The month preceding the start of a race season is always a buzzing time for fans. British bike fans though might not feel too hyped-up about live action in the first quarter of 2020, with the BSB series only beginning in the middle of April, and it will be early July until World Superbikes hits Donington Park for its third round.
So! If you don’t want to wait until then for some world class two-wheeled action, treat yourself to seeing the best in the world on bikes with knobbly tyres on. There are two massive upcoming Motocross events hitting the UK within three weeks of each other, starting the decade with a bang!
These days the world’s best on dirt are genuinely to be found in the World Championships. Sounds like a silly statement but in Motocross the Atlantic divide has been massive, and the American National series definitely had the faster riders and richer rewards from around the early 80s until the 2010s. However, the Americans haven’t won the annual Motocross of Nations team contest since 2011, and the rubber stamp on Euro superiority was delivered emphatically in the 2018 event held in deepest Michigan, where America’s best were a lowly fifth with their very best line-up in their back yard. It’s a great time to be a Motocross fan this side of the pond, and there is a Brit in real contention as well!
Hawkstone Park in Shropshire hosts its annual pre-season International on the 9th of February, where most of the world’s best shake off the winter cobwebs on a circuit that will really test them. THEN the 1st of March sees the World MXGP Championships begin in the UK for the first time in the modern era, at the brilliant natural amphitheatre of Matterley Basin near Winchester. It’s a mouth-watering prospect with both events offering totally contrasting challenges for the very best in the world, and a total treat for fans of live two-wheeled action.
The traditional old-school sand grinder of Hawkstone Park near Shrewsbury has been at the heart of the sport for generations, with both your humble scribe and his father able to show you scars earnt from the place! It is a classic venue, sandy and rough with the ability to catch out anyone who takes it on. Many of the very best use it as a proper shakedown, a true test of new machinery and a measure of how the hard winter’s training has paid off. And with consistently large crowds it is clear that British fans love seeing the new bikes, the new gear, and new contenders hit the track for the first time each year. You can get close and see the whites of the riders’ eyes, or stand in a more central location and follow most of the race from several locations. If you like a challenge, a climb to the top of the big hill will reward you with an amazing close-quarters viewing spot, as the bikes flash past at top speed!
This year’s star attraction is like a certain Danish beer – Probably the Best in the world, Dutchman Jeffrey Herlings on Probably the Best bike in the world, the factory Team Red Bull KTM. He is the off-road Marquez, simply incredible at full flight, doing things that most others don’t think of. The 4-time world champion, aptly known as “The Bullet”, is a particular master of the deep and soft going that Hawkstone offers, and to those in the know watching him alone is worth the admission.
Except he won’t be alone! Fellow Dutch sand master, world number 3 Glenn Coldenhoff, will debut the intriguing new Factory Standing Construct GasGas machine, and the winner of multiple MXGPs last year should keep Herlings honest at Hawkstone as he has in the past. He’s a great starter, and with Herlings being a great chaser it should make for some thrilling racing. His team-mate Ivo Monticelli from Italy will also be right up there as he loves a fast getaway.
Of course, the Brits will be looking to defend their home soil, with Welshman Adam Sterry looking to impress on his debut in the premier 450cc class. With similar KTM machinery to Herlings, he too can get off the gate well and get the crowd cheering, and his race win on a 250 last year shows he loves Hawkstone. Scotsman Shaun Simpson is also a sand master and will certainly be hunting for the podium. And former world number 2 Tommy Searle will surely be a force on his Buildbase Honda debut, especially with team boss, 3-time World Champion and Hawkstone legend Dave Thorpe watching intently.
International flavour is deep with GP winners Jordi Tixier from France, Evgeny Bobryshev from Russia, Thomas Covington from the USA, Calvin Vlaanderen for the Netherlands, and Kevin Strijbos from Belgium all bidding to prove their worth in Shropshire.
The 250cc MX2 class races are even more heavily stacked, with the top five favourites for the world title making the journey to thrash their smaller engines through the tough sandy going. Almost certainly the MX2 world crown will sit on the head of one of these talented lads at the end of the year, and British fans will be hoping that Monster Energy Yamaha’s Ben Watson will be wearing it home to Blighty. His four main challengers consist of lanky Dane Thomas Kjer Olsen on the Rockstar Energy Husqvarna, French flyweight Tom Vialle on the Red Bull KTM, tough young Belgian Jago Geerts on the other Monster Yamaha, and finally Olsen’s team-mate Jed Beaton, bringing some thunder from Down Under in his third year on the world stage. They will all be looking to set the early pace and get in their rivals’ heads before the points start getting counted on the 1st of March.
Exiting new young factory riders Kay de Wolf and Rene Hofer will be snapping at their heels keen to make their mark, and a stack of hungry young Brits will take them on, led by South West hotshot Josh Gilbert who moves up to the GP circus for the first time this year and will be keen to get amongst them!
The unique format of Hawkstone also sees not only two half-hour races for each class, but also two Youth races from the best under 16s in the UK. The day is rounded out by the brilliant Superfinal, with the best from each class racing together in a thrilling final dash for cash.
From historic Hawkstone the action then moves to the wide-open jump infested modern spectacle of Matterley Basin in Hampshire for the start of the World MXGP championship series. Round 1 of a GP series hasn’t been held in the UK since Hawkstone itself hosted the 1994 500cc opener (over a quarter of a century ago!). And now we get to see a full field of fully healthy athletes ready to really put everything on the line.
Defending World Champion Tim Gajser from Slovenia, on the full Factory Honda, is a spectacular rider and his race win at Matterley last year came after a massive crash in the opening race. He continued at full pace with twisted handlebars and a flapping front number plate, it didn’t hold him back! This will be the first year that both he and 2018 champion Herlings, with 7 titles between them, are able to start the season completely healthy and ready to go for the MXGP title. Mouth-watering stuff.
Even their combined total falls short of that achieved by Italian legend Toni Cairoli, however. The fan favourite wearing #222 will be looking to prove, like a certain Italian wearing #46 in MotoGP, that age (at 35, aiming to be the oldest ever MX World Champ) is just a number and that he can still show the kids a thing or two. He won this GP last year and has won more in the UK than anybody in history.
To complete the top contenders, and making up the quartet who have taken every world title since 2008, we will see French 2015 World Champ Romain Febvre make his MXGP debut on the big green Monster Energy Kawasaki. He will be very keen to get his loud French followers behind him for a solid start to the campaign. A total of 14 factory bikes and over 20 GP winners are in a truly stacked field – simply the best!
After their Hawkstone battle the 250cc boys of the MX2 division have their Grand Prix on the same day at Matterley, and naturally will be fighting hard to establish themselves at the top of a class that should be wide open. It is genuinely tough to pick a winner, and in Ben Watson we can say that there is truly a chance of a first British 250cc World Champion since 1981.
Matterley Basin is in a natural bowl with all-round views of the circuit, and the fans give it a great atmosphere. With it being the season opener as well it will doubtlessly attract a horde of mad travelling European fans all getting behind their favourite riders. Prepare for not just airhorns, but also bladeless chainsaw engines and smoke flares to surround the track and create a carnival atmosphere. It’s gonna be a corker.
See you trackside!
Hawkstone Park – 9th February, SY4 4NA – http://www.hawkstoneinternationalmx.com
Matterley Basin – 29th Feb (Qualifying & Support races) & 1st March (2 x MX2 & 2 x MXGP races). Postcode SO21 1HW – http://www.britmxgrandprix.com