The 2012 Motocross season is officially in full swing, as the first round of the FIM Motocross World Championship has been and gone from Valkenswaard in the Netherlands. The tricky Dutch sand was made even more challenging with rainy weather conditions being present throughout most of Monday’s action. The anticipation and speculation ahead of round one didn’t disappoint as all the main contenders showed speed capable of winning at some point over the weekend, serving notice that this years series could be one of the best.
Jeffrey Herlings is an amazing sand rider – fact! No one can dispute it. After two years of dominant wins at Valkenswaard, Herlings made it a hat trick with yet another overall victory after two moto wins. Prior to Valkenswaard it wasn’t a case of if Herlings wins, more so how much will he win by. When you can lap into the top ten against world-class riders, it proves you’re on another level, and is a testament to your fitness, program and technique. After winning the first moto by an astonishing fifty-four seconds and lapping up to seventh, the second race was a little tougher on Herlings – at the beginning anyway – as he had to make his way past his main competition Tommy Searle. But in the end, he still won by a solid thirty-six seconds and lapped even further into the top ten past sixth place.
Although a win for Herlings was almost a foregone conclusion in the sand, despite Motocross being such an unpredictable sport, the rest of the MX2 field seemed to have already accepted the fact they would be racing for second place. However, in two weeks time on the steep hillside of Bulgaria the scenario should be much different. With guys like Searle much more comfortable and confident on a track like that of Sevlievo, Herlings will have a fight on his hands to keep a hold of the red plate, and it seems as though he knows it.
Despite finishing third overall, and already giving Herlings an eight point advantage in the points standings, Searle seemed content with his performance over the weekend. He knew beating Herlings was near impossible, and a podium would be a great start the sixteen round series and he done just that, effectively achieving his goals for the weekend. For a lap there in the second race he showed he could challenge Herlings, and maybe even rattled Jeffrey’s cage a bit. As he seemed very desperate to get past Searle, even though really he had the race under control and could of let the win just come to him as the time counted down.
Sandwiched in between Herlings and Searle on the podium was Joel Roelants, Searle’s teammate for 2012. For me, Roelants was the biggest surprise in the MX2 class, being a Belgian stereotypically he should be a good sand rider, and he is, his past has proven that. But too come out on a new team, in the first GP of the year and straight up pass title contender Tommy Searle. Not many people would have expected that going in to Valkenswaard. Roelants can ride hard pack just as good also; maybe he could be a dark horse as the season progresses, his speed isn’t a problem, that’s for sure.
Evidently, the Floride Monster Energy Pro Circuit Kawasaki’s seem to be just as good as the Factory KTM’s this year whereas last year that didn’t appear to be the case. As although the starts in both MX2 moto’s were simply a sea of orange, the two Kawasaki’s of Searle and Roelants were always at the very front round the first corner, which is truly a testament to the work of the team.
Judging by his Twitter, Jeremy Van Horebeek wasn’t happy with his fourth overall, and really he had the potential to get on the podium. His speed was good; his lap times were good he just couldn’t quite put it together. I think Van Horebeek and Roelants are going to be the two giving Herlings and Searle the biggest challenge this year until they’re joined back on track by the factory Yamaha pair of Arnaud Tonus and Zach Osborne. Realistically, they should be getting in the mix and occasionally even beating the two favourite title candidates of Herlings and Searle.
Prior to Valkenswaard, many people were wondering how the newest Factory KTM recruit, Jordi Tixier, would get on. After finishing thirteenth in the series standings in 2011, the infrastructure and experience that the Factory KTM provides was obviously valuable in the off season, as he went on to post a sixth and seventh for fifth overall at round one. He didn’t have it easy either, after starting at the tail end of the top ten both times. With the first GP out of the way, there’s a good chance the Frenchman could creep up onto the podium in the right circumstances on the hard pack tracks of Sevlievo and Fermo, which should be much more suited to his style.
In the MX2 class, the Brits had a very strong showing. Not only with Tommy Searle taking the third spot on the podium, but also with three others filling out the top ten. Jake Nicholls seems to be a much-improved rider this year, as does the bike beneath him. Making his first GP appearance aboard a Nestaan JM Racing KTM, he took two holeshots over the course of the weekend (in the qualifying race and moto one), proving the bike to be just as good out the gate as the Factory machinery some of his rivals occupy. His sixth overall could have been a lot better however, if not for a big crash in Monday’s warm up session leaving him slightly battered and bruised, which clearly came into play as the track conditions deteriorated.
