Twenty rounds of MXGP and a very orange FIM Motocross World Championship signed off with more Red Bull KTM glory on what was a curious stage for the Grand Prix at Imola.
1. Herlings… what’s left?
Like another former absolute champion of MXGP, Jeffrey Herlings wrapped a momentous season by reaching a fateful 84 career victories in Italy, which also marked his ninth win in a row, and was obtained with his 17th and 18th moto checkered flags in succession. Despite the road race facility offering a scratchy and compact hard-pack layout—a sharp contrast to the sand of Assen two weeks previously—the result was never in doubt from the moment Herlings began to top every session on a hot and sunny Saturday. The qualification heat victory was his sixth pole position from the last eight rounds and led to calls from the Dutchman for track designs to start to favor those riders that place more stock in the Saturday process at MXGP.
Like Stefan Everts in his unforgettable final term in 2006 where the Belgian won 15 of 16 GPs to reach a total of 101 (that record being Herlings’ principal target), there was a degree of destiny with the way he despatched HRC’s Tim Gajser and kept his #1 and #84 hybrid number-plated Red Bull KTM at the front. There was little dispute here, and although a rougher track permitted more expression and opportunities for the riders in the second moto, this was a fairly static affair in the premier class. Behind Herlings and Gajser on both occasions was Monster Energy Kawasaki’s Clement Desalle, who recorded a ninth podium result to affirm his status as number three in 2018 and best of the rest.
Herlings’ gold Alpinestars boots looked as valuable as his 2018 stats sheet: 17 wins from 20 (19 that he entered), 15 of those 1-1s, and a 100-percent podium record, never finishing out of the top two overall, and a low of third in the opening race in Russia. Just the DNS at round 11 in Ottobiano leaves a blot on a trail that involves only 17 dropped points from the maximum across the 38 motos he did contest
MXGP has been truly battered. Herlings was longingly posting images of junk food on his Instagram feed and seemingly had enough distance and perspective of his efforts after Assen to admit that “it will be hard to accomplish again, I think.” He was clear about his remaining goal in 2018. “Winning in RedBud is now the main thing,” he said, confidence not misplaced. “Everyone is waiting for the Herlings/Tomac fight, so it is not like I can slow down. After Assen, I took one day off and ate like a pig and enjoyed myself with friends and family, but then hammered down again on Tuesday morning. I have all winter to celebrate. I’ve beaten most of the guys here and won the World Championship, but there is still one thing on the wish list, let’s say, and that's to try and beat Tomac. As country, it will be really tough to beat America, I think, but individually I will do my best to try and beat him. It will be very difficult on his home turf. It is the last thing I want to accomplish this year.”
2. Build it and they will come
Imola apparently hosted the first international motocross event on Italian soil back in 1948, so its inauguration as an MXGP venue was something of a return to roots. The “Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari” is one of the oldest and most historic racing facilities in Europe, perhaps better known to international motorsport fans as the place where F1 legend Ayrton Senna perished almost 25 years ago. Nowadays it is home to a round of WorldSBK; Formula One and MotoGP have long stopped circulating the sweeping course.
MXGP occupied the final Rivazza section of the track with a temporary build that was jumpy and tight and veered between slick hard-pack and rutty zones. The track preparation crew kept on top of the work that needed to be done; one of the finest upgrades to a lengthy and fairly arduous MXGP campaign has been the reactionary measures the Youthstream staff have taken with the courses in 2018. “Overall the tracks are way-better than last year,” offered MX2 World Champ Jorge Prado.
Unlike Assen (now four years in existence and a slick benchmark for how to incorporate motocross into a road race installation), Imola was able to play with some elevation by taking the layout up the Rivazza hillside by the fans. Similar to Assen, it had to snake the track within the space available, and this was a limitation. Jumps kept the speed down, but also made the prospect of veering off track worrying with the proximity of the asphalt. The MXGP qualification heat and second moto took place late in the afternoon as normal, but the autumnal Italian sunshine was dipping low and was another challenge for the riders to face.
The conditions caught out the one rider that many came to see (even though Italy’s Alessandro Lupino was quick, Michele Cervellin made the top five in MX2, and Kiara Fontanesi’s WMX triumph meant that the Italians were not starved of athletes to cheer). Red Bull KTM’s Antonio Cairoli was already confirmed as 2018 runner-up, but his misstep in the qualification heat and heavy bump onto the concrete between the dirt and the pit lane left the 32-year-old in agony with a sore right hip and lower back. He made the difficult decision to sit out the motos on Sunday.
“It is a shame I could not take part in the race, but…I was thinking about the big picture, and the Nations is very important for me and for Italy,” he said. “Our goal is to make the podium there because the championship [here] was already done.”
Cairoli rightly praised how Imola had embraced MXGP and the no-doubt heavy investment to impact and mold hundreds of truckloads of dirt, but he also stressed the need for refinement. “It is the first time, and the track can be much better next year, but the location and everything is fantastic and we saw a lot of people. I’m bummed I could not race; after the hit of yesterday, I was pretty sore.
Imola was home to a raucous second party for KTM on Sunday night, but it was also a fitting send-off for a series that is striving hard to modernize, become even more international, and spread its reach.
3. MX joins the list for Spain
At last, Spain has a motorcycle racer who matches their virulent stable of athletes in other disciplines. With his amount of talent and potential on tap, it is not absurd to compare 17-year-old Jorge Prado with the likes of Marc Marquez, Toni Bou, or Marc Coma. It has been a long time coming for the nation that enjoyed brief spikes of motocross success with Javier Garcia Vico and Jonathan Barragan in the ‘00s, and Carlos Campano obtained the obscure but now obsolete MX3 series at the start of the decade.
