That Sinking Feeling

Thoughts on a remarkable Grand Prix of Indonesia where visitors, participants and observers could not help but have an opinion on what they saw in Pangkal Pinang…

The image below of multiple award winning photographer and OTOR’s own Ray Archer kinda sums up the conditions at the first Grand Prix of Indonesia since 1997. Our erstwhile snapper (captured by Onboard Racing here) was stuck fast for over twenty minutes on Saturday in the process of trying to photograph the sole timed session for the MXGP class at the new build Pangkal Pinang circuit.

 

Action shots from the following day will show Wilvo Yamaha’s Shaun Simpson and Team Suzuki’s Jeremy Seewer somehow traversing similar conditions to emerge triumphant from this second round of nineteen. The image of Ray sinking is highlighted to emphasise that it wasn’t only the riders that had to deal with the sticky clayish sludge but the track personnel, TV crew and – crucially – medical staff that had trouble accessing parts of the layout that already had been cut and shortened for the second motos and only eventually only saw two and a half motos of the four for MXGP and MX2.

There was also the chaos that ensued with the quantity of people on the track, assistance for the riders and the impact on potential results: a perfect example was seen in the second outing for the MXW and the opening fixture in the FIM Women’s World Championship. Under another heavy shower and after the initial MX2 and MXGP motos, first race victor Nancy Van Der Ven crashed repeatedly, was helped back onto her Yamaha and was decreed the Grand Prix winner – podium celebration and all – only to be disqualified and stripped of the garland while the rostrum steps were still wet from the champagne.

The Grand Prix was not curtailed solely because of the boggy mud holes that were stopping riders fast and causing hazardous obstacles but also the slow collapse of functionality of the site. This was an eventuality feared during the middle of the week and with the relentless stormy showers and high humidity in the region. There were comments that the track was holding up well under the deluge but the state of play was clear to see on Saturday. Allegedly a majority of the riders were unsure of the feasibility of the Grand Prix on Saturday but there was a ‘have a go’ mentality coupled with the warm reception for the championship and the paddock by the locals with Pangkal Pinang and the bike-mad Indonesian public ignoring the dodgy climate to make the event the best attended for MXGP in Asia so far.

 

2017 is the first of three visits by MXGP to Pangkal Pinang and to a nation of 230 million people thirsty for bike sport and a hotspot on the continent for motorcycle manufacturers. Unlike the Grand Prix of Thailand that bounced between four venues and didn’t achieve an attendance smash, Indonesia carries more promise for the second and third editions. Even if the timing of the meeting may have to be analysed to avoid the worst of the rainy season. This particular zone of Indonesia enters a dry spell similar to European summertime (August the peak apparently) and in February 2016 Pangkal Pinang experienced one of the worst floods in the history of the area.

Rumours that Malaysia could enter the MXGP slate once more are still hovering around the scene and could be Youthstream’s way to take the series back-to-back in Asia at a different time in the calendar. With Qatar unlikely to launch Grand Prix after five years as the opening round, the landscape of MXGP could alter quite significantly. Speaking of Qatar, I’m sure that Thailand and maybe Indonesia have suffered slightly in following the relative comfort and convenience of Losail. The paddock has moved from a top-notch facility, easy working conditions and a circuit with copious resources to something usually in contrast. For me Si Racha – host to the first two Thai rounds in 2013 and 2014 – still sets the bar for how a race track can exist and ignite the excitement of the athletes who have to blaze around it.

On a sporting side Indonesia provided a glimpse at a very different strand of motocross.

It was not fast or jumpy but delivered its own kind of spectacle with the drama of whether the leaders would last another lap – Simpson almost coming a cropper on the final circulation but somehow getting through the mud that had swallowed Romain Febvre, Max Nagl, Tim Gajser (briefly) and Jeffrey Herlings. Simpson summed it up best on his website: “It was rutty, deep and with a lot of line choice, you had to have your thinking cap on and see where you could make up time and carry speed through the ruts. I was ready to ‘go’ and I was feeling ‘it’ today.”

After the leaps and lap-times of Losail it was slightly refreshing to see racers picking and threading their way through the ruts and crevices. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Grand Prix lap with so little feet-up-on-the-pegs. To the first-time or casual TV viewer it must have looked like something between a farce and a folly. To an off-road motorcycle rider it only transmitted the skill and concentration needed for such conditions. OK…and with a degree of lunacy thrown in for good measure. As I mentioned in a report for www.racerxonline.com the fact that four sand specialists finished in the top five of the first moto (and thus Grand Prix overall) ranking should not be dismissed. Jeffrey Herlings was also faring considerably well in the top seven before he became wedgedand just one week after his broken and plated hand had ballooned horribly at Losail.

I’m sure a number of 2017 title contenders (Nagl, Febrve, Gajser) will be on their way home to Europe confused at how an anomaly was thrown into their scorecard so early in the campaign. Simpson himself was sixteenth, on the ground and still recovering from illness in Qatar and eight days later was not only toasting his fourth GP win but his second for Yamaha and first for the new Wilvo squad.

Tony Cairoli’s relief was tangible in his post-race interview; his fourth position permitting ownership of the red plate again and for the longest time since 2014. “I’m really happy actually because the track was really difficult and it was easy to lose a lot of points,” the 31 year old said. #222 will face his own demons at some point with thirty-four motos still to run but the season has started strongly for the rider who was the in-form GP star travelling to Qatar.

Lastly, a literary pat on the back for Jeremy Seewer. Writing texts for Suzuki in the past meant talking to the likeable Swiss every other weekend and I’ve always rated #91’s ability to learn fast and somehow keep elastic on the bike. Without wanting to jinx the twenty-two year old I cannot remember a time when he has suffered an injury in three years of MX2 racing. Losail was a meek start to the term where he fluffed his starts but Indonesia was more like the attacking resilience we can come to expect.

Photos by Ray Archer

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