MXGP

2017 MXGP Preview: All eyes on Qatar

2017 MXGP Preview: All eyes on Qatar

Alex Hodgkinson

the 2017 MXGP season bursts into life next weekend with its now traditional launch under the lights in Qatar – with a further 18 GPs over the following seven months deciding the new champions in the premier world motocross series.

Rookies have taken the last two MXGP titles, and a third is among the hot favourites for glory in 2017 – but eight-times champion Tony Cairoli has made clear with his resounding victories during the warm-up races that at the age of 31 he is not done yet. 

The departure of Jeffrey Herlings and Max Anstie to MXGP and Dylan Ferrandis to the States renders the MX2 title wide open. Thomas Covington is the only 2017 contestant to have even previously won a GP. So who is hot?

MXGP Class

Despite the new influx, Tim Gajser remains the youngest rider at the gate in the premier class. 

And the 20-year-old Slovenian has already shown time and again that when it comes to racing he has a maturity way past his years.

He crashes occasionally, but who doesn’t? 

And the way he can switch from smooth, calm riding to an electric burst of speed is truly extraordinary. 

HRC needed a couple of years to find their way when they returned to the brutal world of MXGP, but the relationship with their Golden Boy is a delight to witness. 

It is the atmosphere which encourages every member of the team to work diligently beyond the call of duty. 

Even when the harmony is broken by the exuberant input of papa Bogomir, it is for the benefit of all because he doesn’t explode without reason and Tim himself can keep his cool. It is a recipe, which even the KTM twin spearhead may not be able to overcome.

The promotion of Jeffrey Herlings to MXGP, delayed by two years by injuries, adds a vitality to the series, which, in 

reality, rather than hype, is greater than the short escapade of US champ Ryan Villopoto in 2015.

There can be no doubt that the Dutchman (left) is the fastest rider on the world stage, but his two MX2 title defeats in recent years show the chink in his armour. 

There are no conflicting approaches to racing by Herlings. He only knows one way and the inherent dangers are obvious.

Even in each of his three title-winning campaigns ‘The Bullet’ went to casualty – in 2012 admittedly not of his own making he survived a potentially lethal car crash – and he has already spent a week nursing a sprained wrist this year. 

In their mutual MX2 days Gajser only ever beat Herlings when Jeffrey crashed, but that was on 250Fs and the Honda was a mule.

The only time they ever met on 450s was the Manufacturers Cup, and that ended 1-1 with one moto null and void. 

Let the fun begin…

For his transfer to MXGP KTM’s  22-year-old superstar remains in the factory rig, run out of Mattighofen. 

The technical support is identical for both the ‘MX2′ set-up and the Rome-based De Carli crew, but, no matter how well the factory has tried to cover up the fact, it was written into the most recent contract, at Jeffrey’s insistence, that he didn’t have to race out of the De Carli tent.

Tony Cairoli is the king there, and two hungry monarchs can never live in harmony. 

Already more than a year ago KTM sports chief Pit Beirer admitted: “Our greatest concern is that they could destroy each other.”

Tony was a shadow of his former self throughout 2016. His belated attempt to defy injury and stay in the title race the previous summer was the first time the Italian had let his heart control his brain, and he paid for it all last summer. 

The elbow wrecked in that simple get-off at Maggiora 2015 never healed and the gritty veteran simply couldn’t hold on at times. 

Has the rest and treatment since October done the trick? The way he skipped around the brutal ruts of Riola Sardo suggest it has. The Phoenix could rise again.

Fourth man in the pot of front-line favourites is Romain Febvre. The 2015 champion shocked the world that year as he defied reason to stay in one piece and the speed was again there last year as he held the early red plate until his luck finally ran out.

First blip, albeit not self-inflicted, came at Talavera. Then Matterley put him out of the world series, but the Frenchman was phenomenal in again leading his country to their third consecutive Nations. 

When it comes to sheer guts, Romain is unapproachable, but he already crashed unnecessarily in the first race of the year. 

The same way as Herlings – he can destroy himself.

So what of the rest? Two former world No.2s will fancy their own chances, indeed, each of their own manufacturers hope so too, but, faced with such overwhelming opposition, can Clement Desalle and Max Nagl (above) finally snatch gold in the latter stages of their careers after it has defied them so often in their younger days.

The Belgian finished top three in the world for five consecutive years until injury put him off the series podium for the last three seasons. 

Desalle won the final GP in Europe last year to end a 31 GP drought for Kawasaki, but only time will tell if ‘The Panda’ can finally reach for the stars.

The German’s silver medal was even further back, in 2009, but he led the world in his first year at Husqvarna in 2015 until injury in his home GP put him out for the season and, although he earned bronze last summer, he never had a dog’s chance of the title. 

IceOne team boss, Antti Pyrhonen, believes fully in Max’s abilities, but with the 30th birthday approaching in August, he only got a one-year extension on his contract last year. 

