As Jeffrey Herlings roamed through the facility on which the final Dutch GP of the year was being held on; the vibe that was glowing off of him was a man who was not only confident in his ability, but also relaxed ahead of the challenge that faced him. Whilst the deep, treacherous sand track leaves most cowering away in fear of the physicality of the challenge, Jeffrey looked unfazed. The confidence Herlings possesses on this type of surface has undoubtedly stemmed from possessing the title of “the fastest sand rider on the planet”. Whilst his competitors may head in stating, “as normal my goal is to win”. There is a feeling that they are already defeated. Why? There is no precedent for beating Jeffrey Herlings in the sand. Whether it is Valkenswaard, Lommel or Lierop – the Dutchman has consistently racked up the 1-1 moto scores.
Even before the two forty-minute moto’s had begun, Jeffrey had a chance to demoralize his competition further. Whilst he was lifting his bike from the heavy sand in the third corner on the first lap of the qualifier, even his biggest supporters wondered if it was possible for him to come back and take the win. With the qualifying races considerably shorter, and not a lot on the line it would have been completely acceptable for the Dutchman to not win. However, he picked himself up in dead last and set out after pole position. Eventually he did take the lead, and the win in Saturday’s qualifying heat – but the victory garnered him a lot more than just pole position. As all hope his competition might have had, as little as it may have been, was undoubtedly killed right there.
Love or hate Herlings (some are more than likely strongly favoring the second option) you should be applauding his ride at the GP of Benelux. The Dutchman displayed a show of domination that we haven’t seen since the days of Everts and Carmichael, in fact it might even have surpassed some of their rides – he was that impressive. It’s not often you see a rider lap into the top three, of course there are exceptions. Over the years we have seen a performance like that at a mud race, or maybe when a world champion heads to a national championship. But for it to happen in dry conditions that represent a normal Motocross race. Well, it leaves me speechless just thinking about it.
Lierop did give a good indication of what to expect at the Motocross des Nations. Although different in a variety of ways, Lierop and Lommel are similar in the fact that they are both deep sand. Now, debate has sparked all over the Internet over how much of a force Jeffrey will be when the MXdN rolls around, but his performance this past weekend has surely silenced all doubters. For instance, just take a look at the lap times. In the first moto, Jeffrey Herlings best lap time was a 1:55:316. The rider closest to him had a best lap time of 2:01:404. That alone tells the story, Jeffrey Herlings was the winner of the Benelux GP before he had even lined up, and dominance doesn’t even begin to describe his performance.
The man that was six seconds a lap slower than Herlings, but three seconds a lap faster than the rest of the field? That was Jeremy Van Horebeek. Given his nationality, the fact that he was the second best rider on the day is not much of a surprise. In fact, a Dutch rider, leading a Belgian in the deep sand is also reminiscent of the older days. When it was only these two nationalities that could produce riders capable of winning in the sand. Of course now, everyone’s a little more equal and any rider can go fast on any surface. Which perhaps makes Jeffrey’s performance even more amazing! Anyway, back to Van Horebeek. The Belgian’s lap times were relatively consistent (as consistent as they could be on a track that was a rapidly changing) and he was undoubtedly the second best rider on the day. Every single statistic supports that.
Who would have bet Max Anstie would climb onto the overall podium before Jake Nicholls would this year? I certainly wouldn’t of. But if there was going to be one place Max was capable of it, Lierop was certainly the place. Max’s previous history in the Dutch championship acts as proof that he has the experience to be competitive in the deep sand, and he was just that. Max’s 3-3 surely silenced some doubters in regard to his MXdN selection. What was thoroughly impressive about Anstie’s ride was that both times out he worked his way forward. It wasn’t as if he got a great start and capitalized on it, in moto one he ended the first lap fifth. Whereas in moto two he started eighth, throughout the day he had to work his way past riders like Searle, Osborne and Tonus. You can’t fault Max’s form in Lierop.
What I did find interesting, was on a bike that they have been struggling with all year, and that has for the most part been underpowered; Max didn’t seem to have too much of an issue in the power-sapping sand. For a portion of moto two (laps 9-11) Max was faster than, or just as fast as, Van Horebeek. Who knows, with some better starts maybe Max could have split up the Factory KTM party at the front of the field. I’m sure I’m not the only one that is suddenly feeling pretty confident about team GB’s chances at the MXdN at the end of the month.
