– The track in Vojens is technical. It’s not easy to ride it, that’s why I chose a special preparation plan for this competition – revealed Damian Ratajczak in an interview with “Wprost”, analyzing his greatest sports success in his career.
We talked to Damian Ratajczak, the individual vice-champion of the junior world and a youth player from the Leszno talent pool, during the inter-season break. Let us remind you that last season he won a medal at the world championship, in which competitors under 21 years of age compete, and he himself has just entered adulthood. He advanced to the SGP2 series after exciting qualifying rounds. In the international qualifying round, he took the last place eligible for promotion, i.e. fourth.
In the SGP2 cycle itself, three competitions were held, respectively in: Prague, Gorzów and Vojens. The 18-year-old tells us about his feelings from the junior championship. He also mentions the important role played by a psychologist, Bartosz Zmarzlik’s valuable tips and his biggest shortcoming.
Interview with Damian Ratajczak
Dawid Franek (“Wprost”): You only turned 18 last year. Before the season, did you think that you could fight for a medal at the Individual Junior World Championships?
Damian Ratajczak (speedway rider of Fogo Unia Leszno, youth vice-champion of the world): The main goal was certainly to advance to the SGP 2 series. After the performance in Prague (third place – editor’s note), I seriously believed that I could win a medal and I put in effort to actually fight for it. This plan came true. I have already fulfilled one of my dreams in my junior career.
In the last round in Vojens you won, even though you lost in every race. Was there some sort of frustration in your head?
I focused on the distance fight to make up for the differences after the start. It is known that if too many negative thoughts appeared in my head, I would not be able to effectively chase my rivals. Then the result I achieved wouldn’t have happened because I would have just set myself on fire. I stayed calm and intended to keep my best line on the track.
What made you so fast over the distance in Vojens? Did you try to adjust the settings on the motorcycle yourself, or was your team more responsible for it?
Here I work closely with my mechanic, Mariusz Szmanda. We arrange all details on an ongoing basis. When I leave the track from a given race, I immediately pass on my observations to him. What matters is what I feel in each run. Then we decide which direction we are going with the settings. In Vojens, it also happened that Bartosz Zmarzlik helped me. I also listened to the advice of coach Rafał Dobrucki. I must admit that I have good engines from Mr. Ryszard Kowalski. It is also known that the equipment itself does not work and you need to know how to use it.
The track in Vojens is technical. It’s not easy to ride it, so I chose a special preparation plan for this competition. I went to practice on the mini track in Lgiń. This helped me a lot, because in Vojens you have to “throw” the motorcycle into these curves to keep the line at the curb. I’ve liked technical ovals from the beginning of my career, so I’m glad that everything worked out well in Denmark.
You mentioned cooperation with Mariusz Szmanda, a mechanic who was in the team in the past, among others. a legend like Leigh Adams. How did he come to be helping you for some time?
Mariusz is employed by Unia Leszno and was delegated to the junior team. When Dominik Kubera left the club, he was assigned to me. He showed willingness to cooperate and we were also determined to start it. Our cooperation is bringing results and I hope it continues like this for as long as possible. All that remains is to combine his vast knowledge and my track observations into one whole, which should result in further good results.
In the past, you have often pointed out that your biggest shortcoming is being under the tape. During the winter you work hard on your reflexes, but do you think that the most work should be done on balancing on the motorcycle during the starting procedure?
Reflexes are important and you cannot put aside working on them. That’s why I’m polishing it, because there’s always a chance to improve it. It is known, however, that my biggest shortcoming is body balance, but I am improving in this aspect as well. Even at the end of the season, coach Rafał Okoniewski and I paid a lot of attention to this. Certainly in the spring, when we go to the track for the first time after the break, we will put emphasis on it again.
In October, Rafał Okoniewski was announced as the manager/coach of Fogo Unia Leszno. We have never seen him in such a role before. How do you evaluate the first weeks of your cooperation?
Most positively. We have a great relationship with each other. The trainer provides knowledge about competitions in an accessible way. This resonates with me and at the same time, what he conveys begins to pass the test. I also try to apply myself appropriately to implement these instructions. It is never the case that a manager will share some advice and it will immediately work. It’s good that Rafał Okoniewski joined us and I think that thanks to him I can reach a higher level.
As a talented junior, you have to face a lot of pressure in the first years of your career, which is not easy. What does it look like from your perspective? Are you still working with a psychologist, as in previous months?
Yes. Pressure is always a part of sports. I think we need to focus on what we do best. We cannot allow any unnecessary thoughts to enter our heads. However, when they appear, they should be thrown away as soon as possible. It is worth approaching competitions with a task-oriented approach.
Last season, there were moments in the league when you probably beat your rivals in the youth race, and then in your second race you came last, but there were already two seniors standing at the line. Then, before the third run, do you make a lot of hardware changes or do you try not to touch it?
You have to take into account that the level of my second race is simply different from the first one, because I don’t want to take anything away from the juniors, but the seniors have more experience and are more experienced. And to beat them, everything has to go perfectly. Sometimes, when you are under the tape, e.g. with Maciej Janowski and Artiom Łaguta, you count on the fact that you can beat them, but you have to keep in mind that you will finish in last place. And my point is that without changing anything in your equipment, you can win another race, even though your rivals turned out to be better than you in the previous one.
Your biggest rivals, other Poles – Mateusz Cierniak and Bartłomiej Kowalski, will not take part in the junior world championships next season. Thus, even more fans will look at you as the main favorite for the title. Will it be more difficult to obtain it since your opponents will be mobilizing to fight you?
It will not be easy, and the series will turn out to be more difficult than in the 2023 season. Other players will enter the game. Wiktor Przyjemski will probably get promoted this time, someone will come from abroad. Let’s remember that sometimes bad luck means that a talented speedway rider does not get a pass to the Junior World Championships, so next year he will want to prove his worth even more. I certainly don’t consider the future in terms of Mateusz and Bartek not going, everything will go downhill. First you need to get into the cycle and then think about higher goals.
What is your relationship with Wiktor Przyjemski? You are both talented athletes and you were born on the same day.
We get along very well. Perhaps this is due to the fact that we have known each other for quite a long time – since performing on 250 cc motorcycles. Now we will spend some time together at the Polish national team camp in Malta, so I am happy about that.
The camp in Malta will be the time when it is worth seeking advice from older colleagues regarding the speedway season, even though it starts only in over two months, or will you focus more on other things?
There will definitely be talks. It’s extremely valuable that you can spend time with players who are more successful than yourself. As is often the case among us, I will ask about hardware issues. I’m glad I’ll be at this camp because I can prepare for the season with a great team.
The PGE Ekstraliga starts in April. Fogo Unia Leszno has brave speedway riders in its squad, but it is again expected to be in the lower parts of the table. Does the fact that you won’t be going into many matches as a favorite relieve you to some extent?
Perhaps yes, to some extent. It’s obvious that when you go to every match you want to win. We have a habit of not selling cheap leather and we certainly want to show it at all meetings.
The season is also long enough that perhaps there is no point in wondering now. Various things influence results, including health issues.