One of the greatest riders of the modern era of the FIM Motocross World Championship enters his twelfth season with the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team in 2021. From thirteen years in the MXGP class, Tony Cairoli has only dropped out of the top three in a final championship standing on two occasions; 2015 (7th) and 2019 (10th), both primarily caused by injury. In ’21, armed again with the KTM 450 SX-F he will be chasing his tenth FIM title and will hopefully extend his total of 92 Grand Prix wins; the second highest amount in the history of the sport.
Tony, you had minor knee surgery at the end of 2020 and started riding at the end of February. How is your fitness?
The knee is OK, and I started training with the bike by taking it very easy. I was giving priority to physical work in the first part of the recovery – not so much on the bike – and also because there was some instability about the start date for the season. So, there was no need to rush. But, I’m OK, I’m feeling good.
So, the big question for 2021: when will you decide if this is the last year of racing for you?
It’s a matter of results, of course, and how competitive I am: this is clearly my goal at the moment. I want to see if I can still improve but I know the level of performance is unlikely to go up. A lot depends on my condition and the knee. That’s why I don’t know where I am [with speed and feeling] because I still cannot really push because of this injury following me around. Last year was very difficult for me but I think if my knee can be in a bit better shape for 2021 then I should be able to fight for the championship. This is my goal and then the next season depends on how I feel.
You were a mentor to Jorge Prado when he came to the team and now Mattia Guadagnini is the junior rider. How has it been working with him and knowing Italy now have a big prospect?
Of course Mattia has quite a bit of pressure at the moment. He has come from the European Championship directly into MX2 and with the potential to be a top-three guy, he has a lot of expectation. It won’t be easy for him. I have been in his shoes before, but it has been going well for him and he has been working a lot. I think the first races will tricky but once he gets the flow I think the results will come.
You haven’t had much riding time yet but is there anything you wanted to fix or address on your KTM 450 SX-F for this season?
No, so far we have tested a few things but because I don’t have a lot of bike time we are not pushing 100% with technical parts. For me it is important to feel better with the knee and then test something when I am at a decent level.
What about rivals for 2021?
I think we’ll see the same sort of names going for the championship as we did in the last couple of years but for race wins I think there is a bigger group and even new people like [Thomas Kjer] Olsen and [Ben] Watson are among them. I think it is time for Jorge [Prado] to show his skills in going for the title and then you have Tim [Gajser], Jeffrey [Herlings] and myself. [Jeremy] Seewer will be very competitive, [Glenn] Coldenhoff also. There are many guys that can go for the championship and even more for the single race win.
Your skill at building a championship is unmatched for the last 15 years at least but do you feel like you still have the raw speed for multiple race victories?
I think it depends on the knee again. Last year I started the season and I wasn’t ready with my shoulder and when that was better the knee got worse! So, in 2020 I could not really ride like my best. If I’m in good shape I know I can still go for wins, even if the championship is my main goal and what I’m working towards.
A Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rider since his Grand Prix debut in 2010, Jeffrey Herlings has been one of the team’s best and most emphatic racers with four FIM Motocross World Championships and 90 victories to his name; the third highest total in history. After his near-perfect third season in MXGP with the KTM 450 SX-F in 2018 – in which he claimed 17 from 19 GPs and finished as runner-up in the other two – the Dutchman suffered two years of injury frustration. Now, at the age of 26, #84 is again looking to establish his superiority at the peak of MXGP.
Jeffrey, are you finally healthy? No more metalwork in the body or difficulties for fitness?
I don’t have any material left in my body anymore, luckily! My foot is definitely better than it was but it’s not fully healed or as good as my other one. It bothers me a little but not when I’m riding. I sometimes have pain afterwards, that’s all. Physically I am not super-conditioned but, at this time, I don’t want to be anyway because we are still not 100% sure when racing will start again due to the pandemic. Hopefully we are set for mid-June but it is mentally and physically tough to know when you might or might not start. Right now, I’m just riding three-to-four times a week and every day do one – or maybe a maximum of two – training sessions to stay in shape and keep the body weight under control. When we’re absolutely sure of the first race then we’ll go hardcore again.
You have an insatiable appetite for victory but after the injury problems of 2019 and 2020 is part of your motivation just to reach the end of a season?
Obviously the last couple of years I didn’t succeed in completing most of the races, so that has to be a big goal for me. I have to be [present] everywhere and I don’t know if that means I’ll be close to the front each time, as has been proven in the past, but if I can try to be consistent every time I’m in the gate then I’ll hopefully be around the podium spots at the end of the year.
The Dutch GP is supposed to take place in Oss, Holland. What’s your opinion?
