MXGP

MXGP Review: Young-gun Gajser blows away MXGP old guard

MXGP Review: Young-gun Gajser blows away MXGP old guard

Alex Hodgkinson

Out with the old, in with the new! Romain Febvre was MXGP champion as a rookie in 2015 and the 2016 series continued the trend as Tim Gajser followed suit.

Is the old guard done, or can experience rebound and put the new generation in their place next season?

Many onlookers in 2015 had tried to pretend – wrongly – that the Frenchman had ‘got lucky’ when so many of the older generation self-ignited, but there was nothing ‘lucky’ about the way the young guns tore them apart this summer.

It was round seven in Germany before Tony Cairoli won a moto, as Gajser and Febvre shared 11 of the first 12 victories. 

Yes, they were on the edge – but so is everyone else in MXGP nowadays.

It’s not a matter of who can avoid crashing, in the end the title comes down to who can bounce best! 

Febvre escaped with a shaking in Spain before his Waterloo at Matterley left Gajser to ride it home, and four straight wins for the Slovenian teenager completed a mid-summer seven out of eight to leave the rest reeling. 

Max Nagl already admitted in June: “I’m after a medal but the only chance of the title is if Tim gets hurt!”

And the Honda saviour didn’t get hurt, nothing serious anyway – though he came mighty close on more than one occasion. 

He just bounced well… until the title was in the can anyway.

His eventual winning margin was 84 points but seven GP overalls, 14 motos and 13 straight podiums from the first 14 GPs meant he came within a whisker of sewing things up three from the end, before his only zero score of the campaign delayed the inevitable by six days. 

Gajser was a worthy champion, just as Febvre was in 2015, and the old guard are starting to look it.

The signs were there already from the first day of the season. Many of the main contenders had been at the training tracks together but training is all about flexing the muscles and testing different settings. 

Even the first warm-up race can generally be taken with a pinch of salt as far as the results are concerned, but Gajser and Febvre stamped their authority on the year from the moment the gate dropped at Alghero on the last Sunday of January.

The Slovenian had been the last survivor to snatch the MX2 title the previous year and many felt his decision not to defend was simply a way to avoid going backwards in the rankings if Herlings stayed in one piece.

But from the moment he stepped on to a 450 full-time, TG243 drilled home just how much talent he has. 

That MX2 title might have been ‘lucky’ but he achieved it on a turkey and the CRF450R is finally a missile in the right hands.

It had been a long road, but HRC technicians had been doing their homework during the winter. 

Already in the autumn it was clear that the envisaged ‘new bike’ was not going to be ready and everything they have learned by trial and error over the three previous seasons had been put into effect on the existing model – and they had a kid to exploit it.

When Tim hit the front on Sardinia everybody nodded and waited for him to get hauled in or bounce, but he just kept increasing his lead lap after lap for half the race. 

An immaculate Febvre, who had already eaten up every other front-liner with contempt, pulled him back in strides in the second half but Tim had not blown himself up, it was the clutch.

The HRC blinds came down during the interval and the red jackets were huddled together, but Papa Bogo was pulling no punches and letting all and sundry know that this was not the first time the clutch had fried last winter. 

Not very PC, but HRC know what they have with their golden boy and his dad, who is on a relatively long leash.

The remainder of the warm-up programme was fairly tame other than the first injuries. Febvre the worst affected as he got run over at round two in Italy and sat on the couch until Qatar. 

Evgeny Bobryshev and Jeremy Van Horebeek controlled the Internazioli d’Italia, but together they only garnered eight moto podiums through the entire 34-moto GP campaign – and two of those came for Bobby at the unsophisticated Losail opener.

The Russian shared top honours all weekend with double winner Gajser and his shadow Febvre, as Cairoli and Nagl were tailed off, and Clement Desalle gritted his teeth to pass the ‘ten press-ups’ medical and ride a handful of laps with his broken forearm pinned together to claim a couple of points in a 20-rider field. It proved a fruitless plan as he could only have advanced one place to seventh in the final standings even if he had not got hurt again in May.

Those ‘in the know’ nodded as Gajser’s form was moderate in Thailand, but there again, he avoided a drop for dehydration this year.

Febvre was overwhelming to regain his red plate while Shaun Simpson and Tommy Searle maintained their solid starts to the campaign, before a full gate gathered for round three at Valkenswaard over Easter.

There were no shocks. Wildcards are not on the pace of the GP regulars – sand expert Harri Kullas was best with an 11th on his world 450cc debut – as Gajser and Febvre split the wins, while Nagl and Cairoli split the seconds.

