It’s the eve of the 2023 MXGP season, where we have the possibility of seeing two riders line up with five world titles to their name, for only the second time in history. Today we highlight the careers of the only two men who faced each other with five or more world titles already in the bag. They are two of the last great products of the Belgian Motocross production line that rolled on from the 1950s – Stefan Everts and Joel Smets.
Words: Ben Rumbold | Featured Image: Ray Mayes
These were the big two Belgian legends around the turn of the millennium. When Smets won his fifth title in the 650cc class – the follow-on from 500cc and pre-MX3 category, basically the last big-bike World Champion with serious credibility – Stefan, son of Harry, Everts was already on seven. Yes, Eric Geboers and Georges Jobe raced each other many times, but Jobe didn’t get his fifth title until well after Geboers retired. So until Jeffrey Herlings and Tim Gajser meet in anger later this season, Stefan & Joel are the only two riders to have claimed five world titles or more and then raced each other for a World Championship, which they did in 2004 & ’05 before Smets retired.
To put it simply, Stefan Everts is the best rider I ever saw race a motocross bike. To explain why I think so, allow me to briefly get a little bit personal. Jean-Michel Bayle is my all-time hero because of what he achieved in America, and how he did it – by looking “effortless”. That’s the key word here. When I was born, a member of my family, namely my mother’s brother, Neil Hudson, was on his way to becoming a major player on the world scene. Ultimately he won a world title, and the word most people associate with Neil is “smooth”. The word “effortless” is usually not far behind. When I started to ride a dirt bike as a kid, I was taught that if you get the technique right, Motocross looks like art. It does look effortless, even though my uncle and many like him will tell you it seriously is not! The other major lesson is that if you get the technique right, you can basically go as fast as you need to, as fast as you like. I obviously did not get as far, but many said I had a similar style when I raced. Just with nowhere near the same amount of speed!
Stefan Everts was the ultimate example that proved that theory to be correct. That if you take the time to find the lines, steer towards a smoother part of the track, then you may look slower because you aren’t bouncing around, but your wheels are on the ground and you are driving forward. And to me, as an onlooker, I love to see that in a rider. Stefan was the epitome of that style of riding. Now he may have been a bit spiky, especially when being beaten, and detested lapped riders who got in his way, but it all stems from the expectation. So many riders went faster around me because of who my uncle was, and I don’t even share his surname! Imagine being the son of a four-time champion? It’s true that, as Mike Healey said, he never raced a production bike, but he was never the underdog, always expected to win, and his father in particular never let him off the hook, teaching him exactly how hard you have to be at the very top. I never saw Bayle race, because he never had to do a GP in England, but I followed Stefan across the years as an example of how it should be done.
His career is well documented, of course, as the most successful racer in World Championship Motocross. His career had two distinct chapters, although maybe four when you look at it closely. There was the early success of the first world title at 18, the 125cc in 1991, helped by the injury to defending champ and teammate Donny Schmit but seeing off a determined Bob Moore. His move to 250 looked good until he burst his spleen in a first corner crash, an issue which even from that age he had to deal with throughout his career. For three frustrating years the 250 title wouldn’t come. Anything less, even finishing 2nd to Greg Albertyn for two straight seasons, was seen as failure on his part. He even considered retirement at the end of 1994.
Then came the breakthrough. Earning Kawasaki its first world title in 1995 under the management of awesome tuner Jan de Groot, the relief was palpable. Those three years meant that he abandoned his original plan of following Bayle to the States, and instead set about dominating GPs, which he did on factory Hondas for the next two years. It wasn’t all plain sailing as factory Suzuki man Marnicq Bervoets ran him seriously close in 1996, and in 1997 the arrival of hot French speedster Sebastien Tortelli ran him ragged. In 1998, a year he called “so stressful”, it was between him and the Kawasaki-mounted teenager. From 16 Grands Prix, Stefan won 8, Seb won 7, only Pit Beirer breaking their deadlock on Czech hardpack. Of the 32 motos, Everts took 14, Tortelli 15, with Beirer claiming 2 and Tallon Vohland the other one! It all came down to the final moto in Greece, and in an uncharacteristic mistake, Everts cracked whilst leading and fell heavily on the exit to a corner, and Tortelli was champion.
Chapter three was the dark time. He was badly injured at the pre-season Beaucaire International for two consecutive years, the first on the same Radson Honda team as raced for in ’98 and the second on a big Husqvarna as the team, under the management of Dave Grant, switched to the 500cc class. He says that he learned a lot at this time about how Grant had treated him, and the strength of his wife-to-be Kelly really saw him through.
