We complete our look through the most successful riders in Motocross World Championship history with the two five-time World Champions that are still active and battling today – Jeffrey Herlings and Tim Gajser!
Words: Ben Rumbold | Featured Image: HRC Honda
The final two riders to be featured in our run-down of the greats who reached or exceeded the amazing tally of five World Championships are the two men who have shared the MXGP crown between them for the last five years. Dutch megastar Jeffrey Herlings and Slovenian sensation Tim Gajser carry the weight of two of the biggest team budgets on their shoulders, and have done for nearly all of their careers. Tim has brought the kind of success to HRC that it hasn’t seen since the 1980s, and Jeffrey has been a lifelong factory Red Bull KTM rider since before they even won a title in the premier class. As we speak, their careers are hardly over, but we catch them at this point in time when a sixth title is in the crosshairs for both men.
Born in September 1994, the son of 1980s Grand Prix racer Peter Herlings, Jeffrey has always been incredibly fast. Winning the European and World Junior titles as a 14-year-old on a Suzuki, he moved to KTM for 2009 and finished 2nd in the European MX2 series behind Christophe Charlier. That series had some names! Ken Roczen and Harri Kullas won races, whilst Glenn Coldenhoff, Neville Bradshaw, Matthias Walkner, and Sasha Tonkov all scored podium finishes.
Almost exactly two years younger than Jeffrey, “Tiga” was in his wheeltracks, winning the 85cc class that year before taking the EMX title and the World Juniors in 2012. I first saw him at the Teutschenthal Nations in 2013 and although skinny, he was an impressive rider already. By that time, Jeffrey was already racking up GP wins and titles. Racing #111 in 2010 as teammate to #1 Marvin Musquin and #11 Shaun Simpson (KTM’s MX1 team had #2 Max Nagl, #22 Rui Goncalves, and of course #222 Tony Cairoli – a nice theme), it took the young Dutch kid until just round three to make his mark, with a scorching double moto maximum at his home race at Valkenswaard. He won further motos at Kegums and Lommel, but injury already started to bite as he missed the last three rounds of the series, sadly including Lierop.
2011 saw him challenge new teammate Ken Roczen for the MX2 crown, briefly taking the championship lead but just being outlasted by the America-bound German, with British star Tommy Searle returning from the USA to take 3rd in that series. Five GP wins were still nothing to be sniffed at for the 17-year-old, already nicknamed the Bullet, and he set about 2012 with Searle as his main opposition. He had the speed, but felt the pressure from Tommy, mentioning him in virtually every interview! Just as Searle got close with overall wins in Brazil, Belgium, and Sweden, a no-score day in Latvia denied the Brit any chance of putting serious pressure on. From there The Bullet simply pulled away, growing in confidence every week, culminating in the incredible race at Lierop where he lapped everybody apart from teammate Jeremy van Horebeek in the first moto!
As Tommy moved up to MX1, Herlings simply steamrollered the opposition in 2013, taking 15 GP wins, only losing two motos all season as he took the title three rounds before the end of the season. Little did we know that his future rival was making his debut on the Silver Action KTM. Gajser had modest results, with a best moto finish of 6th at Bastogne in Belgium. 2014 started in similar fashion, with Jeffrey taking 22 of the first 26 moto wins, missing the Brazilian round with a small injury, and only actually losing two motos, frustratingly for him the first one of the year, going to Dylan Ferrandis in Qatar. Meanwhile Gajser, now on a factory-supported Honda, was starting to become a podium regular, mixing it with Ferrandis, Herlings’ teammate Jordi Tixier, Glenn Coldenhoff, and Husqvarna-mounted Romain Febvre.
It all fell apart for Jeffrey at Loket, breaking his leg in the first moto and forcing him out of the series that he led by 145 points! He still had the red plate when he returned about six weeks later, by which time Gajser had won his first GP moto in Brazil, and followed it up by winning that fateful final moto in Mexico, where Tixier took 3rd and Herlings 10th, giving the title to the Frenchman by just four measly points! Gajser ended the year fifth behind the Kawasaki of Ferrandis and 3rd-placed Febvre.
Herlings came unstuck again in 2015 after dominating the first Grands Prix, coming back from a minor injury in Germany to then finally get knocked out of it in Sweden. The battle was joined by Gajser and Herlings’ teammate Pauls Jonass, with Max Anstie also putting in a good run of form to finish 3rd. Tim took over the points lead with his 5th GP win of the year at Assen, and Jonass couldn’t take it back. It was Honda’s first world MX title since Fred Bolley back in the year 2000.
To the surprise of many he Slovenian moved immediately up to the MX1 class. Perhaps Honda thought that deposed Champion Antonio Cairoli was out of the way, and that Gajser could take on new Champ Febvre better than he could Herlings. It was a monumental scrap for the first half of the year, as Tim instantly gelled with HRC’s 450F, winning his first Grand Prix on it before Febvre won the next two, then Gajser took another three. Febvre got right back in it with an emotional win in France, but knocked himself out of contention with a brutal crash at Matterley Basin. It was ultimately a cruise to the title from there and suddenly Tiga was a double World Champion, achieving a feat only Greg Albertyn, Jean-Michel Bayle, and John van den Berk had done over 30 years before, and still a unique result in the four-stroke era.
Herlings, meanwhile, was getting the monkey off his back by finally nailing down a third world title. In typically ominous form, he dropped just one moto, to Ferrandis in a classic battle at Trentino, from the first 12 Grands Prix. He made it interesting by getting hurt again and missing three GPs, but returned to win at Assen before clinching the crown in the USA. He lost race two there to very local boy Cooper Webb, but won the final round at Glen Helen over Jeremy Martin.
