That wasn’t quite what I was expecting from the first round of MXGP.

While there was the sight of rash decisions, overzealousness and mistakes typical of the opening event of a championship that has been delayed twice and last raced on November 8th, there were also two emphatic statements by the defending MXGP and MX2 world champions. Wasn’t it supposed to be a bit more haphazard?

Tim Gajser not only went 1-1 to rule the initial taste of nineteen in MXGP but he did so in two distinct ways: disappearing from the front in the first moto, once Jorge Prado had slipped out of second position, and then recovering from an opening turn pile-up to barrel through all of his rivals to lead the second race by lap 12 of 19.

As ‘round one’ performances go, this was pretty absolute. Gajser is the most victorious rider in MXGP since 2015. His championships in 2016, 2019 and 2020 have now moulded a mature 24-year-old who retains all that youthful power, strength and confidence but with better racecraft and the authority and knowledge to dictate his own technical terms to HRC. In the past Gajser leaned heavily on his father but has been more independent and free-spirited since the pair ceased their working relationship three years ago. The Slovenian has minimised his mistakes and is now even more in sync with the latest generation of the CRF450RW, which he used to such forceful effect in 2020, and Ken Roczen deftly glided around the Supercross stadiums in the first part of 2021.

Gajser claimed the last two events of 2020, both at the Pietramurata circuit in Italy. The other moto winners on those occasions were Monster Energy Yamaha’s Jeremy Seewer and Monster Energy Kawasaki’s Romain Febvre. In Russia Febvre made the podium in 3rd place even in spite of a second moto mistake that saw him briefly balanced on top of a haybale and Seewer was steady but unspectacular to 6-5 and 5th overall. Gajser was on a superior level to Red Bull KTM’s Tony Cairoli (who was surprisingly fast at a circuit he dislikes and where he wrecked his shoulder and season in 2019) and Jeffrey Herlings. Apart from Jorge Prado at the 2020 Spanish GP, the Dutchman was the only other rider to make a 1-1 in 2020, with his final appearance of the season before his neck injury in the second date at Faenza. Herlings had already showed his customary speed with his Pole Position effort in the morning at Orlyonok but even the rapid #84 couldn’t deal with the presence of the Honda as he swept from 3rd to 2nd on lap six.

Perhaps it was prudent from Herlings not to wildly pursue Gajser across a track where the Honda man had triumphed the last time MXGP visited in 2019. Gajser had ended Clement Desalle’s mini streak of success. The Belgian paid a heavy price for trying to make a hattrick when he crashed and sustained a broken leg. MXGP had been patient through an off-season that lasted 216 days but Herlings had not raced for nine-and-a-half months. His absence from the championship and his surrender of a series he was leading in 2020 must have been factors in his slight reticence in Russia. It was still unusual to see Herlings dismissed in such a manner. The infrequency of that sight is further testimony to his status, so expect the #84 to fire back quickly and firmly.

If Gajser was unstoppable then his MX2 counterpart, Red Bull KTM’s Tom Vialle, was even more controlling. The windy nature of Orlyonok was always going to reward those who were more capable out of the start gate and the world champion had his fingers around the throat of this Grand Prix from the first minutes. 1-1s are quite rare in MX2 these days. Vialle and Jago Geerts (12th overall with a weak knee) managed the feat once each last year and that was it. Vialle is already heavily tipped to be KTM’s fourth back-to-back MX2 champion this century and, going by this display, there was no reason that talks for the Frenchman’s obligatory move to MXGP and a 450 SX-F (if he wins the title again) should be kept away from the planner.

If Russia was a template for MX2 then it’s eerily similar to the one witnessed in 2020 where Vialle leaps out of the blocks and his only real threat comes from mistakes or if somebody is able to give chase. Neither factor was present at Orlyonok and the Yamaha’s decent start prowess from last year that enabled Geerts, Ben Watson and Maxime Renaux to establish the YZ250F as the second-best bike in the category was not evident in Russia. Vialle’s most potent opponent could come from closer to home as Mathys Boisrame’s one-lap speed was enough for Pole Position and the Frenchman also foraged his way to the podium. 2nd place was a big strike for Ruben Fernandez – the sole first-time visitor to the top three at round one – who showed that the often-maligned Honda CFR250RW could at last be a viable weapon.

Three things we liked from the Grand Prix of Russia:

-With 9th overall for Jeremy Van Horebeek on the Beta, all seven brands in MXGP made the top nine

-A maximum of 5000 attendance meant that MXGP had some atmosphere and sense of occasion

-Life in the old dogs: points & pace from Cairoli, Strijbos, Lupino, Simpson

Three things we didn’t:

-Orlyonok is spectacular and scenic, and changes had been made to drop the speed but some of the track prep still looked uneven and the finish line jump was a hot spot for incidents and accidents

-A nasty crash for Ivo Monticelli that delivered a second concussion for the unlucky Italian

-Tony Cairoli’s crash and broken clutch: a podium finish would have been a strong result for the 35-year-old

Up next: The Grand Prix of Great Britain at Matterley Basin on June 27th for the first of six rounds in a row. 4000 tickets have already been sold for the event but it looks as though that will be the limit as the UK will delay their June 21st ‘opening’ date to be free of the pandemic restrictions.

By Adam Wheeler @ontrackoffroad

Photos by Ray Archer @rayarcherphoto