All about timing…
The third Grand Prix in an intense back-to-back stint in the 2021 FIM Motocross World Championship landed with a dab into the Lommel sand: feared by some, known by many, mastered by very few. On this near-impossible sea of bumps and holes and rippling terrain, Monster Energy Kawasaki’s Romain Febvre made mistakes—but less than others—to grasp his first victory of the season and in timely fashion. Why the opportunism? Kawasaki had recently announced a split with the current MX Esca team that have been running the factory operation since the end of the ‘00s. Febvre has become hot property in a reluctant silly season swap-around for 2022 and beyond. By winning round six of 17—and on the hardest stage of the year—the 29-year-old not only vindicated his status as one of MXGP’s leading lights but also his championship credentials (he sits just five points behind the curiously error-prone Tim Gajser) and Esca’s solid work in developing the KX450F. Kawasaki’s presence and progress in MXGP might be at a crossroads.
Febvre, the 2015 World Champion, slipped off the #3 bike in both motos but the errors did not dent his speed or confidence on the wet sand to go 2-1. It was only his third podium of the campaign, but his haul of point puts him right in the mix for the MXGP red plate. The 2021 season is Febvre’s second term in green but he is red-hot in his most competitive spell since he diced with Gajser for the first half of his title defence in 2016; a period that came to a premature end with his crash and concussion at the British Grand Prix.
Romain Febvre battling the Lommel sand and rain in Belgium. Ray Archer / Kawasaki Racing Team Febvre celebrates taking the win in moto two and the overall. Ray Archer / Kawasaki Racing Team Febvre celebrates his first win of 2021, his second with the Monster Energy Kawasaki team since the start of 2020. Ray Archer / Kawasaki Racing Team Romain Febvre (middle, first overall with 2-1), Jeffrey Herlings (left, second overall with 1-5 finishes), and Pauls Jonass (right, third overall with 4-2 finishes). Ray Archer / Kawasaki Racing Team
Febvre’s racing ‘joie de vivre’ came in a fertile period for MXGP. The tightening of the MXGP contest now sees four riders—Gajser, Febvre, Tony Cairoli, and Jorge Prado respectively—split by only 14 points after 2 motos and six rounds with five different winners. The previous victors at Lommel since 2016 were Jeffrey Herlings, Prado, and Gajser. Febvre was fast but not fancied for the overall.
His accomplishment was accompanied by a riotous burnout on the concrete Lommel paddock floor during the pouring rain on Sunday afternoon and the success only just eclipsed the efforts of Herlings, second on the podium, who was an eleventh-hour entrant to the Grand Prix. The Dutchman powered past Febvre to win the first moto and then extracted all his skill and energy to recover from a third turn crash and tangle with countryman Glenn Coldenhoff (11th overall but much faster than his results would indicate due to first lap incidents) to fly back from the rear of the pack to fifth. It was a super-human performance from an athlete that had fractured his left shoulder blade at his home Grand Prix two weeks earlier and had been advised to sit out the visits to the Czech Republic, Belgium and forthcoming Latvia for a full recovery. Herlings hit the wall when he reached fifth and the seven-second gap to Gajser, and when Febvre streaked past Prado for the chequered flag he was the one with bragging rights.
“I didn’t live in Belgium for seven-eight years for nothing! A good day,” said Febvre, now a Lommel resident. “We worked on the starts this week and it paid off today. To win here in Lommel means a lot to me. I’ve been close a few years, and I feel my sand style has improved a lot also. I feel free, I feel clean, and I feel really thankful to my team.”
Febvre is in the midst of another big decision about his future. A decent contract offer to stay with Kawasaki but in the confines of the IceOne team was the repeated gossip in Lommel. It will be the most significant leap since he left Yamaha at the end of 2019; the brand where he’d been since 2015 and is still the brand’s last world champion. As for the chance of bringing Kawasaki their first #1 plate in the four-stroke era (oh, the irony if MX Ecsa could deliver that bounty) then Febvre was firmly dismissive of any hype. “Believe it or not but I don’t care at the moment,” he claimed. “We’ve only done six races. It’s always good to be close to the lead, for sure, but to have the red plate now means nothing.”
-Lommel, of course, is the popular winter training hub for many riders and teams based in the region. KTM and the two factory Husqvarna squads are housed close to the large sand ‘pit’, enclosed within a large industrial park. The old factory Suzuki team were located nearby, and other set-ups are within reasonable driving distance. Lommel’s resistance to the elements gives it an all-weather status—there have even been training photos from the site with snow around the track edges—and the demands of the never-ending sand means there are fewer tougher tracks on the grand prix trail. In 2020 Lommel hosted a daunting triple-header of events as MXGP fought to tally a full championship. This time the riders had to digest sand only once, but the fixture was the third of four back-to-back dates. A common post-race observation revolved around riders failing to find the crucial flow and rhythm at Lommel. Comments by the likes of Cairoli, Prado, Shaun Simpson (the 2015 winner) all hinted at how the track was already extremely rough from timed practice. “It would be like that for a second moto in a normal race,” gasped Prado, who was fourth overall. Simpson’s comments were interesting. The Scot had an engine problem in the second moto that caused a DNF but he felt the smaller and more condensed bumps created by the support classes on Saturday—many of which were left for the Grand Prix classes for Sunday—prevented the GP riders from being able to attack the spots in normal fashion. The flow was more ‘stuttery’ and stop-start rather than rolling and bouncing. The track caught out many, especially the world champion.
-“Obviously, too many mistakes,” assessed HRC’s Tim Gajser who dropped the Honda at least once in each moto to go 7-4 for 6th overall and missed the podium for the third time in the last four races. “I was feeling good in the morning and my speed during the race was Okay. The crash and losing the goggles meant the first race was a struggle. We definitely need to work on these mistakes. I need to reset myself!” Some observers felt that Gajser’s second moto error in the Czech Republic seven days earlier gave principal rival Herlings the incentive to risk a setback with his shoulder in Belgium. The Dutchman had been given a glimpse of hope that his championship aspirations for 2021 might not be over after all.
