The 2021 FIM Motocross World Championship (MXGP) had been delayed twice and stumbled from a February launch to June. The calendar was victim to four separate revisions as the pandemic continued to influence international travel and public events but when Grands Prix started it delivered a train of action, parity, and incidents that kept rolling and rolling and rolling.
There’s a line in Bennett Miller’s seminal sports flick Moneyball when the Oakland A’s general manager, Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt says, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” Two-thousand-twenty-one MXGP was a contest of 18 rounds and a possible total of 900 points and the top three riders were split by just 20: it’s also tough not to get gushy about motorsport when it delivers on this level.
Mantova was defined by the thick atmosphere and the implications of every bump, mistake, and move by Jeffrey Herlings, Romain Febvre, and Tim Gajser. MX2 became insignificant, and even the majority of the spectators who’d come to cheer and send-off Tony Cairoli were aware of the gravity of the situation in terms of its importance in the 2021 story of MXGP, at least judging by the cheers that greeted the few incidents between the trio that came to pass.
Like every great or anticipated sporting occasion, the Grand Prix Citta di Mantova was an anti-climax. The nerves and the tension would not be dispelled by surprise or shock. Rather they were slowy eroded by two rather static and cagey motos that seemed to sum-up the season: Herlings was the fastest rider in 2021 (his 1-1 at Mantova was a ninth GP victory from the 17 rounds he made, seven more than Febvre, five more than Gajser and he totalled 15 motos wins, more than double of the next nearest who was Gajser), Febvre was almost equally quick but the crash that dropped him away from Herlings while holding second in the second moto was not the first costly mistake he has made in 2021. Gajser was also in the game with a 3-2 but he’d lacked the starts and had also paid for errors.
Herlings trailed Febvre by three points at the start of the day. He’d lost a 24-point advantage in the space of the previous week through a DNF and two race crashes where he received the sportsmanship of Tony Cairoli (in the end Herlings did not need those two points). He admitted the situation had given him sleepless nights. It took a keen-eyed fan to spot the Dutchman at Mantova before the races on Wednesday. He arrived late and largely kept out of sight. The pressure was tangible around KTM. “It’s tough and wears you down,” team manager Dirk Gruebel said pre-moto of the predicament. “It’s different if you are 30-40 points away but every week something is happening. Everybody is tense.”
Herlings got around holeshotting Jorge Prado in the first moto. The talented Spaniard was then tough to pass for Febvre. Once the Kawasaki man was through, he closed on Herlings who had started to intermittently wave his left hand from the bars to release some arm-pump. Herlings said his riding “sucked” but he still rode a near perfect race to keep his rival adrift.
At the break they were all-square. The entire Grand Prix season came down to a 30-minute plus two laps shootout with Gajser almost a bystander due to the growing points deficit. When Febvre suffered a bizarre tumble accelerating out of a corner the roar from the crowd marked the moment. Herlings then had to make sure he could bring the KTM home.
“My riding was terrible…I haven’t slept for three days straight,” Herlings said. “In the first moto I was just so scared to crash that I was riding very tight and got arm-pump. It was really bad, but I still managed to bring it in. After four-five laps in the second [moto] Romain crashed and that gave me some seconds but at the same time I did not want to go full gas and make a mistake. I stayed in my comfort zone and was thinking and thinking. Tim came a bit closer, but I just carried on doing my thing and didn’t look back. I went into training mode. I’m very happy to have made it happen and to go 1-1 today—even though my riding sucked—is really good.”
And ultimately that was the difference. When he isn’t being landed on, clipped in mid-air or having his bike trashed in the first corners of motos, a "bad day" or a "training moto" for Herlings was simply better than others.
The stats kept coming. This was win #99, which means at some point in 2022 another big celebration will take place when Herlings overtakes Stefan Everts’ record of 101. It was KTM’s eighth premier class title since 2010, the career fifth for Herlings and the second in the main category. Of course, it was a much different beast compared to his first, and the season of dominance in 2018.
