When to slack off…
Twenty Grands Prix and forty motos (sixty starts including the qualification heat races) meant that the odds of 2018 MXGP maintaining any kind of status quo was going to be slim. Jeffrey Herlings’ crash and collarbone fracture last week was a shock but maybe not such a surprise. The previous day the world’s fastest rider in the sand had posted a video on his Instagram stories where he was hitting a sandy leap with ferocious intent. The clip summed up Herlings’ 2018 so far: confident, dominant, accomplished, slightly frightening. It was another message to Grand Prix rivals ahead of Ottobiano that 50 points (what might have been a eighth 1-1 of the term) was firmly on the cards.
And then the spill and a break to the collarbone that already housed a plate and screws. It is an injury that dates back to 2015 and a fall while scrubbing the highest hill at Teutschenthal in Germany. A year later and Herlings aggravated the collarbone and missed three MX2 Grands Prix when he had a lead in the MX2 series of more than 150 points. He returned for the final three rounds and grabbed top three results and four moto wins from the six outings.
So history has kinda repeated, and with a third strike to the surgically enhanced bone. Is there a difference this time? The stakes are higher. Herlings would have had a momentary panic in 2016 but also knew returning to the MX2 fold (and a competition where he had won 23 out of 24 races until the injury drama) meant he was still the Alpha. On this occasion the MXGP throng will be quick to capitalise.
Herlings also has timing on his side. Sure, missing Ottobiano meant losing another ‘banker’ and a ‘fracture’ of his momentum but is was also the third of a back-to-back GP triple. He has two weeks before Free Practice starts in Indonesia and the initial diagnosis after surgery was a forced ten-day hiatus from the motorcycle. The accident would be been far more costly if it had occurred prior to Matterley Basin and potentially there would have been a dent of two ‘0’s in his championship card.
Herlings’ Instagram changed from that display of motocross magnificence to a black screen and just the digits of a clock later on Wednesday afternoon. It was a harsh extreme. Jeffrey is a sensitive guy; so do not underestimate how much this setback will have affected him. If anything it was a reminder of his (and every rider’s) fragility and the way that motocross will always punish at any given moment. The toes of those Alpinestars boots have now made contact with the ground once more.
Herlings’s 62 points was chopped to 12 at Ottobiano and the inevitable question of ‘what if?’ rears its head. Did he really need to be pushing at such a hard rate in training and before the second authentic sand race of the season? The answer is two-pronged: firstly he was looking to maintain optimum form to potentially upstage Tony Cairoli again on home turf and secondly this is Herlings’ MO. #84 is a racing animal and talks openly about the sacrifices he makes to chase his level of performance and superiority in the sport.
Entering round 11 of 20 in 2018 is a weird moment of the season. Herlings did have a cushion of a grand prix over Cairoli however it was not enough to consider backing down from a practice schedule and approach that has worked so emphatically (while perhaps puts Herlings towards the sharper end of the knife-edge). Cairoli is the master of world championship title campaign construction with nine gongs in fourteen seasons and he spoke repeatedly in the latter phases of 2017 of tapering-off his training to reduce risk. The Sicilian rode less and less as the calendar wound down. It reduced his competitiveness and he only took one podium finish in the last four fixtures but he massaged a points advantage for a happy ending.
It is hard to imagine Jeffrey Herlings taking the same approach, even for all his talk of being prepared to accept positions and results away from the glare of the podium. We’re talking about an athlete who has only missed a champagne shower three times in the last calendar year (and one of those was due to a broken chain in Sweden). It’s hard to judge, simply because Jeffrey had a big but not mountainous margin in the championship and was arguably at the peak of his form, happiness and sync with the 450 SX-F. Why meddle with a formula that is functioning to the point of near perfection?
Herlings’ 23 years might invite more impetuosity in comparison to a wizened Cairoli but such is the zest of the many aspects that constitute his racing existence (and you can only but admire it) that it seems unfathomable to imagine him giving anything less than the maximum. The issue is whether he has ‘paid’ for that. And whether that kind of ‘win every Sunday’ underlying philosophy has a place in MXGP now where attrition is arguably the most valuable commodity. As an example Herlings’ former teammate Jordi Tixer only won his first Grand Prix once Herlings had broken his femur deep into 2014 and his consistency helped him prevail and enter the record books by just 8 points. Frustratingly, being able to win almost every week is almost not enough.
The Red Bull KTM we see in Indonesia in two weeks will be fascinating. Like a coiled Cobra, Cairoli could well be poised to spit more venom into the face of his rival. Herlings will return to action and might want to stick the music pipe straight back into his mouth or remain an observer to the show in order to wrestle control back into his favour.
2018 has been orange across the board but after the mash in Matterley and this latest twist there is a throbbing story within that wider narrative and the season just became that little bit more engaging.
Photos by Ray Archer