It seems that momentum will shift following each weekend off that the Grand Prix contingent encounter, as things altered a little at the Grand Prix of Russia earlier this week. A new face landed atop the box in the premier class, which was a welcome change, and normality was restored in MX2. There are plenty of talking points to dive into.
It was almost a foregone conclusion that Clement Desalle would be the rider to end the Red Bull KTM streak, as he has clearly been the best of the rest. Most are aware of the way in which he won at this point in the week, of course, as he excelled in the race that resembled a chess match. Would he have won, had he not pounced on lap one and took the early lead? There is no way that anyone can claim that with confidence. It was just so difficult to gain ground and makes moves! The speed that he possessed early on was good enough to build a small advantage, however, so that may have been enough to see him through.
What does this mean for the upcoming events? It is unrealistic to expect Clement Desalle to repeat this performance each week, simply because the level is so high and some of the upcoming tracks will not favour him like Orlyonok did. Sand is his weakness, which is something that he has admitted on a few occasions, so it would not be surprising to see him miss out on a spot on the podium in Latvia in a little over a week. There is a good chance that he will be back in contention at circuits like Teutschenthal and St. Jean d’Angely though. The twenty-three-time Grand Prix winner has won at both of those venues in the past.
So, did the fact that Jeffrey Herlings and Antonio Cairoli stood on the lower steps of the podium change the way that the championship fight is viewed? Not at all. On a weekend where Herlings ran into some issues, such as skipping free practice, he still extended his lead and now sits on an advantage of twenty-three points. Neither rider enjoyed the circuit or felt that they were firing on all cylinders, but the fact that Herlings made the best out of the situation says a lot. It is extremely likely that he will lead by more than a moto (twenty-five points) by the time that the Grand Prix of Latvia is in the rear-view mirror too.
Why did Jeffrey Herlings skip free practice? Most are aware of the problem that he encountered by now, but this is how he explained it. "Yeah, we have been awake since yesterday morning at five," Herlings explained on Saturday. "I will be happy to see my bed once we get out of here. We had some bad luck with the baggage, could not get it and had to fly somewhere else to get the bag. Then we had to fly back and drive a big trip here, but we made it just in time for time practice." Russia has never been too kind to the series leader when it comes to travel, as he was involved in a minor car crash during his first trip there six years ago.
There was actually another interesting quote from the post-race press conference, which has been interpreted in many different ways. Antonio Cairoli stated that he was pleased to see Clement Desalle, an old rival, return to top form and get into the mix for wins. Some considered this an act of kindness towards a fellow athlete, whilst others presumed that he was looking at the bigger picture and the fact that someone else had taken points off of Jeffrey Herlings. The latter is obviously the most likely. The gap between the top two keeps getting bigger and bigger, after all, so more opportunities to gain points would be great.
Antonio Cairoli was frustrated following a fourth in Italy, for instance, as he felt that it was unlikely that some of the other contenders would get between him and Jeffrey Herlings. Cairoli was clearly right to feel that way, as this was the first time that a non-KTM rider has ended at the head of the field. The fact that Clement Desalle won the opening moto actually hurt him though. Had Cairoli and Herlings finished first and second, rather than second and third, Cairoli would have gained three points instead of just two. The difference there is minuscule, of course, but every point counts in this game! The fifth place that he acquired in moto two now sticks out on his scorecard like a sore thumb now.
Moving down the order, it seems that Max Anstie has been getting some flak on social media. It honestly makes no sense that people are jumping on the Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing star though. A hit to the head, which occurred at the Grand Prix of La Comunitat Valenciana, ruled him out of rounds three, four and five. There is obviously not much that he could do about that. Although the results that he acquired at rounds one and two do not seem incredible on paper, the riding was actually quite promising.
It was tough to pass at the first round in Argentina, for instance, but he moved from fifteenth to ninth in moto one. The record books show that he ended twelfth though, because of a small fall on the last lap. The second moto followed a similar pattern, as he crashed in turn one and had to slowly work his way forward from dead last. Moving onto Valkenswaard, he was undoubtedly the third-fastest rider behind the Red Bull KTM duo and should have finished in third overall. A fall on the final lap of the second moto robbed him of that though. Had he finished on the box there, the way that his campaign is being viewed would drastically improve.
The Grand Prix of Russia was not going to be perfect for him, as he only hopped back onto the bike a week before and rode a couple of times. Two weeks of complete rest occurred before that return, you see, as that is what doctors advised in order to help him get over the head injury that was sustained at RedSand. The result would have been better at Orlyonok too, had he not encountered horrific starts. Anstie should return to the top ten in Latvia, if not better, and then continue to build on that before hitting the top five. It is important to look beyond the results that are on paper.
Pauls Jonass has also felt the brunt of some criticism lately, thanks to his mediocre performances in Italy and Portugal, but returned to the top of the box in Russia. Following that dip in form, most have forgotten just how remarkable his start to the season was. Jonass has won eight of the twelve motos that have been run at this point! The way in which he won on Tuesday was remarkably similar to rounds two or three, as he was sat on relatively small margins. It is hardly surprising that those figures have prompted some to question his dominance and position at the head of the field. The final results do tend to sway opinions.
Now that the problems that he encountered through April have been pushed to one side, he has opted to open up a little more than he has thus far. "Maybe I got too much confidence and started to feel too comfortable? I lost a little bit of focus going to the races," Jonass commented in the post-race press conference on Tuesday evening. "I trained hard, for sure, but in the races you have to be focused all of the time." The second moto in Russia acted as another reminder of how important it is to stay focused until the end, as Jorge Prado came extremely close to making a move with two turns to go. It could have been disastrous!
Okay, onto the biggest topic and feel-good story from the sixth fixture. Ben Watson finally landed on the podium, which is hardly surprising, and further cemented the position that he currently occupies in the championship standings. The lowest step was where he resided on Tuesday, but it honestly would not be surprising to see him move further up the order in Latvia. It is hard to fault a single part of his programme at the moment. Everything is clearly working as it should, as the hard-baked surface that made up the Orlyonok circuit is not his favourite at all. Kegums, on the other hand, should suit him perfectly. It is going to be interesting to see what this confidence does for him moving forward.
There was intriguing quote from Ben Watson in the official Yamaha press release. "I literally have no words for this weekend," Watson said in that statement. "It has been incredible. To come from where I was last year and trying my best with what I had to Yamaha and the Kemea team taking a chance on me, giving me this opportunity and believing in me; the feeling is unbelievable. It is something I cannot describe, to stand on the podium and give back to everyone who put their trust in me and worked so hard all winter long. From my mechanic to the entire team who are working hours and hours to have everything ready. I don't think people realise what goes into achieving this and getting to this point. It is just unreal."
It is quite clear that all he needed was the support of a factory team, which includes much more than just a bike, to unlock the potential that has been clear to everyone. It is just surprising that it took this long for someone to pick him up. Anyway, other team managers in the pits will undoubtedly begin to scour the satellite teams now in an effort to find the next Ben Watson. A final note that indicates just how far he has come in such a short space of time is that Hans Corver, the team owner at Kemea Yamaha, mentioned that "Ben Watson has to be able to finish in the top eight," when discussing expectations in a press release in February. Targets like that have been completely demolished after just six rounds!
Words: Lewis Phillips | Lead Image: Monster Energy Media/Ray Archer