It is time to deliver.

There are eight further fully-fledged factory riders at the gate, every one of them a stunningly fast rider, but the inflation in contract prices means that only KTM has stumped up the cash for more than one absolute front man. 

Suzuki, euphoric in their presentation of a new bike earlier this month, quite frankly is not likely to be in the title race.

Kevin Strijbos was a deserved winner at Lommel last August, but it was the only ray of light in an otherwise fairly dismal season and, approaching 32, he is the oldest factory rider in the pack and only kept his ride because he had a two-year deal and Stefan Everts couldn’t find anybody else.

Team No.2 Arminas Jasikonis has always been a short-term solution until the team can find a new title sponsor to pay for a front-line man.

So what of the team No.2s?

Top man in the warm-up races has been Jeremy Van Horebeek and the Belgian showed in 2014 that he is not far off as he raced to the series silver medal. 

The ‘Jerre’ had a turbulent time as the combined pressure of being first chaser and demoted from team leader by the whirlwind named Febvre took their toll. 

But he is back to the consistency which saw him post 11 consecutive podiums three years ago.

That extra speed, which can come with the confidence of a solid 

early season run, could put him in the hunt.

Evgeny Bobryshev was once Honda’s great hope, but injury reasons took away the edge and the amiable Russian is simply not far away, but not quite on Gajser’s pace.

Glen Coldenhoff, a GP winner on Suzuki, is another so near yet so far from the very top. And No.2 at De Carli is number two.

That built-in bias is not apparent at Kawasaki, and it will be interesting to see how Jordi Tixier fares. 

The stylish French rider probably misses the last ounce of commitment, but he ended his first half-season on a 450 in superb form at the Manufacturers Cup.

Max Nagl confirmed his team leader status at IceOne when he swept Hawkstone, but he cannot rest on his laurels. Gautier Paulin only managed one good moto so far, but he must drag himself out of the 2016 doldrums if he wants to keep a factory ride. Hopefully his own desire is back.

Max Anstie, third man in the pack, has made a resounding start to his 450 career and is clearly free of the bad winters, which affected his early form in his last two MX2 campaigns. The reality check will come in Qatar and Indonesia when he faces a full line-up of rivals. 

Hopefully his head will be free because Max often appears to ‘think’ too much. 

He certainly needs to put Herlings out of his head. Max never beat his Dutch buddy in MX2, his six GP wins through 2015/16 all coming when Jeffrey was absent from the entry list.

Anstie (above) is the only full factory Brit in MXGP this year, but half of the top six in factory-support rides come from these shores.

British champion Tommy Searle stays at DRT Kawasaki for a second year and will be hoping for the better starts so imperative at MXGP. The Glen Helen knee injury has restricted his winter preparation, but he should be back to lower leader-board pace by the opening GPs and, given a good run overseas, hopefully turn up the pace in Europe.

Shaun Simpson switches camp for the third year in a row, but the Scot is solidly embedded in the world top ten and already showed his liking for the YZ450F in 2013, when he scorched to that historic Lierop win.

More GP victories cannot be discounted but with his best chance coming at the sand rounds Shaun faces even stiffer opposition to top the box this time around.

Jake Nicholls sat out overseas last year as he recovered from injuries. The East Anglian will benefit from continuity in his second year at Hitachi and the in-family switch from blue and yellow to orange should not be a problem. Confidence-boosting scores at the first four rounds will be a base for more.

Stand-out riders amongst a motley crew of continentals are the Estonian veteran Tanel Leok and the Swiss duo of Arnaud Tonus and Valentin Guillod. 

Returning from a torrid two years in the USA, Tonus will feature in a team-internal tussle for supremacy at Wilvo Yamaha if he can avoid sickness, but it remains to be seen if the ‘King of Scrub’ can continue to flourish in the inexperienced Italian Honda squad he has landed this year. Tanel – top on the flying lap in sand. Ken De Dycker returns with Suzuki, but his days are clearly numbered.

MX2 CLASS

Never has it been more difficult to predict a class than MX2 in 2017. 

The departure of the dominant Herlings and even his closest chasers Anstie and Ferrandis means that there will be just one rider at the gate in Qatar who has previously won a GP – Thomas Covington.

The American burst onto the GP scene with a stunning performance at Losail three years ago, but that was a rare highlight in an otherwise frustrating season that has been the hallmark of his entire GP career. 

His GP win in Mexico 2015 and his moto defeat of Herlings at Assen last summer both came out of the blue. 

Thomas needs consistency to challenge for a medal.

The other title candidates can be separated into several groups.Consistency was the key to both the Tixier and Gajser titles in 2014/15, and it also made the difference when the medals were handed out last year as both Jeremy Seewer and Benoit Paturel stood out through their regularity rather than impetuous sensations.

