The demanding sandy terrain of Lommel was no obstacle for Red Bull KTM Factory Racing as Jeffrey Herlings produced a heroic performance to finish second overall at the Grand Prix of Belgium and the sixth round of the 2021 MXGP world championship.
Lommel remains the reference for Grand Prix sand tracks. The loose Belgian surface close to the Dutch border is notoriously deep, rough and technical and places an extreme test on both man and machinery.
The sixth round of MXGP was also the third consecutive weekend of racing for the teams and riders of the two GP classes and the climate was cool, overcast and rainy.
Less than two weeks after fracturing his left shoulder blade in a racing incident at the Dutch Grand Prix and after sitting out the Czech round seven days ago, Jeffrey Herlings elected to attempt Lommel late on Saturday afternoon.
The 2018 MXGP World Champion is a renowned sand rider and wanted to keep his hand in the 2021 title dispute. The 26-year-old was a 10th of a second from securing Pole Position in Timed Practice and then slotted into second place on the first lap of the opening moto.
He chased Romain Febvre for 10 of the 15 laps and maintained his pace to eventually take the lead and win his third consecutive race by a comfortable 28 seconds.
Torrential rain fell during the moto and continued sporadically into the second motos. Herlings was unlucky to tangle with Glenn Coldenhoff three corners into the second start. The incident meant he had to cut through from the lower reaches of the top 20 and reached as high as fifth before he ran out of energy and momentum.
The one-five was still sufficient for the second step of the podium and means he sits fifth in the standings, 42 points from first.
Jeffrey Herlings: “We didn’t ride much in practice but we had a good gate pick and then in the first moto Romain had really good pace, so I just sat there to save energy. As everybody knows, I broke my shoulder blade and it’s not normal to be riding again in 13 days. I didn’t know if my speed would fade because the track was so rough and hard on the body. At one point I felt I could run a faster pace. I passed Romain and made a gap.
“I started well in the second moto – fourth or fifth I think – but came together with Glenn going for an inside line. It was a shame to be last but I fought my way back to fifth… then I faded! I couldn’t hold onto the bike that well and I didn’t want to make a big crash. To go one-five is a good day. One week ago we thought the championship was over – and I still need to hunt down the points – but 42 points is not too bad and there are still a lot of races and options ahead. 42 away is not where I want to be but if I had this offer a week ago I would have signed for it.”
Jorge Prado was buried outside the top 10 at the launch of the first moto and rode consistently to move his way to sixth. The Spaniard started better and rode strongly at the front to post third place later in the day. The six-three meant he settled in fourth for the Grand Prix.
Jorge Prado: “I’m very happy about today. I feel that we progressed a lot on the physical side. We raced on a track that was not typically what we find here. It was very bumpy from the support races yesterday and, already from Timed Practice, it was so rough. We just had to survive out there. I would have liked to have been ‘on the box’ but a small crash in the second moto did not make it easy. I made a few small mistakes and had to re-group to catch people. I could not make it happen but I’m happy.”
Just behind him in fifth was Tony Cairoli. The three-time winner of the event at Lommel won a close battle with Pauls Jonass and Jeremy Seewer to finish third in the first moto. In the second Cairoli struggled a bit more to find his rhythm and took seventh.
Cairoli is third in the world championship standings, only five points from Prado in fourth and with four riders split by just 14 in what is proving to be a tight and unpredictable contest so far.
Tony Cairoli: “I didn’t have a good feeling on the track during practice and was struggling to find a rhythm and the lines. I was patient in the first moto and waited a little bit because I could see that Jeffrey and [Romain] Febvre had gone. It started raining very heavily so I decided to try and see if I could make third place. I was riding smart, and third was okay.
“The track was getting very wet in the second moto and I always struggle a bit in the sand in these types of conditions. It gets very heavy, and you need to ride with a lot of power and strength, which is not really my style. I didn’t really find the flow and had a bad start so had to work through the pack. I finished my roll-off behind [Arminas] Jasikonis and just had to take seventh.
“The championship is very close. The result was okay today – even if we didn’t make the podium – but I’m not happy with my riding. It should have been better for this surface. We rode defensive today and not really what I enjoy on these types of tracks.”
Winner of the previous round in the Czech Republic, Mattia Guadagnini, was the fastest of the three KTM 250 SX-F riders in Timed Practice and clocked the sixth-best lap-time. The Italian was unlucky to fall on the first turn of Moto 1 and performed well to return from last position to 14th. Riding sore from the crash the rookie didn’t start so well in Moto 2 and pushed to 10th for 12th overall. Guadagnini is second in the championship standings by 26 points.
Mattia Guadagnini: “Not the best day for me. I was feeling good in the first moto and had a strong start but I braked too hard in the first corner and I think I touched Tom. The bike went sideways and it was a big crash. I hurt my right arm. I just tried to save the race and to save some points and in the end it was not so bad. I was missing some strength for the second race because of all the energy I used for the comeback in the first one. I was trying not to crash again. So, not a great GP but Lommel is done for this year! We’re still 2nd in the championship and there are many motos to go.”
MX2 world champion Tom Vialle was the highest-ranked KTM rider on the day in seventh overall. In just his second Grand Prix after returning from a right hand injury, Vialle took fourth in the first moto. The Frenchman is still missing quality training time in the saddle but was accomplished enough on the sand to run with the leaders.
He lacked stamina in the second moto and also had a small crash that caused him to lose positions from sixth to 10th. He completed the 30 minutes and two laps in 11th.
Tom Vialle: “Seventh is not what we want but after the injury I have not ridden in the sand for a long time. I tried twice this week but it wasn’t going too well with my hand. In another way, I’m quite happy because my hand came through the motos well. We can build from here. I was already tired at the start of the second moto and the track was really tough today. If you are not ‘bike fit’ then it is extra difficult here. I think I would have enjoyed today a lot more if I had that fitness. I know from here we will be a bit better every day
“We will train hard this week and I know I will be 100 per cent by the time we go to Turkey.”
Rene Hofer didn’t enjoy the best of starts in the first race but reached as high as eighth before being swamped by pursuers in the final laps and finished 11th. The Austrian was right behind Vialle in the second moto and left Lommel with 10th overall in the GP classification.
Rene Hofer: “They call it the toughest GP of the year and it was, for sure!
“The rain did not make it any easier. I got pushed out at the start of the first moto and I was quite far back. I made it to 11th in the end but I wasn’t riding so good.
“The second moto was a lot better but the crash at the beginning was very ‘expensive’. It cost me time and positions, even if afterwards my riding was a step in the right direction. I just need to improve my sand skills and it’s something I aim to do year-by-year. I feel that I can be more competitive at Kegums next week.”
The flurry of four Grands Prix in four weeks will come to a close with the trip to the Kegums circuit and Latvia in the coming days. Kegums promises another sandy challenge, but the ground is harder and slicker than the surface encountered at Lommel.