Main image courtesy of Ray Archer/Kawasaki Racing Team.
The inaugural Grand Prix of Sardinia – or ‘Sardegna’ to use the native spelling – highlighted the best and the worst of MXGP at this current time. As the World Championship tries to fit around the tight travel restrictions and continuing limitations on public gatherings that vary from country to country, the need to chalk-off races and fulfil an eighteen round schedule means a frantic agenda. Sardinia was the first of nine events in eight weeks including a triple header (Sunday-Wednesday-Sunday) at Arco di Trento in Italy, followed by a double (Sunday-Wednesday) at Mantova – site of the Motocross of Nations this weekend - to finally put 2021 to bed.
The margins for mistakes or for injury on the part of the riders are so small.
Furthering the tension, MXGP travelled to Riola Sardo with five racers split by less than 40 points in the championship standings. It would leave with four divided by 12! Reigning World Champion Tim Gajser, the Red Bull KTM trio of Jeffrey Herlings, Jorge Prado, and Tony Cairoli, and Monster Energy Kawasaki’s Romain Febvre are giving the championship some excellent entertainment and also a strong narrative, but two of those riders teetered on the narrow ledge for round 10.
Barely fifteen minutes into timed practice and a crash for Cairoli led to some worrying scenes as the nine-times world champion was stretchered away from the course. Apparently the soon-to-be 36-year-old initially lacked feeling in his lower body but regained sensation shortly afterwards. The left side of his handlebar had completely snapped free. Pain around his neck and back forced #222 out of action in what is now his swansong full season. He went from being in the heart of the championship mix to fifth and 45 points adrift. The period of six hours from the crash to the final checkered flag at Riola was a costly one for the veteran in several senses and his role as leader of Team Italy on home turf in Mantova for this weekend’s MX of Nations is now also in doubt.
Before Cairoli’s accident, Honda HRC had been trying to keep a lid on an alleged broken left collarbone for Gajser due to a training mishap earlier in the week. The Slovenian had apparently undergone surgery and had even tried to ride the factory CRF450R before Sardinia. The reigning number one had to pass two fitness checks from the Italian medical crew and struggled with the pain of the injury during qualification. He could only post the 18th fastest lap and being stuck in the nether regions of the pack in the first corner led to his tumble and eventual 19th in the opening moto. Even though his battling performance to eighth in the second sprint was entirely admirable, Gajser now faces the kind of race back to fitness that Herlings had to negotiate earlier in the season (Herlings suffered a broken shoulder blade). Luckily for the 24-year-old, he was already planning to miss the forthcoming Motocross of Nations and can now use the only free weekend for the rest of the MXGP season to heal.
The developments allowed Herlings to gather his first 1-1 of ‘21. The result was unsurprising given the Dutchman’s prolificacy in the sand but the fact that he now holds the red plate after being more than 40 points in arrears of Gajser several rounds ago shows how rapidly this contest can change. For all the enthusiasm around the points and the numbers, is MXGP really that close? Herlings has now claimed the last three rounds in a row. He made use of a rare holeshot to win the first moto from Prado by over 40 seconds. He tracked and bullied his more junior teammate to comprehensively own the second moto.
Herlings is one of the MXGP riders committed to the cause at the ‘Nations but then faces hard-pack tracks in Germany, France, Spain and Italy (the trio at Arco) before the sandy finale back at Mantova. There is plenty of time for his pursuers to respond, especially Febvre who rode to a calm 3-3 in Sardinia and in the aftermath of sickness the previous weekend that left him weakened for the ripples of Riola.
-Riola Sardo could not have been a starker contrast to the purpose-built Afyon hard-packed circuit that hosted the Sunday/Wednesday double-header in Turkey. Remote, located in an overgrown, dune-setting with the endless sand submerged and almost hidden among the shallow hills; it was a return to a ‘purer’ type of motocross but looked every inch the training facility that the teams frequently use for pre-season testing thanks to the consistent climate. The sunshine and temperatures were a constant, as well as the enthusiasm the Sardinian authorities have for the sport, which is what largely led to the first Grand Prix to take place on the island.
-The sand invited and produced a range of mistakes. Crashes for the likes of Monster Energy Yamaha’s Jago Geerts led to one of the best rides of the day as the quiet Belgian returned from the rear of the MX2 pack to eighth in the first moto, clocking the fastest lap on the way. Former MX2 championship leader Ruben Fernandez fell in the first corner of the same race – after his holeshot device hadn’t released - and a small issue with his collarbone meant that medics were reluctant to give him permission to attempt the second moto. Impressive rookie Thibault Benistant was another to taste the Italian sand while Red Bull KTM’s Mattia Guadagnini had a rough day to allow red plate holder – Monster Energy Yamaha’s Maxime Renaux – to extend his championship lead to 71 points. The rumours of Renaux’s graduation to the MXGP class for 2022 are beginning to intensify.
-One rider who excelled in the sand was Dutchman/South African Calvin Vlaanderen. The Gebben Yamaha man took his satellite team YZ450F to fourth place overall for his best classification in the class yet and for what is just his second term on the bigger machine. Vlaanderen has had more than his fair share of injury issues over the past three seasons but, on this form, he is becoming an enticing prospect for factory teams in the late juggle of saddles for 2022. The organisation for next year is very much in flow, although more than one team and several riders are waiting for KTM’s reorganisation of brands and how the paddock will begin to take shape. Vlaanderen’s result was also a small prod in the eye for the expensively assembled Monster Energy Yamaha factory crew who were at least able to welcome Jeremy Seewer back to the top five. Ben Watson had also recovered some speed and confidence with sixth overall but Motocross of Nations star in 2018 and 2019, Glenn Coldenhoff, is still waiting to hit a strong patch of form; poor starts, a lack of feeling and a second race crash meant ninth was his sole bounty.
-MX2 World Champion Tom Vialle helped Red Bull KTM extend their streak to three Grands Prix without defeat in both classes. The Frenchman posted his second 1-1 of the year for what was his fourth ‘overall’ so far on the works KTM 250 SX-F. Now fully fit after his broken right hand, Vialle is starting to zoom up the standings. At one point he had dropped outside the top eleven but now sits sixth having clinched four of the last six motos and lies 48 points away from Geerts in 3rd. Behind Vialle and Renaux – the Yamaha man now has eight podium results from ten – was livewire rookie Dutch teenager Kay De Wolf has made the top three for the second time with the Rockstar Energy Husqvarna.
-MX2 welcomed back prominent riders such as Roan Van De Moosdijk (the former EMX250 champion recovered from injury) and Conrad Mewse (fresh from missing the Turkish double-header to wrap-up the British Championship) but there was also another (new) addition to the division but with a very familiar name. 17-year-old Liam Everts – Harry’s grandson and Stefan’s first-born – made his Grand Prix debut with a KTM and ahead of a surprise call-up to Team Belgium at Mantova this week. Everts admitted he was nervous and struggled to adapt to the intensity of the one-day format that places heavy emphasis on nailing fast laps in Timed Practice. Riola was draining and hot but Everts acquitted himself well for 13th overall and points in both motos. It was a first taste of MX2 for what could be a full-time attempt in 2022. “I just want to gain experience, that’s the goal,” he said. Now onto the 74th Motocross of Nations and the third Italian hosting of the competition since 2009.