Main image courtesy of KTM Images/Ray Archer
Yes, the FIM Motocross World Championship (MXGP) continues to be a riveting spectacle with at least five riders all in play for victory and the top three title protagonists are still split by three points after 32 motos and with just four left to run. The final Grand Prix of the triple header at Arco di Trento, though, was a blue day.
Jeremy Seewer’s first Grand Prix win with a 1-2 and that of the expensively assembled Monster Energy Yamaha team in 2021 was accompanied by a mixture of joy and relief. Seewer’s health and stamina problems had largely eliminated him from the entertaining championship tussle this season but his starts and form in Italy hinted at what could have been. The Swiss was even able to crash (“I fell like a tree”) in the first moto and still win, such was his gap. Monster Energy Kawasaki’s Romain Febvre and Red Bull KTM’s Jeffrey Herlings came through second and third.
Seewer’s second moto run behind Team HRC’s Tim Gajser clinched the overall. Gajser, the current world champion, really needed that moto win, his first moto success for five Grands Prix on the way to second overall. Seewer’s overall came less than an hour after Yamaha’s MX2 squad had covered part of the startgate in gold tickertape celebrating the world championship win for Maxime Renaux: the 21-year-old became France’s fourth MX2 world champion in the last 11 years and the first for the Japanese brand since Tony Cairoli in 2007. Renaux marked the feat in style with a 2-1, his fifth overall victory and 12th podium of the year. He was able to clinch the crown of a competition he has fronted since round four thanks to teammate Jago Geerts’ first moto crash and second moto DNF due to an electrical problem. Outgoing #1 Red Bull KTM’s Tom Vialle was riding with a sore ankle after his crash on Wednesday but was powerless to stop the impressive Renaux in the second moto. Between Vialle and Renaux there is little in the way of friendship, but Vialle’s gesture of dropping the KTM past the finish line and congratulating his countryman and celebrating with the team was a classy touch.
“We made it,” grinned Renaux, a rider whose career was in doubt at one stage due to a serious shoulder injury and nerve damage—such was the disruption to his progress that he studied a business degree at university while he worked on his recovery. “A great achievement and we have worked a lot for it in the past years. I’m so happy to get my first world title with a race and GP win. It means a lot. I’ll never forget this day. I was free in that second moto, free mentally to go for that race win. It made it even more special. The pressure is now gone.”
Renaux’s feat should open the door directly to MXGP and the third slot at Monster Energy Yamaha that has seen Ben Watson left in limbo. Watson, the British rookie on a 450, was decently fast again in Italy for another top ten result, but Renaux could be headed to his YZ450F seat alongside teammates Seewer and Glenn Coldenhoff next year.
“It’s a big question, and I can think about it now because I have my goal reached,” Renaux said of the MXGP speculation. “If I didn’t take the title then—100 percent sure—I would have stayed in MX2 but now we need to discuss with Yamaha and the team and make a decision soon. Nothing is sure.”
Renaux’s first term with the factory team and the blossoming YZ250F—the first four-stroke in the category back when it was labelled ‘125’—has been nothing short of impressive, even if the multi-lingual and likeable athlete has had to bat-away criticism. He led the points most of the year, but in the absence of Vialle. Upon winning the Spanish Grand Prix two weeks ago he was moved to make a ‘shush’ gesture when crossing the line. It was in response to the fact that Vialle had comprehensively returned from injury to win four of the previous five rounds before the trip to Madrid and also probably because the KTM man had chosen to represent Team France at the Motocross of Nations while Renaux elected to safeguard his championship potential.
“For sure there is some rivalry between riders and the world champion from last year got injured,” he said to us on the subject. “I would have loved to have won races and been at the front of the championship with him [Vialle] riding but it is part of racing. I feel like I have done the job. Getting that win in Spain after what I had seen on social media—that was kinda rude, I’d say—I think it shut some mouths. If I didn’t have those comments, then maybe I would not have pushed for that win because I was in control of the championship and did not need to go for or that advantage. I needed to prove to myself and everybody that when I want to win I can. For sure the starts are so important, especially in a place like Arco, and those did not work for me last weekend. Coming back on that track is not easy.”
