Were conditions at the Grand Prix of Thailand apt for Monster Energy Kawasaki Racing Team’s Ryan Villopoto to seize his maiden Grand Prix victory and become the first rider from the U.S. since Zach Osborne in 2008 to tread the top step of a GP podium? Perhaps, but the AMA Supercross Champion’s testing period back in Europe on what was jet-happy jaunt from Qatar to Belgium and the east again to the rudimentary road racing facility at Nakhonchaisri obviously helped.
In the third ever Grand Prix in Thailand—and first at the Thailand Circuit west of Bangkok after two years at the well-received Si Racha course—temperatures rocketed and provided a steep test for the vast majority of riders in MXGP and MX2 (and the Women’s WMX series) that less than two weeks before had been dealing with rain, cold and even snow in a small collection of International pre-season events in France, Italy and the UK. The mercury rose to almost forty degrees (101 Fahrenheit) once the sun broke through the clouds on Sunday with a high humidity index. The compact track itself meshed a curious dirt that was at times both dusty and rutty, grippy and slick; the hallmarks of fresh, purpose-built terrain that has not been bedded in. To counter the flat topography of the site (and the region) the course was jumpy and obstacle-laden with doubles, a dragon back, waves and a triple. The word ‘supercrossy’ was used more than once in the paddock across the weekend. The circuit had its fans and its haters. While MX2 conqueror Red Bull KTM’s Jeffrey Herlings simply stated that “riders have to adapt” teammate Tony Cairoli, who ran off with a second moto victory for his first of 2015, was less amused and remarked that he thought the layout looked like a “test track” when he first arrived.
Ryan Villopoto astutely claimed last week that GP riders will get the better of him at some tracks and vice-versa and Nakhonchaisri certainly had some elements that favoured his famed and phenomenal skills seen in AMA competition. He was authoritative in qualification for Pole Position and with a bright start in the first moto on Sunday he was simply ‘gone’. Attacking the dark dirt with vigour and double the confidence seen in Qatar last weekend it was a worrying sign for the MXGP elite. Rockstar Suzuki’s Clement Desalle was a constant but lonely presence in second place (the Belgian has not dropped out of the top two in four motos and now has the red plate as championship leader) and Yamaha’s Romain Febvre an aggressive figure in just his second MXGP event since moving up from MX2 and continues to turn the screw on teammate Jeremy Van Horebeek who crashed in the first moto and retired from both outings with unclear vision. Cairoli had to come through the top ten and was assisted when Villopoto’s teammate Tyla Rattray and HRC’s Gautier Paulin had a coming together.
Frustration seared all the way up the 110m straight from Cairoli’s 350SX-F at the start of the second moto and when he had the lead on the first turn promptly set about showing Villopoto and Desalle that his supremacy in MXGP wont be easily dislodged.
The latter half of the MXGP and MX2 race programmes had been cut by five minutes with the manufacturers and officials keen to avoid the repeat of the extraordinary finale of the opening MX2 race where both Rockstar Suzuki’s Jeremy Seewer and Monster Energy CLS Kawasaki’s Jordi Tixier both fell only yards from the finish line in separate incidents and could not stand—let alone remount—through heat exhaustion. The Swiss and the World Champion were two of five riders that were not permitted to enter the next outing due to their medical attention.
RV claimed that the KX450F worked slightly better on the softer ground in the first race as the sun cooked the soil all through the day. He was clearly pleased to have won his first Grand Prix but that third place behind Cairoli and Desalle took some of the shine off the achievement. “I’m still learning the system,” he said. “Even when we had practice on Saturday and races on Sunday [at the AMA Pro Motocross Nationals] it was just a little bit of riding and no racing. I’m still getting used to it, my body also. Each weekend we race I will be learning how to play the game because there is some strategy involved. It is my second round and I need to learn quickly.”
Still, this was a milestone. It has been too long since the star spangled banner had been rung out at Grand Prix: “It is definitely different and pretty cool,” he added. “The only other time I hear it is at the Motocross of Nations…you could say it is like the cherry on top.”