Simpson maintained his sequence of top-ten finishes despite a stomach virus, which inevitably hindered his usual sand attack, while Searle was pleasantly fast for sand, only to lose out when the DRT Kwacker ran dry on the final lap.

Jake Nicholls joined the fun but, like the majority of the non-regulars 

stuck in Europe through the wet remnants of winter, was inevitably missing race-pace for more than a handful of points.

After the short interlude back at home-base the big guns were back on the trail in select fields for the next two overseas rounds in Argentina and Mexico.

Nagl showed his liking for Angostura with a patented run-and-hide win in the first moto in the Andes, but the defending champion and the champ-to-be were back on it in race two, only a gritty Cairoli offering resistance.

The Italian was struggling out of the gate in Mexico and the track winding through the cactus groves is not expedient to chargers. 

Moto scores of 6-9 saw the eight-times champ dropping off the pace as Gajser strode to his third overseas win out of four. Even Febvre  was unable to match his pace. Only a damaged radiator shroud which fouled the steering on the Honda gifted the Yamaha a consolation moto win. 

Searle and Simpson were getting back to speed, though the Scot was a little worse for wear at the end of the day after being slammed by Lupino when he slipped off.

Febvre had been the hero of Kegums in 2015 as he saved his podium with a controlled charge from 30 seconds off second last, but Yamaha were struggling this year. 

Experimental settings restricted him to fifth in moto one and he only won race two courtesy of an incident, which could so easily have heralded a premature end to Gajser’s title ambitions.

He had led home Nagl in race one and Cairoli again had no answer to them in race two as the exhuberant Gajser once more forced his way into the lead. Exuberant – or over-exuberant?

The track finally bit him hard and Nagl slammed straight into the stricken Honda and its rider. Both could so easily have been done for 2016, but both got lucky. The German was soon on his feet to regain fourth but the lack of an electric-starter cost Gajser an eternity and he was eventually 23rd when the ‘Red Rocket’ fired up again.

He wasn’t making friends with his rude passes but polite guys don’t win titles and as the race entered the closing laps the pitboard went out – ‘Nagl’.

Half-a-lap from the finish Gajser swept past to steal his fourth GP win in six rounds – and close to within a point of series leader, Febvre.

Collisions cost both Simpson and Searle and a burnt-out clutch put a zero on the Englishman’s card, while Nicholls was still discovering the pace – actually surrendering points in the opener when he went off too conservatively and left himself with too much to do in the final stages when he still had something in the tank.

Contact

It had become evident to Cairoli that he had to dig into his bag of tricks to combat the youthful duo up front and the amiable but sly fox unsettled both of them one week later at Teutschenthal.

The new generation were blaming each other after contact gifted Cairoli pole on Saturday, and the Italian, sniffing his chance, immediately unsettled Febvre on race day when he nicked the gate of second-placed Van Horebeek, who in turn settled into Febvre’s spot. 

The clouded animosity in the Rinaldi awning increased as they touched halfway around the opening lap, and Febvre only just salvaged a top-ten finish at the flag.

Gajser was keen to take full advantage and twice surged past Cairoli, experimenting with new engine and suspension parts, for the lead – but each time the Italian put the teenager in his place. 

‘Hard but fair’ was the recipe and the Honda kid lost his rhythm and contact with the flying KTM.

A still-rattled Febvre had no answer to the Italian in race two and it was left to Bobryshev to keep ‘TC’ on his toes as Gajser had to bounce back from an early slip. 

But the red plate was in the red corner and Febvre had a torrid next few weeks as the pressure of seeing his reign usurped grew.

His confidence restored, Cairoli made it two in a row in Trentino as each of his younger rivals tumbled off twice, and tempers flared again as the series hit halfway in Spain.

Cairoli was struggling with his starts at Talavera.

But the Italian severely dented Febvre’s title hopes and inadvertently gifted Gajser a substantial points lead when he clipped the Frenchman’s arm as he tried to stand up from an incident with Gautier Paulin and Simpson, after the Scot’s KTM had shed its chain during qualification.

The Frenchman was at the hospital by the time the race ended, but was granted permission to race next day to restrict his losses to 20.

And the next round on home turf saw ‘Le Petit Prince’ rebound for his third win of the campaign after sharing top points with Gajser, while Cairoli struggled with his starts again.

The Brits were not having a happy month. Simpson had to sit out St Jean d’ Angely with the hand injury, which cost him the Maxxis, Searle had a disconcerting moment when the brake line was severed and another rock ripped out the electronics on Nicholls’ Husky.

