TT circuit Assen, aka “The Cathedral of motorcycling” hosted round 18 of MXGP.
The home of MotoGP and Superbikes may seem like an unlikely venue for a motocross GP but with the man-made track built around the final chicane and start/finish straight of the road racing circuit in front of a huge grandstand plus all the permanent facilities on site, it makes for a very spectator friendly event.
Max Anstie, Shaun Simpson, Tommy Searle and Ryan Houghton lined up in MXGP, with Ben Watson and Conrad Mewse in MX2.
This week also saw the WMX back in action with Kathryn Booth, Stacey Fisher and Elaine MacEachern lining up, Factory Phil Mercer raced in the single event Veterans world cup and in the final Honda EMX150 race Charlie McCarthy and Tobias Sammut competed.
With the track still soft and heavy, even the elite MXGP stars were caught out in free practice with most having a ‘moment’ somewhere. For example, Febvre was off the track, Coldenhoff had a flying ‘W’ and Simpson high sided in the wave section. Cairoli chose not to go out, saving himself and his bike for later.
Timed practice was much the same, with ruts even deeper. Herlings set a time 2.5 seconds a lap quicker than everyone else, with Anstie seventh, Simpson in tenth just one hundredth of a second behind Cairoli, Searle in eleventh and Houghton twenty ninth.
The qualifying race saw the deceptively tricky track still catching out the top boys, Herlings bobbling on lap 2 and losing a place briefly to Paulin before he blazed to the front, passing Gajser and setting the fastest lap. Shaun Simpson ran off the track and lost the front end on the paving, going down on his left shoulder. “It looked worse than it was” he said after, “it was just like slipping on ice”. He tried to continue with bent bars, but another crash and a clutch problem saw him DNF”.
Searle and Anstie started together in 16th and 17th respectively, moving up together for 11th (Anstie) and Searle 12th. Ryan Houghton had something of a breakthrough ride to finish in 19th, his first top 20 result in MXGP.
Cairoli could clinch the title in the first race, 96 points in front of Herlings meant a 16th place would do it even if Herlings won but Cairoli said in the press conference that he was going for the win. As the pack dived into the first bend Cairoli took the hole shot and within 3 laps was 6 seconds ahead of Herlings who was now in third. Max Anstie was solid in seventh with Simpson 15th and Searle 23rd after a horrible start.
At 12 minutes into the race, Anstie had passed Strijbos for sixth, Simpson was up to 13th and Searle had moved to 15th, but all eyes were on Herlings who was 5 seconds behind Cairoli. At 17 minutes, Cairoli looked over and seemed to let Herlings past, maybe wanting to see his lines and not risk pushing too hard, but promptly passed him back in front of the packed grand stand.
Van Horbeek took a horrendous kicker through the wave section that slammed him into the ground, Gajser did the same thing shortly after cartwheeling over the bars then getting drilled by his Honda, both resulting in a DNF and moving all the Brits up 2 spots. Anstie also passed Febvre to finish a very strong third.
With Herlings lapping up to eighth, Nagl took advantage of the blue flags and took Simpson who would finish 11th, with Searle fourteenth and Houghton just outside the points in 21st.
Herlings took the win, to the delight of the Dutch fans but that was eclipsed by Cairoli’s celebrations. He ghost rode his bike down the track and danced for joy, the whole KTM entourage clad in “World Champion” T-shirts there to greet him as flairs went off, air horns blasted and champagne sprayed.
The 2018 MXGP world champion, that’s nine for Cairoli and king for another year. In just over an hour and a half he would have to race again, just enough time to was the champagne out of his eyes.
For race 2, Cairoli lined up wearing number 1 on his front plate, but Gajser didn’t line up after his first race crash; he does seem to be jinxed at Assen. The race started with a pile-up in turn 2 that claimed Tommy Searle amongst others. Hopefully it was nothing serious but Tommy limped away, looking in some discomfort. Simpson was also held up by the crash but not involved in the pile of bikes and bodies, 21st at the end on lap 1. At the front, Nagl led for 2 laps until Herlings passed him and motored away, lapping up to 12th and 34 seconds ahead of second.
