It’s ironic that the Czech Grand Prix, staged at one of the oldest and most scenic racetracks in the world championship, was ruled by the youngest and freshest riders in the MXGP and MX2 classes. There is diversity and parity in both contests in 2021 as the season reached the fifth of eighteen rounds at Loket (16 different riders have made at least one podium appearance so far) but the omnipotence of Red Bull KTM means there is still a significant color to MXGP.
Jorge Prado, age 20, won with a 1-3. He held on under heavy pressure from Tim Gajser to win the first moto, and then finished behind the ageless Tony Cairoli and Jeremy Seewer in moto two to net the overall. The results represented not only his first appearance on the rostrum this season but also the first time that he’s taken a checkered flag in a moto. Prado has holeshots and has led laps but has been building-up to this in the previous events. The starlet is already a double MX2 world champion, the most successful Spaniard in the history of motocross and was in contention for the 2020 title in his rookie term until a bout with COVID-19 forced his isolation and the loss of the final five GPs in the space of two weeks last autumn. By defeating ‘Peter-Pan’ teammate Cairoli and Monster Energy Yamaha’s Seewer last Sunday Prado ensured that all three Red Bull KTM MXGP riders have bagged winners’ trophies in the five fixtures to-date. Two of them sit second (Cairoli) and third (Prado) in the world championship standings where Tim Gajser heads a group of four racers split by just 20 points. In MX2, where they are reigning world champions, KTM have already won with two of their three riders, one of those – Mattia Guadagnini – a rookie to the division has two garlands to his name. In Loket the team controlled three of the four motos.
Why the dominance? Firstly, you have the ‘staff’. In MXGP Cairoli, Herlings, and Prado have all been with the brand for over ten years. Herlings and Prado were groomed on KTM SX technology and through the European classes to the top level. Cairoli was acquired as the MXGP rookie leading the world championship in 2009 but he came with the De Carli, Rome-based set-up that has helped the brand carve a deep and rich niche into the results books in the last decade. In MX2 KTM were shrewd to spot and develop Tom Vialle’s potential and intelligence to turn him into a world champion in two seasons, now while they are evolving Rene Hofer from a junior test rider with 65 and 85cc bikes into a front-runner still learning his craft in MX2. Mattia Guadagnini is an example of signing the right youngster at the right time after he’d already come into KTM’s sphere through his EMX European success riding a Husqvarna. At least four of the riders have a strong bond with the company and the brand and perhaps it’s because they know they are unlikely to find better resources and working methods anywhere else. They have been surrounded by the same relentless technicians and management for years. No squad has the same strength in depth or pedigree (only Yamaha gets close for ambition). This scattergun effect of potential doesn’t come cheap and three big hitters such as Cairoli, Herlings and Prado will not be gentle on the budget. Perhaps that’s why rumors continue to float around KTM and a re-organization of their brands and teams for 2022.
Secondly there is the machinery. The current generations of the SX-Fs are now into their fifth year meaning the engine platforms and chassis tech are at a peak for performance as well as their synchronization with WP’s suspension technology. A new generation of the 450 and 250 will be on the line for 2022 so expect the beginning of another life cycle.
Third, and perhaps it’s a moot point, but those KTMs have been crafting a long shadow in recent times. They are either the bikes to chase or the ones to watch for over the shoulder. Guadagnini said that signing for the squad midway through 2020 and when he was impressing in EMX250 was already a “dream come true” before he’d posted any results. The power of psychology can be over (or under) estimated but it’s tough to ignore.
Only an oak-like combination such as HRC and Tim Gajser are holding resistance to the orange army at present. Figures such as Monster Energy Yamaha’s Glenn Coldenhoff and Monster Energy Kawasaki’s Romain Febvre are close but also not achieving the same kind of consistency. Stopping the KTMs might take freak incidents; like Roan Van De Moosdijk’s head-on collision with Tom Vialle while training or Ivo Monticelli landing on Jeffrey Herlings at the latter’s home GP.
-Loket is a vintage circuit in MXGP and the definition of an ‘old school’ layout with a narrow, snaking and restrictive trajectory carved from stony hard-pack splayed on the side of a steep hill. Nailing a decent jump to tackle one of the longest start-straights in the championship is the essential key to race success. Loket first hosted a GP in 1995 (500cc) even though the track had long existed for national and European events before then. In 2020 the Czech Republic was one of the first countries to fire their domestic series into life after the first lockdown of the pandemic.
Despite being well-known for its difficulty with slippery sections and loose, fine soil – that pushes throttle control acumen to the fore – Loket was actually far bumpier and ruttier compared to previous editions of the Grand Prix. The ground was damp and well-worked and that helped raise the technical level further, even though the sporadic lack of traction did catch out a number of names: Gajser, the world champion, crashed down to 19th and recovered to 15th after needing to enter the pitlane to fix a damaged clutch guard. Romain Febvre was another big name that hit the deck. “I just landed, the bike went sideways, and we had a big one,” reflected Gajser who is now just 11 points in front of Cairoli after the Italian finished runner-up and has four podium results in a row. “I didn’t have a clutch, so I had to stop in the pitlane. I managed to save some points. I’m disappointed but this can happen. I like these kinds of tracks, but Loket is sketchy, you have to be careful with the gas.”
-Those that started well, fared well at Loket. All the holeshotting riders – Mattia Guadagnini, Thibault Benistant, Jorge Prado and Tony Cairoli – escaped to the checkered flag. Only Prado was hounded by Gajser in the first moto and just half a second split the pair by the end. Riders such as Bike it MTX Kawasaki’s Australian, Wilson Todd, figured at the front and SS24 KTM MXGP’s Shaun Simpson, who you couldn’t miss in the new Helium FXR race gear, posted 7th position for his season best so far. Simpson was starting only his eighth grand prix since 2019 after missing most of last year with a concussion and fractured vertebrae.
