Tony Cairoli will turn 36 by the end of the 2021 FIM Motocross World Championship. From the current MXGP flock only Kevin Strijbos is older; the Belgian more senior by one month. Cairoli’s 1-3 at Matterley Basin for round two of eighteen was apparently his eighth British Grand Prix success and the sixth at the Winchester site. According to Cairoli’s personal press officer, Lorenzo Resta, the Sicilian has won at least one Grand Prix every series for the 18 years he has been a world championship rider and has arrived at a grand total of 93. The Red Bull KTM Factory Racing man is slowly closing on Stefan Everts three-digit record tally of 101.
Behind the numbers of Cairoli’s latest success was some sharp competitiveness. This wasn’t just some early-season surprise or luck. Clues were evident in Russia for the 2021 opener two weeks ago. Cairoli dislikes the Orlyonok circuit and sustained one of the most serious injuries of his career there in 2019 yet still came within several laps of a moto victory. His mistake and DNF in Russia produced a vein of frustration that bubbled all the way to the UK, and he duly romped clear with the first race as Red Bull KTM went 1-2-3 with Jorge Prado a distant second (and complaining of a wayward suspension set-up) and Jeffrey Herlings in third.
Peter Pan-esque indeed. There are three pillars behind Cairoli’s longevity and his evergreen speed. The first is improved fitness. His 2019 season was wrecked by a separated shoulder and 2020 was hampered by a ruptured left knee ligament. Cairoli is now fit and strong. The second is a different approach to the one-day MXGP format. He vividly attacked timed practice both in Russia and the Britain and earned his first pole position since the first throes of 2019 in Portugal. First pick in the gate were key to his two excellent starts at Matterley Basin and from there he was pushing for the lead from the opening corners. In 2020 Cairoli was too hesitant with his one-lap attacks. He was frequently down the qualifying order and inhibited by his start gate positioning. The third is his unwavering passion for riding and racing. It has carried the veteran through many tribulations since his last title in 2017 and well beyond the point where he chased financial security or harbored further sporting ambitions. The fact that he is still with the same team and mechanics since 2004 and the same brand since 2010 is also telling.
“Of course I’m in better condition even if I’m still not 100 percent with the knee,” he said Sunday afternoon. “I feel it sometimes when I put it down hard in the corners that it’s not really helping. It needs some attention. In some left corners I cannot always give 100 percent and that’s difficult because I need to push that much more in the right ones not have a disadvantage. But [generally] I really feel okay and we can even improve the fitness a bit more for the end of the race.”
“I really enjoy riding a lot,” he added, when asked to pinpoint why he continues to set a benchmark at the highest level. “When you are older, health is more important. When you are 20 and you have a broken finger or something then you just go out there but when you’re 36 and you have some trouble somewhere you really struggle more than normal. I can still train and I can still enjoy it. I started running a bit again after more than two years and mentally that also helps.”
To add to a legendary weekend, Cairoli not only won, but he was surrounded by the effects of his influence. In MX2 new protégé Mattia Guadagnini won the second moto on the Red Bull KTM 250 SX-F and finished second overall in just his second Grand Prix with the team. Guadagnini described signing to ride alongside Cairoli as “a dream come true.”
You can read a little deeper and find more influence. Flanking Cairoli in the post-race press conference was Jeffrey Herlings, who claimed third for his second-consecutive podium finish. He looked unsatisfied and going two GPs and four motos without a victory is a rare occurrence for the Dutchman. But even Herlings admitted his goal was now podium regularity because it was a “proven” way to championship contention. He was using essentially the same mantra that Cairoli has peddled for the last decade.
How long will Cairoli endure at the top of the results sheets? His points haul is already harmed by his uncharacteristic crash in Russia, where he would otherwise have been on the box. Based on his riding at the first two rounds, he should have an immense say in the 2021 contest which some are claiming might be his last (Red Bull KTM already has big hitters and big earners Prado and Herlings under contract for 2022). More immediately, there were signs that the energy and verve of his rivals could still be a sticking point. The nine-time world champion still has pace, but during a fantastic second moto, Honda HRC’s Tim Gajser and Monster Energy Kawasaki’s Romain Febvre broke free at the end of the second race and Cairoli admitted he had nothing for their pace. Again, one most revert back to the general consistency of the “222” to realize a championship could still be possible. There are still 32 motos left in this competition and Cairioli clearly has much left in the tank.
-The duel between Gajser and Febvre saw various exchanges for the lead up until the final corners in what was a thrilling race to watch from the first lap to the last. The track helped create the spectacle. It was smoothed out and curiously flat—almost ‘old-school’—and far less technical than in previous editions of the grand prix. Matterley did become sufficiently bumpy for the second MXGP moto and permitted plenty of reinventions of the racing lines. It was this element that allowed Gajser to outfox Febvre, much to the French star’s ire. This battle for the win came down to the last lap.
“I knew he was catching me in that first sector of the lap but I couldn’t figure out exactly where,” Febvre told us. “I tried changing my line but he was still gaining. After the race we figured out he was going far to the outside. I just didn’t find the line. To be beat on the last lap is the worst. Not much else to say. I was trying to figure out where he was going. He had the better line.”
The state of the soil could be explained by the weather forecast that predicted very heavy English rain. Despite a couple of showers the deluge did not begin until early Sunday evening at Matterley and the circuit was almost a washout by the time we left the media center a few hours later. A close call both for the event and for Febvre and Gasjer whom both crossed swords to powerful effect in 2016 until Febvre suffered a season-wrecking concussion on the Matterley hillside. On this occasion he had to accept fourth overall due to a seventh in moto one.
