Hotting-up

A degree of sympathy for Monster Energy Yamaha after their first MXGP win of the season and for an excellent MX2 world champion in the form of Maxime Renaux but it’s impossible to look beyond the gripping title battle in the wake of the third and final event around the Arco di Trento hard-pack last weekend.

Sixteen from eighteen GPs, thirty-two motos, eleven countries, 800 points and still Romain Febvre, Tim Gajser and Jeffrey Herlings respectively are split by just 3. It’s a freakish and scarcely believable scenario that is inviting all sorts of drama: Herlings wins Arco 1, DNFs in a moto at Arco 2 and then crashes twice and recovers to 4th overall in Arco 3. Gajser makes all three podiums but with only one moto win. Febvre falls, wins, tightens. “Should I go for the victory? Or shall I go for the red plate? I thought a bit too much and my pace was not as good as Jeremy’s,” the Kawasaki man said of the first moto at Arco 3 where he had little answer to eventual winner Seewer’s speed.

Another, rarely seen, aspect of motorsport was added to the plot on Sunday. In the second moto the ailing Herlings – with his KTM bent out of shape – was given room to pass by teammate Jorge Prado in his recovery from 10th place and a second fall when he over-jumped the finish line leap. The Dutchman was then gifted another slot by his other Red Bull KTM teammate, Tony Cairoli, as the winner of the GP on Wednesday slowed and let the #84 acquire 4th instead of 5th.

Herlings was both lucky to escape significant damage to his body as well as his body of world championship points. The 27-year-old has not been the most fortunate in 2021 in his run-ins with Ivo Monticelli in Holland and Prado in Germany but, on this occasion, he emerged unscathed from two sizeable hits and was able to count on the KTM collective to help. Considering that KTM have not issued any team orders in pursuit of the world title they scooped in 2017 and 2018 but since lost to Gajser and Honda, it was a surprising turn of events on track. It also shows the depth of Cairoli’s experience, sensitivity and professionalism – even in the throes of the final GP laps of his career. Such as shame then that the Sicilian was victim of idiotic comments on social media over his gesture later that evening.

Red Bull KTM is a single team entity that is internally dispersed by geography, nationalities and pockets of staff. Sunday evening in Italy was one of the few times where it unified strongly. Having a trio of Cairoli, Herlings and Prado’s talent and results was never going to be an easy blend thanks to no discernible ‘A’ and ‘B’ ranking, which is clearly the case in other factory teams like Honda and Kawasaki. Perhaps only Yamaha come close to the pricey KTM model. KTM have had to deal with the repercussions of handling three fiercely competitive animals in 2018 and 2020 as well as this term. Arco 3 was a demonstration of the sum of the parts however. Herlings, Cairoli and Prado went 4-5-6 in the rankings (the only time a KTM has missed the podium this year) but ensured that the sole title hope was at the front of their gang by the end of the afternoon. Herlings was thankful and appreciative, coming out of his small changing area, half-dressed to shake Cairoli’s hand and both chatted in Cairoli’s personal space underneath the truck.

“What he did, I don’t know if I could have done it,” he told some journalists later about the last lap development. “Only the greatest and the biggest champions would do that. He not only showed his loyalty to KTM but helped me a lot because those are two very important points for me. Only a real team player would do that. Jorge as well, I had to pass him three times in that second moto. It was a real team effort, and I cannot thank them enough.”

Should Red Bull KTM play as a team? You could argue that riders of Cairoli and Prado’s ilk don’t have to, but it would look fairly stupid if the riders tripped each other up and let the single-racer forces of Honda and Kawasaki sneak in to capture the most-talked about championship since 2015.

It’s getting complicated on the track and in the starts. “I didn’t want to get involved in any drama,” said Grand Prix winner Jeremy Seewer of the title dispute around him. “It is tight and sometimes you have to touch. It is definitely intense. That second moto was incredible. The racing is so crazy.”

By the time of the second moto at Arco the sense of expectation and the knowledge that the smallest mistake – or a moment of brilliance – would have ramifications for the championship somehow thickened the air. Much of the talk in the paddock, whether with fans, mechanics or senior race management was based on how electric the series is proving to be. In my two decades covering Grand Prix I struggle to remember a contest so constricted, so unpredictable and so riveting. Questions in conversations with riders are no longer solely based around their race weekends and plans for next season but on who they will think will emerge as number one from a competition that keeps running and running and, delightfully, shows no favouritism.

“The championship is intense,” Gajser exhaled. “It’s mad to think we only have two races left and we all split by 3 points. I’m happy with today but two to go: game on.”

