Jeffrey Herlings’ 91st Grand Prix win was also his first of 2021 and came in just his third Grand Prix race since early September 2020. In the first two outings of the year in Russia and Great Britain, MXGP followers and Herlings’ fans witnessed a rare sight. The 26-year-old Dutchman was cautious, rusty, hesitant in the four motos that delivered results of 4-2-3-4, although he did scale the overall podium both times, and—with his latest success thanks to a 6-1 in Italy—is the only rider in the premier class to have uncorked champagne on all three occasions in 2021.
Herlings seems to have lifted his Red Bull KTM Factory Racing teammate’s mantra of aiming for regular podium finishes, rather than satisfying a renowned thirst for victory and even dominance. Tony Cairoli has built most of his nine world titles on the back of this philosophy for regularity and riding well within his limits. Herlings might be nine years the Italian’s junior and five championships shy of his rival but this maturation to deal with the frustration of losing races, seasons, sleep, and even hope due to injury is overdue.
There are some in KTM that have applauded Herlings’ “slowly-slowly” approach, at least when it comes to the hectic and unpredictable dynamic of racing compared to practicing. Jeffrey’s own public admissions that he’s untroubled to be off the leader’s pace but still picking up points have skirted the line between believable and fanciful. Much like the rider himself it’s a contrast of extremes: has this racing animal really been tamed by the hurt and the benefits of being prudent or is his kidding himself as well as us? For an example of the contrast take the last three years: 17 wins from 19 appearances (second in the other two) in 2018 cast Herlings’ sole MXGP title to-date as one of the most emphatic in the modern era and a vein of dominance that almost reset the bar in the world championship. In the last two years, however, he struggled to make more than seven race starts through 2019 and 2020 due to crashes and their consequences.
In Italy it took some adverse circumstances to stir the beast. Maggiora Park wasn’t the clearest or easiest of venues for passing. The narrow and “busy” course, lined with ruts, provided a vastly different canvas compared to the wide expanses of Matterley Basin the previous week. In the first moto Herlings had been running top-five and close to Tim Gajser, in line with his 2021 modus operandi. Then an errant stone to wedged into his back brake so he had to pause to dislodge it. He lost almost 20 seconds and found himself in 10th. From there vintage Herlings awoke. “It seemed to get him quite angry!” observed Team Manager Dirk Gruebel on the momentary spark. “He then found two seconds a lap…” Herlings rallied to sixth and the hard-won points paid-off later.
A terrific thunderstorm battered the circuit as the MXGP riders entered the waiting zone for the second moto. The heavy rainfall instantly created a mudder but Herlings started in second, used his experience, cleanly bided his time behind countryman Glenn Coldenhoff for 11 of 17 laps and then took the lead.
Romain Febvre had won moto one, but crashed. Herlings packed 6-1 scores. Coldenhoff was solid with a 4-2. Tony Cairoli’s demotion of fast-starting Henry Jacobi while goggle-less, saw him go 3-3. All three podium runners tied on 40 points. Herlings’ charge for the moto win was the key-decider.
While Herlings can frequently be full of swagger and carry an aloofness, there is also a shy sensitivity and insecurity to his character. After this unlikely but enjoyable victory he reverted to his cautious default for 2021 when discussing the win and the potential impact. “I kept to my word: I want to keep being on the podium,” he claimed, after closing the gap to Gajser (seventh in Italy after lacking starts) in the championship to just six points. “This [win] was a bit of a gift but I really had to work in that first moto to get into this position. I don’t mind losing but we need to keep one eye on the points and when you are too far behind then it will get too difficult. Now we have put ourselves in a pretty decent position.”
Herlings really put himself into check with his second statement. “I actually like not having the red plate for now,” he added. “It’s always put me under a bit of pressure; I had to win and I had to defend it. I’m just the underdog for now. I want to have it at the end of the year, at least that’s my goal like everybody else. Last weekend [in the UK] was a bit dodgy, I didn’t want to take risks and I simply didn’t have the speed. I couldn’t hang with the guys but today in the first moto I saw I could put the base together in race conditions.”
