Jake Nicholls spent 2013 on the edge of MX2 podium results. Last year, his last in the 250s before reaching 23 years of age, he made the breakthrough and sprayed champagne twice.
The Brit is the sole ‘rookie’ in the MXGP premier class in 2014 with the Wilvo Forkrent KTM team and on the 450SX-F and has produced some decent starts and promising speed in the first five rounds of 18 so far in the FIM Motocross World Championship campaign.
Nicholls rather modestly expected to be fighting for the top 15 in his first Grands Prix against Cairoli and co but his plans were thrown array slightly with a small back fracture prior to the opening meeting. “Coming into Qatar I had three weeks to fix a bone break that needed six, so it was damage limitation and I did not know what to expect,” he said. “I got through OK and with 10 points which I was happy with considering the pain. After those first two flyaways we had the first British Championship race and it helped me get confidence because I stepped it up a little bit. The Brazilian GP was the first time without pain killers.”
One of Nicholls’ best GPs so far was that damp affair in Beto Carrero for round three of MXGP. “I went from struggling with my back to struggling with the bike,” he begins. “I was so slow at the beginning of the year. My suspension was really soft because of my back but once I started to push it everything was totally wrong. I spent the Brazilian GP changing the bike and dealing with arm-pump. I cannot believe I got 11th in the first race and 10th in qualifying. Arm-pump on a 450 is a different level to that on a 250!”
Currently sitting 16th in the MXGP championship standings but just 39 points from the top 10 the articulate and friendly rider, who has been KTM mounted and Red Bull-backed (the only British motocrosser) for the last five years, is ideally placed to give some insight on the transition from MX2 to MXGP; a journey that at least seven of his former peers that are still in the 250s will have to make for 2015.
“Half a second in my lap-times in MXGP is the difference between 9th and 16th. It was like that in the 250s as well but you cannot take advantage in MXGP,” he explains. “In MX2 you could count on a few crashes or mistakes [from others] on the first laps. In MXGP everyone is ‘switched on’ and are all fairly experienced. You know that you have to make something happen. It won’t come around by chance or a crash.”
“Those bikes are so different, so powerful,” he continues. “On a track with grip like in Sevlievo [Bulgaria] you cannot hit a corner, clutch it and let the thing go. There is a lot more fluidity involved. A lot of people think it is the same on a 250 because you have to carry speed but you can be an animal on those things. In MXGP it is the bike that’s the animal!”
“I know I can ride a 450 well and I have more confidence on it than a 250,” he adds. “I speak a lot with Ben Townley [former world and AMA supercross lites champion] and all he ever says is ‘you gotta get a start’. No matter how fast you are in MXGP you need the start. In MX2 you can go like a nutter on the first few laps and you can get away with bouncing off banks and come through the pack. I tried that at Arco di Trento [Grand Prix of Trentino and round four] the other week in a big battle between five of us for 10th place, and after five minutes I just ‘locked-up’ with my arms and couldn’t ride any more. You cannot [ride like crazy] on a 450 and maybe that’s why Cairoli doesn’t like it and goes for the 350.”
Nicholls has placed that distinctive ’45’ near the front of the MXGP pack in several starts for the 2014 season and knows he has one element of the package in place. Again he emphasises the importance: “Getting a good start in MXGP is actually a lot harder than MX2.
“They [the other MXGP riders] are all dialled-in so well. They know their routine perfectly when the five-second board goes up but in MX2 it is more panicky. There are a lot less random holeshots in MXGP whereas in MX2 you might see a guy come from one of the outside gates.”
Despite the learning curve and the fact that Nicholls was pushed into MXGP due to his age when he was one of the leading names on the MX2 stage, the Englishman insists he feels at home in MXGP. The extra demands also more befitting his large physical frame.
“I’m enjoying riding and racing more than I ever have,” he says. “I’m 80 kilos now so I’m a bit bigger, stronger and healthier than I have been. In MX2 I was five less and a bit on the limit of being ill all the time.”