Still one of the real powerhouses in the FIM World Championship and a scourge of the MX2 class for a fourth straight year, Red Bull KTM’s Jeffrey Herlings has already pulled out a two-moto lead in the class after six Grands Prix. He’s won three since coming back from the catastrophic broken femur that ultimately lost him a third crown in 2014, a hefty bonus, another Motocross of Nations appearance, and a winter of prep for 2015 due to an infection and more surgery to remove metalwork. When he hasn't been winning this year the 20-year-old has been surviving some near misses and has racked up heavy crashes in Argentina (he was blameless for the first moto spill), Italy, and Spain, where he salvaged second place overall with a 1-7.
We talked with Herlings following the MXGP of Spain on Sunday.
Racer X: So, some tasty crazy crashes recently.
Jeffrey Herlings: The one in Argentina obviously wasn’t my fault. It’s a scary sport sometimes. This one was totally my fault. I just started sliding, and I don't think the watering they did this weekend was that great, in my personal opinion. I lost control and went flying.
Strange because you looked pretty much in control all weekend, even when you were chasing Thomas Covington for pole position yesterday.
I did have everything control. I was in fifth or sixth place but with almost the entire second moto to go until that happened. If the jump hadn't have been there then I wouldn't have crashed. It was a bit too much. I went over the bars, hit my head pretty hard—again—and was a little dizzy, but when I got back on the bike I was feeling okay. The bike was beat-up. The bars were not straight and the levers were way up. The front brake didn't work so well.
Did you have any idea that you were nearing the podium near the end of that race, or were you just trying for maximum points?
Maximum points. But when I saw Max [Anstie] then Jordi ahead in fourth or fifth, I then started to think about the overall. I ended up just one point short. If [Dylan] Ferrandis had done his work or if Tim [Gajser] had passed [Valentin] Guillod, then I would have won, which would have been amazing after such a gnarly crash. But congratulations to Valentin anyway—he deserved it.
It seems like you and Ferrandis are slugging it out for the championship at the moment. You DNF in Argentina, he wins. He DNFs in the first moto here and you win. Then it changed again in the second moto. Also, you had some problems with him out of the gate?
I don't know what I have done wrong to the guy, but he cut me up so badly at the start of the second moto. I’ve never done anything to him. Silly things, and I don't think a world champion would do that. It’s part of racing I guess. And you have to go against some riders that think a bit differently to many others. Anyway, I’ve got a 56-point lead in the championship now and that’s all that counts.
Do you think he was trying to psych you out?
He was trying to cut me off. When you’re out front then it’s of course much easier, but when you’re in the pack at a track like this then it’s tough. I think he was hoping for something like this. But he didn't win and only took 6 points from me. It’s all a bit silly, but at the end of the day the best guy normally wins if we all stay injury free.
So how will you feel tomorrow?
Okay, I think. I’ll be stiff. I beat myself up pretty bad.
In the eyes of many you’re probably the most outstanding athlete in Grand Prix at the moment, and naturally there will be people who will be keen to see what you will do for 2016. You’ll be a KTM rider, but your approach to MX2…after last year, are you keeping your feet on the ground and your mind open?
It’s never easy to win a championship but I think the only thing that can stop me this year is more big crashes or an injury like last season. I’ve been winning a lot and proved my consistency in the last two or three years. I don't want to plan ahead too much. Before I broke my femur we were already looking at Loket [Czech Republic] for the championship, racing Lommel [Belgian GP] on the big bike, and then going to Unadilla for a national, but then everything changed in five seconds. That accident changed my life for a number of months. It’s hard to plan in this sport. Many people are already asking me about next year, and obviously it depends on how the races go this season from my side but also Tony’s [Cairoli]. If Cairoli wins his ninth title, then it would be stupid from KTM’s side to put me against him when the chance of winning both classes again would then be smaller. We’ll see. I think in two months time we’ll have more news about how the look will be for MXGP and MX2.
Two years ago you cut me down in an interview by saying you were too young to move to MXGP, but at the end of this season you’ll be 21.
I’m not young anymore. Yeah, I’m nearly 21, but I’m not 17 or 18 where, I think, you don't belong on a 450. Everybody’s opinion is different, but, yeah, now I have the age. I’m under contract to Red Bull KTM and it’s a decision that’s made together and a big part will be about what Tony does. I personally think he’ll still pull it off because he’s a true champion, but you never know what will happen.
You wanted to try Unadilla last summer. Are you still tempted and what about racing in the US because with the program KTM have there now, it would mean gliding easily across to one of the best teams in the AMA.
Last year I was in perfect shape, with an okay winter and then a 145-point lead in the championship. Now I’m still not in the best possible shape and not like how I was last season. I don't know…but the decision can be made in a couple of phone calls. For the moment the US is not in the plan because we need to win more in MX2.
In Qatar you were pretty emotional with that first victory after the injury and after all the tribulation of the last six months, but are you coming back to the same level that we’ve seen in the past three seasons now? The results would indicate you are nearly there.
The results would say so, but for some reason I keep making some mistakes this season. I went down in Italy in a small crash and things like today should not be happening. I always say to myself that I should stay calm and third place is not the end of the world. But when I’m out on the track racing I just want to go to the front as fast as possible. Sometimes I’m still pretty young. Tony, for example, would just take that third place, no stress, whereas I’m still aggressive and pushing. Sometimes too wild.