World MX: The World Storms The Belgian Sandbox
Adjacent to a road testing ground for drivers, and a stone's throw away from Ford's Lommel Proving Grounds in the Kattenbos, it is arguably one of the most odd places, other than possibly Finningley in South Yorkshire, that one would find a world-famous facility like this. The area around Lommel and Kattenbos is highly prized for its high-quality quartz sand, used by the glass industry, and it is therefore no surprise to hear that Lommel is arguably the sandbox of Belgium. Piled between six and twelve feet thick, the sand there is a veritable proving and training ground for those wanting to learn how to race motocross in deep sand. The first weekend in August is thus perfect to see how the world's finest do it.
For years, the Grand Prix of Belgium has been a play ball for politicians. You see, Belgium is, for its size anyway, overly complicated thanks to its history. Created out of pieces of land snatched from France, the Netherlands and Germany, the country finds itself stuck when trying to award a national event like the Grand Prix to one of the three provinces. As such, the Belgian motorsport federation BMB has had its work cut out for it. Nismes and Namur in the French south and Zolder and Neeroeteren in the Flemish north have all had their share of being awarded these events, and while the Citadel of Namur will arguably always remain as the Belgian place for this sport, events both political and personal have led to the event being held in Lommel in 2008.
The promoter of the event, one of the famed Geboers brothers, Eric, has worked with the promoter Youthstream to work on a system that will start feeding local talent back to the Grand Prix. This system, MX Rookie, would also run for the first time in Lommel, holding several races on a second track on the terrain opposite the main track, during the week. The prize? Wildcard entry into the Grand Prix. And so, on Friday afternoon I find myself driving up the N715 towards Lommel and towards what will be one of the best Grands Prix to date this year.
Friday afternoon is still buzzing from the races earlier in the morning and many Grand Prix teams are hard at work setting up their awnings. Once in a while the water tractor comes by, damping down the dust, making people jump out of the way of the splashes. The excitement is palpable, some riders looking forward to the weekend, others dreading it. Saturday morning comes all too soon, starting off with the practice and qualifying sessions.
Red Bull KTM's Tyla Rattray calls Lommel a home track and he is confident that he will triumph here. The pre-qualifying practice certainly backs this assertion up. Just under a second behind him is his team mate and his new rival in the championship, Tommy Searle, and just two seconds after that, team mate number two, Rui Gonçalves. In fact the entire top five is KTM – fourth is favour KTM's Gert Krestinov, and in fifth, Champ KTM's Jeremy van Horebeek.
The first qualifier also proves that Rattray has done his homework well; he leads the race convincingly from start to finish, while Gonçalves is fourteen seconds behind. Team KTM UK's Shaun Simpson is in third, having beaten Shineray Yamaha's Dennis Verbruggen, fourth is van Horebeek again. The second qualifier looks set to be all Searle's, but as he is pursued by Krestinov he falls, leaving the way wide open for the young Estonian. Searle makes a desperate dash to reel Krestinov back in as he records the fastest time of the race in the second-last lap, but he fails – just. The third place also goes to a KTM again; this time it is van Horebeek's team mate Joël Roelants. A jubilant Gert Krestinov confesses to this being the best birthday present in ages; he turns eighteen today and winning his first qualifier ever on his favourite track is hard to beat.
The last chance qualifier does not deliver any major surprises – except perhaps for the fact that several well-known faces fail to qualify. Suso MVR-D Suzuki's Carl Nunn, a known sand specialist, embarrassingly is second reserve, while Swift Suzuki's Pascal Leuret and Elliott Banks-Browne and CLS Racing Kawasaki's Gregory Aranda fail to make the cut altogether.
In the MX1 class the fastest rider is not unexpected, quite on the contrary. If Martin Racing Honda's Marc de Reuver had not made the pole, it would have been quite unusual. De Reuver is after all local to the track and has just about made Lommel his personal backyard. A sliver of a second slower is the other local rider – Teka Suzuki's Ken de Dycker, followed by GPKR Kawasaki's Sébastien Pourcel. The top five riders are squeezed into that one second. The Veterans' qualifying practice sees Belgian Peter Iven take pole, followed over a second later by Dutchman Toine van Dijk and fellow countryman Jan Blancquaert.
The evening ends with a dinner celebrating impresario Guiseppe Luongo's career in motocross. The highlight of the evening are not the speeches though. It is the man who makes the sand speak. Displayed on several video walls, the artist uses fine sand to do caricatures, images that meander into each other, astounding and amusing the audience. It is a pleasant interlude between the courses of the five-course meal extravaganza and the speeches. The commemorative medal is a nice take home piece of the evening.
