The third and last MXGP event in the space of a week across the unforgiving Mantova sand saw the world champion, Tim Gajser, finally walk the top step.
1. A More Compliant Mantova
MXGP’s latest Groundhog Day came to an end with the Grand Prix of Europe. There was a sense of relief to escape the knuckley sand of the Tazio Nuvolari sand that allowed the series to reach the ninth, tenth, and eleventh rounds of 2020 in seven days. The second of the two Sundays at Mantova saw the track in its best shape yet. Stormy conditions and heavy rain on Friday had helped to fluff the terrain.
“They did a good job today,” assessed Tony Cairoli, second overall for his 170th career podium finish in just over 250 GPs. “The track was a little bit safer because the bumps were a bit softer and you could be more relaxed. The first two rounds here were very sketchy.”
The narrow trajectory of the Tazio Nuvolari layout (named after a 1930s racing driver and Le Mans winner from the town) meant that starts were still at an absolute premium and this was evidenced by JM Honda Racing fill-in rider Dylan Walsh launching brightly and leading several laps of the opening MXGP moto until he was engulfed by an HRC brigade and other factory riders behind him, eventually retiring after frying the clutch. Still, it was invigorating to see a rider relishing his moment in the limelight and pinning the Honda for all it was worth to try and keep ahead. His infiltration at the front reflected the strangely unpredictable nature of the championship this year. Further evidence was provided by the man that first relegated Walsh—Tim Gajser—as the world champion finally pieced together a scorecard (1-2) that granted him the overall and meant he was the seventh different winner from eleven events so far.
Walsh unwittingly squashed the leading troupe together. The swapping of lines and close quarters (as well as near-misses) made for a very watchable contest. The proximity of the pack helmed by Gajser and with continually impressive 21-year-old teammate Mitch Evans also in attendance (fifth overall for the Aussie) helped Gas Gas Standing Construct’s Glenn Coldenhoff to be the decisive move-maker in the last three laps. The Dutchman eased off the gas landing from the final jump when he saw his pursuit of Gajser would not succeed but the gap at the flag was still only 1.2 seconds. Just 12 seconds divided the top six. In the MX2 class, the title duel between Tom Vialle and Jago Geerts prospered and the pair swapped wins and runner-up positions; separated by 1.4 and 0.9 seconds in both motos. “Mantova 3” was not a snooze-fest, despite a lack of relentless position changes.
2. Old Dog, Old Tricks
This was Tim Gajser’s Grand Prix. But it was Tony Cairoli’s day. The smattering of fans that gained access to the circuit were all cheering for the 35-year-old as he led Gajser in the second moto. The Slovenian had been setting the pace but then crashed, had to pick up the CRF450R and chase the Red Bull KTM. Cairoli—still feeling the effects of a broken nose (“It’s big, like it was before!” he joked) and also a left knee problem that requires constant fluid drainage; the Sicilian describes the condition like having “30-40 percent use” of the leg—rode quite brilliantly to win his second moto of the season and secure his fifth podium of the term as runner-up.
Importantly, he keeps Gajser in close check in the championship. The margin is just 11 points.
“I’m very happy of course to get a win but I didn’t feel that great this weekend,” Cairoli admitted. “My knee has been giving me a lot of trouble. I had to go to the hospital on Friday to have some fluid taken out and some grease put in! It’s pretty bad. I’m out of balance sometimes and after the race it can be painful. Anyway, I need to go on for another month, try to hold on very hard and see if I can push to the end, that’s our goal of course. I gave everything in the second moto and it was a good race.”
Aside from Cairoli’s latest, admirable demonstration of longevity it was heart-warming to see and hear fans getting passionate about racing. The volume and impact was nowhere near a “normal” Mantova but in this forced 2020 “MXGP-lite” experience it was encouraging to see that people are still there and are still moved by scenes, action, and heroes.
MXGP wraps in a little over a month. Cairoli can almost start to visualize a milestone tenth world championship. As the dates click down the possibility of it gets tantalizingly closer. With injuries and other issues (national championship obligations forcing some riders to leave Mantova prematurely) the gate was a sparse 23 riders in Italy. Endurance in a short space of time, perfection as well as balls-out bravery will be the rare concoction needed to bring the 2020 crown home.
As for Cairoli’s knee, the KTM man will face a dilemma at some point soon. The possibility of reconstructive surgery means he will skirt very close to the beginning of the 2021 season because the final 2020 date in Arco di Trento is on November 8. If Cairoli foregoes an operation will he be competitive through a potentially longer and more arduous calendar next year? If he wins title #10 will he then retire in glory and cancel that final year contract with KTM? Still lots to be decided.
3. Vialle’s Volley Countered By Geerts
Tom Vialle still has a 46-point advantage over Jago Geerts at the top of the MX2 standings after 11 rounds. For the fourth time in 2020 they finished 1-2 and the two have been on the podium together six times. Vialle has ten moto wins to Geerts’ nine. They have four overall victories each. Vialle’s nine rostrum trophies to Geerts’ seven explains the difference in points.