Despite the barren years, Michele Rinaldi of the factory Yamaha team was still very interested as his team was looking to further improve their original high-revving four-stroke in the 500cc class. From there, the rest is true history. He matched Joel Robert’s record of 50 Grand Prix wins, which had stood for 29 years, quite fittingly at Namur, on his way to title number five, and despite winning less than KTM-mounted Smets in 2002, stayed consistent for a record-equalling 6th title. Then came his most stellar year to date, when 250 two-stroke and 450 four-stroke merged into the MXGP class and he suddenly faced double 250 World Champ Mickael Pichon at his very best. Pichon scorched to the first three wins in the single moto format, and Rinaldi suggested that Stefan race the 250F in the earlier race of the day, the 125cc class, to help his MXGP exploits. To say the gamble paid off is an understatement. Not only did Everts win every single one of the remaining 9 MXGP rounds, but he also won 8 of the 9 125cc races, claiming 2nd in that championship behind fellow Belgian Steve Ramon! Then at the final round, to top it all, he extended his GP win tally to match his race number of 72 by winning all three classes in one incredible day at Ernee in northern France!
The titles kept on coming, in 2004 he broke Pichon’s challenge once more as the Frenchman shifted to a four-stroke Honda, and in 2005 the challenge came from New Zealanders Josh Coppins and Ben Townley, but nobody won even half the number of motos as Stefan that year. For 2006, words was that his old foe Tortelli would return from the USA, and his instant response was “good, now I can get revenge for ’98.”
He trained like never before and despite losing the opening moto to Sebastien, Stefan claimed the overall win each time out before the Frenchman ended not only his season, but also his career, with a crunching fall of his KTM that seriously damaged his hip area. With that challenge gone, Stefan was almost detuned in what he had announced would be his last season. He still won nearly every Grand Prix, only denied by a determined Josh Coppins at the incredible Desertmartin ciruit in Northern Ireland.
Everts kept his motivation up by the prospect of one final Nations conflict with his US equivalent, Ricky Carmichael. Often scathed by American fans for the 2003 Nations at Zolder, where the two-stroke Honda of RC blitzed the 450 Yamaha of SE, there was the threat of both Carmichael and James Stewart coming over to Matterley Basin to ruin his career-ending party. As it was, Ricky got injured in the States and Stefan got the joyous pleasure of riding around the outside of Stewart, on the pegs, through a long, rutted, off-camber right hander. Probably the best overtaking move I’ve ever seen live, it was a stunning way of closing his career, even if his teammates couldn’t join him to prevent the team victory going to the USA. Could he have beaten Carmichael that day? This writer, and admittedly massive fan, truly believes so.
Against the other five-time (or more) Champions, obviously he won more in total than anybody, although Herlings is threatening that record this season. Stefan’s record of 10 titles should be safe. Jeffrey is the only 5-time champ to have won their first title as young, and again only Jeffrey was younger by title number three. The four-year drought before his fifth title meant that he had to wait until his 13th year at GP level to get that high, and only Jobe and Smets had to wait longer. Either way, his is an incredible story and I was privileged to have followed it as a fan.
No-one else that I can think of quite lives up to their nickname than the man they call “The Flemish Lion”. He started racing at the age of 17, saving up the money to buy motorcycles and somehow progressing to GP level by the age of 20 on a complete shoestring. His career path could not have been more different to that of Everts, but the two seem to get on remarkably well. Named after the first to get to five titles plus the one more, Joel Robert, the tall, blonde, broad-shouldered Smets went straight to 500cc GPs as he knew it as the class of Kings. He was certainly strong enough to handle it, and got to 17th in the World Championship in 1991 on a private Honda. Receiving no support from the manufacturer, he decided to eliminate their colour red on the 1992 effort, so ran instead in a light turquoise blue with unique Tecnosel gear – they usually made graphics and seat covers!
In 1993 he made the big leap to the four-stroke world with the Swedish Husaberg factory, although their bike was heavily adapted by the Italian Vertemati brothers, who changed the bike to be in their name for 1994. Either way, Smets won his first Grands Prix and finished 3rd in both seasons. Great consistency considering the fragility of the bikes! Shifting back to the actual Husaberg factory team for 1995, he won a titanic struggle with American exile Trampas Parker, who was gunning for his own “Mr 875” deal as he had already won titles on both 125s & 250s. Parker was on a high-revving 360cc KTM and the mix produced some incredible battles, but a rotten day at Namur put a big dent in Trampas’ chances, and Joel took his first world crown at the age of 26!
