The Dutch course (rougher and more condensed that the quicksand of Lommel) was the setting of a career resurrection for the lofty rider in 2007 and exactly a week after he could not get his head around the new Irish construction, the arrival of Lierop again on the calendar was a boost for the charismatic racer. He was undoubtedly the quickest and most able from a generous selection of candidates across some of the most vicious bumps and weaves seen on the world championship calendar. Considering his reputation as a sand-master, his 1-3 scorecard incredibly marked a first overall victory in the terrain after a host of moto successes and podiums and of course an emphatic challenge to Stefan Everts at the 2004 Motocross of Nations.
The Honda representative’s achievement drove the normally placid Dutch crowd into an animated state (even against occasional rain showers and a cold wind) but even a popular local triumph as this could not deflect from other attention-grabbing elements of the GP such as the sheer chaos that was the differing speeds and position changes at the end of the second moto and the huge picture that is the dwindling story of the MX1 world championship.
Six riders disputed the lead in Moto 2 after Jonathan Barragan had crashed and collected De Reuver (he then stormed back to the front in just four laps!), Tanel Leok’s Kawasaki engine had expired, a misfiring Steve Ramon had fallen, and Leok’s team-mate Manuel Priem burst out of nowhere to led a GP for the first time in his life before fading and falling victim to the sand almost as quickly as he arrived.
After De Reuver had beaten Suzuki’s De Dycker (third in the championship) and David Philippaerts in Moto 1, the blurry second race should have been in the hands of Josh Coppins. As the others - including De Reuver - flagged it was the Kiwi that was romping through the top five and on the penultimate lap was set to swallow leader De Dycker until he overcooked a section and crashed upon hitting the fence. The exasperated Yamaha rider, who finally bade farewell to his very slim title aspirations in Holland, claimed that he did not know he was in second place and would have eased off the gas to line-up the Belgian. His confession was an indication of how quickly things were changing on the track and the often stale messages the pit crew could impart.
While Coppins lamented, the works Yamaha team had good cause to feel elated. Hard work was carried out on Saturday as Philippaerts complained of a similar clutch problem that robbed him of drive in Ireland. By the afternoon the glitch was solved and the Italian had the means and the intent to really tug the ’08 crown in his direction.
The duel between Philippaerts and the consistent if unspectacular defence enacted so far by Ramon was one of the main areas of interest. The Yamaha rider caught everyone off guard with an accomplished, aggressive and unforgiving performance. He rode as if the title was already won. Ramon struggled for a rhythm across a track that, on paper, should have seen him squash the five-point deficit he faced pre-event and take an advantage to Italy for the final race. Philippaerts took the initiative and was one of the few riders in the top ten from both motos who did not fall. The nerve required and risk taken was completely admirable. He ran 3-5 for fourth overall and stretched the margin to 14 before heading to his home GP with more options to wrap up his first championship.
The first moto made fantastic reading for Philippaerts as De Dycker crashed into the fence from second-place and both Suzukis were buried at the bottom half of the top ten. As team owner Sylvain Geboers admitted, “We should have left here 5 or 10 points in the lead, not having given away another 5 or 10 points.”
Philippaerts’ performance was the surprise of the day and even had his critics impressed. “He was scared last week and looked like he did not want to get involved. He should also be careful because he has a few open bills with some riders,” said De Reuver on Saturday. This was soon changed to “he was back to his normal aggressive, attacking self, but clean and I guess that is how a champion rides” in the post-race press conference.
“People have been speaking some shit about me but it honestly goes in one ear and out the other,” Philippaerts asserted. “I came here today to win a title, not the race. I took third place in the first moto and I think this is not bad for an Italian in Lierop!”
De Reuver, De Dycker and KTM’s Max Nagl filled the overall podium respectively and De Dycker still keeps a card on the table with a 25-point gap to Philippaerts with just 50 left in the pot.
MX2 unsurprisingly fell to champion-elect Tyla Rattray for the second week in succession ahead of teammate Tommy Searle. The South African went 1-1 and the Briton 2-2 with the close finale in Moto1 – less than a second split the duo – the highlight of the sprints. Nico Aubin rose to third in the world championship with his second podium of the season on the Ricci Yamaha. Steven Frossard – Kawasaki’s factory rider in 2009 – broke his right fibula and suffered a ghoulish injury when a footpeg impaled itself into his torso and had to be removed in the pit-lane.
Rattray has a buffer of 33 points entering the final round and only needs a 12th position in the first moto if Searle wins to become the first South African world champ since Grant Langston in 2000.
Kawasaki’s Livia Lancelot is the first ever Women’s World Champion after winning the fifth and final round of the inaugural series. The Frenchwomen beat German and KTM’s Steffy Laier after the latter suffered a blown rear shock while leading and on the way to a double-moto haul at Lierop. American champion Ashley Fiolek was lively in the sand and went 4-3 for her second podium of the year. She indicated that a full-blown assault on an eight-round championship is her goal for 2009.
And so, for MX1 and MX2, it all comes down to a final dance in the woodland setting of the Faenza circuit. This steep hillside layout, hugged by trees and distinct with its golden hard-pack, will echo to the sound of a bumper crowd; all keen and undoubtedly enticed to see an Italian champion in the blue ribbon class for the first time since Alex Puzar (also for the Rinaldi team) in 1990.
The big question remains as to how Philippaerts will handle the pressure, the red-burning sensation of the spotlight and a venue full of people all pulling in his direction. Judging by the mental rigidity shown by the 24-year-old at Lierop – emerging from the Lion’s den with a smoking rifle –there couldn’t be a more apt stage for the coronation of a new champion.