Just seconds before boarding our flight to the Grand Prix of Patagonia-Argentina, there was time to publish part one of our MXGP preview. This one focusses solely on the title contenders in the premier division. What about the rest of the guys? There are many more previews scheduled for the coming days.
Although Antonio Cairoli has achieved more than ninety-nine percent of the riders in the world, the off-season is typically a time where most doubt him. It happened a lot a year ago, as the previous seasons were particularly difficult, but he silenced the naysays when the gates dropped at the Grand Prix of Qatar and went on to record a particularly dominant term. Cairoli has been doubted again in recent weeks though, as most believe that time is running out for the man who is now thirty-two years of age. It is unorthodox for a rider of his age to continue racing at the highest level.
Antonio Cairoli has proven that he shows no signs of slowing up though, as he handled his competition with relative ease at the three-round championship that ran in Italy earlier this month. One could argue that he looked better than ever. Now, admittedly, he did not get an opportunity to square off against his greatest competitor, Jeffrey Herlings, but everything indicates that he is still capable of making a run for a title. Heck, he may even be better than ever. There appear to be no holes in his programme currently and that is bad news for his competition.
When questioning whether to back him as the title contender, the fact that he just signed an extension with Red Bull KTM should offer some insight into how he views his chances. If he felt as though the end is near, there is no doubt that he would not have committed to another two years of racing. The fact that he possesses that confidence is a significant improvement over where he was at a couple of years ago. Antonio Cairoli is going to be great this year, but there is just one question that needs to be answered. Is Jeffrey Herlings going to be even better?
There are certain pundits out there who are ready to hand Jeffrey Herlings the MXGP title, despite the fact that he has not gone up against Antonio Cairoli yet. Is that justified? It is certainly hard to argue against, as the statistics from the final portion of the previous season indicate that he is indeed the best rider. Herlings won five of the final six rounds, seven of the final twelve motos and cut the gap to Antonio Cairoli down by fifty-five points through that period. All of that sounds amazing and makes it seem as though backing the three-time world champion is a great option.
However, there is a question mark that hovers over those statistics. Antonio Cairoli openly admitted that he toned his training down towards the end of the season, in an effort to make it to the end in one piece, and started to look at the bigger picture. Does that mean that he had more in the tank and could have stopped the streak that Jeffrey Herlings put together? On the other hand, Herlings won a lot of those races with relative ease and may have had more in the tank as well. This duel is going to be most intriguing.
Injuries are always discussed when looking at the potential that Jeffrey Herlings has. However, are they really as big an issue as they are made out to be? Herlings has missed nineteen rounds with injuries during his career and lost two world titles, because of health issues. Aside from the crash that he had at the beginning of last year, which was vicious, he was faultless aboard the bigger bike. Did he really have a hard crash at one of the MXGP rounds? The fall that he had coming down a hill at Orlyonok may have been the hardest hit.
Gautier Paulin was actually quite strong last season, but slipped under the radar. How many pundits really remember that he ended the series in third? It was consistency that got him there, but it was not like he was gifted the position. Paulin dealt with his own health issues through the middle of the season, you see, as he sustained a broken thumb in June and opted to solider on aboard his FC 450. The Portuguese Grand Prix, where he struggled to break into the top ten, was a low point, but he returned to the front of the pack after the summer break and challenged for podiums.
It seems as though some have forgotten just how talented and technically brilliant Gautier Paulin is. When he landed on the podium for the first time with Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing at the Grand Prix of Leon, it seemed that some pundits felt that third overall was a significant milestone. Paulin is capable of doing that every single weekend, however, hence why it would not be a surprise to see him lurk in the shadows and place himself in the thick of this title fight. It is likely that he will be close enough to capitalise if one of the favourites run into an issue.
Gautier Paulin is typically the number one rider on whatever team he rides for, but that could change this season. Max Anstie, a sophomore in the premier division, has been right with Paulin at the pre-season events and that could create an interesting dynamic. It is always good to unearth different stories to follow and that is one to play close attention to. It is rather difficult to predict who will fare better across the next nineteen weekends.
This is going to be a massive year for Romain Febvre. If Febvre, a twelve-time Grand Prix winner, does not turn things around, then one must question if he will ever reach his former level. If he is operating at the same level as he was at a year ago, he will hover on the verge of the top five and then occasionally climb up onto the overall podium. There are already some promising signs though. The 2018 YZ450F seems to suit him more than the previous edition, first of all, and he has gone a whole off-season without a hard hit to the head too.
There is no doubt that the fall that Romain Febvre had at Matterley Basin two years kicked this downward spiral into action, as he has won just a single moto since then. The last Grand Prix win that he claimed, which was at St. Jean d’Angely, was the round before that incident in Great Britain and he has not stood atop the box since. Twenty-seven rounds have passed since he last took an overall win – that is quite a drought. Will he be able to overcome that across the next nineteen events? One would presume that he is going to land on the top step once at least, but he is capable of so much more.