-MX2 is gloriously open. Even though rookie Guadagnini went 1-5 to become the first rider this year to win two Grands Prix in the 250s, there have been five different Pole Position holders and four different championship leaders. Monster Energy Yamaha’s Maxime Renaux beat his teenager teammate Benistant to the second place on the box and holds onto the red plate by just two points from his KTM rival. “It’s nice and I hope to make it for more than two GPs,” the Frenchman said after retaining possession of his status for another week. Benistant, the reigning EMX champion and another bright rookie to MX2, won his second moto this campaign and ensured that all three of Yamaha’s racers have now taken to the rostrum in 2021. “I’m really proud of my first podium,” France’s latest star said. “I still need to take some experience and be a bit more at the front and be a bit more consistent.” Nine riders have walked the box so far this season. One of those has been defending world champion Tom Vialle who dominated the opening GP in Russia but only returned from a right-hand fracture in the Czech Republic. Vialle had ridden a training moto as late as Saturday to see if his hand had sufficiently healed and was pain-free. His starting prowess helped to a 2nd place finish in the first moto, but his rustiness was evident with a crash in the first corner of the second. After another crash, he finished out of the points in moto two. For Vialle to repeat as MX2 World Champion, it will take a phenomenal run of results for him and bad luck for those ahead of him, as he sits 107 points down in the standings.
-After standing on the edge of the party in the first four rounds, Monster Energy Yamaha’s Jeremy Seewer – the MXGP runner-up in 2019 and 2020 - decided to toss his drink glass aside and get on the floor. The Swiss’ 5th place in the first moto is a position he has recorded in at least three previous rounds this season as the #91 has been a figure on the outer periphery of the podium. In the Czech Republic Seewer attacked the second moto and demoted Prado to score 2nd and grab the last rostrum spot. He cited a misstep with his training/preparation to explain the slightly sluggish start to the campaign that has kept him adrift of the champagne action but still within championship grasp as he lies fifth and 43 points behind Gajser in the standings. “It’s been a long way to get back here,” he said. “We went through a lot before the season, and it took a lot to get my fitness back and that was seen in the results. We have a lot of races in a row now and I’m looking forward to being my normal self.”
-Jeffrey Herlings is one of the references for MXGP but there are strong question marks over his title chances for 2021 after the freak left shoulder blade fracture he suffered at round four in Holland the previous Sunday. That the Dutchman was able to win the opening moto despite being landed upon speaks volumes of his toughness and commitment, but the Red Bull KTM man cannot speed up the natural healing process. The Grand Prix of Belgium, just seven days after Loket, has to be a doubt and will mean that Herlings is at least five motos down in points as the first third of the calendar nears a conclusion. The injury is an eerie reminder of the drama that series leader Josh Coppins had at Loket in 2007. The veteran Kiwi fractured his shoulder blade after suffering rear brake failure on his factory Yamaha just four rounds from the conclusion of the series. He tried to return two races later in Great Britain, but the pain was too great, and he had to watch Steve Ramon claim the championship (still Belgium’s last), that he’d been leading since the first race, by a measly 33 points.
-Midweek news of the split between Kawasaki and the current Dutch-based Kawasaki Racing Team was one of the more surprising announcements of the season so far. The squad, led by former Pro Circuit mechanic Vincent Bereni, had curated the factory effort since Team Principal Thierry Chizat Suzzoni had brought the team from the care of the late Jan de Groot’s family towards the end of the 00s. They have won Grands Prix with Gautier Paulin, Clement Desalle, and current rider Romain Febvre and famously employed Ryan Villopoto for his brief MXGP dalliance. Kawasaki are rumored to have aligned with F1 driver Kimi Raikkonen’s team IceOne, which has run Husqvarna’s MXGP effort since 2014. KTM are apparently considering a change with their structure and presence in MXGP with three brands. IceOne will presumably want to close a deal with Kawasaki star Febvre while Bereni’s crew allegedly want to continue racing and will change color for 2022.
-The 2021 WMX championship kicked off with a full gate and reigning world champion Courtney Duncan routed the opposition for a 1-1 scorecard. It was an emphatic opening statement by the Kawasaki rider, the first moto in particular saw the New Zealander more than 22 seconds faster than Shana Van Der List. Loket has been the scene of at least two world championship finales for the FIM Women’s World Championship, but Duncan used the stage to launch a bid for a third-consecutive title without match.
-MXGP media corps and paddock personnel of a certain age were shocked to learn of the untimely passing of Belgian photographer ‘Plons’ during the week. The key cyclist apparently suffered a cardiac arrest while in the saddle. Plons, who was well known among the Belgian-based riding fraternity and especially during the years when the likes of Ben Townley and Tyla Rattray were fast emerging in Grand Prix, was a gregarious and witty presence around the track and his eye for the alternative photo meant that his work was popular, even if he did fade from the MXGP scene in recent years. RIP.
-As has become traditional in the scheduling, the Grand Prix of Belgium follows the trip to Loket; for one of the starkest contrasts in track conditions in the championship. After Kevin Strijbos’ surprising 3-3 in 2016 led to Suzuki’s last Grand Prix victory to-date, the winners have been Herlings (2017 and 2018), Tim Gajser and Jorge Prado. The deep wavy sand of Lommel was the scene for the third ‘triple’ of 2020 (after Latvia and Italy) and Gajser claimed two of the three fixtures in one week in Limburg.
Main Image Courtesy of KTM Images/Ray Archer