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The Five-Time World Champions – Antonio Cairoli

As we literally rev up for the opening round of the 2023 MXGP season, MX Vice continues its look at the legends of the sport that have achieved five or more World Championships since the inception of the series.  We now focus on the first non-Belgian rider to achieve such a feat, and he went on from there to make it an amazing career tally of nine world titles.  He is, of course, the mighty Sicilian, Antonio Cairoli.

Words: Ben Rumbold | Featured Image: KTM

Antonio Cairoli clinches his first world title at Lierop in 2005. (Image: Yamaha Europe)

There are many candidates that can claim to be the best of all-time, the best of this century, all of that. For certain, Antonio Cairoli has to be in the argument. Nine world titles, seven in the Premier class, six in a row (matching Stefan Everts’ record there), and the one I consider to be the most impressive, an incredible 17 consecutive years of winning at least one GP, and usually several!  No-one in history can match that. 92 GP Wins include 68 in the 450cc class – more than any other rider. And as a final argument for being one of the very best, he had some incredible races in the Motocross of Nations. The 2006 MX2 win at Matterley Basin springs to mind as he passed everybody in the second race – Christophe Pourcel, Ben Townley, Ryan Villopoto included. His 2009 duel with Chad Reed on home soil at Franciacorta was incredible to behold, and the final moto start-straight collision between him and David Philippaerts almost certainly robbed his nation of a home win.  I personally witnessed his devastation of the field at both Lommel 2012 and Teutschenthal 2013. It was only fitting that he should lead his country to the win in his final GP season of 2021, allowing him to ride with the #1 plate at his final ever pro race at the end of 2022.

Not quite 20 years old as he enjoys his first World Championship celebrations. (Image: Yamaha Europe)

It was a very tough life for Tony at the beginning.  Miles an hour faster than anybody on his native island of Sicily, the kind of football being kicked by the “boot” of the Italian mainland in the heart of the Mediterranean. So instantly he had to sacrifice his home life just to compete at national level. In order to race at the world level his talent deserved, he had to make the move to the Motocross mecca of Belgium.  It is ironic that the first non-Belgian to win five world titles or more basically had to adopt the Belgian way of life to get there.  This led to him becoming one of the best Italians of all time in deep sand, pounding out the laps around Lommel and the surrounding circuits.

Former 500cc GP racer Claudio de Carli spotted his talent and ran him on his MX2 GP team from the start of 2004. And it started there as he won his first Grand Prix, still only 18 years old and wearing his legendary #222, at the historic Belgian circuit of Namur. Bizarrely he won with a 2-4 moto scoreline as the two race winners, fellow Italian legend Alessio Chiodi (did you know that Chiodi is the word for “Nails” in Italian? Suits him!), and eventual champ Ben Townley, hit troubles in the other races. He wouldn’t often go without a moto win in the years to come!

Racing with the number one plate in 2006, Cairoli just lost the title to Christophe Pourcel. (Image: Yamaha Europe)

Third in the world was a great result for his first year at the top level. He did run the #3 for the following season, and led the series from the third round onwards, stretching away from early challenger Stephen Sword. Many might say that Tyla Rattray’s injury helped, but Tony was already ahead of the South African. 13 moto wins was 9 better than anyone else that year, and fittingly the title was clinched in the deep sands of Lierop, finishing ahead of the late Australian Andrew McFarlane.

He ran the #1 plate that he earned for 2006, but came up against the super-talent of Christophe Pourcel. He still won more races, 12 to the Frenchman’s 4, but two DNFs early in the year left him always chasing, and he lost his crown by 18 points.  From there on, he carried the #222 plate as the internet age arrived and encouraged riders to build brands around their numbers. In 2007 he was virtually unstoppable with 21 moto wins of the 28 he raced in MX2, plus a successful MX1 debut in a wildcard appearance at Donington Park, splitting the motos with Kevin Strijbos and taking the overall verdict at his first attempt!  The following year, his last in MX2, saw a monumental scrap between him and the two factory KTMs of Rattray and Tommy Searle. All three led the series at one point, and it got testy with Searle being shown the “Clean Him Out” board in reference to Tony at the Swedish GP! It all came to an end for the Sicilian, however, with a badly-damaged knee injury from the South African round, the tenth of the series, and Rattray emerged as Champion.

Shocking everyone with his domination of MX1 in 2009.(Image: Yamaha Europe)

At the age of 23, he moved up with his de Carli Yamaha team to MX1 in 2009. Teammate Tanel Leok took the opening round, a true mudder at Faenza in Italy that got cancelled before race two, but after a double win in the Turkish round three Tony was able to bolt the red plate to his bike.  It never came off!  KTM’s Max Nagl gave chase, looking to give the orange marque their first title in the MXGP era.  But new KTM boss Stefan Everts had a plan…

De Carli’s team was in direct competition to the long-established factory Yamaha squad run by Michele Rinaldi., who had won the previous year with David Philippaerts. They were all black and Monster Energy backed, and Tony was a lifelong Red Bull athlete. Both Italian as well, it just didn’t fit, so Yamaha deferred to Rinaldi.  That’s where Stefan and KTM jumped straight in, fitted things around the Sicilian’s favoured arrangements, and in so doing changed the face of MXGP for the immediate future in which we are still living!