The next Brit in line was Max Anstie, also making his debut on a Gariboldi Honda. After spending most of his schoolboy days racing the Dutch championships, you could say the sand is his speciality. Which is why, a seventh overall could be considered disappointing, but what the results don’t show is his speed and fitness was actually very good. After coming from twenty-eighth on lap one all the way too eleventh at the end of the moto, with consistent lap times throughout. Max had a much-improved moto two, with a fourth, although that’s not what the results say as he was docked one place following the moto, after his Honda failed noise control. However, the potential was definitely there for all to see, and I don’t think anyone would be surprised to see him up on the podium alongside Searle in the near future.
The final Brit to crack the top ten in the MX2 class was Mel Pocock. After Arnaud Tonus and Zach Osborne both succumbed to injury before the World Championship series even begun, Mel was drafted in to fill in for his two teammates and at the moment looks as though he will contest two more GP’s following Valkenswaard, however if he keeps cracking the top ten, that could change. With a career best eighth place in moto one, Mel is definitely a much improved rider from when he last was seen racing GP’s in 2010 and definitely has a good chance of repeating this success in the coming weeks.
In between all these Brits was the French duo of Valentin Teillet and Dylan Ferrandis. Arguably, French riders sometimes struggle in sandy conditions but the two looked solid all weekend. Particularly, I was impressed with Ferrandis, in his first full year as an MX2 rider he seems to have really stepped up in the off season, and on the hard pack tracks he could maybe get closer the top five. His teammate, Teillet has struggled in recent years with injuries, but he’s always been fast. If he can stay injury free for the entire year he could be a contender for podium spots before the years out. He had quite a close call in the first moto however, as he nearly re-damaged his shoulder. As Tixier made the pass for sixth in the first moto, he landed literally centimetres from Teillet’s injured shoulder, which he is trying to protect with a shoulder brace when riding. If the two had been slightly closer, it could have been disastrous.
Further down the field, Elliott Banks Browne had a weekend he’d rather forget. Every single time the gate dropped some kind of bad luck hit Elliott, whether it be a mechanical in the qualifying race, getting taken out in moto one or goggle problems in a rain drenched moto two. It just didn’t go Elliott’s way, unfortunately, as many were tipping him for a top ten performance prior to the season.
Although there’s talk of this seasons MX1 class being the deepest field in many years, did anyone really bet against Antonio Cairoli? Despite there being fifteen previous GP winners from either class on the gate in Valkenswaard, Cairoli has accomplishments that surpass all of his competitors, and he put that experience too good use with two moto wins, and the overall victory. With the red plate firmly in his grasp once again, the Sicilian is in a much better place than he was this time last year, which can only be bad news for the competition. Maybe, everyone will be closer to challenging for wins in the coming weeks, because despite being Italian, after years of training in Belgium Cairoli has become one of the worlds greatest sand riders. French riders Frossard, Paulin and Pourcel should undoubtedly be more comfortable on the Sevlievo track in too weeks time. However, Cairoli definitely got his title defence off to a perfect start, and it’s going to take someone really special to challenge him.
In 2011, Desalle did look more than capable of challenging Cairoli, his speed and fitness looked just as good – if not better than ‘Toni’. So perhaps he is the guy that has the best chance at claiming the crown. But after having to overcome two shoulder injuries at the tail end of last year, he did look as though he lacked the same intensity as Cairoli in Valkenswaard. Perhaps it was because he knew Cairoli would be practically unbeatable, and he wanted to get some solid points on the board to kick-start his title challenge in the same way Searle approached the MX2 opener. Either way, Desalle will need to step up his game slightly in Bulgaria. As Cairoli managed to catch and pass him in the second moto, and the last thing you want to do is give the reigning champ some confidence.
Steven Frossard has had to work hard throughout his professional career to make himself a contender for wins in the sand. As recently as 2008 he was struggling to score points at the Dutch Grand Prix’s. However, now the Frenchman seems to be more than capable of challenging for victories on any surface, including the toughest of sand tracks. The speed is clearly there, as he caught and passed Cairoli in moto one. But immediately after he started making mistakes, including going over the berm before the mechanics area. Which is eventually why he lost the lead. Maybe it’s the pressure that got to him. Last year, he came in and no one really expected him to be winning races straight away, so he was free of any pressure. However this year, he’s a true title contender and maybe once he got to the lead, he started to override the track a bit, and that’s why he wound up making so many mistakes, which eventually saw him drop to third.