“I don’t think it really got to me yet,” when he asked on his first emotions to compare the two. “In 2018 we saw it coming. It was just a matter of not getting injured. I knew I was going to win that championship because I was leading by 90-something points and was waiting to get it done. This one? When I was on the ground last Sunday and blew that lead, I thought the championship was gone. I had a lot of back luck but then also good luck because I somehow stayed safe, and the bike wasn’t damaged after my crash in Arco. To win this championship is—wow—unbelievable. In three-four months we go again, so there is not too much time to enjoy it. This was the most difficult championship by far, but I lost one by four points and a broken femur in 2014 so I know the feeling of being close. This one is special.”
Herlings’ first act on talking to the press was recognising how difficult Febvre and Gajser had made the job and what a spectacle they’d created. “I’m super-happy but at the same time I feel bad for the two guys to the side of me,” he said. “It feels like the end of the world when you miss out by a few points. I want to thank both of them for a great championship. The bad thing about our sport is that only one can win but they have been great, and I respect both of them to the moon-and-back. Thank you both for a great year.”
Febvre was visibly distraught even though he’d been the calmest and most accessible during pre-event media work. The race was the last gesture by his team, although rumours of their resurrection for 2022 to start developing Triumph’s motocross project for 2023 were already circulating. Febvre will take his Kawasaki to the IceOne set-up and his teammate is still to be decided. Gajser who had been looking for his third world championship in a row was more stoic but the polemic penalty for his off-track excursion the previous Sunday which put him in a 15-point hole for Wednesday was clearly still a bone of contention.
-Mantova welcomed a champion and waved goodbye to another one. MXGP will no longer see a #222 in the start gate as part of the permanent start list after the three digits have been sewn into the Grand Prix fabric since 2007. The majority of the crowd that all swerved work (or were working ‘from home?’) were there for Tony Cairoli’s last bow and it was not the farewell the Italian expected. Looking very shiny in dedicatory gear and livery, Cairoli couldn’t get the starts, and his urgency to pass Monster Energy Yamaha’s Jeremy Seewer to pursue the leaders led to a rash overtaking attempt that took both riders down. Seewer then gassed the Yamaha once the bikes were half disentangled and ripped the KTM’s gear shifter away. “I couldn’t make the podium today like I wanted but overall, it’s been a good season,” Cairoli reflected. “I was in the fight for the title up until halfway through the year and I think it was one of the nicest championships ever. I was sad I could not join the battle.” While Cairoli will no longer be a title contender its more than likely he’ll still be entering Grands Prix. It’s almost unthinkable that a race like Maggiora in 2022 will pass by without him and if there are any injury issues for KTM, GasGas, or Husqvarna then there a very few better replacement riders waiting in the wings. His last appearance as a full-time pro will come in two weeks with another attempt at the Paris Supercross.
-It might be some time before the class sees a #24 or a #22 also. Britain’s most successful rider in the MXGP category—Shaun Simpson—also declared that he’d be stepping away from MXGP as did multiple championship runner-up Kevin Strijbos, who had been the oldest racer in the class; a month more senior than Cairoli. Simpson had been running his own team in Grand Prix but the double injury blow of a concussion and fractured vertebrae in 2020 that caused him to miss most of the campaign was the first ring of the “last orders” bell. He showed top ten speed at times in 2021 but further injury niggles such as the thumb he yanked at the Monster Energy FIM Motocross of Nations and the painful ribs he had to deal with on Wednesday were factors that kept the Scot away from more substantial points. Like Strijbos, Simpson should still be racing at national level next year which means some one-off Grand Prix outings could be feasible, but the level of preparation needed to make even a dent in the leaderboard in current MXGP means it is not an attractive proposition for those who distance themselves from the comp. With Simpson’s departure the UK can only count on one racer in MXGP for 2022 and Ben Watson has still to confirm a deal after the surprising lack of patience by Yamaha towards the rookie.
