Tanel Leok might be forgiven if he were to develop an affinity for Italy. After having joined the Italian-based Yamaha De Carli world championship motocross team, the Estonian has had ample time to familiarize himself with the country of the Colosseum, the leaning tower of Pisa and Venice. Not that such cultural pursuits were exactly on the top of his agenda when he signed for his team, however. One of the many things that makes Italy famous is the fact that Italy is steeped in motorsports history. Racing blood courses thick through the veins of the country, and Tanel had the assurance that his team would not lack for passion in its assault on the 2009 world series.
Apart from a growing familiarity with - and confidence in his team, Tanel's affinity for Italy may just have been bolstered by a 2009 racing season that has thus far treated him, shall we say, rather well. Ironically, all his race outings thus far in 2009 have been on Italian soil, and the Estonian Express did his name credit and rewarded his new paymasters with the Italian MX1 motocross title. Important as national titles may be for team and rider alike, though, they stand in the periphery when compared to the real raison d'etre of a GP motocross team, namely the chase for the world title.
So it was then, that after the fanfare and jostling of the pre-season, the day finally dawned that the world championship elite could display their wares at the first GP of 2009 in Faenza, a quick 50 km drive from Bologna. A goodly crowd of tifosi pitched up to watch qualifying proceedings on Saturday. After familiarîzing himself with the track, Tanel was ready for action as the countdown to the first qualifying race of the 2009 season started. A good start put him in the tick of things at the front of the pack, and mindful not to overextend himself during this session, he produced a workmanlike performance and rode to fifth in the qualifying race.
The local weatherman predicted a spattering of rain interspersed with sunshine for race day. The local weatherman, in the time-honoured tradition of local weathermen throughout the ages, was dead wrong. The steady patter of rain on the roofs throughout the night turned into a more insistent drizzle as the motocross cock crowed, and it was immediatelzy apparent that this GP would certainly not go down in the history books as the most dust -plagued race ever.
After the MX2 class had had its outing, it was time for the big guns to roll into action. The track was by now a veritable mudfest, and many riders in the first race had trouble even ascending the steep Tuscan hills. Nothing short of an all-out nuclear attack can faze Tanel, however, and he lined up with the world's elite for the first GP race of the season. As the pack streamed (or should we say steamed) down the start straight, the huge spray of mud made recognizing the riders virtually impossible. Tanel,s bright blue Red-Bull backed Yamaha was just visible through the murky cloud as it slotted into 11th position.
As the riders fought a battle of survival on a track that was beyond description, the Estonian Express hauled out one of his strong suits, which is his ability to master muddy conditions. Whilst other riders slithered, he seemd to find traction out of nowhere. Where others got stuck on hills, he glided past. The riding style was not that attractive, but it was devastatingly effective, and the riders ahead of him had no answer as he passed one after the other. By lap 8, he had nosed into the lead, and from then on all he needed to do was to concentrate on keeping the plot upright. Despite setting all sytems on safe, he still extended his lead lap after lap, and when the flag man waved a soggy checkered flag to call a relieved group of rider home, Tanel had clinched the race victory by a margin of more than a minute over the second placed rider.
It is as if the elements still remained marginally merciful during the race, for as soon as the bikes came off the track, the heavens opened up all the sluices and it bucketed down. The organizers waited it out for as long as they could, but finally the announcement came theat the second race woudl be cancelled. This meant that Tanel's race victory was good enough to crown him GP victor, the second time in his career that he could mount the top step of the podium.
For the first time on his career, Tanel could collect the red plate which marks him as the world championship leader. His bike will proudly sport the red number at the next roudn of the world championship series in Bulgaria next weekend.
After the race Tanel, who was never known as a poster boy for loquacity, was as chatty as he's ever been. "Of course these were special conditions, and anything could happen," he said. "I do like riding in mud, however, and I was not unhappy when it started raining. The season has gone very well so far. I won the Italian title and now the first GP of the season, which is also my team's home GP."
Yes, it might now fairly be said that Tanel Leok has developed an affinity for Italy.
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CELEBRATING THE GP VICTORY AND THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP LEAD
(Pic - Yamaha De Carli Racing)