The next morning dawns with rain in the air, but it looks like it may clear up later in the day. Several photographers take no chances, donning waterproof jackets and wrapping their lenses in swathes of chamois leather. At eleven o'clock sharp the colourful rabble that is the veterans goes to the line. Belgium's Chris Jacobs goes into the lead out of the start, but Toine van Dijk takes over the lead in the next lap as Jacobs falls. A lap later Jacobs falls again, and this time struggles to get the bike started again, letting the rest of the top ten race past. Van Dijk, Jan Blancquaert and Peter Iven are the top three throughout, Dave Thorpe having a tough time trying to pass Scott Eastwood for the better part of the race before succeeding with only three laps to go. CCM's Greg Hanson makes the greatest strides; he comes back to fifth from fourteenth on the very tough sand circuit.
Shortly afterwards it is the MX2 class who go out for their first race. Here it is Gonçalves who takes the lead, hotly pursued by fellow KTM riders Rattray, van Horebeek and Roelants. His lead lasts three laps, during which team-mate Searle makes his way from sixth into the top three as well, making this an exclusively Red Bull KTM affair. Rattray goes on to take the lead, followed shortly after by Searle, who proceeds to pile the pressure on the South African in the lead. Rattray is certainly well-prepared; he slowly stretches his lead to twenty-one seconds for the chequered flag. Searle makes no mistakes in this race either, he keeps Gonçalves at bay, then, as Gonçalves drops back two places, Roelants and Simpson. Gonçalves is able to make a last-gasp pass on Simpson and Roelants, returning to third across the finish line.
Further down the field, there is some movement too. Aubin, fourth in the first lap, drops back to seventh, then battles with van Horebeek and Frossard. A last-lap crash drops him to twelfth. Krestinov comes back from twentieth to mix it up with Latvian youngster Matiss Karro in tenth. He has the upper hand for a significant period, until Karro is able to pass him back for ninth, dropping out with two laps to go as the fuel runs out. Krestinov ends eighth, courtesy of Aubin. The young American riding for UTag Yamaha finds himself in twelfth for the first half of the race before his bike dies and it is all over for him.
The MX1 class goes to the line at one o' clock. Again it is a KTM going into the first corner in the lead; Silver Action KTM's Jonathan Barragán has the lead for two laps before Ramon passes him for it. Three laps later it is Ramon's team-mate De Dycker who goes into the lead, swapping positions with Ramon again four laps later. The back-and-forth between the two Suzuki riders has the spectators excited beyond measure; this is what they've come to watch – duels between riders, not the usual freight-train that inevitably occurs on some tracks. Ramon makes a mistake as the duel comes to a head, dropping away into fifth, and Barragán makes his move to seize the lead, followed by Marc de Reuver. De Reuver has had quite the job working his way to the front from a start in sixth, but he has conquered the likes of Nagl, Pourcel and MacKenzie. He is able to make his way past Ramon, following Barragán through, before he makes his own pass on the Spaniard. The two new protagonists switch positions twice before it is de Reuver who emerges victorious.
The racing continues non-stop; the MX1 races segues immediately into the final Veterans' Cup race of the season. This race is where some points and positions can still be made and lost. This time van Dijk leads from start to finish; there is simply no question who is strong in this kind of environment. Blancquaert and Iven switch positions, Blancquaert taking up the position as runner-up. While Erwin Gabriel is in fourth for the first half of the race, it is Thorpe who shows why he is still the veterans champion. Coming from sixth he dispatches Gabriel to fifth and then sets his sights on Iven. But it is Hanson who sneaks up from ninth to give Thorpe a bit of a surprise. With three laps to go, Hanson passes Thorpe to cut another eight seconds off Iven's lead.
Van Dijk, predictably, takes the day overall, while Blancquaert and Iven end second and third. But it is third-placed Iven who has the honour of taking the championship home; he has a scant lead of five points over van Dijk, and twenty over third-placed Thorpe. Blancquaert ends outside the winner's circle by a mere two points, while Hanson rounds out the top five fifteen points later.
The second MX2 race turns the day on its head. A massive first corner pile-up involves the Red Bull KTM riders and leaves the door wide open for Aubin, Beursfoon Suzuki's Erik Eggens and Krestinov. Krestinov sees his chance and goes on the offensive. First taking on Eggens and then Aubin, the young Estonian soon finds himself, incredulously, in the lead, with twenty-eight of the world's fastest on his tail. He rides like he is possessed, he makes no mistakes, he takes no unnecessary risks. His race is practically flawless. His nearest rival is Aubin, then Eggens, then Aubin again, but both are nearly half a minute behind. Van Horebeek, sixth in the first lap, soon finds himself in fourth, where he is challenged by a very angry Tyla Rattray, who has had to make his way back to fifth from second-last in the first half of the race.
Much to everyone's dismay, Rattray's challenge fails, he falls, and he drops back to seventeenth, where he has to start making the long and arduous push back to the front yet again. Searle this time makes no mistakes either, starting in twenty-sixth, just ahead of Rattray, and taking one position at a time. In the closing laps, he is able to leapfrog several positions, taking advantage of increasing exhaustion amongst his rivals. Gonçalves runs a solid race behind van Horebeek, battling with Boog along the way.