-Matterley Basin has hosted the FIM Motocross of Nations twice, once in 2006 and again in 2017 and the vast course—designed and maintained by revered track builder Johnny Douglas Hamilton—was able to welcome public through the gates with an official figure pegged at 4,000 spectators. The fences looked busy and the crowd larger, but the paddock was still closed and restrictions from the pandemic were still in place. Unfortunately for this race, the UK—also hampered by the administration clusterf**k that is Brexit, which impacted cross border movement arrangements for international teams—had been forced to delay their return to normality by one month, from June 21 into July and the impact on the Grand Prix was significant. Matterley had quickly pre-sold the 4,000 allocation, and an open gate policy would likely have seen a much larger attendance. Judging by the UK’s reaction alone to the resumption of public and sporting fixtures (the UEFA European Championship for soccer and Wimbledon tennis tournament are also active) the pandemic has at least increased the thirst for live events action. The response by fans over the next year as limitations reduce could be a welcome shot in the arm for sports promoters.
-MX2 World Champion Tom Vialle was nursing a hairline fracture of his right hand coming to Matterley. The injury came about due to a bizarre training crash when he collided head-on with GP rival Roan Van De Moosdijk in the Netherlands. The Dutchman had been making practice starts and the layout of the Flevoland circuit in Lelystad brought the trajectories of the MX2 racers together. As well as a sore right thigh, Vialle was concerned about the lack of feeling in his hand and fingers; the break is close to the first knuckle on the hand. The Frenchman had dominated the first Grand Prix in Russia but couldn’t complete timed practice in England and then pulled out. He now faces a rush to reduce the inflammation and get the hand in better shape for round three around the steep hills of Maggiora. “The doctors say it should be two weeks, so Italy might be a bit hard but then we have one week free afterwards,” he said. “By the GP in Holland I should be back for normal. We’ll see how it feels during the week.”
-More hand trouble. World Champions HRC pushed out a pre-race press release stating that Tim Gajser’s teammate, Australian Mitch Evans, would undergo further surgery on his troublesome left wrist. Evans had returned to his native country for the procedure, and the length of time for his absence remains unclear. Matterley Basin was the first of six events in the following seven weeks meaning the 22-year-old would be sidelined for the first phase of the calendar and it opened speculation as to whether Honda could find a worthy substitute rider. Gautier Paulin, former HRC racer and freshly retired, was one name thrown-up by the gossip circles. When we asked HRC General Manager Marcus de Pereira de Freitas for a comment he replied: “We have to understand the situation for Mitch and when he’ll be able to return to the bike. Then we’ll be in a place to consider a replacement rider. The other issue is that there are no real possibilities looking here in the MXGP paddock because the riders we might consider all have a seat. We see the story with Mitch and then take some action.”
-One rider on the comeback trail was Factory Rockstar Energy Husqvarna rider Arminas Jasikonis, who made his first race appearance since a serious accident at the Grand Prix of Lombardia last summer that led to head and neck injuries. The crash was assumed to be career-ending and life-altering but the 23-year-old emerged from a forced coma and has been progressing steadily to the point where a Grand Prix return became a reality. After sitting out the trip to the season-opener in Russia, Jasikonis rode at Matterley Basin where relief was tainted by frustration as he failed to make the points. “Of course, it’s really cool, really nice to be back…but I’m also really, really not happy with how today went,” he grimaced to us in the paddock. “I had an issue with my hand in the first moto and some pain. I know I have a lot of homework to do and I only rode 70 percent here because I could not push anymore.” Jasikonis is easily the tallest rider in the MXGP class but he made short work of dissecting his status and objectives. “This is my starting point,” he underlined. “A small part of me is happy to be back but another big part is not happy and is very motivated. Physically I’m know I am good. In the tests and everything we do each day we see it is going [well]…the problem is missing all the racing time. I’m sure we’ll be better at the next one.”
-MX2 belonged to highly rated Frenchman and factory Monster Energy Yamaha rider Maxime Renaux who made an emphatic 1-2 and bagged his second GP victory. “This is emotional but not the same as the first one!” he said, referring to his maiden success in Italy for what was a breakthrough 2020. Renaux could only manage sixth in a nervy first GP at Orlyonok but had done due diligence on his preparation for Matterley. “Bouncing back from a tough GP in Russia we worked well with the team to make some good improvements for the starts. I got my first holeshot so I’m pumped with that.”
-Behind the impressive Guadagnini—more on him next week after his first home Grand Prix at Maggiora for round three—was an unlikely new MX2 championship leader. A fortnight after his first podium result in the category and on his debut with the 114 Motorsports Honda team, Ruben Fernandez was again in the champagne spray with third overall. The Spaniard deserved the accolade alone for his determined and ballsy last lap, final corner pass on Mathys Boisrame to steal second position in the first moto. His haul of 37 points brought Fernandez to the peak of the table for the first time and puts Honda in the very rare position of leading both grand prix classes. “Another podium and the red plate which is awesome you know? It looks cool on the bike,” Fernandez said. After an unhappy but occasionally brilliant term with a privateer Yamaha in 2020, Fernandez took a risk on moving to Livia Lancelot’s fledgling Honda crew and also steering the CRF250R, not the most prolific model in MX2. “Yeah, I honestly thought the same,” he admitted of his prospects, before going on to credit the technical work done by the team, “but it has surprised me in a good way. All the engine and bike development is done by the team and they’ve done a great job. I’m super-happy with what I have and I think the results show that a little bit. For me it’s an improvement from last year, and not only the bike but also the way to work. It’s all coming together.”
Main Image Courtesy of KTM Images/Ray Archer