There were both unrestrained and measured expectations in Russia last weekend. ‘Unrestrained’ because MXGP throttle hands were extremely itchy after a seven-month hiatus and two aborted attempts to start the 2021 FIM Motocross World Championship in Oman and the Netherlands. ‘Measured’ in that first round rustiness and anxiety was undoubtedly a factor for a gate with 16 GP winners from the 29 riders.
There was a contrast between the excitement and the enthusiasm to be racing again—and all the mistakes and misjudgements that can bring—and the realisation that two frantic motos on a hard-packed and treacherous track needed to be tackled with a degree of caution.
It was a day of chaos for many. Examples? Standing Construct GasGas Factory Racing’s Pauls Jonass lasted barely a few seconds in his first moto start. It was his first GP start in 15 months after missing most of 2020 with a back injury. He crashed in the opening corner and busted the gas tank on his GasGas. The Latvian re-grouped and showed his potential in the second moto with a top-three finish. Monster Energy Kawasaki’s Romain Febvre was third overall but only after a second moto off-track excursion that left him briefly marooned on a haybale. Red Bull KTM’s Jeffrey Herlings pushed the limit in timed practice for pole position, from a session that saw almost 20 riders split by only three seconds. The Dutchman then fluffed his start for fourth in the first moto. He holeshotted the second, fell out of the lead but then recovered to second for the same spot on the overall box. The key is that Gajser had to come all the way back from a first-turn incident in moto two to pass nearly everyone—including Herlings and Cairoli—en route to his 1-1 sweep.
There were incidents and accidents for the likes of Glenn Coldenhoff, Jorge Prado, Tony Cairoli, Ivo Monticelli and Ben Watson but also moments of consistency for Jeremy Seewer (fifth), Thomas Kjer Olsen (sixth), the excellent Alessandro Lupino (fourth), and Jeremy Van Horebeek (ninth).
Among the slings and arrows of fortune, the world champions both turned up with their A-game. Tim Gajser not only went 1-1 on the factory CRF450RW but he achieved the second race win by quickly ploughing through from another melee on the first turn that took #243 down.
"In the second one [moto], again my jump out of the gate was good and then someone from the inside pushed us completely off the track, I even jumped off the bike," said Gajser. "I then searched for some lines for the first couple of laps and tried to make as many passes as possible and managed to get to Tony [Cairoli], then took a couple of laps to see what he was doing and then I made a pass for the win, so I’m happy.”
Watch the key takeaways from the opening round:
The Slovenian is one of only two MXGP winners at Orlyonok. The now-retired Clement Desalle had owned two of the previous three meetings at the looping course, but Gajser claimed honours in 2019; the last time the world championship visited the site. The defending #1 made a mockery of claims that Orlyonok is difficult for passing by putting all of his main rivals in roost. At the start of the second moto, Gajser was sent wide in the first turn, hanging onto the handlebars as his body drug next to the bike. He remounted his Honda in the grass outside of turn one before passing the holeshot line unofficially outside of the top 20. He charged and quickly, he found himself in ninth place. Suddenly he was in the top five when he capitalized on a mistake from Febrve, then made his way around Herlings in a hurry as he went for the race leading #222 machine. Eventually, Gajser got into the lead and cruised to a 1-1 victory. The 24-year-old cast an ominous sign on the class in what is his second term with the latest generation of the CRF. “It was an amazing performance and really confirmed his status as the rider to beat in the MXGP championship,” observed HRC General Manager Marcus Pereira de Freitas.
Watch Gajser's ride in moto two below:
MX2 champion Tom Vialle was more dominant. A conservative ninth in timed practice was no obstacle to his holeshot potential—only Red Bull KTM teammate Rene Hofer was better with his first corner positioning—and Vialle had the Grand Prix in the palm of his hand from the first lap of both motos. Fancied rivals like Maxime Renaux and Jago Geerts (Monster Energy Yamaha), Jed Beaton (Rockstar Energy Husqvarna) and Mathys Boisrame (F&H Kawasaki) either couldn’t live with the Frenchman’s pace or were dealing with their own first GP jitters.
Numerically, the Grand Prix of Russia was worth a full 50 points to both Gajser and Vialle but delivered a leading margin of just 10 and eight points respectively over Herlings and Ruben Fernandez. The manner of their victories however was more emphatic. The results were as much a statement of their mentality as it was their capacity. The calendar now moves from its nerviest event to a stint of six-in-a-row in the UK, Italy, Latvia, Netherlands, Czech Republic, and Belgium where any semblance of momentum could easily lay some hard rocks for a championship foundation. A hammer blow has already been struck, and at arguably the hardest moment.