The chequered flag waves, and it is an ecstatic Krestinov who takes the win, tied on points with Gonçalves in second and Searle third. Rattray ends fourth, one point behind Searle. This has arguably been the closest race this season on points alone. Krestinov manages to pull off a hat-trick of a birthday present. Winning his first ever Grand Prix a day after winning his first ever qualifier on what he has described as his most favourite track must be one of the best presents a newly eighteen year-old can have.
Rattray confesses afterwards to being very angry with himself for making such an elementary mistake midway, but as everyone points out, he has kept the point loss to a minimum, and if anything, has made other riders look like amateurs. That is little consolation for him though; he does not want to lose the championship in one of the last rounds remaining.
The final race of the day sees Barragán take the lead again, followed by Nagl and Ramon. Although he falls and gives Nagl the lead, he works hard to regain it, and does with four laps remaining. The winner of the first race, de Reuver, is soon in charge at the front again, and it is only a series of mistakes that drops de Reuver back to fifth, and then to eighth. Nagl, shadowing de Reuver throughout, ends up taking the lead for one more lap before conceding it to Barragán. Ramon also makes several mistakes that keep him out of the lead. While in third he drops the bike, leaving everything open for de Dycker and Monster Yamaha's David Philippaerts. He manages to do some damage limitation by passing Philippaerts back almost immediately, but letting Pourcel through in one of the last few corners of the last lap.
Inevitably it is Barragán who takes the win with de Dycker second and Nagl third. De Reuver misses out on the podium by a measly point, but arguably this has been one of his best showings this year. Ramon is fifth.
The championship firms up in the lower rankings, but things are definitely still hotting up in the lead. Rattray and Searle will remain the two main protagonists in the MX2 class, and it will be exciting to see who will take that championship in the beautiful setting of Faenza in Italy. Philippaerts and Ramon will also continue to battle for the lead of the MX1 class, while Josh Coppins will wait in the wings to pounce on whoever will make a mistake.
|MX1 Race 1||MX1 Race 2||MX1 Overall|
|1. Marc de Reuver||1. Jonathan Barragán||1. Jonathan Barragán 47|
|2. Jonathan Barragán||2. Maximilian Nagl||2. Ken de Dycker 40|
|3. Ken de Dycker||3. Ken de Dycker||3. Maximilian Nagl 37|
|4. Steve Ramon||4. Sébastien Pourcel||4. Marc de Reuver 36|
|5. Joshua Coppins||5. Steve Ramon||5. Steve Ramon 34|
|MX2 Race 1||MX2 Race 2||MX2 Overall|
|1. Tyla Rattray||1. Gert Krestinov||1. Gert Krestinov 38|
|2. Tommy Searle||2. Nicholas Aubin||2. Rui Gonçalves 38|
|3. Rui Gonçalves||3. Jeremy van Horebeek||3. Tommy Searle 37|
|4. Joël Roelants||4. Rui Gonçalves||4. Tyla Rattray 36|
|5. Shaun Simpson||5. Joël Roelants||5. Jeremy van Horebeek 35|
|Veterans Race 1||Veterans Race 2||Veterans Overall|
|1. Toine van Dijk||1. Toine van Dijk||1. Toine van Dijk 50|
|2. Jan Blancquaert||2. Jan Blancquaert||2. Jan Blancquaert 44|
|3. Peter Iven||3. Peter Iven||3. Peter Iven 40|
|4. Dave Thorpe||4. Greg Hanson||4. Greg Hanson 34|
|5. Greg Hanson||5. Dave Thorpe||5. Dave Thorpe 34|
|1. Steve Ramon 362||1. Tyla Rattray 452||1. Peter Iven 122|
|2. David Philippaerts 360||2. Tommy Searle 432||2. Toine van Dijk 117|
|3. Joshua Coppins 345||3. Antonio Cairoli 357||3. Dave Thorpe 102|
|4. Ken de Dycker 336||4. Shaun Simpson 312||4. Jan Blancquaert 100|
|5. Jonathan Barragán 331||5. Rui Gonçalves 279||5. Greg Hanson 85|
|6. Sébastien Pourcel 306||6. Nicholas Aubin 274||6. Scott Eastwood 85|
|7. Maximilian Nagl 290||7. Jeremy van Horebeek 232||7. Thierry Godfroid 81|
|8. Billy MacKenzie 257||8. Xavier Boog 224||8. Chris Jacobs 81|
|9. Tanel Leok 245||9. Steven Frossard 215||9. Janis Mironovs 54|
|10. Marc de Reuver 214||10. Manuel Monni 203||10. Peter Bergsma 43|