When is a Motocross of Nations not a Motocross of Nations? In the eighth decade of the race there have been few occasions in which the annual flagship for the sport has hit turbulent seas. The 2001 edition came in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and saw Team USA understandable reluctant to fly to what was the last outing at the famous Namur circuit in Belgium. Unwise scheduling at Competition Park in the USA in 2002 led to an eleventh-hour reorganisation at Bellpuig, Spain and most of the top riders and even some teams, including the USA, boycotted the event that had descended into farce. This was the nadir of a contest that has now accumulated 74 years of history.
The 2020 Nations was a victim of the pandemic. For 2021, it was revived but awkwardly scheduled amid the twice-delayed MXGP season (currently with the closest championship dispute seen since 2008) and with Covid-19 travel restrictions or policies playing havoc with the entry list.
Despite the adversity Mantova had the colour, the participation (33 Nations including a full-strength line-up from the defending champions, the Netherlands), industry presence, the ticket prices, and a mini-strand of the rowdy atmosphere that usually makes the MXoN so tribal and unmissable. Don’t forget the miserable weather: sustained rainfall has blighted the last four events ‘Nations in a row, held in the UK, USA, Holland and now Italy.
What Mantova didn’t have was – understandably - the size of crowd normally associated with the MXoN. It was also missing some star power. Three of the top five riders in the MXGP standings were absent. Jorge Prado’s reluctance was understandable considering the overall strength of Team Spain (although with MX2 Honda star Ruben Fernandez in play the Spanish would have had two decent entrants) and Tim Gajser’s reticence was also understandable for Team Slovenia, coupled with the fact that the reigning world champion needs every available hour to recover from his recent collarbone surgery. Romain Febvre’s decision to reject the call from France was puzzling but could be a case of ‘been there, done it’ and the knowledge that he is closer to the title than another season since 2015. Team USA were also missing despite determined attempts to make the trip and prompt all sorts of discussions around vaccinations and quarantine protocols. Other American-based riders, such as Ken Roczen for Germany, Dylan Ferrandis for France, and Team Australia – with the Lawrence siblings - were a no-go for the same travel policy.
“In many ways I can understand,” related Glen Coldenhoff, the Netherlands’ hero of the 2018 and 2019 editions “but we missed [not having this race] last year. It was a shame but there are a lot of strong Dutch riders at the moment. Wherever I am in the [MXGP] points I will always do the Nations. Like Jeffrey, he took the red plate last week but he is still here. I like that spirit.”
“I think when you look at the history books in 5, 10 or 20 years nobody will know who was there and who wasn’t,” reasoned Herlings, who initially said his Nations appearance was a chance to test but ended up going 1-1 for the first time in his career. “It’s a shame Team USA didn’t show and it’s a shame that not all the top athletes are racing, especially in MXGP, but I understand both [views]. For some their series has finished and for others they are still going for the championship and they don’t have the team for a potential podium or a win [here]. I understand. In my case I am also battling for a championship but I’m with a team I can win with and I like to represent my country.”
“In a few years people will see the word ‘Italy’ on the trophy and they won’t remember who was here and who wasn’t,” said Tony Cairoli after capturing the only international trophy missing from his packed shelf. “We are really proud of this.”
Even with missing stars and teams, the event still brought an emotional ending. That Italy could win in Italy and with all the drama of Cairoli and Coldenhoff’s tangle in the first corner of the first moto then Alessandro Lupino’s ten-position penalty for running off the first corner and re-joining the track after the second turn - not forgetting the minor incidents that robbed Great Britain of the two-three positions that would have brought their first success since 1994 - was a vivid reminder of the emotion, the nerves and the anticipation that makes the Nations unique. Even with all the rain, even with the debate over entry and with the extra dark cloud of Covid-19, this was a vibrant re-birth.
-Team Italy’s triumph was celebrated with the same intensity as the Dutch win at Assen in 2019 and the French in Ernee 2015. There was a certain poetry to the achievement, coming less than two weeks after Cairoli announced his retirement from full-time racing at the end of 2021, seven days after a heavy crash in the Sardinian Grand Prix that gave him and his team a sizeable scare and the fluctuation of his scorecard that read 21-2 (who would have thought that Italy would end up having to use a Cairoli result as its drop score, yet still win). Red Bull KTM teammate, and MX2 GP and Nations rookie, Mattia Guadagnini contributed with his 5-6 (2nd overall in MX2) and Lupino redeemed his excursion with a last lap pass on Latvia’s Karliss Sabulis to make sure of the necessary point.
“I was cruising in the second moto and I was listening to the speaker and couldn’t quite hear him that well,” Cairoli explained. “I could hear ‘penalty, penalty’ and I was like ‘oh, shit’…when I arrived I asked about the penalty and they said Lupino had gone out of the track at the start and had to go back ten positions…but we still won by one point. It was amazing.”
Lest those think the 10-position penalty was designed with just the right amount of points to insure a home-team win, the decision actually came mid-moto, and at the time it was enough to vault the Dutch into the victory. The Italian team did the math and got on the pit wall to encourage Lupino, who had already suffered a crash, to get positions back and get Italy back into the lead. He pulled it off, leading to a jubilant celebration.
The Italians were harshly robbed of their podium result at the RedBud Nations in 2018 due to a fuel infringement and their accomplishment here came with a worrying moment of controversy but it was hard to deny them the honors, especially Cairoli who has won his class at least twice in the past but has been waiting for a competent trio to go the full distance. The Italians’ last success was the barely passable impression of a Nations in 2002.
