MXGP: What Cairoli will we see at Qatar Grand Prix?

At some point after writing this Blog I’ll be chatting (or hoping to) with Tony Cairoli for a swift update on how the distant landscape for a ninth world title lies for the thirty-one year old Sicilian. The KTM man will start his fifteenth season of Grand Prix in a matter of weeks and (amazingly) 2017 is the first time that he’ll enter a campaign having failed to snare a world crown the two previous years since making his debut in 2003.

It feels like the annual pre-season call to Tony is a well-worn process by now. It wasn’t an easy discourse this time last year when he’d busted several ribs and was clearly down-playing a training crash that would go on to have longer-lasting effects throughout 2016 and his attempt to recover the MXGP No.1 plate that he’d lost to Romain Febvre, chiefly due to a fractured arm midway through the 2015 championship trail. In 2015 and 2016 Cairoli infrequently arrived to the physical and mental peaks that underpinned so much of his consistency and dominance for a six year spell from 2009. From that unexpected crash at the ’14 Nations in Latvia that led to a tweaked knee, #222 endured a sequence of hits and dips. Maybe it was just ‘his turn’, with title rivals like Gautier Paulin, Clement Desalle and Max Nagl all having their own misfortunes during Tony’s glorious ‘09-‘14 run where he dealt with illness, bumps and bruises but rarely any serious malaise that kept him away from the 350SX-F.

Now, and after hearing talk that Cairoli is in full-flow during tests, you can only wonder what he might be capable of in 2017 and from the interesting position of underdog. I think a part of Cairoli was savouring that chance to attack anew and without the weight of the gold number plate early in 2016 but the fall and torso injury (with nerve complications) put paid to his reverted role as the assassin rather than the target. A healthy Cairoli come Qatar poses a much more exciting and fearful prospect and I wonder how Tony might want to seize the forthcoming battle. His modus operandi in past years seemed to involve a combination of a high, fast – but also regular – level from the off. He built a run of podiums, moto and GP wins and trophies to set the pace in the points table and then reacted accordingly; experience and a vein of superiority the key ingredients to forging a path to the crown. Having watched Tim Gajser, Max Nagl and Gautier Paulin snatch glory and control in Qatar in the last three years will Cairoli want to announce his intention and honed feeling with the 450SX-F with an all-out blast at Losail? It would be a significant gesture that he means business. A desire to bury injury frustration and throw an new Answer glove firmly in the faces of his competition as well as the notion that he might not be able to match the intensity and verve of rivals ten (Gajser), six (Febvre), nine (Jeffrey Herlings) and five (Paulin) years younger than him.

A statement in Qatar would also carry extra weight by virtue of the fact that Tony has hardly excelled on the weird desert dirt. Since 2013 and the opening of MXGP at Losail (incidentally 2017 marks the final year of the contract of five between the QMMF and Youthstream; will a renewal be on the cards?) Tony has only won one moto there; the ill-fated Superfinal of that inaugural year that placed MXGP and MX2 classes together.

While Ken Roczen’s shocking crash at Anaheim 2 and even Cairoli own seemingly innocuous spill at Maggiora in the summer of 2015 that led to the arm breakage proves that any forecasting or predications in such a notoriously unpredictable sport is largely guesswork; personally I have the feeling that 2017 could be a vintage term for Tony. The signs appear to be there: a (finally) settled development spell with the 450, the same team and staff, health and the bolt of motivation he needs to clamber to the top of MXGP again by proving to all observers that he is not yet descending the other side of the hill. Gasjer might bring the drive, Febvre the juice, Paulin the flair, Nagl the unexpected, Herlings the unknown, Desalle the style and then a mystery could wade in from the wings (Simpson? Tonus? Bobryshev? Van Horebeek? Strijbos?) but Cairoli is still the benchmark in my eyes. What kind of hand will he show us in less than five weeks?

Photo by Ray Archer/KTM