Into the MXGP class went the Bullet, but a pre-season injury stunted his speed in the early races, and the pair of them lost out to a brilliant Cairoli. Herlings did tick one big box, however, by heading over to the USA a week early before the USGP and inflicting a monstrous drubbing on the AMA National field at Ironman. 2018 saw a horrific crash for Gajser in a pre-season Italian race (sound familiar?) which smashed up his jaw and even impeded his eating for a time. Herlings overcame Cairoli to take a mighty 17 GPs out of 19, and 33 motos from 38 contested, even returning after breaking a collarbone to win immediately after missing just one round. He won the last 17 motos in succession to put the title out of reach, and to cap it all he clinched the crown at home in front of packed grandstands at the converted Assen road race venue.
Gajser had returned to reach 4th in the standings that year, but was not his true self until he arrived fit and healthy for 2019. Herlings did not, an off-season heel injury giving him serious problems. The Champ returned at Latvia, won a race at Latvia even after having his ankle broken on the sighting lap, then was out again. Cairoli had started strong but Gajser was pouring it on mid-season, delighting his many fans who always pack the hills of Trentino just a few hours from the Slovenian border. Cairoli also got hurt at Kegums and Jeremy Seewer was a distant 2nd as Tim collected half of the 18 GP wins. Jeffrey did return to win the last two rounds, his eyes set on the Nations in his homeland. The Dutch duly won at Assen to take their first ever Nations victory and fill a major gap in Jeffrey’s trophy collection. It certainly is a gap that Tim Gajser isn’t likely to ever fill!
It was back to MX2 days for Herlings in 2020 – that is, those bad years when he crashed out of a dominant position yet again. It says something about the level of Herlings that five titles feels like an under-achievement for him. It really has been either a title or injury for quite possibly the fastest man to ever climb onto a Motocross bike. Such a shame because the year started so promising, with both men beginning the season healthy at the same time, for the first time! Gajser was on the pace, railing around the outside of Jeffrey at Valkenswaard for example, and he picked up the pieces to win the title again by a distance over Seewer.
2021 was a year for the ages, and the championship I will put up to anyone who says racing isn’t as good as it once was. In the first seven rounds we had it all – a double win for Gajser in Russia, the veteran Cairoli winning at Matterley, Herlings taking the overall at a muddy Maggiora. Even young buck Jorge Prado took an overall at Loket, and surprise package Febvre, reborn at Kawasaki, stuck it to the sand specialists at Lommel. Gradually that old Herlings magic crept in, with three straight wins at Turkey’s two GPs and then Sardinia, with two beautiful passes on Prado. Gajser won in Germany, then Jeffrey took three more GPs to build nearly a one-moto points lead, then had a disastrous Wednesday GP at Trentino to lose all of those points again! Cairoli helped his teammate by taking his final ever GP win and keeping back Gajser and Febvre, and even Seewer got involved to win the last of the trilogy at Trentino. Herlings was three points behind Febvre, and two behind Gajser, heading to Mantova for the final two GPs in the COVID-affected season. Gajser dropped out with a penalty for cutting the course at the first corner, putting him too far back. Febvre and Herlings swapped the race wins, going into the final moto absolutely level on points! A tie would suit Herlings, but he made a great move on the Frenchman to make sure of it, despite a couple of heart-stopping moments, and won his fifth crown by just three points! EPIC!
As brilliant as 2021 was, 2022 started on a low after Febvre broke his leg at the Paris Supercross, and Herlings, preparing to run the #1 plate for the first time, crashed during a photoshoot and did not make it back. Gajser, the clear favourite, didn’t disappoint and won 10 GPs of the 18 to clinch his fifth world title, yet again by a distance from Seewer!
So that brings us to the hear and now. With Gajser hurt and unlikely to make it back in time to fight for his own sixth title, will Herlings have a clear run, or will Febvre, so close in 2021, come back to win his second title a record eight years after his first? Will the eternal number 2 (if they still ran the old number system, anyway) Jeremy Seewer climb to the top at last? Or will former MX2 Champs Prado and Maxime Renaux make their presence felt as the new generation coming in? Either way it’s going to be a wild ride!
When compared to their fellow multi-champs, Herlings does very well. Just months younger than Everts was when taking his first title, he was the youngest to titles two and three. The dominance of his MX2 years has put him on 99 GP wins, only two short of Everts’ all-time record. Gajser, meanwhile, became the youngest ever five-time champ by a matter of days over Cairoli. He is far from done at the age of 26. Who knows how many these two legends will get to? Enjoy being in their company, people.
|Rider||Jeffrey Herlings||Tim Gajser|
|Career Year (Age)||3rd (18)||3rd (19)|
|GP Wins That Year||9/16 (56%)||5/18 (28%)|
|Career Wins To Date||16||5|
|Career Year (Age)||4th (19)||4th (20)|
|GP Wins That Year||15/17 (88%)||7/18 (39%)|
|Career Wins To Date||31||12|
|Career Year (Age)||7th (22)||7th (23)|
|GP Wins That Year||14/18 (78%)||9/18 (50%)|
|Career Wins To Date||61||24|
|Career Year (Age)||9th (24)||8th (24)|
|GP Wins That Year||17/20 (85%)||5/18 (28%)|
|Career Wins To Date||84||29|
|Career Year (Age)||12th (27)||10th (26)|
|GP Wins That Year||9/18 (50%)||10/18 (56%)|
|Career Wins To Date||99||43|