In Mantova, Vialle bossed the first moto. Geerts closed within a second of Vialle’s rear wheel but the Frenchman dropped his lap-times from low 55s and 56s to 54s and then eased away again with three circulations to go. Even Red Bull KTM Sport Manager Joel Smets was shaking his head in admiration of the coolness and composure that the 19-year-old showed as race leader.
Geerts needed a response. He missed the box on Wednesday and the previous Sunday and his stay in Mantova was more noticeable for his mistakes rather than his speed. He made a strong start and then kept an orange shadow for the second half of the second moto. Vialle came fantastically close on the last lap but could not prevent his nemesis from registering a much needed confidence boost.
“I made a lot of mistakes, so I’m happy to win and be back on the podium,” Geerts commented with relief of his overall. “I wanted a result in that second heat. I struggled a bit with the bike set-up in the first two races so we made some changes and it worked out well.”
Both riders are carrying considerable pressure. Vialle is working out of the best team and with arguably the best bike in the class since MX2 was conceived in 2004. He is bidding to become the first MX2 world champion from his country since 2014, the third this decade and only the fifth rider in the history of the category to do so in his second season. Geerts, the “savior” of Belgium and a country with an unmatched lineage in the sport, also shoulders expectation. His country has not had a #1 for 13 years and Yamaha have been waiting for an MX2 crown for exactly the same period.
Elsewhere and the winner of the two previous races, Rockstar Energy Husqvarna’s Thomas Kjer Olsen, made it a podium hattrick in Mantova despite describing his form as “a little off” on Sunday and his starts left a lot to be desired. Special mentions for British duo Ben Watson and Conrad Mewse; the former riding strongly to third position in the second race and the latter taking the Hitachi KTM powered by Milwaukee to a second top five classification in a week.
4. Spin Me Right Round
Mantova was the third “tripleheader” of 2020. By now it is an accepted format, especially with the second wave of COVID-19 forcing more and more local restrictions and European countries to tighten border controls. At one point the 2020 schedule seemed excessively packed and hurried, now the dash to reach 18 GPs looks even more tense.
The trip to Spain is a rare occurrence: a one-off race at a brand-new facility. It precedes two more triples, one in Belgium and another back to Italy again. Riders are becoming accustomed to the rigors of racing three times in one week. “I like it, it’s better than training,” half-smiled Cairoli.
Glenn Coldenhoff, who put the Gas Gas into the top three for the third time this season, highlighted the main folly.
“If they do three races in a row then they should change something on the layout,” Coldenhoff said. “We’ve seen it [happen] in Latvia and it worked out pretty well. I would say it’s not a lot of work. Faenza you couldn’t really do anything but here, and a track like Lommel, I don’t think there will be an issue to change it and give something different to the riders and make it more exciting for us. I feel that the third race at the same venue—without any changes—is starting to be quite boring.”
Familiarity was stark at Mantova, as it had been around the Faenza hardpack. It wasn’t for a lack of desire though. The Infront Moto Racing track crew had planned modifications but the dire weather forecast for mid-to-late week deterred the organizers from moving the sand around. Finally, the rain only plummeted on Friday and then on Sunday night once the paddock had started to empty and the trip to Spain had begun. After Madrid then Lommel represents an open playbook, especially without public at all. There should be plenty of possibilities for variation.
Three tastes of Mantova was apparently too much for Thomas Covington. The Yamaha rider had been making strides with his feeling and confidence at the previous triple header in Faenza but failed to register points in his first two Mantova appearances and did not contest the third date. Little is known about his next move.
5. Intu Spain and Prado’s prang
MXGP plows ahead with seven races in the next five weeks. The planned deviation to Spain precedes two circuits that could not be more of a contrast: the deep sand of Lommel and the narrow hardpack of Arco di Trento. The trip to Madrid means some serious road miles for the teams to get to the center of Spain and then cross borders north to arrive in Belgium. The current circumstances in the Iberian Pennisula is a real shame for what is one of the more curious events of 2020. The ‘Circuito Internacional Comunidad de Madrid, intu Xanadú-Arroyomolinos’ (good luck TV commentators) is a new project constructed in the wake of Jorge Prado’s success and elevation of the sport in an already motorcycle-racing mad society. The Grand Prix is able to exist without public and therefore there will be less scrutiny for a fresh build a short distance southwest of the city center.
Speaking of Prado, the 19-year-old star was hurting on Sunday at Mantova. He was a victim of Coldenhoff’s first moto charge and was relegated to third place late into the race and had an early crash in the second. Roost from Gajser’s Honda in the lead caused him to miss a jutting edge of a berm exiting the chicane and he was pitched onto and over the bars, hitting his right hip as well as his head. As Cairoli moved through Prado was able to restart but damage to his front wheel limited his reluctant comeback to 17th.
Cairoli summed up the feelings of many in the paddock who are not only concerned about the health situation in Madrid but also the threat of quarantine upon return to Belgium or their home countries as well as the sheer distance that has to be covered in bouncing around Europe.
“Spain is a new venue, which is good for everyone, even if going to Spain at the moment is not the best choice,” he said.
“It’s pretty painful, hopefully I can still get some laps in Malagrotta this week,” reflected Prado on his injury and plans for training at his base in Rome before heading to his home country for some promotion work. “With this COVID[-19] situation it’s going to be difficult…but we’ll try to have a good time there.”