So, is Maggiora the start of the real Herlings resurrection? It’s not unrealistic to believe that #84 could now embark on a tear. While the parity in MXGP is as strong as I’ve seen in recent years and riders like Romain Febvre (winner in the first dry moto, crashee in the ooze of the second), Cairoli, Gajser and simmering figures like Pauls Jonass and Jorge Prado are itching to take a flag, Herlings now has the prospect of three sandy circuits in the next four weeks. The first date is his home Grand Prix at Oss and a circuit that is new to MXGP. The level of sand acumen in the class is also at an all-time high but nobody has a better record or potential as The Bullet. The chamber could well be primed.
-The MX2 class was in the grip of the rookies in the first moto. Thibault Benistant was unstoppable on the Monster Energy Yamaha (he would crash into the second corner of the next outing) and Mattia Guadagnini was a solid second in a drawn-out affair. Ruben Fernandez, riding the suddenly-competitive 114 Motorsports Honda CRF250R, brings the aggression and verve to MX2. Monster Energy Yamaha’s Maxime Renaux brings the finesse and consistency (the Frenchman is now second in the standings). The smiling Guadagnini is a mix of everything. A perfect moto crowned his 2-1 for the day and a first GP win in just the third appearance of his rookie season, and the former Junior World and European Champion became the first Italian to triumph in MX2 for over a decade. The last rider to do so was none other than his Red Bull KTM teammate and idol, Cairoli, back in 2008 for what was the Sicilian’s last term on a 250. To round-off the dream day Guadagnini also lifted the red plate as series leader.
-Reigning MX2 World Champion Tom Vialle suffered another terrible day in Italy. The swelling and pain in his right hand—a result of a hairline fracture in a training crash collision with MX2 rival Roan Van De Moosdijk prior to last weekend’s British Grand Prix—had subsided but was still too painful for him to log more than a handful of laps in the first moto. The Red Bull KTM rider had been forced to sit-out Matterley Basin with a projected three-week recover period prescribed by doctors. His efforts to gather points in the UK and Italy didn’t work, but Vialle will hit the end of the 21-day recuperation before round four in Holland. After going 1-1 in Russia and briefly holding the red plate he is now 11th and over 60 points behind teammate Guadagnini.
-Maggiora finally opened the gates to the world championship and the first high-profile motocross race at the steep hillside venue since the 2016 FIM Motocross of Nations (yes, that one, where Cooper Webb’s third moto slip saw Team USA lose a win in unlikely circumstances, after Japan’s Chihiro Notsuka had dramatically landed on second race winner Jason Anderson). The site had been beset with problems ranging from licences, permits for construction, and environmental disputes. It had initially been reborn as a leisure complex, catering for mountain bikers as much for motocross before the trouble and closure. The long grass was at last removed from the hills in 2020 until the pandemic forced a delay. Maggiora was revived again with a domestic race in the spring. “This has been a battle, a war and then a nightmare for three-four years and then we accomplished what we wanted,” A Sport Group President Stefano Avandero—the man who originally put Maggiora back on the international stage in 2013—told us. “I remember announcing the comeback of MXGP here for 2020 with Christmas gifts and gift-cards and then had to cancel! To be here after organizing the Italian Championship in April and then doing the vintage race and finally the GP – even though these were events with many restrictions - is a huge achievement and goal. I’m really proud of all the people who have been worked for five years with many challenges.”
“There were several issues and one of the biggest was environmental,” he added. “The others were some constructions that we made and adapted. Now it is stable and consistent. I have four events, plus the possibility to be a bike park for the rest of the year and other events like concerts and festivals, even if this is an unstable business at this moment in time.”
Maggiora was able to welcome a paltry 1,000 spectators (in fact, it felt like there were more mosquitos than public due to the location between rivers and streams and with high humidity) but the target of re-establishing the circuit as the primary site for emblematic Italian motocross had begun again. “My goal was to bring it back with a huge amount of spectators,” Avandero added. “It can be done…but we just need to see what the Covid situation will be in the future and where it will bring us.”