Each came desperately close to a victory last summer, but the simple fact is that neither of them has yet even won a moto. 

That particular entry on their CVs will have to come quickly if they are to reach for gold.

Seewer’s future is secure as he already has an MXGP contract at Suzuki for 2018, but he desperately needs an MX2 title at the last attempt and, despite his consistency, only two of his second place motos were achieved while Herlings was around.

Paturel too needs quick success. He came closest on home turf at St Jean d’Angely last year but will not face an opponent who can take four-seconds out of him in a single lap amongst the class of 2017.

The second group are the banzai boys, and no one epitomises this group better than Pauls Jonass. 

The Latvian will probably take some beating in sand this year, his technique is outstanding in loose earth, and his final ranking will undoubtedly depend on how well he bounces because it is difficult to envisage this all-action rider sticking in the saddle through all 38 motos.

Another to fit this bill is TM’s lone wolf Samuele Bernardini. 

Both bike and rider in the Italian set-up are phenomenally fast, but a 2016 season without a single 

top-three moto showed just how difficult they find it to stay glued together for even 35-minutes.

When it comes to experience Petar Petrov, entering his eighth full GP campaign, has to top the poll, but a rider who needed nearly seven years to make the podium is not going to be champion.

A first, or second, year hotshot is not unknown, but none of the current crop is another Roczen or Herlings. At the same time they do not face the high level of experienced opposition those two disposed of – so never say never.

Jorge Prado will probably win the season-long holeshot award, but the Spanish kid has proven last year and again in the warm-up races that he lacks stamina. Neither of Paturel’s Yamaha sidekicks – Brent Van Doninck or Alvin Ostlund – has confirmed early promise and, though running top ten, they may just be making up the numbers, while KRT’s move of base to southern France could go either way. Stephen Rubini has surely been pushed up to GPs too quickly as he skips EMX2, and Adam Sterry faces new challenges in switching bikes, base and language.

The Maxxis champion can gate and run the pace, but occasional overzealousness has meant he has rarely completed a season and Provence is a long way from home when you’re trying to heal up. It could go either way for Adam.

HRC can forget it with Michele Cervellin and Chichiro Notsuka, but Stefan Everts has signed up a string of young hopefuls, son Liam and Mickael Pichon’s boy Zach waiting in the wings as Bas Vaessen and Hunter Lawrence (right) join Seewer on the GP start-line.

The Dutch kid seems to fit the same mould as Davy Pootjes, now relegated to the B ranks after failing to put a season together at the top level, but the Australian, his kid brother another in the kids’ production line at Suzuki, has already given impressive hints that he could be THE discovery of 2017. 

If you’re looking for a long shot, bag Hunter.

Husqvarna hasn’t won a world title this century, but the effective steps taken by every managerial link in the chain gives the Mattighofen ‘B’ team a solid look.

Thomas Kjer Olsen whistled through EMX250 last year and was immediately top six in his late season transfer to the GPs. Personal trainer Rasmus Jorgensen remains at his side as a significant addition to the JM advisory ranks, and it will be interesting to see how some of the Dane’s advice can rub off on Conrad Mewse. 

The Somerset lad thrives on confidence and responds best to gentle persuasion. If handled properly, he could be a gem. That’s the end of the full factory set-ups, but could the lack of an outstanding figure open up the series to the best of the rest? 

Because the best support-team riders are good.

HSF sends Brian Bogers, Calvin Vlaanderen and Davy Pootjes into action, and the first two have the pace and stamina to run with anybody in the class. 

KTM might even have another iron in the fire from the support ranks as Julien Lieber returns in the family rig. It is his last year in class and his determination was evident at Malagrotta as he ran away with it in his first race for 18-months.

Australians Caleb Ward and Jay Wilson appear unlikely to follow in the footsteps of Dean Ferris just yet, and Ben Watson’s season will depend on how quickly he can regain regular race speed after his lengthy lay-off. If he can take up where he left off last March, top ten is possible.

Two danger men are left. Darian Sanayei has proven his gritty north-west background to hit podiums and then top step on totally strange tracks in last year’s EMX250 series and he has surely made a wise decision to join Steve Dixon rather than the French factory set-up. 

Darian is in the Lackey-Pomeroy-Parker-Schmidt mould, and those boys didn’t do too badly.

But we have left the best until last. If anybody is going to upset the factory apple cart this year it could well be Steve’s other boy Seva Brylyakov. 

The Russian slotted perfectly into the Dixon machine last year to quickly show consistency AND speed, the way he carved his way through the pack for his podium in Mexico was a revelation. 

Injury cut short his season but the boy from the edge of Siberia need fear no-one in the class now Herlings and Anstie are gone. Seva could be the latest in Steve Dixon’s long line of winners… and with no GP in Britain he can race the entire series.

Who’s going to grab gold in the autumn and have to wear a penguin suit in December? 

You pick – it’s a tough call in both classes…