-Elsewhere in MXGP, Standing Construct GasGas Factory Racing’s Brian Bogers captured one of the best results of the season and in the absence of teammate Pauls Jonass due to injured ribs. The Dutchman took the MC 450F to sixth overall and finished ahead of countryman Glenn Coldenhoff. The Yamaha man ended a difficult first championship term on the YZ450FM with seventh in the standings and two podiums, far below his and the brand’s expectations. Yamaha Motor Europe head honcho Eric De Seynes was in Mantova both to toast the MX2 world championship success as well as give his input into the refinement of the MXGP line-up for 2022. “I have found it tough to accept a lot of the results I achieved this year, not only for me but for everyone around me,” Coldenhoff admitted. “We kept working really hard and never ever gave up. That is something I am proud of.”
-HRC wild-card Ruben Fernandez posted another top ten finish despite pain in his left side due to a crash in free practice and fellow Honda rider, Canada’s Dylan Wright (12th), acquitted himself well again in what has been a quietly impressive set of wild-card appearances.
-MX2 served as a minor distraction at this Grand Prix. The Monster Energy Yamahas ran riot with the Red Bull KTMs tripping over themselves—literally in the cases of Rene Hofer and Mattia Guadagnini in the first moto—and the Rockstar Energy Husqvarnas lacking the starts to fight for victory. Jago Geerts’ mild annoyance that teammate Maxime Renaux moved into the team and took the world title in his first year fuelled his wholehearted persistence to try and beat the Frenchman right up until the last corners of the second moto, even though he already had the overall and his second victory in succession. Geerts went 1-2, Renaux was 3-1 and Husky’s Kay De Wolf showed his bubbling potential with a fourth podium from his rookie campaign. Renaux’s runner-up slot delivered his 14 podium result from 18, matching Herlings’ total in MXGP. Geerts’ form at Mantova banked another #2 plate and gave Yamaha a 1-2 in the class where the YZ250FM has now become the dominant motorcycle. De Wolf’s rookie achievement (he was seventh in the championship) was eclipsed by fellow 2021 debutant Guadagnini who was one point away from the rostrum but secured fourth in his first MX2 year and a term where the young guys had to get used to the intensity of Grand Prix competition as well as the longest schedule of their professional careers. MX2 has more than double the races they faced as part of the European Championship EMX250 series.
-Australian Jed Beaton completed his last MX2 Grand Prix in emotional fashion. The Rockstar Energy Husqvarna rider is aging out of the class and allegedly has a 450 saddle with Kawasaki lined-up for 2022. Mantova wrapped a three-year stint with the Lommel-based team with which he was able to post two top-five championship finishes. “It was a tough year,” he assessed. “I had a great off-season but then got injured two weeks before the start and then hit my head pretty hard at Matterley Basin. You need to be so consistent to be at the front and when you don’t have that then it’s difficult from the get-go: I just seem to be ‘Mr. Fourth Place’ this year. It was an average season, but the last three years have been amazing here. Leaving the 250 is not such a big issue for me. I’m a big guy so I feel like I suit a 450 a bit more and I’m looking forward to that step.” Beaton has been stranded in Europe by the limitations of the pandemic and the team’s heart-warming gesture of giving him a special helmet painted with pictures and images from his childhood and orientated around his seriously ill father back in Tasmania was a touching final gesture from the crew.
-Two-thousand-twenty-one MXGP is wrapped but 2022 starts almost immediately with the shortest off-season in modern Grand Prix history. Teams and riders will have just three months to test, heal, rest, and train for a championship that is likely to start at the end of February and revert to a traditional 20-race slate and eight-month span of two-day events leading up to the RedBud MXoN at the end of September. This period will begin with a raft of official press releases of manufacturer movements. News or rumours emerging from the Grand Prix Citta di Mantova involved the status of the last two MX2 World Champions. The 2020 winner, Tom Vialle, who needs to immobilize his right foot—a consequence of his double crash the previous week at Arco di Trento—for three weeks which narrows the winter period even further while fresh 2021 #1, Maxime Renaux, will apparently stay in the division and attempt to defend his title. Yamaha Motor Europe were making final decisions over the MXGP line-up as late as Wednesday in Mantova.
Main image courtesy of KTM Images/Ray Archer