What a difference a week makes. After rain turned Duns into a soggy mess 26 Brits wiped the mud out of their eyes and headed to Belgium for the MXGP in Lommel.
Heat would be the main problem with temperatures in the 30s. Did I just say heat was the main problem? There’s also the brutal, deep, unforgiving sand that will expose any weakness in mind, body or machine.
Running anti-clockwise this time, the start gate had also been moved around 90 degrees with a little right/left kink into the left-hand first corner just to bunch the riders up. Read on to find out how the Brits got on.
Tommy Searle has enjoyed something of a resurgence lately after a slow start due to injury and Graeme Irwin has now recovered from his mid-season burns sustained at Blaxhall. Max Anstie and Shaun Simpson both live in Lommel and know this track like the back of their hand. All four had reason to look forward to the race but did Anstie have some inside tricks up his sleeve? A full-sized bath next to his motorhome suggested the Brit was prepared for a cooling plunge after each race.
Irwin was in a very positive frame of mind and that was reflected in his 15th place in timed practice. Anstie was also looking good in fifth place with Simpson ninth and Searle 16th.
In the qualifying race Anstie was in fifth place but inherited fourth when Gajser crashed. “Its been a good day,” Anstie told me. “I saved energy and just did what I needed to. Tomorrow will be difficult and I’m pleased with today.”
Simpson had a strong race in eighth but lost a place in the final corner when Coldenhoff squared him up and out dragged him to the finish line.
Searle finished in 17th after losing out to Irwin late in the race. Irwin said: “I was 24th on the first lap, I just put my head down for few laps and got up behind Tommy. I was happy to settle there but he made a mistake and I got him.”
Before the race, Anstie was interviewed for TV and said how different the track is at a GP compared to riding around in the week. It must have some advantages though as Anstie was fifth on the first lap with Irwin 10th, Searle 21st and Simpson buried in 28th after crashing. “I was behind a group going into turn three and didn’t want to follow,” said Simpson. “I tried to pop over between lines and just hit some soft stuff.”
Anstie’s race was quite boring, he inherited a place from Gajser when he crashed and finished fourth without further incident. Simpson put on a charge and passed 17 riders for 11th, while Searle gained a few and lost a couple, ending in 19th. Irwin had his best race of the series so far. He lost a few places but still finished 15th, achieving the goal he had set for the weekend.
Race 2 was a series of mini-battles. Anstie lost out to Coldenhoff to finish in fourth but it was enough to get him on the podium for third overall, a fantastic ride for the Husqvarna man. Unfortunately, he was picked for doping control after the race and press conference so I couldn’t get a comment about his day. Simpson was tucked in behind Bobryshev but never really able to attack. He lost a couple of places but retook Lieber to finish 11th. He too was picked for doping control, but after he managed to squeeze out a sample he told me: “I can’t say I’m disappointed, I felt like I showed glimpses of what I can do but the results don’t reflect that.”
Searle moved up from 20th to 16th but crashed out with three laps to go. I spoke to his mechanic after who said he was okay but very tired. So, lets end this section with some good news. Graeme Irwin started and finished 14th but during the race lost three places and gained three places, battling with various riders with a new-found intensity until the end. Besting his first race 15th, he had his best race weekend so far in MXGP.
“I hit the wall in the second one but managed to regroup and went again,” an exhausted Irwin told me. “I’m really happy with two top-15 finishes.”
Ben Watson and Adam Sterry now live near the track and Conrad Mewse lived here until last year so there’s no lack of track knowledge. Watson has missed the podium a few times this year so could this be his breakout race?
Free practice ended with all three in the top 10, Mewse flying in second spot, with Sterry fourth and Watson eighth. Timed practice was more of the same with Sterry in second, Mewse third and Watson sixth – the signs were looking good for the Brits.
In the quali race, Mewse almost grabbed the holeshot but settled into third for most of the race before slipping back a place on lap eight. He said: “I felt good. I’ve had complete rest for three weeks after hurting my leg, I’m probably missing a bit of race speed.”
Sterry moved up from sixth to eighth but a terrible start saw Watson coming from the back to 11th. “I crashed in the first corner, came back not that well then crashed again and winded myself,” he explained. “It was a bit of a nightmare, I wanted to save some energy for tomorrow but I wanted a good gate pick…11th is okay.”
Mewse was in good spirits on Sunday although he told me his leg is still painful from the practice crash a few weeks ago. There was no sign of that in the first race though, a great start in sixth place. He lost a place mid-race to Geerts but didn’t drop back and regained the place a few laps later when Geerts crashed. After the race his mechanic told me he had “saved a bit for the second race” rather than go all-out to pass Vlaanderen. Sterry had an uneventful race in eighth while Watson was handicapped by his lower gate pick that translated into a 14th place on lap one. He moved forward to eleventh but as the field strung out it was difficult to bridge the big gaps.
In race two better starts had all three brits in the top 10, Mewse fourth, Watson seventh and Sterry 10th. There was some movement as Geerts passed Mewse but Jonass crashed, losing ground to all three Brits. As the race wore on, Watson started getting the better of Mewse and would finish fifth, while Mewse lost out to Jonass coming back and Vlaanderen to finish eighth with Sterry ninth.
I spoke to all three about their weekend.
Watson said: “I couldn’t eat anything after warm-up and I felt ill and weak – I didn’t even feel like I could finish the first race. In the second race I got a better start but couldn’t stay with the pace at the start but I found my rhythm and got going.”
Sterry was satisfied: “I’m really happy with the weekend, my speed was good but I didn’t quite take it to the races. Our goal was two top 10s.”
