Assen was not the scene for Tim Gajser to become the first back-to-back FIM Motocross World Champion in different spec classes since Greg Albertyn at the beginning of the 1990s. The Slovenian needed to score just one point more than Red Bull KTM’s Tony Cairoli to clinch the MXGP title with two rounds to go but the 19-year-old suffered three crashes across the two motos—the third and final mishap in Holland prompting his first DNF of the season due to a broken front brake and gas cable. Cairoli’s second place to the consistency and faultlessness of Monster Energy Kawasaki’s Clement Desalle (the Belgian posting his first overall on the works KX450F and the twentieth success of his career) meant the gap shrunk from 99 to 65 points with just 100 to go in 2016.
Again the TT Circuit Assen was an example of how motocross within a road racing facility—in this case arguably the most famous and historic site for asphalt motorcycling in Europe—can work. The imported sand that formulated the tight, twisty, wavy and tricky circuit was not to everyone’s taste (inconsistencies of grip and texture typical of a new-build) and is removed from the sapping, deep confines of a sandy venue like Lommel but it was still a challenging course and the 32,000 attendance sat under cover and in relative comfort due to the vast grandstands that were still close to the track and afforded generous views. Assen was inaugurated as a motocross Grand Prix host in 2015 and the same ingredients for a memorable event were on display again here. Staff at the Charlotte Motor Speedway would be wise to ingest how these two worlds came together to positive effect for what will be a landmark visit by MXGP to the United States this week. Within the paddock there was a degree of curiosity and anticipation concerning the first American stop on the slate this coming Saturday evening. Grand Prix riders know they will be taking on some AMA talent but the truth is that MXGP is heading towards another novel prospect (a second night race, a stadium-based track) and a fresh territory for the series. The last time a fixture of Charlotte’s ilk came onto the calendar was the Argentine Grand Prix at Neuquen in 2015 and it produced one of the best circuits of recent years and some of the most passionate fans.
Charlotte will be a step into the unknown but Assen is now firmly part of the world championship template. The notorious Dutch weather varied from hot sunshine on Saturday to terrifically vibrant thunderstorms on Saturday night and then cloudbursts on Sunday morning that delayed the race timetable. The sand, buttressed by the asphalt, could only absorb so much water and there was a danger of flooding until the storm passed and sun returned. The seasonal upheaval meant that the first motos were a slow, tough and greasy grind. Some excellent track work in the break allowed a faster and more technical prospect for the second races and the riders really began to attack the terrain again.
Even from Saturday it was clear that Cairoli (pole-sitter) and Wilvo Virus Performance KTM’s Shaun Simpson had found another groove. The former multi world champion tossed his gauntlet onto Gajser’s table and metaphorically dared the second rookie in a row to grasp the MXGP crown. Simpson (the winner at Assen twelve months previously) flew from the back of the pack with such verve that he made a mockery of other riders’ claims that the track was stingy for passing. It was the 28-year old Scot who barrelled past Cairoli in the ooze of the first moto and was never headed—only Desalle coming reasonably close while Cairoli could not demote his teammate Glenn Coldenhoff for third in an exciting dash to the line (Cairoli: “I was sleeping at the beginning…I left it too late to catch Glenn”) and the public had their hero of the MXGP class.
Simpson ruined any chance of the overall with a lackluster second start and a crash that saw his bike clobbered, thus a pit lane visit needed for repair. He exited last and a good ten seconds behind the next placed rider but still hit envious lines and a rhythm and found a path back to sixteenth spot for sixth overall. Cairoli had a free track and banished the small errors from race one. Desalle was incredibly solid again and meant that a second podium appearance this season came with a tread of the top plinth. Gajser lost it through the waves section that cuts through the road race pit lane while in third and with designs on Desalle; the Honda man looked likely to attack the Kawasaki rider which would have ironically given Cairoli his second overall triumph in a row. He was unseated however and while manhandling the CRF450R, he cranked open the gas and exited stage left. Tim, who had watched father Bogo competing in the Veteran’s support race, stoically excepted the lowest point of an otherwise exceptional term to-date and knows that he goes to Charlotte with 15 points of credit over Cairoli to get the whole deal wrapped in North Carolina and before the trip to Glen Helen.