Utterly dominant. No-one could wrestle the gold plate from Cairoli for five straight years on the 350cc KTM. (Image: KTM)

With his throttle-happy style and diminutive 1.7 metre/5ft 7in stature, KTM’s new 350 SX-F fitted him like a glove, and it became a lethal combination to the rest of the field.  Winning his second GP on it, he took 15 of the 30 motos in 2010, a positively barren 9 from 28 in 2011 but still 100+ points ahead of Yamaha’s Steven Frossard, 21 from 32 in 2012, 20 from 34 in 2013, and finally 15 from 34 in 2014.  It is one of the most dominant spells in Motocross history, and it might have been boring had it not been for Cairoli’s Valentino Rossi-esque Charisma and personality, all with that famous toothy grin and fans cheering around the world. The parallels with Rossi are striking – multiple Italian champion carrying the sport in its new four-stroke era, not quite able to match the all-time figures set from a different time but in a lot of fans’ eyes, especially when combined with his massive brand and popularity, he was the very best.  He even had a much younger, controversial but crazily fast young buck eventually rise to challenge him, just like Rossi had with Marc Marquez.

Injury prevented Cairoli from making another run at the 2015 title, although factory Yamaha new boy Romain Febvre and Husqvarna-mounted Nagl were making life more difficult than usual even before he hit troubles. 2016 saw the arrival of new MX2 Champ Tim Gajser, on a much more sorted factory Honda, and for the first time the now 30-year-old Tony looked a little outgunned, even running behind Febvre until the Frenchman crashed out of the season at Matterley Basin. Tony was 2nd in the series but 84 points back from the Slovenian.

Saluting the Sedish crowd at Uddevalla on the way to his first Championship for KTM. (Image: KTM)

Tony worked incredibly hard in the off-season, however, moving up to the 450cc machine after years on the 350, and shot out of the blocks with a double win at the Qatar opener in 2017. Gajser was strong and took two more GP wins, but the incredible circuit of Arco di Trento saw one of Cairoli’s all-time best rides. After passing and pulling away from Tim in race one, a troublesome second corner put him outside the top twenty on lap one. Gajser was away and clear, but Cairoli found an incredible passing point on a right hander after an uphill step-up, passing Arnaud Tonus, Gautier Paulin, Clement Desalle, Jeffrey Herlings, and Evgeny Bobryshev all in the same spot! An inspired and incredible fightback that sealed the GP win and kept Gajser in sight in the points chase. Tim’s season did get interrupted by injury, and after a pre-season issue had slowed Herlings, the Dutchman started to get on the pace of his elder teammate. Cairoli’s experience showed and he kept himself in the picture, all hopes for Jeffrey being dashed by a broken chain in Sweden. Cairoli was crowned Champion for the 9th time in Jeffrey’s back yard at Assen.

2018 was another incredibly tough season for Tony, even with Gajser taken out of the equation with an horrendous pre-season crash. Herlings was fully up to speed on the 450, and despite an early double victory in the brutal heat of Red Sand in Spain, he couldn’t stop the Bullet, almost exactly 9 years his junior, from steamrollering to his first Premier class title. Only Desalle got a single moto win outside of the two KTM riders all season, and Cairoli kept the pace with an amazing 29 top three motos out of 38.

A massive home crowd say Arrivederci to Antonio after his last ever Grand Prix, held at Mantova. (Image: KTM)

More injuries to Herlings put Cairoli in a top spot for 2019, however, and he won four out of the first five GPs, before a crash at Kegums in Latvia put him out for the season.  It’s a tribute to his mentality the he won the next GP there in 2020, on his way to third in the series, before taking two further victories in his final year of 2021. The first was on a mixed day of weird weather at Matterley Basin, and his final GP was won amongst the pandemic-condensed end to the year, on home soil at Trentino. That was actually a month after a gloriously emotional involvement in the Italian win, on home soil again, in the Motocross of Nations at Mantova.

He’ll always be the Italian #1 – Cairoli’s last professional race at RedBud, proudly brandishing the plate he had helped to earn the previous year at the Motocross of Nations. (Image: KTM)

Just for comparison’s sake we have listed Tony’s career breakdown alongside the only rider to win more world titles than him, Stefan Everts. Amongst those with five titles or more, only Gajser was marginally younger on winning his fifth crown, and only Herlings has won more seasons with over 50% of the GP wins to his name. He earned his ninth title at the same age as Stefan did, but it has to be said that Tony faced stiffer opposition in his attempts to get to number ten, and he was still very close to achieving that.

Tony now moves into a management role, his main charge being a certain Dutchman who he battled with so fiercely in his final few years.  We’re sure the pair will make an incredible team, and we wish them all the best this season.

RiderStefan EvertsAntonio Cairoli
Title 119912005
Career Year (Age)3rd (18)2nd (20)
GP Wins That Year5/12 (42%)6/17 (35%)
Career Wins To Date57
Title 219952007
Career Year (Age)7th (22)4th (22)
GP Wins That Year5/15 (33%)10/15 (67%)
Career Wins To Date1921
Title 319962009
Career Year (Age)8th (23)6th (24)
GP Wins That Year5/13 (38%)4/15 (27%)
Career Wins To Date2429
Title 419972010
Career Year (Age)9th (24)7th (25)
GP Wins That Year9/15 (60%)8/15 (53%)
Career Wins To Date3337
Title 520012011
Career Year (Age)13th (28)8th (26)
GP Wins That Year7/14 (50%)6/15 (40%)
Career Wins To Date5043
Title 620022012
Career Year (Age)14th (29)9th (27)
GP Wins That Year4/12 (33%)11/16 (69%)
Career Wins To Date5454
Title 720032013
Career Year (Age)15th (30)10th (28)
GP Wins That Year9/12 (75%) (+8×125 & 1×650)9/17 (53%)
Career Wins To Date7263
Title 820042014
Career Year (Age)16th (31)11th (29)
GP Wins That Year7/16 (44%)9/17 (53%)
Career Wins To Date7972
Title 920052017
Career Year (Age)17th (32)14th (32)
GP Wins That Year8/17 (43%)6/19 (32%)
Career Wins To Date8783
Title 10?2006
Career Year (Age)18th (33)
GP Wins That Year14/15 (93%)
Career Total10192