-The ‘will-he-won’t-he?’ around Herlings began on Saturday morning. Thirteen days after Ivo Monticelli’s front wheel had fractured his shoulder blade, the Dutchman was considering a return at Lommel based on his famed ability to manage pain, the sand, and in consideration of the world championship standings that saw him only 51 points down on Gajser before the gate had dropped in Belgium. Herlings passed a medical check, his KTM 450 SX-F passed through technical control, and then he completed a training moto on Saturday morning to inform the team that he’d try to race on Sunday. An eventual 1-5 meant a 9-point gain on Gajser and reduction of the gap to 42. The performance defied belief although the repercussions of his exertions will only come to light in the next days. Post-race Herlings seemed genuinely distressed with the drama at the start of the second moto and the nagging thought that a second GP win of 2021 had escaped him. If this was his speed and potential carrying an injury, then it is scary to think what he would have done fully fit. His winning margin over Febvre in the first moto was almost 30 seconds. “With the way I feel now then it was not a good decision [to race] but a lot of championships have slipped away [from me in the past],” he said afterwards. “I’m just like my trophy on the podium: I seem to be made of glass. It’s pretty frustrating at times…but right now I think I am [mentally] in a good place. I don’t want to give up this championship so quickly. We’ll keep fighting and hopefully stay in one piece.”
-MX2 saw Monster Energy Yamaha’s Jago Geerts succeed at home and without Red Bull KTM’s World Champion Tom Vialle (the Frenchman was seventh and missing bike time due to his right-hand injury) or teammate Ben Watson to worry about as had been the case in 2020, Geerts was able to deal with two fairly uneventful races to please the crowd; welcomed back to Lommel and sorely missed last autumn. In the absence of Roan Van De Moosdijk (a broken scaphoid) it was teenager (and the cooly named) Kay De Wolf who again animated the Dutch fans at the fence sides with a first-ever moto victory and a second podium finish of his rookie season on the Rockstar Energy Husqvarna. De Wolf rode brilliantly to keep Geerts at bay in the second moto. If he can add his sand speed to other surfaces then the Netherlands have yet another ‘Herlings successor’ in their midst. De Wolf’s showing was further evidence of how the proximity in the level between MX2 and the EMX250 European Championship feeder series is narrowing. De Wolf, Red Bull KTM’s Mattia Guadagnini, and Monster Energy Yamaha’s Thibault Benistant have all won motos this year despite being rookies in Grand Prix. It’s hard to deduce whether an exceptional generation is fast emerging or the MX2 class is lacking in authentic star power.
-Along with Vialle and Geerts, Monster Energy Yamaha’s Maxime Renaux is perhaps the biggest hitter of the category. The Frenchman has won just one moto this season but has appeared on the podium four times and now has a 26-point lead over Guadagnini who crashed and only managed 12th in his Lommel GP debut. If there is one rider looking more prepared for championship spoils, then it’s the #959 and it’s realistic to foresee his progression into MXGP sooner rather than later.
-There was plenty of talk about the Monster Energy FIM Motocross of Nations at Lommel with the date for the 74th edition of the event less than two months away. There had initially been talk of a switch to Matterley Basin for the third visit since 2006 with the UK removing pandemic restrictions on public events, but Mantova has been given the green light. Another subject was the possible implementation of FIM Motocross World Championship points and treating the motos at Mantova like ‘another grand prix’. The impracticality of the scheme was thankfully renounced by Infront Moto Racing, whose CEO, David Luongo said to us: “The idea was on the table because we have to defend events, and this one is the most important of the season. If we saw that it was necessary then we would have done this, but from what we see and understand we have the guarantee that all the top guys will be there. For us it’s good to keep the same format as always.” Defending champions Team Netherlands have already committed to Mantova, as have Team Italy (both nations fancying their chances in both the terrain and home ground respectively) and Team France Manager Pascal Finot was in Lommel to gauge interest for most successful country in the last decade. According to Finot, there is eagerness from current AMA Pro National 450 Class pace-setter Dylan Ferrandis to travel back to Europe although previous winners like Febvre were cool on the idea due to the Nations scheduling between Grands Prix in Sardinia and Germany.
-Round two of the FIM’s Women’s World Championship represented the first visit by WMX to Lommel since the series was inaugurated in 2008. WMX had previously dipped into the sand with Grands Prix in Lierop and Valkenswaard in Holland. Mistakes kept championship leader Courtney Duncan away from the podium and allowed Shana Van Der List to win on her KTM for the first time. The Dutchwoman’s 2-1 gave her control of the red plate. Five-times world champ Kiara Fontanesi took her GasGas to the podium in second place ahead of another podium ‘debutant’ in the form of Lynn Valk. “I’m happy to see different girls on the podium, it means the generation is changing and championship is interesting,” said the Italian. WMX seems to be increasing in popularity with healthy entry numbers and a six-round calendar for the first time since 2018. “Also, it’s good to see that we complete [fill] the gate; some of the girls even have to go home after qualifying,” she added. “It’s positive for the championship. The battle is bigger than the other years.”
-The MXGP schedule was looking more fragile at Lommel with international travel not getting any easier in the European block, and the sad cancellation of the Grand Prix of Finland for the second year running came as a result of MXGP being unable to circumnavigate quarantine policies. Speculation still exists over Argentina and the Indonesian double bill in November/December which leaves races like Spain, Portugal, and Italy at the end of the slate open to potentially doubling-up to extend the breadth of the final championship standings. Latvia next.