Finally, Mewse told me: “It feels like one of my best results. It’s really good to come here after four weeks off and have two good races.”
12 Brits were among the 72 starters here. Chris Mills had switched teams since the last round so perhaps had something to prove. It worked as he qualified in 17th for the first time since moving up to a 250. When Steven Clarke’s Carglass Honda team had folded Apico stepped in with support, Clarke wanting to repay them and his other loyal sponsors for their support qualifying in 12th with a last lap dash. “That was very close,” he said. “I felt good in free practice but in timed I was terrible! My mechanic put out my pit board with ‘get ready for the LCQ’ and I managed to get a half decent lap on my last lap.” Alexander Brown was trying his luck for the first time in Europe and made it look simple in 11th. The EMX regulars all made it through without incident, Todd Kellett 15th, Martin Barr seventh and Mel Pocock eighth.
James Dunn, Lewis Hall, James Carpenter, Ashton Dickenson, Brad Todd and Ben Franklin lined up for the LCQ which Dunn won comfortably, but unfortunately the others were out.
Race one was the last race of the day at 6:40pm, with the track looking mighty rough. It soon turned into the race that no-one wanted to win as three of the top four all crashed handing the advantage to a rival. Pocock was the beneficiary as he moved up from sixth to fourth then inherited places before ending in third, saying: “It was survival!
“The track was so rough, I got a good start and just survived. I knew the pace I had would get me to the finish, that was a good championship race for me.”
Barr had a slow start and could only move to 12th while Kellett was the only other Brit to score, gaining three places in the last few laps to get 18th. Unlucky Clarke was penalised for ‘leaving the track and gaining an advantage’ when he missed a jump. “It’s total bull, if I was in the points I would’ve protested. I got cross-rutted and went off the track but because it was all banked up I had to ride around the outside and they said I gained an advantage! It’ll be a better day tomorrow.”
I also spoke to Alexander Brown about qualifying and his first EMX race. “I’m happy enough, the goal was to qualify,” he said. “The race wasn’t faster than I expected, it is what I expected but I’m a bit gutted with the result [28th] but three crashes didn’t help!”
There was slightly less drama in race two but it was no less exciting at the front. Pocock grabbed the holeshot but Horgma led until two laps to go when he ejected over the bars handing Pocock the lead. Pocock had never been more than a couple of seconds back, briefly lost second spot for a lap in the middle of the race but took the race win and overall.
His teammate Barr had a horrible start but battled from mid-pack at the start to sixth, enough to retain third in the championship. While Pocock was doing the press conference I asked Barr to describe his weekend.
“Disappointing! I was looking forward to it but bad starts made it hard. In the second race I came from 26th to sixth. I’m still third in the championship but from leading it to being 36 points behind is hard. Thanks to the team, and Mel rode really well and deserves the win. I’ve just got to push in the last three rounds.”
Alexander Brown continued his impressive debut, fifth for the first lap before the pace and intensity saw him drop back to 17th. It was a great result for the first timer and had a few teams looking at him. Dunn started 17th, lost ground in the middle of the race and then re-grouped to finish 16th on his two-stroke, while Kellett had a first lap crash but charged back up to 26th. I found him later, looking a bit battered. His bike had landed on top of him, the spinning sand tire taking a few layers of skin off his ass.
Clarke was in seventh until a mid-race trip over the bars forced a retirement but had gone before I could get a damage report.
Six Brits lined up in another packed entry list. Eddie Wade may have been best prepared to deal with the heat as he lives in Spain but Joel Rizzi has been on fire lately in Britain and told me he wasn’t too bothered by the heat.
The first group hit the track at 7:45am, the smooth sand looking pristine. Dom Lancett did everything right, getting a flying lap in early to qualify sixth, his best performance so far. He said later: “I’m pretty happy. I’ve never ridden here before but I felt more relaxed. I did a slow lap at the end of free practice then just went for it straight away. I’ve never qualified directly before, it’s always been from the LCQ.” Eddie Wade struggled to find a clean lap and was left frustrated with 16th fastest but qualified nevertheless.
In group two Adam Collings and Joel Rizzi both qualified although there was some drama in the Rizzi camp when his best lap failed to register – the drama was cleared up when they realised that the timing system resets after free practice but takes 10 seconds before timed practice starts, and Rizzi had gone too soon. Sam Nunn was forced to the LCQ where seventh place left him outside of qualifying.
Race one was a disaster for all four lads. Lancett had the best start but a crash dropped him out of the points, Rizzi and Collings were both outside the top 20 from the start and Wade would DNF. Wade explained: “I got pushed wide in the first corner and went off the track, then I hit two riders who had crashed and had to pull my bike back. In the back section my front wheel dug in and I hit the bars with my chest. I was winded and had to pull out. It’s my first time here, it’s not that rough but the ruts are sketchy.”
Race two dealt all four lads a bad start. Wade was able to get into the points, up to ninth. While he was standing in a paddling pool afterwards trying to cool down he said: “I went to an inside gate but it was hard to get around the first corner. It was my best first lap ever, I’ve been working on being more ruthless and holding my own. I wasn’t tired today so I went again near the end and got a few more places.” Lancett told me that he “just ran out of everything” in the first race while a mistake on the first lap of race two cost him any chance of points. “The speed is there, I just need to put it all together,” he said. While Joel Rizzi was frustrated that he can’t just ride like I do at home.”
I missed Adam Collings before he left, but all four young Brits are making progress, qualifying directly and should only get better.