-Back to that title fight in MXGP. The tension was tangible around the pitlane and start gate for round 16 of 18 in 2021. The Grand Prix of Garda staged the first two motos of the last six this season and with three riders—Herlings, Febvre, and Gajser respectively—at the center of the gaze but in the rare situation of competing without a formbook. It’s a dream scenario for lovers of motorsport: outcomes are almost impossible to predict, even when MXGP races at the same track three times in seven days.
Herlings won on Sunday but DNF-ed on Wednesday. Tony Cairoli went from 28th on Sunday to first on Wednesday. Febvre had taken one of the four motos, Gajser finished on all three podiums. There was hungry expectation for where the 2021 championship story would turn next, and it was yet again unpredictable. Herlings’ two crashes in the second moto were prompted by simple mistakes. His 3-4 saw him drop from first to third in the championship and Gasjer—thanks to his overdue checkered flag and runaway in the wake of Herlings’ faux pas—jumped from third to second. Meanwhile Febvre became the first rider to attach the red plate to the front of a KX450F in MXGP, and the first Kawasaki 450 leader since 2014 (when the class was called MX1). Febvre has stayed in the fight all year, and while he has made mistakes of his own, including a crash late in the first moto here, he has managed to minimize the damage.
Herlings was asked if his two crashes in one moto were due to the pressure of the environment.
“No, that’s not the case,” he said. “What I did was purely dumb, and I don’t know how it happened. I’m not making plans. On Wednesday my championship lead of 24 points went down to -1. Three points now is basically nothing and for sure Mantova will suit me much better.”
That Herlings had fourth in the second moto at all is down to the decency of teammate Cairoli who moved over on the final lap for what was also his last ever MXGP at Arco. KTM had not issued any team orders, so Cairoli’s assessment of the situation is credit to his experience and professionalism and was acknowledged by Herlings. KTM’s lead title hope also praised fast-starting Jorge Prado (racing with a sore back), for giving the #84 plenty of room to move through.
“What he did, I don’t know if I could have done it,” the Dutchman said of Cairoli’s gesture. “Only the greatest and the biggest champions would do that. To me he not only showed his loyalty to KTM but helped me a lot because those are two very important points for me. Only a real team player would do that. Jorge as well; I had to pass him three times in that second moto. It was a real team effort, and I cannot thank them enough.”
It was a shame that some of the more brainless of the digital ‘fan’ base decided to send Cairoli threatening comments on his social media channels that evening (some wonder why sportsmen and public figures want to distance themselves from the medium).
KTM’s teamplay highlighted the predicament for Gajser and Febvre. The Honda man is racing alone yet again with Mitch Evans missing since last year due to complications with his wrist injury. Gajser has had similar recent experience with Brian Bogers’ broken foot. Kawasaki have lost Ivo Monticelli due to injury as well, but the Italian was hardly troubling the leaders anyway. At least the pair can now count on the Yamahas to enter the fray as Cairoli and Prado will undoubtedly assist Herlings to ensure the title comes back to Mattighofen after two years in Japan. “It’s like that. They have a good team with three top riders: we don’t have that,” shrugged Gajser. “Myself and Romain are alone. We can only give our best.” There were rumors that 114 Motorsports MX2 star Ruben Fernandez could be given the factory CRF450R to try and help Gajser in the last two rounds. The tall Spaniard finished third in the 250 class on Sunday for his third consecutive podium result at Arco.
“For sure when there are some KTM boys we have to take care of what they are doing,” Febvre forewarned. Red Bull KTM have arguably the best and most decorated team in MXGP which will splinter for 2022 but for now the investment is paying off. “I’d prefer to be on a KTM right now because Jorge is the holeshot master and Tony is also so fast,” Herlings judged. “The Honda and the Kawi guys are basically alone. In the second moto Tony was matching my speed and he could have attacked me, but it was like he was my wingman. He made sure nobody could get around me; for what he did…he’s the best-ever.”
-There was barely a need for free practice for the third and final Grand Prix at Pietramurata. The compact course in the shadow of the Dolomite Mountains featured little alterations. The only difference for Sunday compared to Wednesday was a slightly softer and bumpier terrain thanks to the only bout of rain that week on Saturday evening. Riders had complained of slick soil and square-edged bumps four days previously and on this occasion it was more technical; a fact supported by Seewer’s fastest lap in timed practice. The Swiss was second quickest but with an effort three seconds slower than his pole position mark at Trentino 1. MXGP will travel only 80 miles south this week for the last double (Sunday-Wednesday) at Mantova and the shallow sand that hosted the 74th Monster Energy FIM Motocross of Nations at the end of September.
