The FIM World Motocross Championship last came to the USA and Glen Helen in 2011 to a weak reception. A renewed attempt to somehow squeeze a Grand Prix into a relentless American schedule seemed to find a better, bigger, and more eager audience this time. Perhaps the novelty effect, the mini-surge of interest in Ryan Villopoto’s initial toe-dip into the series, and some CBS TV coverage helped. Being staged at such a renowned and staple venue such as the San Bernardino hillside course may have also contributed.
For Grand Prix riders, the prospect of racing at Glen Helen to close a long year was nothing short of a treat. The track was immaculately groomed—although the terrain was prepped in a different way, an observation that Monster Energy Kawasaki’s Josh Grant shared after taking pole position on Saturday—and the weather was stunning, even if it was too hot. The temperatures climbed to the mid-nineties as they had in Thailand (round two) but mercifully without the humidity. These were conditions rarely faced by MXGP competitors.
MXGP being in the U.S. again was undoubtedly newsworthy but there was still a title to be won. In MX2 on Saturday, HRC’s Tim Gajser and Red Bull KTM’s Pauls Jonass extended their duel in the standings to the racetrack for second place behind escapee Lucas Oil/Troy Lee Designs KTM’s Shane McElrath. Jonass would suffer a technical problem and Gajser would crash on the last lap. Nerves?
MX2 ultimately fell in the favor of Gajser for HRC’s first crown since 2000 and Slovenia’s first ever. Gajser, with five overall victories this year to make him the most prolific racer in the category, was the more deserved winner, and he consistently remained ahead of Jonass in both motos even if the first saw the points margin alternate with the positions that the duo both gained and lost in the thirty five minute duration. Jonass eventually faded back to eleventh as Gajser took sixth and made the second race almost a formality, barring any major mishap. The championship resolution sustained interest in the category as the Lucas Oil/Troy Lee Designs KTM pair Jessy Nelson and McElrath were a class apart. Right from the start, the pair barely made a mistake to go 1-2 on the day.
Grant and Yamalube/Star Racing Yamaha’s Cooper Webb were both also showing worthy local speed and confidence in MXGP, but there was never a moment of doubt in the MX2 class that the Marty Moates Cup would be heading into the hands of Nelson, who post-race declared a curiosity and fascination in Grand Prix and would not be opposed to try more of it in the future.
There was little in the way of a challenge to the U.S. supremacy, but Standing Construct Yamaha’s Valentin Guillod looked more like the rider who has won three Grands Prix this season and has risen to the rank of Switzerland’s best ever motocrosser. He finished third overall, although he will still be wondering how a determined Max Anstie beat him to fourth by hundredths of a second in the first moto. The Monster Energy DRT Kawasaki rider’s charge from almost last going up the first hill on the opening lap is an easy contender for ride of the day. With fifth overall, Anstie—another rider enjoying a best ever campaign—sealed third place in MX2 for the year. Mexican MXGP winner Thomas Covington was frustrated by Monster Energy/Pro Circuit Kawasaki’s Chris Alldredge, as the two Kawasakis came together and crashed on the second corner of the second moto. The latter had earlier run with the KTMs but had been too impetuous for Covington’s liking in the second outing.
The USA triumphed emphatically in MX2, but MXGP remained the domain of Yamaha’s surging World Champion Romain Febvre. It was already clear on Saturday that the Frenchman was the only one with the speed and assurance to attack Glen Helen sufficiently to be able to run with Grant and Webb, and the 23-year-old managed it in spite of mediocre starts.
The first moto was pretty special. Grant ruled himself out of the win by twisting his right ankle and having to slow (no longer hitting the quad that gave him precious tenths every lap), and it was left to 450-debutant Webb to fend off Febvre’s persistence. The Yamaha combo came perilously close on several occasions, but the champion’s move around the outside of the youngster on the descent of Mount Saint Helen was sublime and deservedly gave him his fifteenth moto win from a possible thirty-six with just three laps to go.
“I was a long time behind Cooper and he was really good,” Febvre explained. “I could not find one line to pass him. I was really close on the uphill and I managed to close the door, but he took the inside and blocked me. I was again really close on the downhill and he tried again for the inside, but I came a little bit faster on the outside and it worked…although I was not sure about it at the time.”
With Webb not quite a strong in the second moto, Grant, who had been icing and strapping his foot during the break, was Febvre’s main threat. Again it came down to a finale, as Febvre shutdown a five-second gap with two laps remaining, but then tipped over at the top of the Mount and Grant had the breather he needed. The moto checkered flag saved some satisfaction out of the day for the 29-year-old who admitted that he is now unemployed and ready to listen to offers, even saying that a Grand Prix ride would be of interest.
The second race delivered a high rate of attrition, as the 105-degree temperature started to wear through. Red Bull KTM’s Tony Cairoli had run at the front in both races in what had been a tentative outing in his first event back since recovering from a fractured elbow. The former champion admitted that he over-extended his arm in the second race and decided to end his testing duties (electronics and chassis on the ’16 450 SX-F). Teammate Marvin Musquin was in a similar situation on his maiden appearance with the bigger bike. Another KTM rider, Dean Wilson, made a hash of his starts and fellow Scot, Hitachi Construction Machinery Revo KTM’s Shaun Simpson, tumbled on the first corner of the opening moto and sustained a hematoma to his lower back but should be okay for the Motocross of Nations this week. Max Nagl had a technical problem and then a big crash in the second race for a double DNF; the German had started the year with a 1-1 triumph in Qatar but now faced a polar opposite.
Rockstar Suzuki’s Glen Coldenhoff held off the works Hondas of Evgeny Bobryshev (fast in the opening stages of the second moto but notorious with his intolerance of the heat) and a subdued Gautier Paulin. Davi Millsaps ran mid-pack on the BTOSports.com KTM, and it was cool to see Ben Townley back in the GP gate as part of his preparation to ride for New Zealand at Ernee.
As the riders crossed the jump onto the start straight once the final moto of the year had finished, a large welcoming party of friends and colleagues rushed to greet Tyla Rattray on his retirement from racing after fourteen years at the top of Grand Prix and AMA. The South African will now join the ranks of his countrymen (Baker, Louch, Swanepoel) currently specializing in the training and prep of other young motocrossers.
Can the Grand Prix survive at Glen Helen? It is a straightforward question without a clear-cut answer (even if both Bud Feldkamp and Giuseppe Luongo publicly declared their satisfaction with the increased gate and interest in MXGP). Riders like Musquin and Webb used the event for 450 testing for their own personal reasons, but other names were requested by sponsor or manufacturer pressure. The meeting still needs to be more attractive to encourage participation whether by recompense directly or through contractual obligation. Then there is the matter of timing. The September date is the only realistic window, but a slot a week closer to the end of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship might be more practical and allow more space before riders can think about the Nations.
Speaking of which, the countdown really begins now to Ernee; so much so that any hopes of having a party, drinks, and the traditional end of season GP celebrations slunk away like the dipping sun behind the San Bernardino mountains on Sunday evening. There is still work to be done.
FIM World Motocross Championship
Round 18 - Glen Helen - United States of America
|8.||Jeremy Van Horebeek||9-14||Yam|
|20.||Brent Van doninck||7-0||Yam|
|MXGP Series Standings|
|5.||Jeremy Van Horebeek||449pts||Yam|
|17.||Ken de Dycker||155pts||KTM|
|MX2 Series Standings|
|13.||Brent Van doninck||272pts||Yam|