Herlings at the start of the storm with Hawkstone Park victory

Gale force winds, heavy showers and then a downturn in temperatures: it’s hard to imagine a crueller twenty-four hour climate smash for the Hawkstone Park International. The meeting is one of the annual highlights of the short, winter MXGP pre-season and the scheduling routinely means a dicey run with the British weather, but the fixture regularly draws large crowds eager to pull motocross out of the new year slumber.

Saturday was bright and chilly at the venue north of Shrewsbury and north-west of Birmingham but the predicted ‘storm’ lashed the facility that evening. In spite of the mess that caused cancellation of the third Superfinal moto and caused the second races of both MX1 and MX2 classes to be shortened to twenty minutes and 1 lap (as well as the unfortunate removal of the famous Hawkstone Hill from the track layout for fear that competitors and track staff would not be able to get up the sheer slope) a copious amount of public bore the slippery muddy walkways and treacherous grassy fields for parking.

The turnout was surprising although typical. The proximity of the British Grand Prix at Matterley Basin on March 1st and the first round of twenty in MXGP was also not a deterrent. The fans were rewarded with home success in the form of a first moto victory by Shaun Simpson – airing his new SS24 KTM MXGP team with the shiny awning set-up defying both the wind and a multitude of visitors and well-wishers through the weekend – and the sight of Red Bull KTM’s Jeffrey Herlings resilient in the face of the adversity.

Hawkstone was the first race of 2020 for many of the riders in the gate. Simpson was running-in his John Volleberg-tuned KTMs and Herlings (taking a more pragmatic and less frantic approach to pre-season after the disappointment of his broken foot the previous year) was joined by countryman and fellow Motocross of Nations winner Glenn Coldenhoff. The latter was steering a Standing Construct KTM as the #259 is not yet in the guise of the GasGas he’ll debut at Matterley at the end of the month.

Simpson and Coldenhoff were the front-runners in the opening sprint as Herlings had started poorly and had been clipped on the approach to the jump after Turn 2 and crashed. He spent several corners looking at his right hand (after being struck by another rider) but soon got down to business and his lap-times plummeted as he moved through the pack at pace. Coldenhoff dropped the KTM-that-wasn’t on the left-hander before Hawkstone’s bombhole section and that gave Simpson extra breathing room to cruise to a memorable debut.

One of the worst places on the track was Turn 5. It was a quagmire that caught and swallowed a number of riders, Adam Sterry among them, and was an example of the extremity of the mud that seriously affected the capabilities of medical staff to access all points of the circuit.

Herlings brushed off the incident with his hand and disappeared with the second moto from the first lap. Coldenhoff had Simpson for company at various points but his 2-2 was soon secure and permitted the third step of the box. There was a moment of doubt over Herlings’ 3-1 for the overall victory as the Dutchman had used tear-offs and therefore contravened one of the strict Hawkstone Park rules but his results were upheld.

“It was survival, like enduro,” he said. “But still good training…and Matterley Basin could be similar!”

The English sand ensured that the International went ahead. Matterley has been bashed by poor weather (the 2017 Motocross of Nations was heavy-going) but it’s hard to imagine the course suffering like Hawkstone and still running motos. For those who didn’t nail their starts then a hard and messy afternoon lay in store. The Buildbase Honda duo of Tommy Searle and Jake Nicholls decreed that the slop was not worth the risk for their intentions of 2020 domestic success and sat out the second race. Kevin Strijbos managed the top ten on his privately-run Suzuki and Jacky Martens’ new recruit, Julien Lieber, was also in the same positions. MXGP debutant Thomas Covington did not look out of sorts on the Gebben Yamaha and former national champion Evgeny Bobryshev rode the RFX Husqvarna in his first race for more than half a year.

In MX2 the conditions created a forgettable day for potential world title aspirant Jago Geerts; a second moto crash left the young Belgian with a sore thigh. But Rockstar Energy Husqvarna’s young star Kay De Wolf caught the eye with his technique and speed as did Australian teammate Jed Beaton in the second moto. F&H Kawasaki’s Roan Van de Moosdijk powered his way to a first race win but broke the KX250F in the second. The Red Bull KTM’s of Tom Vialle and Rene Hofer book-ended the podium; the Frenchman commenting that Hawkstone was his second ‘sandy training’ of the pre-season after racing at Ottobiano in Italy the weekend beforehand and now he sought “similar sensations” for the hard-pack at LaCapelle Marival to prepare for Matterley.

The history, character, hard work by the Salop Motorcycle Club and the obvious popularity of Hawkstone Park still places the circuit was one of the premium tracks in the UK. Railing against the weather the International ran and functioned. The challenge of the layout and the enthusiasm of the public prompted thoughts of whether MXGP could ever visit…but there were constant reminders that it simply wouldn’t work. The quantity of large rigs and demands of a Grand Prix paddock would have trouble entering and parking. Size, connectivity and access would be another issue while elements of the track and the surrounding fencing would also come under scrutiny from FIM guidelines for space and safety.  

With its place in the national series, and the lure of the International – both for the fans and for riders looking for pre-season mileage – firmly ensconced, Hawkstone has its place and will likely run the gauntlet in February for a good while yet.

By Adam Wheeler

Photos by Ray Archer @rayarcherphoto

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