Anstie had another great start, and passed van Horbeek with 3 laps to go, then inherited a place when Cairoli tipped over in a slow rutted right hander, to give Max fourth, and third overall. He was actually tied on 38 points with Febvre but lost out on the tie break as Febvre had a better second race. Simpson worked through to 13th and Houghton finished 22nd.
Afterwards, an unhappy Simpson said “I just couldn’t get a flow. I got held up behind the pile-up in the second turn and went off track but I couldn’t get going or make the bike do what I wanted”. I asked about the track being graded too much as it seemed that everyone was flat out. “It was rough around the back, they never touched that so you could make passes there and the main straight was a good show for the spectators but you could still pass there”.
Rain was still falling quite heavily in free practice which saw a lot of riders limiting their laps and therefore the chances of getting hurt on the unpredictable track.
Still soft and deeply rutted in timed practice it was a KTM/Husky top 5 with Prado topping the list, Mewse in fourth and Watson in 12th.
An hour break before the MX2 qualifying race and a break in the weather gave the organisers time to grade the track, getting rid of the deepest ruts and slop that had covered the start straight. With perfect conditions, there was plenty of action. Championship leader Pauls Jonass crashed on lap 1, Leiber’s silencer fell off on lap 3 leaving him down on power and sounding more like a rat bike than a factory 250.
Conrad Mewse was eighth on lap 1 but put on a charge passing Bogers, Prado, Vlaanderen, Pootjes and Lieber on route to third place, giving Husky a 1-2-3 with Covington, Olsen and Mewse. Ben Watson had a steadier race, passing Fernadez on lap 2 then battling with Bogers to finish ninth. After the race, he said “I got a decent jump out of the gate but not so good around the first bend. I passed Bogers but he got me back when I dropped it in a right hander”.
Sunday warm up saw Mewse again flying, third fastest hut 3 tenths behind Seewer.
Clear blue skies and a freshly graded circuit meant the track was smooth and fast for the first MX2 race. It was the battle of the teammates up front as Jonass and Prado fought for the lead with Prado not pulling his punches. Showing a wheel to Jonass a few times it was obvious there were no team orders.
Husky teammates Covington and Mewse were fighting for third, a little more respectfully than the KTM duo in front. Another mid pack start for Watson in 14th, he would work his way past Fernadez, Poojtes and Ostlund for 11th place in an uneventful race. At the front, Mewse passed Covington on lap thirteen and set after Prado who was 2 seconds ahead and it looked like Mewse would catch him until he cross rutted a couple of laps later, crashing on his own and dropping back to eighth before retaking Olsen and Bogers for sixth place. Jonass took the win and shook Prado’s hand after the finish, obviously enjoying the battle and 1-2 KTM finish.
Race 2, and Conrad Mewse took the hole shot. Battling with Prado, he pulled a small gap and looked set for a run-away victory but it was not to be.
After 4 laps Prado re-grouped and passed Mewse, who hung on until half distance then started fading back, apparently just out of steam, he would finish 12th, while Prado took the win and overall. Ben Watson had been tenth until lap 15 in another uneventful race when his KTM stopped. Unable to restart the bike, his day was done. The team didn’t know the cause of the problem when I finished this report.
Veterans World Cup
The vets’ world cup is an open race with any displacement machine allowed, (except a 300 2 stroke for some reason) and were out first for practice on Saturday morning as the rain continued to beat down.
Riding his 250 2-stroke, Factory Phil used his experience and put in an early fast lap to claim third fastest time. An altercation with an overzealous Dutch official had fired him up (the disagreement was because he didn’t have a yellow number background on his bike).
Race 1 was just after lunch, incredibly under bright skies, the rain having thankfully abated but with the course still resembling a beach race it was a fight for survival. A flying start by Mercer put him in seventh place, quickly moving into sixth before losing his goggles at the end of lap 1. With no goggles, his lap times slowed but fortunately so did everyone’s as the battle was against the track rather than the other riders.
Race winner Niko Kalatie was penalised for passing on waved yellow flags and docked ten places after the race, elevating Mercer to fifth. After the race, and with sore eyes he said “I just got completely filled in and the sand got under the roll-offs and jammed them up, I had to take the goggles off, I couldn’t see anything”.
Sunday dawned with sunny skies and the track in perfect condition for race 2. Mercer got a good jump off the gate but was swallowed up into turn 1.
