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6 Things We Learned at the MXGP of France

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St. Jean d'Angely St. Jean d'Angely, France MXGP of France FIM Motocross World Championship

The second of three MXGP events in a row and in some key territories in the series—Britain, France, Italy—drew Grand Prix hurriedly across the English Channel and down to St. Jean D’Angely. In front of a slightly subdued French public, here’s some of the happenings from round ten and the halfway point of 2018 FIM Motocross World Championship.

1. Class Acts

The heat was reduced a notch in the prolific Red Bull KTM duel. Jeffrey Herlings claimed his eighth win from ten (still yet to finish lower than second from 20 motos) and seventh 1-1 double with a mix of races: a crafty holeshot and escape, then another plough through the top ten and relegation of an ailing Antonio Cairoli. Some of Herlings’ moves to chop an eight-second margin to the world champion looked very risky (and having passed Honda HRC’s Tim Gajser for the runner-up slot in the second moto, he already had the overall) across a heavily-marked St. Jean hard pack, but the Dutchman saw the rear of the #222 machine like a wolf in sight of prey. When Cairoli’s lap times slowed in the final five minutes, there was another air of inevitability and no hint of a repeat of the close and controversial move that sent Cairoli tumbling at the British Grand Prix seven days previously. 

In fact, the 32-year-old had been complaining of a lack of training during the week due to a tweaked left knee from the incident. He also mentioned knocking the same joint on the long uphill left second turn. It’s hard to know exactly how much the problem affected Tony’s speed. For the fourth time in 2018, Cairoli had been mugged from a race-winning position, and there is a slight air of resignation with the way the season is heading and the 62-point deficit he now faces to Herlings. In contrast to the indifference and anger in Matterley Basin (and perhaps deservedly so after the clash), Cairoli showed his class by riding up to his celebrating teammate and offering his hand a few meters after the finish line.

Coming in second place himself, Cairoli congratulated his teammate Herlings on the race win over the weekend.
Coming in second place himself, Cairoli congratulated his teammate Herlings on the race win over the weekend. Ray Archer/KTM Images

“This year, we have stepped it up a lot,” he said. “Also, the bike has improved unbelievably and you can do anything with it. The suspension is also on another level and it lets you go very fast. Six or seven years ago, it was a little bit more about technique and [to make] more difference between the riders compared to now, and you can see that even at amateur level and how people can improve so fast. We are improving year after year and getting faster and faster, but it is difficult to keep that speed for 40 minutes. Jeffrey is doing amazing at the moment and I am trying as much as possible to stay with him for the rest of the season.”

Herlings was ecstatic with his fourth career success at St. Jean and for the series’ return to the stony but well-curated facility near the west coast that typically draws a capacity crowd. The French Grand Prix tends to bounce between St. Jean and Ernee, not far from Le Mans further north, and this edition by the Moto Club Angerien was credit-worthy; the track prepped, ripped, and scratched into a litter of ruts and technicality. They were fortunate that the dramatic thunderstorms did not wash the hillside layout away, but the ooze created a swampy start straight. The riders had to blast from the metal grid to four meters of hard pack, then into a heavily churned sea of sticky mud. Herlings’ choice to take the last outside gate and rail the narrow strip of firmer ground was key to his first moto holeshot. It was impressive stuff, but not as controlling and ruthless as his second-race demolition. He has rarely looked more invincible.

2. Something to shout for

The French Grand Prix is renowned for being one of the most raucous and voluminous fixtures on the MXGP slate. The fans have had plenty to shout about over the last 20 years, and recent Motocross of Nations spoils testify to some of the talent and riches the French have been able to support and enjoy. With Nations defending champions Rockstar Energy Husqvarna’s Gautier Paulin and Monster Energy Yamaha’s Romain Febvre cast firmly into the midst of the “best of the rest” battle in MXGP, the atmosphere was unusually muted at St. Jean. Febvre had raised hopes after his first podium finish of the season the previous weekend at Matterley Basin, but his injured left ankle (stretched ligaments) meant the 2015 world champion and winner of this GP in 2016 did well to claim fifth overall behind Monster Energy Kawasaki’s Clement Desalle, who successfully scrubbed away two crashes in Saturday’s qualification heat and seemed to revel in the technical choices and decisions to be made on the tricky slopes.

Desalle finished fourth overall in France.
Desalle finished fourth overall in France. Kawasaki

In MX2, there were even fewer gladiators for the masses. Dylan Ferrandis and Benoit Paturel had provided focal points in past years, but there was something of a vacuum on this occasion. Thankfully for the French public (some of the most loyal and passionate in Europe, it has to be said), the likes of Thibault Benistant and Brian Strubhart Moreau in the European Championship divisions offer some hope by the time MXGP comes again to St. Jean.