-Canadian wild-card Dylan Wright continued to create interest in MXGP. There wasn’t a great deal of expectation for the arrival of the double Canadian champ for one of MXGP’s most limited circuits, but he finished 15th overall on Wednesday and was even more of a presence on Sunday. Wright, 24, who is pitting out of the 114 Motorsports Honda crew (HRC’s unofficial feeder team) with a bike he’d left in Europe after the Motocross of Nations rode to ninth in his third attempt at Arco. “The track is not something I’m really used to…but the view is great and the area is amazing!” he smiled. “I’ve slowly been getting more comfortable, and the results have been getting better as I started to find more settings on the bike that work better here in Europe. Everything’s different: tracks, lines riders and not everything from back home works out here.” Wright will at least have knowledge of the next track at Mantova. “It’s also a bit more what I’m used to from back home,” he said. “I ride a lot of that sandy stuff with a hard base. I’m looking forward to it. I just need some better starts to see if I can battle up there with the big dogs.”
Wright will be on Canadian soil again in 2022 but his first taste of MXGP has whet the appetite. “I’d consider it,” he replied when asked about a Grand Prix move. “I’m still under contract in Canada next year so it would be something to talk about before we could even think about a switch. There would have to be some moving parts to come my way to make it happen. In the future it is something I’d like to do and that I’m interested in doing. It’s been a dream for me as a kid to come and race it [Grand Prix] so now I’ve done it, I’ve hopefully proved that my speed is there to battle with the guys, so we’ll see if the phone rings.”
-Red Bull KTM’s Rene Hofer won the first MX2 moto for his second consecutive checkered flag. The inflated speed and confidence from the first Austrian GP winner since 1987 (in the principal classes) on Wednesday was evident, and Hofer swept away with the race like it was a training exercise. His exuberance cost him dear on the first lap of the second moto with a crash on the Arco stones, but his competitiveness was stark in the climb from 18th to 8th and making sure of fourth overall. “You just ride more free,” the 19-year-old rookie said of the lasting effect of his GP milestone. “I led my first laps this year in Turkey and I got too stiff, hard arm-pump and dropped back. Leading has become more and more natural. I feel easier on the bike, and that’s going together with my confidence that is growing a lot.”
-Aside from the topic of the championship and how it will play out, the other matters of conversation in the paddock involved the remaining team changes for 2022 as well as the provisional calendar for next year that should have been published over the weekend but was instead held back for another week so that dates and venues could be cemented further. Yamaha and Kawasaki have yet to confirm their third and second saddles respectively alongside Jeremy Seewer and Glenn Coldenhoff in blue and Romain Febvre in green, perhaps in the event that Jorge Prado suddenly and surprisingly comes on the market. There is a group of racers waiting to hear of chances for those berths before the small collective of satellite or privateer teams can then begin to confirm their line-ups. The only difference to every other year is the timing. The mid-November finale for MXGP means testing and winter preparation will be tight. The chance for teams to re-stock (or re-brand) and get ready for any potential pre-season events during February will mean an active Christmas period for many.
-For once there is some speculation over world champions HRC. For the third time in recent years Tim Gajser has been isolated while leading the line for the Japanese. HRC senior management was present in Italy as well as the recent Grand Prix of Spain and have allegedly stated their desire to see two CRF450Rs on track. That means a potential third rider has to be part of the strategy and there are even question marks over the stability of Evans’ wrist with the luckless Australian missing the entire 2021 season due to the problem. This could involve 2022 promotion for Fernandez from 114 Motorsports (which is run through support from Honda Motor Europe as opposed to the Japanese directly) particularly if he impresses in the alleged Mantova outing. HRC will embark on a ten-day test after the final Grand Prix in Mantova so for them—like several other manufacturers—the need for decisions and swift contract confirmations is pressing.
While not completely set, 2022 MXGP looks very much like it will be a normal schedule. Meaning 20 dates, overseas trips to the likes of Oman, Argentina, Indonesia (as well as rumors surround China and Brazil), two-day Grand Prix formats and a calendar that begins at the end of February and finishes two weeks before the 75th Motocross of Nations at RedBud at the end of September. With the pandemic fading in severity but still very much active, a lot of the travel arrangements are still dependent on international border policies and rules for public events in each country.