It is easy to forget just how incredible Febvre was two years ago. Whilst defending his MXGP championship, he had some incredible rides and seemed as though he was about to raise the bar in the division. It is not possible for a rider to lose that speed, especially at his age, so there is no doubt that he can thrive in the right setting. The 2018 YZ450F should complete that puzzle, as he was fairly strong whilst competing in the Italian Championship. It must be acknowledged that he did not quite have enough in the tank to challenge Antonio Cairoli consistently though.
Tim Gajser desperately needs to turn this thing around, much like Romain Febvre. The two-time world champion is not even going to get a shot at redemption this weekend, however, because of that pre-season injury that was sustained at the final round of the Italian series. The crash was so significant that he is lucky the outcome was not worse. In the end, it was determined that he fractured his jaw in two places and multiple surgeries were needed to stabilise the situation. When will he return? HRC stated in a press release that there is a chance that he could return for the second round, the MXGP of Europe, in a little over two weeks.
It seems as though a small miracle is needed for that to happen. The recovery time was set at three weeks and a mandatory rest period was involved. It would have to be slightly shorter than that in order for Gajser to return at Valkenswaard, unless he is planning to jump on his steed for the first time in the days prior to the race. Now, of course, he could keep his title hopes alive if he salvages some points at round two, but it would still be a long shot. A lot of things would have to go his way in order for that to work out.
It really is a great shame that Tim Gajser will not be present at the Grand Prix of Patagonia-Argentina this weekend, as the soft circuit is arguably where he is at his best. Gajser won the event in his championship-winning season aboard the CRF450RW and was dominant last year too. Had he uncovered that form at the first round of the upcoming campaign, it may have given him the momentum that he needs to reel off consistent victories and jump into title contention. It must be taken into account that he was not necessarily on the same level as Antonio Cairoli before his crash though, so perhaps a win would have been a long shot anyway.
Max Anstie is the ultimate wildcard in the premier division. Where is he going to slot in when the upcoming series fires into life? The sky is the limit. Anstie steadily improved last season, much to the delight of the British fans, and then blossomed with a dominant victory at the Motocross of Nations. Although the miserable conditions caused some to write that off, the rides that he registered in the weeks prior were just as good. The way that he performed at the Grand Prix of Pays de Montbeliard, the final round of the previous campaign, may have been even more impressive than what occurred at Matterley Basin.
There is no doubt that Max Anstie is a potential Grand Prix winner. Will he win just one or claim multiple victories though? It is always a great story when someone breaks through to join the lead group and Anstie is going to be that guy this season. It really is hard to find a fault in his programme. It is easy to forget that he missed a couple of rounds with a knee injury last year too and, without that hiccup, he would have been right on the cusp of the top five in the final series standings. Another DNF in the Czech Republic cost him too.
If you take all of his results from the Grand Prix of Latvia on, he had an average finish of sixth. It is important to remember that figure was obviously dragged down by that issue in the Czech Republic as well. If you presume that he will just naturally climb up a few positions, seeing as it is his sophomore season, then he should be comfortably inside of the top five more often than not. The ride that he had at the opening round of the Internazionali D'Italia series, as well as LaCapelle Marival, supports that, as he stuck with Antonio Cairoli and Jeffrey Herlings.
Clement Desalle was once an aggressive character and infuriated his competitors with some overzealous moves. Does he still boast those traits? There is no doubt that he has mellowed somewhat in recent years, which was to be expected, and is not as much of a contender as he once was. Desalle can still claim victories though, as he did that at back-to-back rounds in France and Russia a year ago, but he only climbed up onto the box at five of the nineteen rounds that were run and that is obviously not going to be enough to fight for a championship.
Seeing as Clement Desalle has settled down, he has been able to remain consistent. An injury was sustained at the penultimate round last year, admittedly, but aside from that he has kept it together for the most part. The C6 vertebra that he broke in The Netherlands was quite serious and he even admitted that he was rather lucky. With the magnitude of that issue, some were concerned that it would play on his mind and cause him to lose more of his spark. Desalle silenced the doubters at LaCapelle Marival a little over a week ago though and registered a brace of runner-up finishes in the premier division
The fact that Desalle was such a force last year bodes well for this season, as he did not make too many changes through the off-season. "There are no big changes but a lot of delicate fine-tuning, mainly to the chassis," Desalle said in a pre-season statement. "I am very happy with the results and have a very good feeling with the KX450-SR." The fact that there have been very few changes beneath that awning may be his greatest strength, as a lot of his competitors are dealing with all-new machinery or upheaval of some kind.
Words: Lewis Phillips | Lead Image: KTM Images/Ray Archer