-What a performance by Jeffrey Herlings. It is hard to recall a more dominant outing since Ryan Villopoto’s obliteration of the ’07 Nations at Budds Creek. Mantova was the scene of his first GP podium finish in MX2 in 2010 as a 15-year-old and for what was only his second outing in the world championship. The slow and technical sand was a playground for the now 26-year-old and he won the first moto by more than 50 seconds and the second by an even bigger gap. His rivals will need to try and batter Herlings in Germany, France and Spain before MXGP returns to Mantova with the rather underwhelming double header of Sunday/Wednesday pulling the world championship to eighteen dates and finishing on November 10th.
-Full credit to another Red Bull KTM rider: Rene Hofer. The 19-year-old headed the MX2 class with an 8-3 (teammate and MX2 World Champion Tom Vialle suffered a second moto DNF after finishing second overall and first of the 250s, in the opening sprint) and became the first Austrian to top a category at the Nations. Watch out for an exclusive chat with the youngster on the website this week.
-Team GBR’s wheel of fortune is becoming a regular trait of the MXoN. The Brits walked the podium against the odds in 2019 when Ben Watson’s injury meant his Enduro-riding brother Nathan was drafted into the team with Adam Sterry and Shaun Simpson. They officially made the top three at RedBud in 2018 after Italy’s post-race demotion but didn’t get to open champagne and should have had trophies both in 2014 and 2016 if it wasn’t for Simpson’s mechanical problems. Bright performances by Max Anstie, Dean Wilson and Tommy Searle aside in recent years, the Nations has been a fraught experience for the Brits. The pendulum swung again at Mantova. Simpson had his line cut mid-air on the opening lap of the MX Open qualification heat on Saturday and crashed, tearing a ligament in his right thumb. Team GBR had already taken second and third positions in the other heats and were looking strong for overall Pole until the incident. Simpson taped the thumb and took painkillers and gritted out sixth place in the last moto, which helped towards the podium spot. Rookie Conrad Mewse contributed a 14th position. Watson’s 3-4 to ace the MXGP class – in his first campaign on a 450 - was superb for the Monster Energy Yamaha man and gave the Japanese factory squad their first major win in a modest 2021 to-date.
-Mantova (or the Tazio Nuvolari Circuit, to use its proper title and named after the Ferrari and Alfa Romeo race driver of the 1930s who lived in the small city) is a ‘banker’ in Grand Prix terms thanks to the ‘all-weather’ sand, easy accessibility due to its location in central northern Italy and city-centre park setting. While the sand means the layout can be varied slightly, the compact nature of the circuit means a limited spectator attendance. It was called into multi-Grand Prix duty in 2020 when travel to Italy was more relaxed than other territories. When MXGP was boxed into a corner by the pandemic, Mantova – along with hard-packed Arco di Trento located almost two hours north and more into the mountain range – again offered an escape route.
-Rockstar Energy Husqvarna IceOne Factory Racing’s Arminas Jasikonis finished fifth in MX Open for Lithuania but the meeting was significant and symbolic for the tall 24-year-old. Almost one year ago Jasikonis crashed heavily at Mantova and was briefly placed into a coma to recover from head and neck trauma. He thankfully made a full recovery but his path back to MXGP competitiveness has been unsurprisingly slow and arduous. AJ’s future with IceOne for a third campaign with the team owned by F1 driver Kimi Raikkonen is uncertain but he tackled Mantova with typical gusto and the Lithuanian team took its best-ever finish of 13th as a result. Jasikonis’ IceOne teammate, Denmark’s Thomas Kjer Olsen, was a worthy first moto winner in faultless display and the highlight of a tricky debut MXGP season so far.
-The much-rumoured return of the MXoN to RedBud was confirmed by Infront and the FIM, as well as the Richie family by virtue of a quick iPhone message, on Saturday evening. Even though memories of the sodden 2018 event is enough to make anyone shake in their gumboots the fact that the contest will land on American shores for the fourth time since 2007 means the U.S. will have hosted the Nations more times than anybody else this century. Infront defiantly stated that they aim to run a normal FIM MXGP calendar in 2022 and that means a solid end-of-September date for the second visit to Michigan.
-Signs of the scheduling and the limitations of the pandemic was probably most evident with Team France; a country who owned the Nations with varying degrees of superiority from 2014 until 2018 but counted two rookies among their trio for Mantova. Current MXGP and MX2 title contenders Romain Febvre and Maxime Renaux ruled themselves out of selection early and transatlantic trips for Marvin Musquin and Dylan Ferrandis were another obstacle. MX2 World Champion Tom Vialle was the strongest of the competitors: he should have had a call-up in 2019 at Assen and obviously missed his chance in 2020. Mathys Boisrame – who has had one or two run-ins with Vialle in MX2 – had to make his first appearance on a big bike and Benoit Paturel, who has only scored points in two MXGP motos this season – was the only athlete with Nations experience. The French were still fifth overall and Vialle almost winning the first moto was the highlight. Had Vialle not run into bike troubles in the second moto, the French might have had a shot at another dark horse victory.
-A surprising fourth place by Team Russia was built on the 5-10 and the 7-7 by GP regulars Evgeny Bobryshev and Seva Brylyakov and was another milestone standing for a country at Mantova. Podium stalwarts Team Belgium brought their most inexperienced line-up for many years with two rookies in the forms of Cyril Genot and Liam Everts. Brent Van Doninck’s excellent fourth place in the second moto was their top result but there was a sizeable Belgian media presence to note Everts’ first appearance in a contest where his dad, Stefan, walked the box fourteen times with five wins. “No pressure right?!” the likeable seventeen year old grinned in the pre-event press conference. Everts went a respectable 13-17 on the KTM 250 SX-F for what was another ‘first’ just seven days after making his Grand Prix debut. The results gave Everts the Ricky Carmichael Award for the best performing youngster among the field. Liam was just over a year old when RC and Stefan last raced together at Ernee in France for the ’05 Nations.