Matterley was to prove decisive!

KTM gating was up and down, while HRC had it taped week in, week out but Yamaha was in trouble again and Febvre was consistently faced with a lot of work. An early incident during qualification made his dilemma even more problematic and the champion was ragged as he tried desperately to earn the decent gate so necessary at the Hampshire bowl.

The race was halfway run as he strived to get back into the top ten, his front wheel coming together with Townley – and the Frenchman went down like a sack of spuds. 

It was an innocent enough looking tumble, which could have ended without consequence but Romain banged his head – hard!

FIM doctor, David McManus, had seen with his own eyes that the Frenchman had been out cold for a minute and hospital scans confirmed that Yamaha No.461 would not be allowed to start next day – “and he’s not racing next week either”.

Febvre himself admitted a month later that he had been in no state to race in the meantime, and he struggled for consistency on his return, but the title was long gone anyway.

He set his sights on preserving his other gold medal at the Nations, a task he achieved with an outstanding performance to confirm that he will be back in 2017.

Gajser was on a crest of a wave. He was invincible at Matterley, sweeping past rivals, even Cairoli, with contempt as they tried in vain to block his lines. 

Mantova a week later was the same story as the quick-learning teenager refused to be intimidated by Cairoli.

The line-up was back to full strength at Loket after the summer break and IceOne had spent the intervening weeks finding their gating advantage again for Nagl.

The German won three straight motos in the Czech Republic and at Lommel, but he had exited the chase for the title itself mid-summer and Gajser could continue to extend his points lead with two times second at Loket and victory in the other moto in the Flemish sand. 

His only blip was a 15th at Lommel after losing more than a minute when the CRF proved reluctant to fire into life. The E-starter will be optional on the 2017 production bike, but you can bet the champion will have one on his!

Simpson, free of sickness or injury for the first time all summer, scored one flowing second at Lommel as he strived to retain his world top-ten ranking, although a take-out by Febvre in race two cost the Scot the podium. 

Niggling mechanical issues continued to hamper Searle but Nicholls was on it after a holeshot in race one, until impetuosity cost him a top-ten score.

Gajser again had the angels on his side as he escaped from a big one in Switzerland to even salvage another podium with a win in race two, while Cairoli, back on the 450 after a torrid time with the 350 in Loket and Lommel, kept the series just about open with a win despite a collision with a lapper.

The final GP in Europe was in Assen and theoretically Gajser had the chance to wrap it up if he could outscore Cairoli over the weekend. It was a longshot in beach sand at the best of times against the Italian, and the Saturday night deluge made the artificial track even more demanding.

Simpson was imperious as he shot past the rest of the world elite with disdain to win the opener, but a long pitstop to realign the forks in race two just about summed up his year and handed an unexpected overall to Desalle by a point from Cairoli.

Gajser lost count of how many times he fell on his way to 12th in race one and his second effort was even more wilfully negligent as he unnecessarily crashed onto the concrete, thankfully only demolishing the radiator.

The pressure was now on to avoid a last-round nerve-wracker at Glen Helen but the final twist came when a steady fourth in moto one was more than enough to seal the title, as Cairoli had picked up a flu bug in-flight. 

But the celebrations fell flat as HRC had to wait for ‘TC’ to trail in 13th before they could pop their corks.

It had been a long season with little left to fight for by the time the two US rounds came along.

But that can take nothing away from the fact that Eli Tomac was on a different planet both in Charlotte and Glen Helen. Tomac’s second moto in California was unreal. He had momentarily lost traction after contact with a rival halfway up the longest climb on the opening lap and came round a lowly 14th, but his SX skills through the rhythm sections were astounding. 

On a single straightaway he could gain three seconds and by half-distance he was already clear of the pack.

Kawasaki, after two torrid MXGP seasons, went into the winter with victory in each of the last three GPs.

Inspired to at least put on a show Cairoli, Gajser and Nagl went at it hammer and tongs for second, while Simpson did enough to conserve the No.10 plate and Searle had one of his best races of the year for seventh ahead of Dean Wilson in race one.

A gritty Cairoli, battling a fracture in the elbow which may never heal, salvaged second in the world.

Gajser and Febvre are faster if they can complete the season.

And a certain Master Herlings proved at both the Nations and the SMX Cup that he can be faster than the pair of them on a 450, just as he had been in their MX2 days.

It’s a new game now and the tarot cards are predicting a third rookie champion in a row!