Desalle and Cairoli followed on the box while Febvre was a decent fourth. Qatar winner Max Nagl couldn't replicate his starts from Losail and Paulin was oddly error prone. Husqvarna’s Todd Waters again slotted into the top ten, the Australian enjoying the nearest event he has to a home GP. More bad news came for Tommy Searle who visited his second hospital in a week after crashing from the vast finish line double. Initially a back injury was feared for the popular Briton but later reports emerged that the damage could be limited to his ribs.
Villopoto was sympathetic to the decision to curtail the length of the second motos in the interest of safety and if perhaps more familiar with racing in similar heat he was still not immune to its sapping effects. “It was hot today and I haven’t ridden in heat like this for over a year and a half; it has been a long time,” he explained. “I think when you are fit and you train in these conditions then it is not really a big deal but I’m talking about the top riders that really train. Those perhaps outside the top ten or those that don't know their limits and push and push and push they end up having a problem and sometimes it is really risky. I don't think it was a big deal [the moto shortening]. Safety is number one: over everything.”
Another American running some impressive laps was Monster Energy CLS Kawasaki’s Thomas Covington. Teammate Dylan Ferrandis took a second consecutive podium finish in third spot but Covington’s run to fourth overall was a personal best and his brightest showing since shining so keenly on his debut in Qatar last year. “I’m pumped I can get a top five at such a gnarly race. It shows we have been putting in the work in the off-season and it’s cool to see it pay off,” he said. “This is another level I think,” he mentioned in referral to the climate. “In California it is hot but it is dry heat. This reminds me of amateur days back at Loretta’s and it is definitely hotter than that. I will just stick to my programme and keep doing what I am doing. When I am able to run up in the top five then I can learn a lot.”
Kiara Fontanesi was perfect in the WMX competition and so was Herlings in MX2 who boasts a 100 point perfect score despite entering the season unfit and unprepared and with only two weeks of bike time from a seven month riding lay-off. The Dutchman was also in need of some smelling salts after the first moto and ran a more effective pace to win in the second as teammate and Latvian Pauls Jonass—a former double World Champion in the 85 and 125cc ranks—celebrated his first podium in Grand Prix in what is just his second appearance in the factory Austrian colours.
Nakhonchaisri and the Thailand Circuit was busy for a population that seems to live on two wheels, pack as many people as they can onto small cylinder and cheap motorcycles and have no regard for the virtues of crash helmet. At the end of a three year contract it remains to be seen whether Thailand will again re-enter the MXGP frame for 2016, particularly with neighbours Malaysia also pushing for a Grand Prix date. MXGP gets back to its European base this week but preparations will swiftly begin for freight and travel to Neuquen for the first GP of Argentina this century on March 29.
MXGP Race 1 Top Ten: 1. Ryan Villopoto (USA, Kawasaki), 34:09.149; 2. Clement Desalle (BEL, Suzuki), +0:10.536; 3. Romain Febvre (FRA, Yamaha), +0:23.931; 4. Maximilian Nagl (GER, Husqvarna), +0:28.213; 5. Antonio Cairoli (ITA, KTM), +0:34.893; 6. Kevin Strijbos (BEL, Suzuki), +0:40.874; 7. Gautier Paulin (FRA, Honda), +0:49.471; 8. Tyla Rattray (RSA, Kawasaki), +1:08.958; 9. Todd Waters (AUS, Husqvarna), +1:20.819; 10. Evgeny Bobryshev (RUS, Honda), +1:40.905
MXGP Race 2 Top Ten: 1. Antonio Cairoli (ITA, KTM), 29:10.216; 2. Clement Desalle (BEL, Suzuki), +0:09.756; 3. Ryan Villopoto (USA, Kawasaki), +0:22.788; 4. Romain Febvre (FRA, Yamaha), +0:51.327; 5. Kevin Strijbos (BEL, Suzuki), +0:59.278; 6. Gautier Paulin (FRA, Honda), +1:03.006; 7. Todd Waters (AUS, Husqvarna), +1:05.485; 8. Tyla Rattray (RSA, Kawasaki), +1:16.036; 9. Dean Ferris (AUS, Husqvarna), +1:18.208; 10. David Philippaerts (ITA, Yamaha), +1:19.321
MXGP Overall: 1. Ryan Villopoto (USA, KAW), 45 points; 2. Clement Desalle (BEL, SUZ), 44 p.; 3. Antonio Cairoli (ITA, KTM), 41 p.; 4. Romain Febvre (FRA, YAM), 38 p.; 5. Kevin Strijbos (BEL, SUZ), 31 p.; 6. Gautier Paulin (FRA, HON), 29 p.; 7. Maximilian Nagl (GER, HUS), 28 p.; 8. Todd Waters (AUS, HUS), 26 p.; 9. Tyla Rattray (RSA, KAW), 26 p.; 10. David Philippaerts (ITA, YAM), 20 p.
