In any discipline of international sport, competing at home often prompts extremes of performances, good or bad. Sometimes, the expectation – however well-intentioned that may be – weighs heavily. Sometimes, being on familiar ground can inspire an athlete to achieve highs their pedigree, history and the form guide suggest aren’t possible.
Pressure or privilege? For Joel Kelso, competing at home isn’t an either/or question; it’s both, in equal proportions. He proved it on Sunday, finishing third for his maiden Grand Prix podium to become the first Australian Moto3™ rostrum-finisher since Jack Miller nine years previously.
Kelso started from the middle of the front row after qualifying an equal career-best second, but it was easy to be sceptical of his chances; it was the fourth time this season that he’d taken the start without a row of riders in front of him.
All season long, Kelso’s one-lap qualifying prowess has flattered his CFMOTO Racing PruestelGP machinery, and only twice – in France and Japan – has he managed to finish ahead of where he started. Able to wrestle a time out of a difficult bike over one lap, he’s regularly fallen to where his machinery should be finishing on merit over a full race distance. But some home inspiration – and a wet track – offered an opportunity.
From the start, Kelso was part of a five-bike group that broke away in the spray but one that couldn’t sustain the entire 21-lap distance. Dutch rookie Collin Veijer surged before stumbling, and long-time race leader Adrian Fernandez – younger brother to MotoGP™ rider Raul Fernandez – crashed with six laps to go after setting the fastest lap of the race on the previous tour, biting off more than he could chew.
Kelso had fleeting thoughts of a win when Fernandez went down but had a scary moment when he almost dropped it at Turn 10 on lap 18, regrouping after a long look over his shoulder to see who could pounce on his podium chance. By that stage, fourth-placed Veijer was a speck in the spray, and Kelso put his head down and refocused on hitting each soaking-wet apex, corner after corner, for three more laps.
Once he crossed the line to secure third, there was relief and elation – and a moment to realise how cold he was. Air and track temperatures of 13 and 14, respectively, not to mention a thorough soaking, had his teeth chattering. Darwin weather, it certainly wasn’t. But as he donned some dry gloves to combat the cold in parc ferme, his face broke into a broad grin, a torrent of words – and a few expletives – tumbling out as his elated family looked on.
“It’s bloody brilliant,” he gushed.
“It was tricky conditions and I thought ‘gee whiz we’re just going to have to f**king go for it at the home GP’. I thought we were on for a win but I made a little mistake, so I thought ‘let’s just put it in the bag and get it home safely’.”
Sunday was positive on longer-term fronts for Kelso, too. As the sun tried valiantly to poke through the gloom ahead of Moto3™ warm-up, news broke that the 20-year-old had secured his immediate future with a 2024 deal to ride for the BOE Motorsports outfit alongside David Munoz, the Spaniard who has taken four Moto3™ podiums this season and previously raced against Kelso in the FIM CEV Moto3™ Junior World Championship.
Kelso’s confirmation gives Aussie fans four riders to cheer for on the world championship stage next year, Kelso alongside Wollongong teenager Jacob Roulstone in Moto3™, Senna Agius in Moto2™ and, of course, Miller in the premier class. And while the affable red-head will have to share the spotlight with a trio of compatriots next year at the Island, having the privilege and place to even do that will mean just as much as ever.
“We spend so much time at other people’s Grands Prix that it’s so nice that one weekend when it’s the other way around,” he said.
“It’s just such a different weekend for me, I have the family and friends with me, everyone wants to speak to you and everyone wishes you all the best. It’s an awesome feeling and something I’ll never take for granted. It was new for me last year so I knew what to expect this time, but it’s still awesome.”