Prado needed only five points from Imola to be confirmed as one of the youngest champions in the history of the sport, but the job was done before he even set off for Italy, with Pauls Jonass biting harder on the bullet he chewed in Assen with a partially torn right ACL and opting for surgery. Prado was thus in the odd situation of being congratulated before being able to properly celebrate. He went 1-1 thanks to his customary starts, but also in gratitude to 114 Honda Motorsports’ Hunter Lawrence, whose CRF ailed late in the first moto when the Australian looked set to wave goodbye to Grand Prix with a surprise victory. Lawrence recovered from a bad start to ride well in the second moto—his technical skill came to the fore as the track churned further—but Prado was already gone by then.
Prado closed the book on his second Grand Prix season and a milestone campaign (a successful return to MX2 for team manager Claudio De Carli, who started his journey with Cairoli in the class back in 2004 and earned titles in ’05 and ’07 with Yamaha). It says much for the impact his combination of starts, smooth riding, results, personality, and nationality could have by the fact that this was a very popular championship achievement.
Prado claims he spent his entire trip to Imola—half a day—with non-stop media work, counting a large amount of coverage in mainstream Spanish newspapers among the aftermath of his feat. He was also pulled in many different directions at Imola. It was a dizzying experience that didn’t stop with his party Sunday night. “I need to go straight to Spain on Monday [for more media obligations]; this is the first time they have a world champion in the MX2 class,” he said on Saturday. Like his teammate, Prado still feels he has one job remaining this year. “I will try to do my best at the Nations. I have the opportunity to race with the best American this year against [Aaron] Plessinger, and for sure I’d like to beat him.”
4. Goodbye USA
There was something about the Grand Prix of Italy that almost sums up Thomas Covington’s time in the FIM Motocross World Championship: good enough to find the speed to win and ultimately achieve a trophy (this was his ninth podium appearance), but also hampered by an injury niggle (he re-twisted his knee, which caused some hesitancy). This was the 22-year-old’s swan song after a five-year education in Europe, and although he appeared in the top three with Thomas Kjer Olsen for the third GP in a row (the Dane is the third most successful rider in the discipline this year) was not too satisfied with his parting shot of 7-3.
“I didn't feel comfortable on the track this weekend. I struggled,” he said. “My bike was really aggressive for such a tight track, but I wanted that aggression for the start, so I had to compromise. I struggled with arm pump and trying to find a flow, so I just tried to do the best I could and somehow squeezed up on the podium. I’m really happy to finish off my GP career like that, and it’s cool for the team to have us both there again.”
As for the track: “I really like it,” he opined on the Imola setup. “I wasn’t too pumped on the way the track raced, but everything was really cool, the facilities for the fans and everything. I’d like to see them [MXGP] do more things like this. I think the track could be a bit wider in places. Lawrence pushed me off in the first moto and it was a bit like a cliff down to the concrete; I was lucky to ride it out.”
Spells in the U.K. and Belgium means that Covington has forged some good friendships in his half-decade on an international level. There is little doubt that he would again be a major player for a 2019 MX2 push, but the prospect of “what if?” is not the feeling that he takes away from Grand Prix. “The first thing that pops to mind that I’ll miss is the people in the paddock,” he says. “It truly is like a big family, and they have taken me in since I came here. It is hard to leave everyone, and I probably won’t have so much time to come back. Saying goodbye this weekend was pretty tough.” For the Americans, Darian Sanayei will continue to fly the flag in MX2 in 2019.
Venezuelan Anthony Rodriguez is likely to head back to the AMA after hitting the 23-year-old age ceiling for MX2 and with the provision of saddles in the MXGP class in short supply. Initially a substitute for the luckless Seva Brylyakov at the Kemea Yamaha team, Rodriguez has won friends and fans in Grand Prix; his selfless act of stopping to help Thomas Kjer Olsen untangle his leg from the back of Covington’s Husqvarna on the first corner in Assen was even recognised with a Fairplay Award by the FIM and Youthstream on Sunday night in Imola.
5. Fontanesi at the final hour… again
Kiara Fontanesi might not only be the fastest female to have ever raced a motocross bike, but she could also be considered the most focused. The Italian has become something of a specialist at delivering the goods under acute pressure. The Yamaha rider won her sixth world crown at Imola by just eight points from brand-mate Nancy Van der Ven, but incredibly, it was the fifth earned at the last race of the WMX season. The luckless Courtney Duncan led the 2018 standings, but a broken right foot banished the Kiwi from the title fight. Fontanesi won at Assen and then remained error-free across a nervy half an hour and just two seconds ahead of Van Der Ven to again rule WMX.
Of those half-dozen championships (the first was claimed at the penultimate round of 2012; the rest have involved tests of pressure and nerve, 2017 perhaps the worst as she won on the last lap of the last race and was champion by just one point over Livia Lancelot), “Fonta” said Imola felt the best, and the chance of victory at her home GP was just as enticing as increasing her CV numbers.
“I kept the thought in my mind: This is a training session,” she said of the second moto stress-test. “It is almost unbelievable to say, but I never thought of the championship during the race—not once—I was totally focused on enjoying myself and the bike and finding the good lines. I was only thinking about what the pit board was telling me, which was the lap time. That's it. I did not want to lose the championship, but I also did not want to lose the race. I was being smart not to let Nancy jump into me or make a block pass. The first time I was aware of the race time was when I saw the ‘2 lap’ board and I thought, ‘She’s not going to pass me now.’ This win means more than a title.”
There is little disputing the entertainment factor of WMX.