MXGP World Champion Jeffrey Herlings has kept a reasonably low profile since breaking his right foot in January and needing complicated corrective surgery, but opened up on several topics as confirmation came through this week from Red Bull KTM that he will indeed miss the opening rounds of the 2019 series.
Herlings is due a medical check-up on March 11th and will have his full cast changed to a lighter and more flexible version. While he has officially only been ruled out for the season-opening Grand Prix of Argentina at Neuquen this weekend it is hard to imagine the injury will be strong enough (and #84 will have had enough bike time) to consider the British Grand Prix at the end of the month.
There had previously been a degree of mystery as to the state of Herlings’ condition and the time frame for recovery but the news of the March 11th appointment – six weeks after he endured the knife of renowned surgeon Dr Claes in Belgium – means he’ll be playing catch-up in the 2019 MXGP story after the latest setback of his career (he broke his right hand at the beginning of 2017 and his collarbone in the midst of his amazing 2018 campaign).
Herlings had known for some time that the Argentine Grand Prix (the fifth to occur at the popular Neuquen circuit in Patagonia) would be unlikely. Asked for his emotion on missing out on the fixture his disappointment was still evident. “I think last year it was one of the best races of the season, especially that second moto where I was able to catch Tony and pass him on the last lap,” he recalls exclusively. “It’s also one of my favourite tracks: wide, fast and sandy. It’s a big shame that we won’t be there but it is what it is.”
Herlings’ misfortune comes as a brief reprieve for his rivals. According to the 24 year old he was flying through his pre-season prep, and in even more convincing form than the figure that dominated in 2018 with 17 wins from 19 appearances.
“We did some great work during the winter and made good progress with the bike; I was feeling really comfortable and thanks to the effort of the team I felt stronger than I was in 2018,” he claims. “Anyway, we cannot change the situation and will now focus on getting better and back into that shape.”
Naturally Herlings believes his teammate and sole threat in ’18 – Tony Cairoli – is now sitting in the driving seat to mark the pace in the championship story. “It’s just six months onwards from the end of last season and I would not say there are any new heavy-hitters in the class so it should be the usual fast guys going for wins,” he says. “Tony is, for sure, the guy to look at for the championship. I think he will be more motivated than ever with a sniff of that tenth title. He knows how to be consistent and to put a championship together. He’ll be very good.”
One of the fascinating narratives of 2019 is to witness whom of the other MXGP athletes has notably raised their game and competitiveness. Any increased performance and form was a requisite if Herlings was to be challenged and the rout was not to be repeated. It’s a compliment to the rider himself. Many believe Herlings’ commitment and intensity in 2018 has pushed the level and demands of the sport to a new sphere. “I wanted to win, and that meant I had to put together an ‘Aldon Baker 2.0’ programme in Europe,” he explains. “It was intense, it was extreme and it was tough but look at the results; that shows everything. I felt that people were moving the level so I knew I had to step up the game and I’d have to go for it.”
Photos by Ray Archer