3. Helping hands

A first MXGP top-ten finish for Yamaha rider Ivo Monticelli (graduating from MX2) with the I-Fly JK Yamaha squad was one of the more eye-catching results to emerge from Sunday. The classification owed a lot to a great start, but the Italian has a special ally in his corner. Christophe Pourcel was back in the French Grand Prix paddock since relocating again to Europe. The two-time AMA 250 Supercross champion and Pro Circuit rider is working with Monticelli and also repping brands like Just1 (the helmet company is one of the main backers of the proposed 2019 Grand Prix of China and MXGP’s first-ever trip to the country with a venue close to Shanghai). Pourcel also commented that he has been doing some traveling and is also writing (Pourcel was always full of surprises).

One of the most talented motorcycle racers in his country’s history—would anybody dispute the notion?—is remembered for his 2011 Nations appearance at St. Jean, and if it wasn't for a tire problem that day, the French could well have walked the top step of the podium. Instead, Ryan Villopoto, Ryan Dungey, and Blake Baggett ruled for what was the last occasion that the USA has polished the Chamberlain Cup. On the subject of the Pourcels, it was hard to look at the packed spectator bank without recalling Christophe’s elder sibling, Sebastien, owning the premier class Grand Prix exactly ten years previously, and the wash of flags and loud hymn of the La Marseillaise creating one of the more indelible sights in modern day Grand Prix.

4. American MXGP presence dented

Thomas Covington was tentatively talking about his return to the USA at the weekend. Covington, who is flying again in MX2 after recovering from strained left knee ligaments, grabbed pole position on Saturday and a second podium finish of the season on Sunday, including a second moto win of 2018. The Rockstar Energy Husqvarna man will stay on the FC 250, next year but in the confines of Bobby Hewitt’s setup. Covington could have ridden one more season under the MX2 age ceiling of 23, but had already elected to use his hard-won experience on the diverse collection of Grand Prix tracks and conditions on the AMA stage. 

“It was a tough decision for me, and everyone knows how much I love the GPs and all the people here, but with the way it worked out [then], it was in everybody’s best interests to go back next season,” he said. “Racing the GPs made me a more well-rounded rider in many situations. I’m really glad I decided to come when I was 17-18. It has been an awesome experience and I would not take it back for anything, and I think I am better prepared now for supercross compared to when I just came out of the amateurs.”

Covington will race AMA Supercross and Motocross beginning in 2019.
Covington will race AMA Supercross and Motocross beginning in 2019. Juan Pablo Acevedo/Husqvarna Media Library

Covington claimed three Grands Prix wins—two in Mexico and one in France—and took a best championship finish of fourth in 2017. He is currently over 110 points from the same ranking, but admitted, “I want to get as many wins as possible now. It has motivated me to really go for it. As soon as the last race is over, I’ll head back to start training for supercross.” 

Meanwhile, Bike it Dixon Racing Team Kawasaki’s Darian Sanayei will undergo surgery on his right ACL on Tuesday. The ligament will be replaced, as well as a tidy-up of the meniscus that will see #57 out for the rest of 2018. There is talk of Sanayei staying in MX2 for what would be a last shot at Grand Prix spoils. His age—as well as the fact that Sanayei has yet to appear on a GP podium, despite his evident potential—could prevent a factory team making a firm bid for 2019. Darian could remain with Dixon’s British crew (former home of Zach Osborne), having already made some interesting development on the KX250F to fight with the power of the domineering KTMs.

Wilvo Yamaha’s Jeremy Seewer was sporting a glued gash above his left eye as a consequence of a rock at Matterley Basin that smashed his goggle frame (curiously, it did not break the lens) and led to the gory pictures that spilled onto social media.

“The reaction was unreal,” the Swiss said of the images that saw his YZ450F turned crimson and an IXS shirt that had already turned the red that #91 would normally use for his home GP.

What was more impressive was the fact that the MXGP rookie kept riding behind Kawasaki’s Julien Lieber.

“I could still see through the lens, but it then reached a point where the goggle was filling with blood; it was like a goldfish bowl. Blood is also a lot more oily than water, so it got to the point where it was slopping into my eyes and then it became a problem.”

Motocrossers, eh?

Former MX2 team manager Jean Jacques Luisetti used St. Jean to announce his new project with co-promotion of the Marseille Supercross; a Bercy-lite Mediterranean meet scheduled a week after the Motocross of Nations and the same weekend as the Monster Energy Cup. Star Yamaha’s Dylan Ferrandis has already signed up to compete in the Palais des sports Stadium that holds 4,000 people, and it will feature a track that not only runs partially outside the stadium floor, but also under it.

Luisetti expects to announce more names on the entry list in the coming weeks for what will the first mover of the European Supercross period (five weeks before Paris) and again highlights the proactivity and zeal the French have for the discipline. Speaking of the former-Bercy spectacle, honcho Xavier Audouard was on hand to talk about the 36th edition of Paris S, the second inside the spacious and modern U Arena, and announced that 2017 “King” Marvin Musquin will return and face off against training companion and 450SX Champ Jason Anderson.

“The stadium itself deserves to have the best lineup,” Audouard admitted before explaining that more names will soon be added to the bill.