Another 360 KTM, ridden by New Zealander Shayne King, took the crown away in 1996 as Smets only won a single GP to Shayne’s six. 1997 was ultra-competitive, with six GP winners on a variety of machines taking victories – Peter Johansson and Andrea Bartolini on the new YZ400F prototypes, Daryll King on the big 630cc Husky thumper, Kurt Nicoll on another 360 KTM, and Avo Leok on an ancient 500cc two-stroke Kawasaki! Smets kept his head, won 4 GPs and reclaimed his crown. He then dominated 1998 with 6 of the 12 GPs going his way, for world title number three. That season saw his first proper race against Everts, with the Honda man wild-carding at Namur and taking both motos, despite having his mind blown by the complexity of the circuit on his first racing visit!
In 1999 he again amassed a good GP win haul of 4 for the year, but that was matched by both Johansson on the KTM, who had bought Husaberg by this time, and Bartolini who was still on that Yamaha, by now a 426cc machine. The Italian prevailed to be Champion, assisted by many mechanical breakdowns for the Husaberg. He was their only World Champion, but he simply had to leave for the main KTM concern after suffering 4 mechanical DNFs and having to sit out two rounds due to injuries caused by them.
On the KTM he proved to be unstoppable, romping to 12 GP wins out of 16, and 25 of the 32 motos, and clinched the title thee rounds early, at the incredible Namur circuit that he had frequented as a teenage fan. He became a four-time champ at the age of 31 and only the arrival of Everts, and the single-moto format, really stopped him going much further still.
He ran Everts close with 6 wins to Stefan’s 7 in 2001, and another 6 to his rival’s 4 in 2002, but a single mechanical issue or crash cost him dear in both seasons. He certainly was a match for his fellow Fleming during those years, but Stefan raised his game in 2003 as they both tackled the new MXGP class. Smets raced two classes each day that season, with that last big-bike championship GP run at the end of the day. Joel won 10 of the 12 single-moto GPs, with only Cedric Melotte stealing the race at Namur on his CR500 Honda, plus of course Stefan himself taking that last GP at Ernee. At 34 years of age he became the oldest World Champion in Motocross history, a record that still stands today.
He made a shock move to Suzuki in 2004, racing a Japanese bike for the first time in 12 years, but was still a competitive animal with podium finishes on the brand new bike in 2004 before injury ended his season early. Then in 2005 he signed off from racing, taking the first two GP moto wins for the Suzuki RMZ450 machine, the final one at Bellpuig in Spain just after turning 36 years old.
The comparisons to his fellow five-time champs all highlight his age – the oldest to win at every stage, but also he had some of the most dominant seasons amongst them all. He did most of his racing in a dwindling class that was a world away from the hectic 125 & 250 scenes on both sides of the Atlantic, but his speed against Everts showed his pedigree and worthy place among the greats of World Motocross, despite his massively late entrance into this world.
|Rider||Stefan Everts||Joel Smets|
|DOB||November 1972||April 1969|
|Career Year (Age)||3rd (18)||6th (26)|
|GP Wins That Year||5/12 (42%)||5/12 (42%)|
|Career Wins To Date||5||8|
|Career Year (Age)||7th (22)||8th (28)|
|GP Wins That Year||5/15 (33%)||4/11 (36%)|
|Career Wins To Date||19||13|
|Career Year (Age)||8th (23)||9th (29)|
|GP Wins That Year||5/13 (38%)||6/12 (50%)|
|Career Wins To Date||24||19|
|Career Year (Age)||9th (24)||11th (31)|
|GP Wins That Year||9/15 (60%)||12/16 (75%)|
|Career Wins To Date||33||35|
|Career Year (Age)||13th (28)||14th (34)|
|GP Wins That Year||7/14 (50%)||10/12 (83%)|
|Career Wins To Date||50||57|
|Career Year (Age)||14th (29)||–|
|GP Wins That Year||4/12 (33%)||–|
|Career Wins To Date||54||–|
|Career Year (Age)||15th (30)||–|
|GP Wins That Year||9/12 (75%) (+8×125 & 1×650)||–|
|Career Wins To Date||72||–|
|Career Year (Age)||16th (31)||–|
|GP Wins That Year||7/16 44%)||–|
|Career Wins To Date||79||–|
|Career Year (Age)||17th (32)||–|
|GP Wins That Year||8/17 (43%)||–|
|Career Wins To Date||87||–|
|Career Year (Age)||18th (33)||–|
|GP Wins That Year||14/15 (93%)||–|