MXGP finally reached the end of an exhausting and unique season of Grand Prix racing with Tim Gajser clocking win #5 and Ben Watson owning MX2 for the second time in the last four rounds. Here are some observations of how the championship waved off 2020 and dispersed into a web of national lockdowns and curfews.
1. Gajser Has The Last Word As Seewer Takes Silver
Monster Energy Kawasaki’s Romain Febvre was the toughest challenger for the double world champion on a sunny last day of MXGP. The Frenchman and the Slovenian shared moto wins across a Pietramurata circuit that seemed harder and slicker with more propensity for sharper bumps and unforgiving kickers.
The proximity of winter meant the sunshine was low for the morning timed practice as well as the fading light of the second MXGP moto. A watered surface (after a freakishly good climate in these northern climes of the country) for the initial practice/qualification sessions forced a degree of caution and the worst victim was Red Bull KTM’s Tony Cairoli who didn’t feel secure enough in either his feeling on the dirt or his troublesome left knee to find a lap-time to place him higher than 19th. While Gajser and Febvre excelled at the front and were surrounded by some frantic action involving all three Monster Energy Yamahas of Jeremy Seewer, Gautier Paulin, and Arnaud Tonus, Cairoli was limited in his possibilities.
The four points that divided Cairoli and Seewer in the chase for second place in the series was not enough of a buffer for the Sicilian. He took sixth in the first moto as Seewer ran to third. He was hit off track on the first corner of the second moto and the crunch broke the KTM’s gearshifter and delivered Cairoli’s sole DNF of the year. For the second season in a row Seewer is the MXGP runner-up and mixed three moto wins and one overall triumph into his usual consistency. Cairoli, for his part, still took home the bronze medal and that astounding statistic of 14 top-three championship placings from the 17 seasons he has managed in his career.
Gasjer’s diligent second phase of 2020 means he won seven motos from the last 12; at least one in the last six rounds and three overall wins from the final four Grands Prix. Those were key performances—in the Lommel sand and the Italian hard-pack—when it counted.
2. Reading The Land
One-dayers, triple headers, relentless consecutive dates, familiar tracks, “bubbles,” PCR tests, face masks, races without fans, noise, color, and atmosphere: somebody please lead a drunken 2020 quietly to bed and turn the key in the lock. Off the track and around the track MXGP has never seen anything like this year, and as the thirst to chalk-off dates and register an effective series finally brought the championship up to 18 rounds (nine of those in Italy alone) there was a feeling of relief. Infront Motor Racing deserves immense credit to somehow transport a semi-international show to four countries and with a protocol that safely circumnavigated tough government policies and restrictions. Looking back 2020 motocross might be seen as a small miracle in what was a dizzying time, with a backdrop filled with statistics of a contagion, fear, paranoia and concern, explosive politics and a presidential election akin to a full 15-round prize fight. But, as small as its meaning in the larger world, at least the racing happened, and that's important.
At times, MXGP raced for MXGP alone. It raced for fans watching on TV or online and occasionally for a smattering at the circuits themselves. It raced for contracts and livelihoods and on the strength of somehow reaching a wide fondness and passion for the sport and the competition.
Aside from the riders that positively embraced the condensed one-day format (and there were a lot, but not all) there will be very few that will want to see a repeat of how the sport has been in 2020. Many will be hoping that when the 2021 schedule that begins on the first weekend of April next year gets underway a degree of normality will have returned, however slight.
3. Feeling Blue
On Wednesday the Monster Energy Yamaha MX2 team celebrated their first ever 1-2 as Jago Geerts led Ben Watson onto the podium. The team were drinking champagne again on Sunday as Watson (3-1) shone for the second time in his career; ending the MX2 season as the fastest and most developed 250 rider of the year. The only snag was the second moto for 2020 championship runner-up Geerts.
