Red Bull KTM’s Tony Cairoli came close to his first victory on the 350SX-F for two years (but still snared his first podium finish with the 2017 version of the bike) at Lommel for the Fiat Professional Grand Prix of Belgium last weekend.
It was in the Limburg sand in 2014 that Cairoli last trod the top step of the rostrum with the 350 and it represented his second meeting since returning to the motorcycle with which he won five consecutive titles from 2010-2014.
The 30-year-old talked about his u-turn with factory equipment last Saturday and claimed his pre-season crash that caused two broken ribs and nerve damage in his arm and shoulder, as well as performance improvements with the 350SX-F, led to the switch after less than a season on the 450. #222 also reveals that the appearance of the 350 could have happened earlier than for round 13n at Loket in the Czech Republic.
“It is a different bike,” the Sicilian explained. “With my arm problem and the fact that I am still recovering strength the 350 feels better and my riding is more controlled than it was with the 450.
“The decision was already taken earlier in the season but the bike wasn’t ready as we had some more 2018 parts to mix with the ’17 so we had to wait a bit longer. It wasn’t the best thing because of the timing towards the end of the season but I’m happy we have it and now we just have to get used to it.”
“Maybe Loket wasn’t the right place because the start is so important at that track but I feel good on the bike,” he added. “We have parts coming all the time and we are already thinking about next year and get the 350 developed as much as possible.”
While Cairoli’s bid for a seventh consecutive title was thwarted last June in Italy, the pre-season fall earlier this year has carried more impact – certainly in the long-term. “There were a lot of injuries and I’m not used to this throughout my career so there were moments where I was struggling,” he reflected. “The crash this winter was very bad and I lost some confidence in my riding. It was the worse crash of my career. When you hit the ground that hard then it is difficult to get confidence back. I had never crashed so hard in the past so I didn’t know what that feeling was like! For sure the 450 did not help at that time because I was not strong enough and the confidence was not there. My riding was very conservative and not really my style. With the 350 now I feel that there is ‘something’ coming but we are still improving.”
Cairoli was sensational with the 350SX-F and racked up 42 wins across five years since the bike’s creation and launch in 2010. It means any reunion carries a large degree of expectation…even if the level of competition in the premier class has deepened significantly in the past two seasons. “Sure!” he stated when asked if there was immediate pressure to resurrect the good old days. “But physically I am still not where I want to be. The confidence is coming but to ride the 350 is even more difficult – you have to be more aggressive and more flexible on the bike. The 450 didn’t ‘fit’ me because I was stiffer. Now I need some time to get used to the race pace and adapt – it is a very difficult bike to go fast and nobody in the past could make it happen.”
The former champion famously used the 2010 version of the 350SX-F chassis each subsequent year despite the factory team’s constant work and effort to make upgrades. It seems the latest incarnation of KTM’s vision for the 350 has seen some useful renovations. “The 350 has changed a lot,” he vaguely hints. “We have tried to solve a few little problems and it is already better after our first tests. I think it is very important that I am back in shape and then we can see if we need more work on the bike or not.”