The MXGP of Pays de Montbeliard was the final round of the 19 stops on the MXGP tour. Starting in February in Qatar and criss-crossing the world for seven months.

The second French GP of the year on the hard-packed hillside track at Villars-sous-Ecot in eastern France, near the Swiss border would wrap things up with the MX2, EMX250 and WMX championships all up for grabs.

A track for the ‘old school’ fans, swooping up and down the hillside with some huge step-up doubles and across the plateaus some wave and jump combinations all surrounded by woodland, my favourite track this year.

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The British domestic season was finished a couple of weeks ago so a number of riders have taken the opportunity to get a wild-card entry to the last round of MXGP in various classes.

MXGP

The MXGP title was decided in the first race at Assen last weekend, Antonio Cairoli winning his ninth title. Max Anstie, Shaun Simpson and Tommy Searle lined up for the last time, joined by Dan Thornhill on his Cab Screens Husqvarna. Playing down his expectations on social media, we spoke on Friday as he was arriving. “Lee Webber from Cab Screens offered me this opportunity and it was too good to turn down. I’ve got mixed emotions, I’m not sure if I’m ready or not. I’m staying with the team next year so we’ll see how it goes”. MXGP regular Ryan Houghton was absent, deciding to call time on his GP racing this year after Assen.

After a frustrating weekend at Assen, Shaun Simpson said he had gone back to some older settings on the bike. The plan was to use the last few races to get the bike ready for next year but he said he was frustrated trying to test and race at the same time.

After Tommy Searle crashed out of Assen, limping away with a damaged ankle, it was good to see him walking around the paddock. The rumour mill had been in full swing with the MXoN only 2 weeks away and speculation about his fitness. Would Conrad Mewse be getting a call?

Romain Febvre is like royalty to the French MX fans, who were ecstatic when he was fastest in timed practice, with Anstie seventh. In the qualifying race, Anstie took the holeshot after hugging the inside line.

A race long duel with Febvre ended when the French favourite made a couple of mistakes near the end for Anstie to pounce and take his maiden qualifying win. In the post-race interview, he said it was his best race ever. He said “I was nervous when Febvre was behind but once Febvre passed me I relaxed, rode the ruts well and it felt good to take the win”. Behind Anstie, it was Simpson 14th, Searle 21st and Thornhill 25th. Not a great day to be a mechanic, most taking over forty minutes just to power wash the clay covered bikes.

Sunday started with more rain, consequently only half the riders bothered with the warm-up session and those who did only managed a couple of laps. Tommy Searle elected not to race, his sore ankle better off being rested with the MXoN only 2 weeks away and nothing to gain by racing.

Race 1 started with the whole field foregoing the sighting lap. The first corner had been groomed as well as possible but still looked like a ploughed field as Anstie took the holeshot. Gasjer slipped around the inside to lead the race from start to finish. Febvre and Coldenhoff also passed Anstie, who would retake Coldenhoff and battle with Febvre. A decent start for Simpson was undone on the first lap as he came round near the back, with Dan Thornhill also outside the top 20. Simpson would work back up to 15th.

With 3 laps to go, Herlings was on Anstie’s rear wheel and dived past with an inside rut around turn 2. Cairoli was in ninth but lapped by Gajser and Febvre, the newly crowned champ not enjoying the conditions. Anstie stayed strong to finish fourth.

Race 2 started under bright skies, the MX2 boys having dried the track enough for some good racing, albeit with some slippery, deep mud still off line. Another great start by Anstie, he passed Herlings past the mechanics’ area and the 2 set off, pulling out 30 seconds on third place by the end. Herlings stalked Anstie, staying back a couple of seconds until just after half distance when he accelerated past Anstie on the big downhill. Anstie fought back, retaking the lead and the battle was on.

Anstie held his lines and his pace, and when Herlings dropped his bike in a slow right-hander it looked to be over, Herlings now 7 seconds behind. Rain was now falling heavily turning the track into a grease bowl, Anstie taking it steady Herlings charging, he took back the 7 seconds in 2 laps. With 3 laps to go, Herlings jumped past Anstie on the plateau rhythm section, but Anstie wasn’t done as he stalked Herlings, showing him a wheel until a mistake on the last lap gave Herlings the edge. As Herlings took victory he waited to congratulate his rival, Anstie taking second in the race and third overall.