Tommy Searle finished fourth, following a pair of fourths and put simply; he was the fourth best rider on the weekend. Now, fourth isn’t exactly a terrible result. Most riders would be happy to have just one-fourth place in their entire career. But, when Tommy is going for the title and he’s so far down he needed to win; not give up fourteen more points. Maybe, Lierop might have been the end for Searle’s 2012 title run. Sixty-five points is a massive gap to make up in two races. To put in perspective just how far the gap is; Tommy would need to make up eighteen points in each of the four remaining moto’s. It isn’t an impossible amount, but it is quite unrealistic. The biggest difference between Searle and the top three today was the level of intensity, in my opinion you could visibly see the difference in body language and the way they were attacking the track. It’s more than likely down to how comfortable a rider is, and the three riders ahead of him have vast amounts of experience in the sand. Which may explain the speed difference.
Arnaud Tonus put on his best ride since returning from injury. Partly, the great result was surely down to his silky smooth style being very energy efficient on the rough and tough sand of Lierop. In the first moto the Swiss rider had to work his way up from tenth at the end of lap one to sixth by the finish. He moved to the position within seven laps, and then for the remaining eleven just held his ground just outside the top five, that is until Herlings came by to lap him. In the second moto, rather than go forwards Tonus went backwards quickly. The first few laps Arnaud was impressive and looked solid inside the top three. However, within two laps both Van Horebeek and Anstie found a way through. Interestingly on the lap Jeremy went by Tonus was six seconds slower than his previous lap and then kept at that pace for the rest of the moto. It’s definitely peculiar for someone to suddenly become six seconds slower then the pace they were running so early in the race (lap four onwards).
Glenn Coldenhoff hasn’t exactly been a firm fixture at the very front of the pack this year, although he has had good rides. He’s only crept into the top five once this year, so you can understand why his second place in the qualifying heat came as such a surprise to most. If not for a very fast Herlings coming through the pack, Glenn would have had the first pole position of his career. His ninth and a sixth in the two point’s paying moto’s weren’t a true indication of the Dutchman’s speed. A crash on the first lap in moto one left him fighting from last after getting hit by Tonus’ bike. But at the halfway point, once he had some kind of rhythm going his lap times became a bit more consistent and faster than the riders in front of him.
When you head into a deep sand track, it’s presumed Herlings will take the MX2 win, right? Well, Antonio Cairoli is in the same sort of position in MX1. He is so much faster in the sand, that not many people can realistically see someone straight up beating him. The last time the Sicilian lost a GP in the sand was at Lierop coincidentally, back in 2009. Since then, he has won every moto in the sand except for two; the rider to beat him in those two was his current teammate Max Nagl. It goes back to what I was saying earlier. The days of Italian and French riders struggling in the sand for the most part are long gone. Despite growing up with the slick tracks of Italy, Antonio has been based just along the road from Lommel for quite some time, hence his dominance in the sand in recent years.
Although he didn’t show the same level of dominance as Herlings (even expecting a five-time world champ to lap up to third is unrealistic) he proved to be the best nonetheless. Astonishingly, it actually took eight laps of following Nagl before the Sicilian found a way into the lead, after starting on the fringe of the top ten. However, by the time he had got into second Nagl did have a bit of a lead that Toni needed to slice into. Within the five laps Cairoli was actually leading he managed to pull out an eight second lead on his teammate, so even after trailing the German for most of the race, Cairoli evidently still had the ability to turn up the heat and go a bit faster.
Cairoli and Nagl heading the field in moto one, followed by de Dycker in third ended what was an exceptional moto for the Red Bull KTM squad. It’s hard to believe that six years ago the manufacturer was struggling to establish themselves as contenders in MX1. In the last four moto’s (Matterley Basin and Lierop) the team have at least occupied the top two spots in MX1, and have swept the top three in two of those four. Clearly whatever the team has got going on under that orange awning is working, no matter who their riders may be.
Ever since Max has returned from injury, he has been incredibly consistent. However he had his first non-scoring moto of the year following a second moto that quickly went from great to terrible. After taking the holeshot and getting passed by Cairoli within the first ten seconds, Nagl went down before the riders headed back into the wooded section and got hit by Rui Goncalves. Although the German looked to be all right, he did pull in at the end of that lap. However it appears it was a problem with the bike, rather than the rider. Hot rumours at the moment have Nagl coincidentally taking Goncalves’ spot under the Honda World Motocross tent, which would be a great move for both parties.