After taking fourth in the first race the Belgian was hounding Watson’s rear wheel for the lead in the second. The pair had been part of an entertaining Yamaha scrap earlier in the day with Maxime Renaux (third on the day and for 2020 and perhaps the brightest “one to watch” in MX2 for 2021 as he takes Watson’s YZ250F) and renewed their dispute once more until lap 12 when Geerts exited a switchback rut too hard and was pitched off the Yamaha and awkwardly onto an extended left shoulder. The Belgian stood but then sat down and needed to be stretchered away. The damage was a dislocated joint and broken humerus bone, not to mention further disappointment for a season where he equaled world champion Tom Vialle for moto wins (both posted 14 each of the 36) but could not match the Frenchman’s consistency or maturity.
Vialle remains in the class for 2021 and will hope to be Red Bull KTM’s fourth back-to-back champion since 2010, so the rivalry should be one of the main hooks for MX2 next year. The new #1 managed to find the second step of the podium in Italy despite a busy day. A nasty looking crash over a scrub jump on the slippery track in the morning saw him hobble away but he still rasped to a 21st holeshot of the season in the first moto and disappeared. In the second race he touched the inside bank of the tight second corner with his front wheel. It was the slowest crash of his career and held-up a large percentage of the pack in the process. From last position he was soon into the top ten, crashed twice and made a mockery of claims that Pietramurata is impossible for overtaking by rising all the way to fifth. It wasn’t a victory but Vialle’s surging performance was the last stamp of a milestone term.
4. Farewell to Arms
Clement Desalle, Gautier Paulin, and Tanel Leok all passed the final checkered flags of their long careers in Italy. A combined total of almost fifty years of world championship participation coasted off the track and, fittingly, into the sunset that had long passed behind the vast mountain range that dwarfs the circuit. Apparently former HRC rider and GP winner Evgeny Bobryshev is also swiping the final tear-off as a full-time championship runner and there were rumors of Jeremy Van Horebeek also bowing out.
The sense of occasion was evident in the body language of the riders, the small details like the celebratory butt-patches and the mass congratulations that greeted them beyond the finish line. Leok grabs his last championship points, Desalle would go 7-7 and Paulin produced a last volley of speed and class to record the last podium result of a high-profile career. The Swiss (Seewer), fourth in the second moto and fourth overall played second fiddle to his Yamaha teammate.
“The goal wasn’t the podium today but to get that second in the championship,” he said Seewar. “Gautier deserves it [third place], it’s a really nice way to finish a career.”
“The emotions are there right now,” Paulin explained. “To end the season with a podium is great for the team, for myself, for the sponsors but especially it was nice to be riding at that level with the top guys. I had a tough day on Wednesday when I started far back but today I had a nice battle with Jeremy. I enjoyed the riding. I felt free.”
“I will miss racing but I can tell you that I am really happy to stop,” he added. “I will continue to ride motocross and to love it but for winning motos and taking podiums my time is over. It is time for the next chapter.”
“Before the start of the second moto I had all the people that worked with me around and I thanked them and thought, ‘this is my last GP start,’” offered Desalle, winner of 23 GPs. “It was emotional. After the finish line I looked back at the track and thought, ‘That’s the last one.’ I’m also happy that I finished with some strong results, with the moto win and the podium last Sunday. It was nice to have that strong feeling again. It was important for me to have that back.”
The three riders showed their distinctly different personalities when asked if they’ll remain connected to the sport. Desalle admitted he didn’t think so although he has already expressed a strong wish to contest a Lucas Oil AMA Pro Motocross Championship season in the U.S. and will be exploring any options in the coming months. Paulin claimed he has “many ideas” of things to do and would not rule out a capacity in the sport and Leok is already into the next phase. The famous family name looks set to continue with two of his three sons already racing. The Estonian, who made his GP debut in 2001, had been running testing duties for the KTM group said he’d drained a painful knee at least “20 times” in 2020. He said it was time to focus on the next generation of the Leok dynasty.
With 2020 wrapped in a subdued manner and without the parties or gatherings that would normally send-off a season, thoughts were already gathering for the question of “What next?” Several teams stayed in place at Pietramurata for testing. Watson and the Monster Energy Yamaha MXGP crew being one of those as the Brit readies for the change to the 450. Gasjer would also be running laps for the 2021 version of the CRF450R.
The 2021 MXGP calendar is expected to arrive at some point in the next ten days with the schedule starting in the first weekend of April; a full month later than normal and therefore conditioning pre-season training and preparation (and international races if any are allowed to be organized).