All the action at the front meant that Simpson’s race to eleventh was overshadowed. Still needing to get the bike properly set up, the last couple of GP’s had left Simmo “frustrated”. Results are however subjective, and Dan Thornhill was delighted to finish 18th and claim 3 championship points.

I spoke to Dan Thornhill about his experiences at his second ever MXGP. “I felt nervous in the first practice, but loosened up for the timed practice. When I did Matterley last year I was about ten second off the leader, here I was down to about 6 seconds. In Qualifying I was about 18th and felt OK but made a mistake with about 4 laps to go, nearly crashed and ended up 25th”. With the races turning into a battle just to get around, had it given him the urge to do more GP’s next year? “Definitely! I’m hoping to do 3 next year, I haven’t slept for 2 days I was that excited”. With 3 points in the bag he probably didn’t sleep much after the GP, well done Dan!

MX2

In MX2 the battle at the front was between Jeremy Seewer and Pauls Jonass. With a 41-point advantage it was Jonass’ title to lose. A rejuvenated Conrad Mewse had his best race of the year in Assen even though he faded near the end, whilst Ben Watson suffered a DNF in race 2 when his bike stopped. With Mewse and Ben Watson both rumoured to be changing teams in the off-season, both wanted to leave on a high. Joining them for his first shot in MX2 was Brad Todd.

Having agreed a deal with i.Fly JK Yamaha for next year in EMX250, the team offered him a shot at MX2. “I’ve had 2 weeks to prepare so we’ll just see how the weekend goes. The plan next year is to do the early Italian championships, the British championship and EMX250 but if I win this weekend they may keep me in MX2” said Todd, with a smile on Friday.

After having free and timed practice in bright sunshine, the qualifying race was out after the WMX race 1 which ran in a heavy downpour. With the track already greasy, a further shower made conditions even more treacherous. Hunter Lawrence took the hole shot and led start to finish, the clear track being the advantage he needed. Watson started eighth but a mistake sent him back to 17th, Mewse went down on lap 1, pitted for fresh goggles but ended 19th and Brad Todd rode a steady race, benefitting from a couple of fallers to end in 22nd.

As with the MXGP class, most of the riders skipped Sunday warm-up and their sighting lap, nothing to be gained by getting covered in clay. Race 1, and Mewse had a terrible start but was able to end lap 1 in 14th, eventually stopping on lap 7 he was credited with  17th place. Brad Todd’s race ended on the first lap, getting stuck in the ruts at the top of the first hill, he was unable to restart the bike. Watson had a decent first lap in tenth and just stayed upright, not really pushing but trying to limit any mistakes, he came home eighth.

Plastered in mud afterwards he said “I just tried to stay on. I crashed with 3 laps to go and lost a place to Olsen. The downhills were worse than the up hills; with both brakes on you just get faster then there’s loads of ruts at the bottom”.

The hour-long gap between first and second races let the organisers scrape some of the muck off the track but it was still slippery and unpredictable off the drying line. At the front in race 2, Covington, Bogers, Lawrence and Seewer battled as if the championship depended on it, Lawrence finally prevailed over Covington, with Seewer crashing back to fifth on the last lap. Watson and Mewse were together for the whole race, working past Gole and Klingsheim to finish 15th and 16th respectively.

With Watson rumoured to be riding a Kemea Yamaha next year and Mewse replacing him at Hitachi there was the small matter of the championship, just for bragging rights really; Ben just edged Conrad by 3 points. Brad Todd was around 22nd for half the race, until he retired.

Afterwards Todd was philosophical about his first MX2 GP. “It’s been a big learning curve, I’m glad I did it now with the team to see how it all works under the awning and with the mechanics.

In free practice I had a problem with the rebound on the shock, in timed practice I didn’t know I needed a time for the qualifying race, then in qualifying I fell 5 times which is a record for me!” 2 DNF’s weren’t the debut he hoped for but with the conditions being such a lottery it was a bit unfair to expect too much, hopefully the experience will pay off next year.

