The colors, anticipation and spring in the step of the GP paddock on the precipice of the 52nd World Championship was eroded by rainfall that hit hard and suddenly (if not unexpectedly) on Saturday evening and did not stop through all of Sunday.
The headlines? How about the FIM sensibly calling a halt to proceedings (uphill carnage, beach-race-style ruts, expired machinery and an unsettled race standing, akin to watching a swarm of bees in a jar) after just one moto, or Tanel Leok winning the MX1 moto with a valiant performance in his Yamaha debut? How about highly rated French talent Gautier Paulin earning his first spurs in the MX2 category, or MX1 World Champion David Philippaerts getting an extreme close-up of a flying rock and managing ninth position after looking invincible in the dry during Saturday qualification?
Images of the Spanish Grand Prix in 2008 made CNN with the severity of the punishment the riders subjected themselves to across the submerged Bellpuig course. For many in the paddock, the clumpy, heavy, clay-like Italian mud was worse.
Skill, speed, rhythm and ability were replaced by elements of machine technical competence, determination and large doses of luck.
Former World Champion Steve Ramon was the cleanest MX1 rider in the gloom after a superb holeshot. The Belgian, who was the only rider we spoke to that admitted he actually likes such conditions, should perhaps have worked a race-winning margin in the first laps. Sadly for the factory Suzuki rider, his gear lever bent and the bike was unable to shift; one of the sticky, steep uphills would swiftly have another victim.
Enter Tanel Leok, the recently crowned Italian Champion, who showed up his immensely popular Yamaha De Carli teammate Antonio Cairoli (fifth at the finish) by remaining consistent to the flag once Marc de Reuver had vacated Ramon’s former shoes by slipping off while scaling a rise (“I didn’t win the lottery today! I was doing well and it looked like it might be mine but I went sideways on a hill and the bike’s footpeg got caught on the pipe for the sprinkler system. I had to get some of the bannering at the side of the track to clean the bars,” he said). Ken De Dycker showed similar levels of supernatural control and splendid luck to grab second place on Suzuki and added three more points to his haul by passing the surprising Clement Desalle on the last lap, who was making short work of his inclement surroundings.
Former AMA stalwart David Vuillemin, now riding a Bud Racing Kawasaki, was recovering ground in the top ten before he fried his clutch, and factory Yamaha’s Josh Coppins took a decent sixth without goggles, still in some discomfort from his major get-off while on the verge of sealing pole position in the first-ever MX1 qualification heat on Saturday.
“The mud was so deep I couldn’t move,” said CAS Honda’s Billy Mackenzie, who was stranded in 21st after sinking out of 6th. “It took four guys to fish the bike out. Everything was covered in mud, so I did my best to try and make the finish. I am very happy they canceled the second moto. I think today was the most ridiculous thing I have ever done. The mud was so thick it was sticking to the bike and making it really heavy. Perhaps the results from the first moto should not have even counted because so many people were cutting the track and there was a lot of outside assistance.”
The MX2 class had nicely carved the track by the time the MX1 field had taken to the gate. The new Youthstream onboard live helmet camera lasted all of five seconds away from the line. From the depths of the 250 four-strokes, Gautier Paulin coped the best, and notched a first Grand Prix win in just his second season. KTM’s Jeremy Van Horebeek was another rider to toast a landmark podium appearance (his first) and sat beside Honda’s Marvin Musquin – another first-timer with a trophy.
USA’s sole representative in the FIM competition, Zach Osborne, had a grimy and incident-packed mud baptism and didn’t pick up any points. “I have ridden a lot of mud because I am from the East Coast and we have our fair share of thunder storms but nothing like that, where I felt like an absolute beginner,” he said. “Every lap you just think about getting up the first hill and then the second, and if you make it then you are thinking of the first one again. It is unfortunate that I did badly but looking ahead I am only 25 points behind instead of 50 and today could have been a lot worse. You work the whole winter to make a point or a statement about what you have done and then to get a mud race like this is like playing Russian Roulette; you can be a hero or a zero and today I was a zero.”
Hopefully, resumption of a full race schedule will take place the weekend ahead with round two at Sevlievo in Bulgaria.
MX1 Race 1 top ten: 1. Tanel Leok (EST, KTM), 41:16.698; ; 2. Ken de Dycker (BEL, Suzuki), +1:04.480; 3. Clement Desalle (BEL, Honda), +1:17.405; 4. Aigar Leok (EST, TM), +2:08.093; 5. Antonio Cairoli (ITA, Yamaha), -1 lap(s); 6. Joshua Coppins (NZL, Yamaha), -1 lap(s); 7. Maximilian Nagl (GER, KTM), -2 lap(s); 8. Tom Church (GBR, CCM), -2 lap(s); 9. David Philippaerts (ITA, Yamaha), -3 lap(s); 10. Jonathan Barragan (ESP, KTM), -3 lap(s);
MX1 Overall top ten: 1. Tanel Leok (EST, KTM), 25 points; 2. Ken de Dycker (BEL, Suzuki), 22 p.; 3. Clement Desalle (BEL, Honda), 20 p.; 4. Aigar Leok (EST, TM), 18 p.; 5. Antonio Cairoli (ITA, Yamaha), 16 p.; 6. Joshua Coppins (NZL, Yamaha), 15 p.; 7. Maximilian Nagl (GER, KTM), 14 p.; 8. Tom Church (GBR, CCM), 13 p.; 9. David Philippaerts (ITA, Yamaha), 12 p.; 10. Jonathan Barragan (ESP, KTM), 11 p.;
MX1 Championship top ten: 1. Tanel Leok (EST, Yamaha), 25 points; 2. Ken de Dycker (BEL, Suzuki), 22 p.; 3. Clement Desalle (BEL, Honda), 20 p.; 4. Aigar Leok (EST, TM), 18 p.; 5. Antonio Cairoli (ITA, Yamaha), 16 p.; 6. Joshua Coppins (NZL, Yamaha), 15 p.; 7. Maximilian Nagl (GER, KTM), 14 p.; 8. Tom Church (GBR, CCM), 13 p.; 9. David Philippaerts (ITA, Yamaha), 12 p.; 10. Jonathan Barragan (ESP, KTM), 11 p.;