Before we talk about that I think it’s a shame we’re not going to Valkenswaard anymore. It was a tradition on the calendar. I raced there since 2010, I won there nine times and was on the podium ten times, so it has a place in my heart. Oss is a nice track. It’s close to my house! It’s not a typical ‘Dutch’ track in that it’s not super-sandy but it’s a cool place and good for the fans with a nice overview for watching.
Who will cause a surprise among your rivals for 2021?
I think it will be the same group of main riders, it’s just a different year. I think Jorge Prado has joined the party now but basically the same guys like Tim Gajser, Romain Febvre, Tony [Cairoli].
You could get a bit closer to the all-time win record of 101 this year. Will that be another small objective?
Definitely. If I have a season like 2018 then I’ll pass it this time! That was a dream season. It’s certainly a goal to reach that 101. I’m on 90 now and I’m 26 years old so I think it’s realistic. I’ll have to go for it.
You are the best sand rider in the world: is it possible to get even better in the terrain?
No matter how old you are, you keep on learning and you find little ways to improve – but – I don’t think I can get better in the sand. 26 is not old but also not young and I can’t see myself increasing my level. I’m either at my peak now or I passed it! In 2018 I was not at my best-level but I was super-good in the sand and pretty-much won everything. So, I don’t know if it’s possible to be better…but if I can stay at the same level then I’m already happy.
Still only 20 years of age Jorge Prado has already tasted victory with the KTM 250 SX-F in MX2 – where he dominated the class to 2018 and 2019 world championships – and the KTM 450 SX-F in what was a typically fast and impactful debut term in MXGP in 2020. Already Spain’s most decorated motocrosser, Prado set out his stall last year with three wins and eight podium finishes, the second biggest collection of silverware in the class, despite coming into the campaign with limited preparation due to a winter leg injury. Now fit, confident and ready to re-establish his world-renowned starting prowess in MXGP #61 is one of the pre-season favourites.
2020 was your first in MXGP. It’s fair to say there were some ups-and-downs…
2020 was quite a hard season for me because getting injured just before the start of my first year in the premier class didn’t help! It meant I started racing without much training or testing. Despite that, I had some very good moments, especially towards the end when I was getting fit and winning races. At one point I even had some possibilities for the title, so I was quite happy. Overall, I would say that 2020 was good season but I could have done without the two injuries. The best moments were the first podium, the first win on the 450 in Italy and the victory in Spain.
What was the biggest lesson?
Coming into a season from injury is never easy because you need a certain amount of track time to get back to your level. I pushed myself to the limit in that ‘recovery’ phase where I was actually racing to get to 100% as fast as I could and make some good results. So, the lesson was about how I could reach my limits physically.
Did you feel like you had mastered the KTM 450 SX-F by the later phase of the season?
It’s a hard question because I missed that training period. I didn’t get a pre-season. Then we had to stop because of Covid-19 and two weeks before the restart I was injured again with my collarbone! I raced in Latvia for round three with just two weeks on the bike. By the end of 2020 I was finally getting there, and you could see that in my results because I was fighting more and more for first position. I think I learned so much from that period and where I needed to improve. Now I feel like I am getting into my first real off-season of 450 preparation.
You always seem like a confident guy but did the 12 months of 2020 – from the broken femur to the COVID-19 diagnosis that prematurely ended the season – represent the hardest spell of your career?
Yeah, 2020 was one of the hardest of my career. I moved to the 450 class as the 250 champion and with high expectations, at least for myself. I was expecting good results and the injury threw me a bit. The 450 is a very nice bike to ride but if you need to push it for the whole 30 minute plus two laps moto then it is not very easy. You have to be really ready for that. It’s not easy to ride those bikes fast for a long time; you really need good physical condition.
Who will surprise you in 2021?
Hmm, I don’t know. I think Jeffrey [Herlings]! For sure Tony [Cairoli] will be good, also [Tim] Gajser and [Romain] Febvre. Surprises? It’s hard to say but if you look at every year there are always questions about who will be good but, in the end, it is always the same guys at the front. I feel like I am also in the group. Not because other people are saying it but when I see the results. I’m not a guy that really builds myself up but if I look at the results of last year then I have to be honest and say: ‘this year I can fight for those positions again and I need to be ready’. My goal is to fight for the title and that’s it.
Supercross: it was a career direction for you at one stage. You are still only 20, so how do you feel about it now?
Honestly, I am really focused on doing very well and getting the title in MXGP and, watching supercross right now, I feel that it would be something very fun to try. It would be very different. It would not be easy at all to go and get to a position to fight for a title. You not only need to get used to riding supercross at that level but also racing it. I’ve never raced supercross in my life. It would be very hard! I think if I did have the possibility to get there and race then I will want to go, and I would want results. Right now, I’m looking only at MXGP.