WMX

The WMX was the closest competition for the title with 4 ladies within 5 points. Nancy vd Ven, Courtney Duncan, Livia Lancelot and Kiara Fontanasi have been the class of the field and realistically the championship would be decided by who manages their nerves the best.

There were 3 British ladies entered, Kathryn Booth, Stacey Fisher and Elaine MacEachern but none would figure in the championship battle, however each was looking to wrap up their season on a high. Booth was under the i.Fly JK awning for her second race on the Yamaha. “I didn’t get a chance to ride in the week but we flew down so that was good”. After looking at the track on Friday with the sun shining she said it was “better than I thought it would be after all the rain”.

The women don’t have to qualify, just timed practice. All eyes were on the 4 title leaders who filled the top 4 positions, while the Brits were 23rd (MacEachern, “I had a problem with the bike then the red cross flags were out so qualifying was cut short for me”), 25th (Fisher, “there’s lots of grip but its soft and bobbly in places”) and 28th for Booth.

The weather forecast said a 30 per cent chance of rain and as the women left the gate the rain started. With the 4 title leaders at the front, Booth was in eighteenth, Fisher in 25th and MacEachern in 26th.

Within a couple of laps MacEachern was out as a fall in one of the rutted turned damaged her shoulder, she left almost immediately for the thousand plus mile journey back to the west coast of Scotland. On lap 4 the heavens opened, turning the clay soil into a greasy, slippery mess and the race into a battle for survival. With most riders now without goggles, Courtney Duncan looked to have the race in the bag until the last lap.

As riders were piling up on the big up-hill in scenes reminiscent of the MXDN at Foxhill in ’98, Duncan got held up and went from first to sixth as Fontanesi won. Booth battled on for 19th and her first championship point. “She was beaming when she told me “I managed to stay on, that was the objective. I was cautious but tried to keep my speed up and choose good lines”. Stacey Fisher finished in 22nd, saying afterwards that she “enjoyed the race but got filled in and stopped on the hill”, losing a lap. The points gap at the top of the table was now van de Ven 215, Fontanesi 213, Lancelot 210, and Duncan 206, the last lap mistake probably costing her the championship.

The ladies were out again on Sunday morning, the heavy rain from Saturday evening still laying on the track as the clay soil didn’t drain. Half the women elected not to take their sighting lap to keep the bike clean for the start. The big hills at the end of the track that had caused so many problems in race 1 were cut out but there would still be carnage. From the start, it was the top 4 at the front, a second turn pile-up holding up half the field.

Kathryn Booth’s race would end within half a lap, a fall left her bike completely caked in clay and unable to move. Stacey Fisher’s first lap crash meant she was stuck for ages, pitting for new gloves she was credited with  17th but nine laps down.

At the front, it was again Courtney Duncan rising to the challenge. In the battle to survive she kept upright and incredibly lapped third place finisher Kiara Fontanesi. French lady Livia Lancelot had the crowd cheering as she kept a good pace, the only rider unlapped she would finish second. Van de Ven was looking good in second place for much of the race until getting stuck on the small hill, unable to get re-started.

She was credited with fifth place. With teams frantically doing the calculations, Fontanesi’s third place was enough to give her the world championship on 233 points with Lancelot second on 232 and Duncan and vd Ven on 231. It was a shame to end such a close fought championship in such a muddy mess but all credit to the top 4 who had been in a race of their own all season.

EMX250

Todd Kellett was looking to end his EMX250 campaign with a good result. Starting the year as a privateer with help from St Blazey Husqvarna, he switched to Hitachi KTM mid-season and this was his last ride for the team. 

Sitting in 13h spot but only 9 points away from tenth there was still plenty of incentive for the young Somerset man whilst Italian Morgan Lesiardo had a free ride to the title as his only rival Simone Furlotti was unable to race after crashing in Switzerland. Joining Kellett were Dylan Woodcock and Josh Spinks making their debut, Micky Eccles returning and James Dunn racing his 2-stroke.