“I think we will be the calmest,” he added of the pressure. “It’s not easy to say that. We all want to put it on the side and just race but it’s difficult not to think about the championship. The starts are crucial and will be in Mantova as well. It will be important to ride smart and consistent.”

“Not at all,” Febvre strongly asserted when asked if the weight of the finale was heavy. “We are so close. I can only give my best. I haven’t been in this position for so long, so it’s good to be where I am today. If I crash, I crash then I don’t mind: I’ll just go give my best. But [having] the red plate with two rounds to go…I can smell the taste of the championship.”

What about Herlings? Feeling the heat?. “No, that’s not the case,” he countered. “What I did was purely dumb and I don’t know how it happened. I’m not making plans. On Wednesday my championship lead of 24 points went down to -1. 3 points is basically nothing and for sure Mantova will suit me much better. I was good at the Nations and as a team we are strong. I’d prefer to be on a KTM right now because Jorge is the holeshot master and Tony is also so fast. The Honda and the Kawi guys are basically alone. In the second moto Tony was matching my speed and he could have attacked me but it was like he was my wingman. He made sure nobody could get around me.”

There were signs that the gravitas of each impending race was beginning to tell. In the first moto Herlings and Gajser indulged in some racecraft that saw a lit match hover close to the touchpaper.

“I passed him back and it was clean, not a dirty move but after the next corner he just braked and I almost crashed,” Gajser described. “Also, in another corner I was behind him and he just braked and I almost stalled the bike. Yeah, he plays a little bit dirty but I think we will all have to. I like to be clean, I’m that kind of guy. We will have to see if he will continue to do that, if so then I will give it back.”

Herlings was disbelieving. “Apparently, I’m a dirty rider, or so it was said in the press conference. I was only one who was really clean today. I got smashed by the number 3 and by the 243 multiple times. I didn’t do anything back, except a little blocking on the downhill to make sure he couldn’t cut right behind me but it was very slow speed. It was safe. They said it was dirty and if that’s what they want then let’s play. We can do that.”

Yikes.

The tension will only increase in the four days and four motos that will decide the outcome at Mantova next week. The scrutiny on performances and decisions will be even heavier. Herlings goes into the Grands Prix knowing he was imperious and untouchable at the Motocross of Nations there last month and that Gajser and Febvre were absent. The racetrack was also the scene of the Dutchman’s very first podium finish as a 15-year-old back in 2010 so he’s had a good connection with the shallow, hard-based sand. Gajser’s experiences have fluctuated: from victory in MXGP in 2016 to the traumatic pre-season concussion and jaw injury of 2018 and the poor results of a wet race in 2019 that almost derailed his championship campaign. Jorge Prado will be slightly stronger as he continues to recover from his back injury and Mantova is the place where he was forced to hand over his 2020 winner’s trophy to Seewer after a yellow flag infringement. Then, of course, Cairoli showed that he’s fast on a course where he sampled Nations success despite a painful rib injury and where he will be waving goodbye to fans as the #222 gets a final airing.

Will we see another season like 2021? I don’t like the chances, sadly. It was interesting to hear Shaun Simpson’s theory on Sunday that the one-day format has helped riders avoid injury and contributed to the longevity of the excitement. Jeffrey Herlings had previously commented that the agenda could prolong riders’ careers. Less track time and less risk through qualification heats may have played a part even if the Grands Prix have come thick and fast on consecutive weekends and with at least two-double headers and a triple on the slate. The hectic scheduling is one thing but on the other hand the lack of flyaway travel is a concession and the five-week break that came about because of the cancellation of the Finnish Grand Prix gave riders a valuable pause to rest and recover. Simpson was observing that the final races of the year were normally a ripe period for those riders who had made it to the end of the season fit and still fast to bank points. This wasn’t quite the case in 2021.

The effect of ‘more riders in better shape’ did not transpire in 2020 for the ‘Covid-19 championship’ as the teams had to deal with the change to the one day, a delayed season and the first experience with rapid-fire Grands Prix at the same circuits. Cairoli, Herlings, Prado, Febvre, Coldenhoff: all had to cope with injury and the culture shock. All were more prepared in 2021.

In 2022 MXGP plans to return to normality in every sense: calendar dates, weekend timetables, flying. The battle lines will be largely the same but without the presence of Cairoli. Perhaps in ten months’ time we’ll be able to assess how much of a shiny jewel we were able to cherish this year and whether MXGP could morph again in the future to find the same kind of spectacle.

By Adam Wheeler @ontrackoffroad

Photos by Ray Archer @rayarcherphoto