Props to Coldenhoff for a first podium finish on the KTM this year and a tough campaign in which the Dutchman has had to fine-tune the 450SX-F and find confidence in what is only his second term in the premier class. Rockstar Iceone Husqvarna’s Max Nagl beat Monster Energy Yamaha’s Jeremy Van Horebeek to fourth overall after the Belgian front flipped late in the second moto and dropped from fourth to sixth. World Champion Romain Febvre was disappointed to leave the site of his 2015 coronation with only eighth but his off-track excursion in the slimy first sprint saw the Frenchman almost bury the YZ450FM in a soft sandy bank and he was lucky to re-join far down the order. Assen was an unsolvable puzzle for the likes of Suzuki’s Kevin Strijbos (a winner last time in the sand at Lommel) and a poor day for Honda was compounded by a tenth and nineteenth for Evgeny Bobryshev (who fell hard on Saturday) and Gautier Paulin respectively. The Frenchman in particular was almost cruising around the Dutch lumps and his form plummeted to such a degree that Honda held a lengthy debrief with their former star signing on Sunday afternoon, as the teams prepped their crates for the transatlantic haul.
MX2 saw two headline makers. Red Bull KTM’s Jeffrey Herlings returned for the first time in four rounds and with a 43 point lead over Suzuki’s Jeremy Seewer and promptly collected his thirteenth win from thirteen appearances. The Dutchman drove the crowd into rapture but had his nerves tested by a first mechanical fault of the season on Saturday that banished him to the outside of the gate, and then a crash through the waves while second in the wettest moto of the day that gave him a nasty jab into the chest from the handlebars. Herlings saw another rookie sensation—Suzuki’s Bas Vaessen—slip out in the same spot and he was able to pick up second place in the moto, even though HSF Logistics KTM Brian Bogers’ excellent pressure and performance from third meant the gap was less than half a second at the line. It seemed like there were Dutch everywhere.
Herlings got back to winning ways in the second moto but only once he had dealt with new teammate Jorge Prado. The 15-year-old Spaniard announced himself in splendid fashion on Saturday with Pole Position (profiting from Herlings’ technical malaise). Prado attempted practice at the Belgian Grand Prix four weeks previously but a shoulder injury meant that he pulled out before laps could be made in anger. This was the highly-rated teenager’s debut and although he lacked the strength to muscle the 250SX-F in the slimy first moto (2016 is his first on the four-stroke) he was flying out of the gate with the holeshot in the second and gave Herlings a few close calls on the track as well as a reminder of his clear speed and technique. Prado rode to second place and Rockstar Energy Husqvarna’s Max Anstie’s fall from third to fourth (allowing Bogers through) meant a Dutch 1-2 on the box and the Spaniard was on the podium in his maiden GP; a phenomenal achievement and something the likes of Herlings (fourth in 2010 in Bulgaria) and Roczen (seventh at the 2009 Portuguese round) cannot boast.
Full credit for the skill and no-shortage-of-bravery by Rockstar Energy Husqvarna’s Thomas Covington. The American showed his throttle control and aptitude for concentration and focus in the hardest of racing conditions (he won a sodden 2015 Grand Prix of Mexico) to own the first moto and must have been cursing in his lid with a fall at the start of the second that effectively doomed his chances of a second overall trophy. It was still an encouraging and confidence boosting day for the youngster ahead of a home Grand Prix in a matter of days.
Suzuki’s Jeremy Seewer had his worst day of the season with two falls—one in each moto—that pushed the Swiss down to fourteenth. A disappointing meeting for the 22-year-old was nevertheless tempered by the news that he has secured runner-up status for 2016 thanks to his gap of 108 points over Kemea Yamaha’s Benoit Paturel in the standings. In his three years in Grand Prix on a full-time basis, Seewer has sailed up from tenth to fifth and now to second place and must already be counted as one of the MX2 favourites for 2017 in what will be a Herlings-less category.
On Saturday, Livia Lancelot’s fourth position in the opening WMX moto was enough to give the French 28-year-old her second FIM World title after becoming the very first WMX champ back in 2008. Courtney Duncan went 1-2 for victory—her third of an eye-catching rookie term.
MXGP ended the long European phase of 2016 with both classes still to be decided and a rousing send-off at one of the most ambitious and slickly organised circuits in motorsport. North Carolina now beckons.
FIM World Motocross Championship
Round 16 - Assen - The Netherlands
|5.||Jeremy Van Horebeek||16-15||Yam|
|3.||Jorge Prado Garcia||9-22||KTM|
|5.||Thomas Kjer Olsen||14-16||Hus|
|9.||Lars van Berkel||18-7||KTM|
|11.||Iker Larranaga Olano||15-4||Kaw|
|12.||Freek van der Vlist||7-10||TM|
|15.||Brent Van doninck||0-12||Kaw|
|20.||Sven Van der Mierden||3-3||Hus|
|MXGP Series Standings|
|6.||Jeremy Van Horebeek||477pts||Yam|
|MX2 Series Standings|
|15.||Brent Van doninck||173pts||Yam|
|20.||Ivano Larranaga Olano||120pts||KTM|