Taking a tight line then swooping around the outside in turn 2, Mercer was tenth. A battle of the 2-strokes commenced with 288, before Mercer started moving forward. His race wasn’t without incident, going off track and hitting a UFO banner (“I thought I was gonna die!”), then another buttock clenching moment approaching the finish line table top, he came home in fifth place and fourth overall.
After the race Phil said “I should’ve raced the 250 all year, it’s so much more aggressive than the 300. That’s a standard bike with a pipe. I was really enjoying that and feeling strong”.
Phil will be back next year, keeping the flag flying for all the 2-stroke fans and older guys in the EMX300, British 2-stroke and Vets.
The main disadvantage some of the women seem to have in these conditions is height, with quite a few crashes being slow speed tip-overs when their legs were too short to take a supporting dab. Scot Elaine MacEachern took a nasty tumble in the whoops in free practice but was uninjured.
Twenty-four-year-old engineer Stacey Fisher was riding her second WMX event. Preferring to ride the 125 she said “there’s no advantage out there on a 4 stroke, you have extra power but its heavier. I prefer the 125, I’m only light and when I raced the 4 stroke I didn’t really feel in control”.
Kathryn Booth was riding a JK i.fly Yamaha for the first time. “My deal with Pheonix Honda ended after Foxhills and JK asked if I would ride for them for the last 2 rounds”.
It was a bad first race for the British ladies. Stacey Fisher fared best in twenty second place, a big endo in the wave section sent her into the soft sand, hitting her chest on the bars and her face on the ground. Youthstream commentator Paul Malin had told her she needed to stand up more, he probably should have advised her to keep her weight back too. Fortunately, she was able to continue but was feeling sore on Saturday evening.
Elaine MacEachern was involved in a third turn melee that put her in last place with a bent gear lever. “I had to look down to see it to change gear. I tried bending it out but I couldn’t move it”, the result was a DNF after 5 laps.
Kathryn Booth only lasted 4 laps when her clutch went.
The championship battle is very tight after the first race, Courtney Duncan leading with one hundred and seventy-three points and a 3-way tie for second on one hundred and sixty-eight; everything to play for in the second race.
The partisan Dutch crowd went mad when home girl Nancy van der Ven took the lead. Duncan had a bad start that left her with work to do, and despite working up to third before another crash she came up short, losing the red plate to vd Ven by 2 points. To her credit, vd Ven won both races convincingly, the faster but crash prone Duncan will need to keep her cool at the final race next weekend in France.
The Britsih ladies had all finished outside the points. Elaine MacEachern, “Just a bad weekend”, crashed on lap 3 when her line converged with another rider’s, and ended up winded, under the bike. Another crash in a deep rut left her frustrated at underperforming.
Stacey Fisher was feeling sore after her first race crash, tried to save some energy by not pushing too hard early on. Frustrated after the race, she was also unhappy about the format. “When we started racing WMX it was the same format at MX2 with more practice and qualifying, now it’s just the same as EMX and we get scheduled at stupid times!”
Kathryn Booth’s Yamaha debut didn’t go as planned. A crash left her with twisted bar clamps, and a pit stop put her 2 laps down. With the bars still twisted she couldn’t ride in a straight line and 4 more crashes ended “my worse weekend of the year”.
Fortunate scheduling meant the Honda 150 riders actually benefitted from better track conditions than the other support races, but it’s still very challenging for the smaller wheels in the deep sand.
Charlie McCarthy scored another championship point with twentieth whilst Tobias Sammut suffered a DNF when his clutch went. Neither lad was able to add to their points tally in race 2.
Tobias finished 23rd in the championship and I asked him about his experience.
“I’ve really enjoyed it. I knew it would be tough with the lads from all over the world but it’s been a great experience. We’re all on the same bikes so you know you can do what the leader is doing. Sweden was my best result but I’ve enjoyed all the tracks, and I wouldn’t complain about going out early or late, that’s just how it is and it’s the same for everyone. I definitely want to come back next year, then move up to EMX250”.
Next week, the MXGP circus moves to Villars-sous-Ecot in eastern France for the last dance of the year. There’s still plenty to be decided with MX2, EMX250 and WMX titles yet to be clinched, and with rain forecast all week it could be a bit slippery on the hard-packed hillside circuit. Check in next week to find out how the Brits got on.