a short drive from the workshop?
JS: It is definitely an advantage being so close to the action. Most of the development work is done in Japan but we do our own tuning at the workshop and we ride numerous times in the week. It's simple to have a meeting or debriefing after we have tested.
Q: There were some reports that you had suffered an injury over the winter?
JS: Yeah, it's a silly thing. On the very first lap on the first day that I had my bike in Europe I wasn't quite awake and almost crashed and lost grip on the bars, yanking my thumb. I strained the ligaments but it is more or less OK now.
Q: How are you approaching 2004 mentally?
JS: I have high expectations. For the last 10 years I have been challenging for a World Championship. The start of the season is going to be a process of discovery and finding out about the Smets and Suzuki combination. Only in race circumstances will be able to judge the potential of the package. I have four or five international meetings before the GPs start and this will help us to get into race shape.

I am realistic; I know it wont be easy, but I hope to challenge for the title this year and I expect to win motos. If the bike is not 100% at the beginning I will still fight hard; looking for excuses and giving up is not my style. Everybody at Suzuki is working very hard and believing in this project; there is no reason to think that we cannot win in our first year.



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