For the third time this year Ken de Dycker climbed onto the overall podium, which is no longer too much of a surprise; it’s actually beginning to become expected of him! The Belgian actually looked as though he was trying to make a run for the lead late in the second moto however. From lap ten to fifteen Ken was considerably faster than the point’s leader making up as many as two seconds a lap at one point. However, immediately following that surge of speed he dropped off drastically with a trio of lap times in the 2:20’s, hence why he finished fifteen seconds back of Cairoli. But at one point, it was beginning to get quite close.
Now that is what I expected Tanel Leok to be doing all season long! For the first time since Loket in 2010, the Estonian climbed onto the overall podium in third overall. I’m sure when Rockstar Suzuki hired him, rides like this were what they envisioned. However, it never seemed to materialise – until now. Prior to Lierop his best result was a sixth, so to finish fourth and third (coming from the back both times) is quite impressive. Leok is quite good in the sand, he always has been. Which is probably the explanation for the sudden better results garnered in Lierop.
For the second time this year, Shaun Simpson looked capable of getting onto the overall podium as he held third for a considerable amount of time in moto two. Shaun is another rider who lives just ten minutes from Lommel, so he has familiarized himself with the deep sand over the years. Specifically Simpson wanted to do well in Lierop just to prove he should have got the spot on the British MXdN team. He definitely proved himself capable of filling a spot should something happen to the selected three. Unfortunately, Shaun put in all the work to get a top three position, fighting off the advances of Bobryshev for a large portion of the race. But with four laps to go he slipped to fourth, and then on the very last lap the Russian was able to creep through and rip fourth from the Scotsman’s grasp.
Christophe Pourcel had a weekend he’d rather forget, and now his participation in the rest of the series has been called into question. It’s quite well known that Pourcel crashed last time out and was a bit battered and bruised. However, it was thought there were no injuries, but it was discovered days before Lierop that the Frenchman had a cracked shoulder blade. Despite having multiple injections in the morning the pain proved too much as he continuously dropped back before pulling out of moto one. Pourcel then made the decision to not line up for moto two and in doing so, relinquished third in the series standings to Gautier Paulin. Lierop is certainly not a place you would want to ride if you’re not 100%, so it’s understandable Pourcel pulling it in.
Another man who faced the tough beast that is Lierop with a niggling injury was Clement Desalle. Although his aggressive style normally sees him thrive whilst others falter in the sand, Desalle just didn’t have ‘it’ on the day. Ever since his qualifying race crash at the British GP he has been riding with the help of an injection, and for the first half of moto one he seemed to be on form as he moved forwards through the pack. However, around the halfway point his intensity level started to drop, and he dropped back to sixth – which is coincidentally where he started. The second moto wasn’t much better as he started third and finished seventh. But although his 6-7 doesn’t look like much on paper, it did keep him in a firm second position in the title fight.
What was the most bizarre thing that happened at Lierop in my eyes? Marc de Reuver drinking petrol before his moto. Following the sighting lap Marc’s mechanic handed the Dutchman what he thought was a bottle of water, but was actually a water bottle that contained fuel. Unaware Marc drank it, and it quite obviously didn’t go down too well. Although he started the moto, he soon found himself in hospital, where everything looked to be ok. Still, before the incident he seemed to be riding very good and in doing so, suddenly sparked debates about whether or not the Netherlands can be contenders at the MXdN.
Bryan Mackenzie was certainly chucked in at the deep end this weekend, as he took up a replacement ride spot on the STR KTM team. It was announced just days before the race, and with very little time to prepare it was always going to be tough for Bryan. He hadn’t raced a GP since 2009, and has been riding a 250 since then mostly. But still, he managed to put six points on the board (19th and 17th) despite a few crashes. With more time to prepare maybe he can crack the top fifteen?
“The toughest GP of the year” is over for another year and whilst some are licking their wounds, Antonio Cairoli and Jeffrey Herlings head into Faenza with a very realistic chance of wrapping up their world titles one round early. Although both riders shouldn’t have it as easy on the drastically different slick surface of Italy – all they need to do is finish on the podium in both moto’s and they’ll be champions!
Photography courtesy of Youthstream