-All a coincidence of course, but the FIM had a sizeable presence at Maggiora, and it turned out to be the same week where the governing body lost its say in AMA Supercross. President Jorge Viegas was on hand. The Portugal native initially campaigned to head the FIM with a launch pitch/presentation at the 2014 Motocross of Nations before he replaced the outgoing Vito Ippolito in 2018 , and he was in attendance along with the double-floored MotoGP hospitality rig. The arrangements for this level of organization at Maggiora was planned well before the supercross announcement, and from what we can ascertain, that that was a big blow for the federation and a weakening of their portfolio of series. We asked Viegas about supercross, the division, doping regulations and more in an exclusive Q+A that will surface on Racer X in the next day or two.
-The second MXGP moto turned into the first authentic mudder of the season and the clayish texture of the Maggiora soil meant the running was slower, deeper and more slippery. It also pushed goggle preparation and treatment to the fore while those riders that somehow threaded around the first turns without a face full of muck were at a distinct advantage. This worked perfectly for Herlings and Coldenhoff while Cairoli, Gajser and Standing Construct GASGAS’ Pauls Jonass all decided to ditch their eyewear in the formative stages of the race. Considering the majority of riders used hard-guards to protect against the Maggiora stones and Jonass himself received a bloodied right eye, it was high-risk. For the last three seasons MXGP has made use of a ‘Goggle Lane’ but Cairoli explained that this minor detour on a racing lap was still a big handicap. “It’s tricky to use it when everybody is quite close,” he said. “You can lose 5-6 positions and then you are fighting again to stay clean. It’s safer of course but it is very difficult when you are in the top five to just stop. If you are 15th then okay but top five is not easy.”
“I was thinking about it, especially at the beginning but I knew if I went in on the first lap or second I would be dead-last,” reasoned Gasjer. “I started to ride lap-by-lap and I was getting the guys and then just tried to lower my head when I came close to someone. I think you would lose more than you gain by going inside the lane.”
-Glenn Coldenhoff, the ruler of RedBud at the ’18 Nations, gave Yamaha their first podium of the year thanks to his 4-2 and just his second rostrum on Japanese equipment since he switched from Suzuki in his rookie year to Austrian machinery in 2016. The Dutchman has been acclimatizing to the YZ450FM in an understated start to the season with 10-18-5-9 scores but insisted that his link with the team and brand was on the right path. “I was surprised in Russia because my feeling was really good on the track but then England was a bit better and then as soon as I rode here I felt great and really comfortable,” he said. “My starts have been better and the team have been working so hard, I’m so grateful for that. second is okay for now and I’m happy to be back on the podium which is where I belong.” Yamaha had earlier in the day confirmed the Dutchman’s teammate, double MXGP championship runner-up Jeremy Seewer, on a new two-year deal that will take the Swiss through 2022 and 2023 on the YZ450FM. Seewer entered the class as MX2 championship #2 in 2018 with Yamaha and has yet to miss a single Grand Prix since making his pro debut eight years ago.
-Italy will stage the 2021 Motocross of Nations at Mantova on September 26. It’s the third time since 2009 that Team Italy, who have won the competition twice, will be the host country and the Federation, along with talisman and multi-category winner Tony Cairoli, showed off the shirt design at Maggiora. For all the good intentions around the Nations there is still question marks over how the event’s status as Europe learns to deal and live with the increasingly rampant delta variant and how leading MXGP riders will feel about participation in a meeting that falls between rounds ten and eleven of the eighteen-race series. (Over at RedBud, the AMA was reportedly on hand to begin recruiting riders for Team USA’s efforts this year.) For MXGP, Infront Motor Racing had originally planned to award championship points for the motos at Mantova, and the idea is regarded as complicated and unpopular for athletes that don’t make the three-man squads (a problem for countries like France and the Netherlands in particular) or don’t have representation from their countries (especially in the three showpiece A-Final motos). Apparently, the scheme is still to be confirmed. Establishing a points system would effectively guarantee Grand Prix teams’ participation but a decision won’t come until the end of July. Infront Motor Racing believe the extra goodwill established in the paddock in the wake of a difficult but realised season in 2020 could help the brands pledge their presence at Mantova (which would be a relatively straightforward trip from the Grand Prix of Sardegna on the Italian island of Sardinia and then onto Talkessel in Germany) but the application of GP points would be one way to make the Nations obligatory.
Main Image Courtesy of KTM Images/Ray Archer