Woodcock was also keen to play down expectations “I just want to qualify. So that I’m not watching on Sunday!” he said. Spinks was similarly humble in his ambitions. Dunn was on a fact-finding mission as GL12KTM team owner Bob Buchannan explained. “We let Lewis Gregory try it in Arco, Mike Kras and Brad tried it in Valkenswaard so it’s only fair to let James try it, then we can decide what he wants to do next year. You can ride a 2-stroke in the Dutch Championships so that might be something we want to try. But at the moment I don’t even know if we’ll be here next year, I haven’t got a deal sorted out for bikes!” It would be a shame if the giant killing team from Gloucester do disappear.

First out for practice and qualifying, the track was mostly perfect; tacky and grippy soil but very soft in a couple of corners. In group 1, Kellett qualified easily in 4th. He said, “I still get nervous but it’s a good nervous like anticipation rather than frightened”.

In group 2 it was mixed fortunes for the Brits. Spinks qualified in P2, “Flying laps aren’t really my thing, but something clicked, I found some lines and rode well. My second lap was my fast lap” he told me after.

James Dunn brought the 2-stroke home in fifth, happy with his performance but Dylan Woodcock didn’t achieve his ambition to qualify in twenty-fourth. When asked what happened he said “it’s a different world to the British. I got flustered when my name wasn’t in the top twenty, then I was just hitting corners and not taking the right lines”. Off to the last chance race, redemption came with a ninth place, enough to qualify as ten went through.

The first EMX250 race was last out on Saturday. With rain on and off all afternoon, the track was now rutted and slippery. Mixed fortunes for the Brits; Kellett got a terrible jump out of the gate then fell in turn 1, battled the conditions and competition but falling 2 further times to work his way up from nearly last to 17th at the flag. With gloves covered in mud from the falls and the bike weighing twice as much as usual a philosophical Kellett said “I think we better forget about that one”. Woodcock was clearly uncomfortable in his first European race and faded back to thirtieth. It was a better story for Spinks who took a great start and was initially sixth but passed a couple to finish fourth.

Dunn was riding a storming race, fourth on lap 1, he was in second place after twenty minutes and closing on leader Charboneau as rain beat down, getting within a couple of seconds. Charboneau held his nerve and with 3 laps to go and lappers coming into play he opened the gap out to win by ten seconds over Dunn.

Race 2 on Sunday started with drama for Dunn as he was left on the gate, his bike stopped because he hadn’t turned the petrol on. Eventually getting going, the chaos on the track meant he was up to ninth place in just 2 laps. Spinks had another great start and was running in third, while Woodcock was in 26th. Morgan Lesiardo had won the championship in the first race and showed exactly why he’s the champ leading the race until disaster struck on the last lap when his overheating Kawasaki came to a stop.

With Dunn up to fifth, he passed the fallen Josh Spinks on the hill, moving into fourth and putting him into first overall, he just needed to keep going for another 7 minutes plus 2 laps, he would inherit another place when Lesiardo stopped. It would be the first ever victory for a 2-stroke in the EMX250 class and yet another great result for GL12 KTM. Youthstream commentator Paul Malin described the ride as “historic and momentous”.

Spinks was still stuck on the hill as the rain started falling, his bike mired in clay. “I got cut up by a lapper at the bottom of the hill and he took the rut I wanted. I wouldn’t follow someone in those conditions so I chose a different rut to avoid following but didn’t have the speed. I was actually leading the overall at that time I found out after”.

Dylan Woodcock would retire, and the unlucky Todd Kellett didn’t even start, late into parc ferme with his bike by a minute, he was barred. The normally cheerful Kellett was definitely not a happy bunny, as his dad Nibs said it was all part of the learning.

Wrap up

It’s been a great year for the Brits in all the MX and EMX classes, probably Brad Anderson’s win in the EMX300 class has been the highlight along with GL12 taking on the big teams and showing what you can do with passion and teamwork.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the Brits abroad and what they’ve had to say about their races; I’d like to thank all the riders who’ve given me their time for an interview or quote to make these reports more personal.

Hopefully I’ll be back on the road next year with more insight and interviews until then enjoy your off-season after a busy year. Is it too early to wish you a happy Christmas?

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