In his first ride as an official MX1 rider, Gautier Paulin was impressive. Like Frossard, sand didn’t exactly come natural to him earlier in his career, as he too struggled to score points at every sand GP. However, now he seems to have turned that around and he was right in the mix for second with Desalle and Frossard. Even a second turn crash in moto two couldn’t stop him from climbing into the top ten. Despite this being Gautier’s first full season in MX1, he’s a proven contender on a 450 after winning the final GP of 2011 in the MX1 class, and winning two moto’s on a 450 at the MXdN in 2009 and 2011. The biggest factor for him is whether or not he can contend for wins all year round.
British Championship leader Kevin Strijbos was a solid fifth overall. After struggling the last few years Strijbos seems to be on the up, and maybe if he can get a solid year under his belt we may see the Kevin Strijbos of old in the near future. Just behind him was Ken De Dycker in sixth overall. Ken was the biggest surprise of the MX1 class for me, as like Strijbos he has struggled the last few years, and after having less than a week on the Factory KTM – a manufacturer he had no previous experience with – you would expect the lanky Belgian to struggle with his set up all weekend. But instead, he looked as smooth, fast and confident as he was back when he was Factory Suzuki rider, and consistently moved forward both moto’s. When he gets more time on the bike, and familiarises himself with the surroundings a bit more he could even end up on the podium, if his performance at Valkenswaard was anything to go by.
Seventh overall was Rui Goncalves, in his second year aboard a Factory Honda. Only three points separated fourth through seventh overall, which proves that Rui’s speed is just as good as the guys in front of him, and he will be consistently battling to get on the podium all year long. Whilst one Factory Honda rider had a fairly successful weekend, the other had what can only be described as a disastrous season opener. Evgeny Bobryshev had a terrible weekend, a crash in the very first practice, which left him with a heavily swollen and injured thumb really set the tone for the weekend. After hitting a wooden stake in the qualifying heat, his exhaust was left resembling a pancake more than anything else and he was forced to pull out and take the last spot on the grid. Another hard crash in moto one whilst he was battling his way into the points left him with zero points to start the season. The second moto was damage limitation as he bravely battled his way through the pain to twelfth, to salvage some points at least. The only positive thing to take away from Valkenswaard for Bobryshev is that his speed was very good, proven by his fastest time in pre-qualifying practice. If he can get back to full health for round two, and have a bit more luck on his side he could definitely rebound and take a victory at Sevlievo.
Top Brit in the MX1 class was Shaun Simpson, unsurprisingly. With solid results all weekend long, Shaun met his goal of a top ten finish, and considering whom he is sandwiched between – a pair of factory riders – I’d say it’s a very strong ride, and one he can build off of moving forwards. Behind Simpson was Factory Suzuki’s Tanel Leok, who had a pretty average debut for the team. Admittedly, he was struggling with a small injury as he stated he had re-injured his leg on Saturday, and because of his lack of track time in recent weeks, he was fighting an uphill battle all weekend in regard to his fitness. He should be in a much better place in two weeks time, and then he can really start delivering the results a factory team expects.
Further down the order was Christophe Pourcel. Pourcel continues to be a mystery, and the nickname of ‘the crafty Frenchman’ certainly fit at round one. Off the pace all day Saturday, many were expecting lacklustre results in the points-paying races. Straight away however, he came from the sixteenth gate and very nearly grabbed the holeshot. But then dropped back at a tremendous rate, and eventually after cruising around pulled out just three laps from the end. It sounds as though Christophe was under the weather, however in the second moto he again almost grabbed the holeshot but ran firmly inside the top ten. Not even a crash at the end of the moto could hamper his result, as he still rebounded for ninth. With only twelve points to his name, Pourcel will have to really step it up if he is going to get himself in the title chase but he’s capable at any time to clean sweep a GP if he’s ‘feeling it’.
With the first round now in the books, the riders now have a two week break to work on their setup, fitness and overall program to better their round one performances. The Sevlievo circuit is the next stop on the tour. With the track being one that both points leaders struggled on last year, the battle for supremacy might just be a tighter affair next time out.
Picture by Mark Turner