-Orlyonok was a long way for teams to travel and involved more logistical headaches as the effects of the pandemic continues to ebb and flow in European territories. Stories of difficulties with visas, cancelled flights, mechanics denied boarding and red-eye connection times begged the question: why Russia? Since Orlyonok came to international recognition in 2016 with the FIM Junior World Championship, the organising body—helmed by Alexander Dzheus—and the national federation have consistently backed a Grand Prix event with decent resources and keen public attendance. Infront Motor Racing salvaged a 2020 season largely behind closed doors and to the detriment of circuits and income, so they were adamant that 2021 would start with fans at the fences. Although the trip to Russia involves more administration than usual in a standard year, it was a firm banker in comparison to many other European countries that are still striving to catch-up with vaccination programs, sporting event policies and border rules. Early summer weather was another bonus for the 5000 limit of public each day.
-The track continues to have its critics. The hard-pack was ripped in places and unchanged in others, particularly on some jump take-offs. Watering, therefore had an uneven effect and created very slick terrain in sections. Scenic, spectacular and technical through some of the ruttier areas, Orlyonok was also punishing. The narrow and “busy” layout emphasised the importance of starts, even if those with the most confidence in their set-up were still able to make a difference in the lap-times.
-Rockstar Energy Husqvarna’s Thomas Kjer Olsen came out on top in the first joust of the 2021 rookies. Olsen, a former MX2 GP winner and championship runner-up, was sixth overall, typical of his solid and steady approach. He was one of two debutants with Monster Energy Yamaha’s Ben Watson also in play for the first time on the 450. Those who have watched Olsen practicing and training on the FC 450 believe there is much more to come from the 24-year-old. Watson grabbed one point for 20th in the first moto after failing to find his groove on the YZ450F.
-Russia produced a first-time ‘podiumee’ with Spain’s Ruben Fernandez finishing second to Vialle in MX2 for what was his first ride on the Honda 114 Motorsports CRF. It’s the latest trophy for Livia Lancelot’s three-year-old team that had previous fielded Australian’s Hunter Lawrence and Mitch Evans. Fernandez had impressed on an occasionally flaky YZ250F in 2020 and his move to the unfancied Honda was seen as a risk for 2021, even if the former WMX champion’s team is well-backed and well organized. His strong starts on the new model and some last lap opportunism for third place in the second moto (the incident left Rene Hofer briefly in a heap) underline his credentials as a potential surprise player at the top of the MX2 category this season. “This feels crazy,” he said “I’m second in the championship and I never thought I would be there. I tried to focus, and not make mistakes until the end of the race today. I took my last chance in the second moto; I did not mean to take Rene down. The team came out with a strong engine and a new bike and I’m really happy with the work they’ve done. Starts was one of my weakest points last year and we’ve already shown improvement.”
-Props to the aforementioned Hofer. Russia was only his fourth Grand Prix as a full-time member of the Red Bull KTM team and where his Austrian nationality means that the orange runs a little deeper. He lost most of 2020 due to a broken upper arm and shoulder but this first race comeback epitomised the 19-year-old’s maturity and mentality. A second moto holeshot and top five classification had his team smiling.
-Just one point in MX2 for promising Swede Izak Gifting but the GasGas rider was extremely lucky to escape injury when he crashed on the problematic finish line jump and had his head and shoulder clipped by the rear wheel of another airborne rider. The teenager is now being trained by Joel Smets, who was instrumental in the progression of Tom Vialle from middling European Championship runner to world champion in less than two years. He was also already nursing a problem with his foot until the scary “tap” that curtailed his second moto.
-It was a tough day for the De Carli section of Red Bull KTM. Tony Cairoli was less than three laps from surprise podium silverware in the second moto until he crashed out of 2nd place and wrecked his clutch. Cairoli was competing at the track where he’d fallen and wrecked his shoulder in 2019; an injury that eventually trounced his season. He’s never been shy about his dislike of Orlyonok but his competitiveness was remarkable, particularly as he came to Russia recovering from a cut hand. P3 and a DNF meant he was 10th overall and the 35-year-old was not happy at all to be conceding points that contradict his mantra of top-five consistency. Cairoli had no answer to Gajser’s trawl to the lead in the second moto—that had already despatched Herlings with aplomb—but he should have banked that 3-2. “Tim was coming and I didn’t know he was that much faster,” Cairoli explained. “He had good lines and I just tried to follow him. In the end we lost the possibility to arrive on the podium, which I am very disappointed about, especially at this track and this level.” Jorge Prado was seventh overall after a mistake in each moto—one while he was running second to Gajser and lost grip and control on the steep downhill section. He delivered a 9-8. The Spaniard, who holeshot the first gate drop of the season, described the Grand Prix as one of his “toughest” from the last few seasons, and also shed some light on the general melee in the pack as he said “there were just hits and crashes everywhere…”
-Matterley Basin and the British Grand Prix begins an intense spell for MXGP on June 27. The vast circuit in southern England has already sold its 4,000-ticket allocation and the current talk of postponing the full re-opening date for the UK on June 21 (due to the prominence of the Delta variant) means the chances of more fans being able to turn-up for round two remains in the balance.
Main Image: Tim Gajser, Photo by Bavo Swijgers