KTM Round 3: Who next at Redsand?
Four holeshots, two second positions and a gap of just six points to the championship leader after two rounds of nineteen: world champion Tony Cairoli might not feel too despondent about his current status quo in MXGP and with his bid to grab a tenth title and eighth since 2009 in the premier class. But could the Red Bull KTM rider have won both Grands Prix in Argentina and Holland (the ‘Europe’ round)? The 32 year old had the starts, the pace and the initiative to add to that 83 career total but was summarily wound-in by his teammate and despatched with relative ease; late race mistakes that fly in the face of all that wealth of experience must also rankle.
Cairoli is a competitive beast; his recent contract extension to take him into a thirty-sixth year as an MXGP athlete is the ultimate underline of that character. So the pursuit and demotion by Jeffrey Herlings will have stung at the time but Tony will have already assessed the wider landscape. Herlings is forcing #222 to push to upper limits and for a rider that admitted to winning his 2014 title by riding at “70%” this must be the kind of professional challenge he unconsciously seeks with the launch of each new season. Cairoli has repeatedly stated that his motivation to continue competing is based on personal desire to improve and get better and faster: in 2018 he will surely find a hefty yardstick as long as Herlings (or any other rider that can raise their game) remains flying.
With Argentina (he has never triumphed at Neuquen) and Valkenswaard in the books (he won for six years on the Dutch sand but has missed out since 2014) he can look back at two fixtures where he would typically face some adversity. Herlings was expected to win round two. His dwarfing record of seven victories in eight years at the Eurocircuit is not a subtle formbook. It might have been easier for Tony if his rival had simply disappeared into the distance, instead of being relegated for three successive motos. It might be interesting to watch if Cairoli switches tactics in the coming rounds in Spain, Italy (a key event in this simmering early duel) and Portugal to become the pursuer and see if he can pressurise Herlings into the sort of error that produced a crash and cost the 23 year old Pole Position on a freezing Saturday.
Regardless of the events that occurred through one hour and ten minutes of racing on a Sunday, Tony will be counting points. He knows Jeffrey likes to dance on the limit and perhaps Cairoli’s age and monumental experience in championship-construction is keener to the travails that are sure to come with the twenty-eight motos ahead. However don’t forget that Herlings is also a three times champion and has learnt very painfully that a campaign cannot be juggled frivolously week to week.
And what of Jeffrey? For a racer that devours confidence-building results, feedback and feeling then 2018 could not have started any better. Not only is he unbeaten but he has effectively humbled the best rider in the modern era and the defending number one that resides just a few metres away in the awning each weekend. A disappointing part of the two GPs so far will be the amount of work he has given himself out of the gate (even if it has made for riveting fare for spectators) and only #84 and his closest companions will know how near he has been to disaster in putting Cairoli to the sword. Perhaps he thinks the psychological effects are important? It could be part of a strategy to try and break Cairoli’s steely resolve.
The action between the pair has been gripping and hard to predict but has also remained respectful and spacious. How long will it remain so? With such a high profile match-up it will also be hard to work out any small elements of gamesmanship. The desire to keep the contest ‘clean’ will not only be a wish for two superlative athletes with almost a quarter of a century of GP racing between them but also a priority and hard line from KTM. “From my side: 100%,” Herlings said on the topic. “I like to ride clean. The sport is already very dangerous so I want to keep it clean all the way. Tony is very experienced and very smart. I hope it will be the same from his side.”
Herlings-Cairoli and now Jonass-Prado means that MXGP continues to have a heavy orange hue. The disputes among these four riders along will form a narrative that will bring fans to the fences and screens each weekend but some extra colour would not go amiss. HRC’s Tim Gajser will naturally need time to come back to speed but it is almost a year since we have seen the Slovenian at his peak. Monster Energy Yamaha’s Jeremy Van Horebeek’s second moto tumble in Valkenswaard was disappointing considering the Belgian’s potential at the start of the season and by layering a base in the top four from which he could contemplate the search of new performance limits. Too often ‘JVH’ has had to regain rhythm or progress after a physical problem or form dip and this tendency has frequently pegged the Yamaha man (now five years) into a leaderboard ‘hoverer’. Not since 2014 has he really hit the heights of the category.
Jonass’ brilliance and authority in MX2 is a case of ‘different rider, same scenario’ for KTM and their rivals. There is a hint of Herlings-type formidability with the Latvian: essential starts, strength and low propensity for foul-ups. “The world title gives some extra confidence but it also takes the pressure away so you can ride really relaxed,” he revealed. “At the end of last year I was very careful. This year I am starting from zero and riding very smooth and easy.”
With 2 wins and 4 moto chequered flags the gauntlet has been smacked on the dirt in front of Jorge Prado (maybe one of his best races yet to second overall?) and Thomas Kjer Olsen, even a slightly distant Hunter Lawrence.
Certainly one of the standout elements of Valkenwaard was the freaky weather that made exhaust fumes act as indispensible hand-warmers in the gate and sub-zero temperatures one of the rarest race conditions in MXGP history. The venue near Eindhoven is no stranger to a cold and rainy climate for Grand Prix in the past but has also basked in summer skies at a similar time in the calendar. The consequences of the rain, snow and cold churned the Eurocircuit into a narrow and perilous course. Thankfully the occurrences on the lumpy terrain were far from a cold dish for race fans.
Photos by Ray Archer