MXGP Championship: 1. Clement Desalle (BEL, SUZ), 88 points; 2. Antonio Cairoli (ITA, KTM), 79 p.; 3. Maximilian Nagl (GER, HUS), 78 p.; 4. Ryan Villopoto (USA, KAW), 70 p.; 5. Romain Febvre (FRA, YAM), 67 p.; 6. Gautier Paulin (FRA, HON), 67 p.; 7. Kevin Strijbos (BEL, SUZ), 55 p.; 8. Evgeny Bobryshev (RUS, HON), 45 p.; 9. Todd Waters (AUS, HUS), 40 p.; 10. Shaun Simpson (GBR, KTM), 38 p.
MX2 Race 1 Top Ten: 1. Jeffrey Herlings (NED, KTM), 34:58.798; 2. Dylan Ferrandis (FRA, Kawasaki), +0:07.602; 3. Tim Gajser (SLO, Honda), +0:20.513; 4. Pauls Jonass (LAT, KTM), +0:26.923; 5. Thomas Covington (USA, Kawasaki), +0:30.333; 6. Valentin Guillod (SUI, Yamaha), +0:46.653; 7. Benoit Paturel (FRA, Yamaha), +0:52.247; 8. Mel Pocock (GBR, Kawasaki), +1:06.255; 9. Aleksandr Tonkov (RUS, Husqvarna), +1:22.264; 10. Petar Petrov (BUL, KTM), +1:31.510
MX2 Race 2 Top Ten: 1. Jeffrey Herlings (NED, KTM), 30:06.023; 2. Pauls Jonass (LAT, KTM), +0:10.312; 3. Julien Lieber (BEL, Yamaha), +0:16.508; 4. Dylan Ferrandis (FRA, Kawasaki), +0:37.006; 5. Thomas Covington (USA, Kawasaki), +0:40.267; 6. Valentin Guillod (SUI, Yamaha), +0:49.406; 7. Mel Pocock (GBR, Kawasaki), +0:51.874; 8. Aleksandr Tonkov (RUS, Husqvarna), +1:00.529; 9. Petar Petrov (BUL, KTM), +1:07.961; 10. Roberts Justs (LAT, KTM), +1:17.137
MX2 Overall: 1. Jeffrey Herlings (NED, KTM), 50 points; 2. Pauls Jonass (LAT, KTM), 40 p.; 3. Dylan Ferrandis (FRA, KAW), 40 p.; 4. Thomas Covington (USA, KAW), 32 p.; 5. Valentin Guillod (SUI, YAM), 30 p.; 6. Mel Pocock (GBR, KAW), 27 p.; 7. Aleksandr Tonkov (RUS, HUS), 25 p.; 8. Petar Petrov (BUL, KTM), 23 p.; 9. Julien Lieber (BEL, YAM), 20 p.; 10. Brian Bogers (NED, KTM), 20 p.
MX2 Championship: 1. Jeffrey Herlings (NED, KTM), 100 points; 2. Dylan Ferrandis (FRA, KAW), 78 p.; 3. Pauls Jonass (LAT, KTM), 70 p.; 4. Julien Lieber (BEL, YAM), 62 p.; 5. Valentin Guillod (SUI, YAM), 58 p.; 6. Aleksandr Tonkov (RUS, HUS), 56 p.; 7. Thomas Covington (USA, KAW), 53 p.; 8. Tim Gajser (SLO, HON), 52 p.; 9. Petar Petrov (BUL, KTM), 41 p.; 10. Jeremy Seewer (SUI, SUZ), 38 p