Imagine Lewis Hamilton saying he was driving NASCAR in 2015. Imagine Valentino Rossi saying he has had enough of MotoGP and wants to ride for Yamaha in superbike. For fans of motocross worldwide, this is reality in 2015.
American motocross legend Ryan Villopoto decided last year that he had had enough of the punishing schedule of AMA Supercross and the outdoor scene and would spend his final year with Kawasaki racing in the world championship in Europe, against riders he had rarely ridden against and on tracks none of which he knew. He is out of his comfort zone.
Resident king of MXGP is Italian Antonio Cairoli. The diminutive Italian has won the top class title 6 times in a row and also, like Villopoto has won small capacity bike titles too. The 29-year-old has carved a reputation in MXGP for being unbeatable at times on-board his Red Bull KTM, but has never left his comfort zone in Europe as others did before him to race in the USA.
To understand this you have to understand how big motocross is in the USA in comparison to Europe.
In the USA as a professional dirt rider you race in the European winter from January in Supercross, tight tracks in stadiums, race every week, huge crowds, live TV. Then you race the outdoor series in the summer, two races every meet, hot weather, tough tracks. The crowds are huge, salaries are too, top American riders are multi millionaires, have their own training tracks and employ full time personal trainers. Moto and supercross are the biggest forms of motorcycle racing in America when it comes to fans and attendance.
In Europe the motocross scene is big but dwarfed by MotoGP. There is no Supercross on a big scale and the MXGP is a world championship racing largely in Europe. In the past if a rider dominated like Cairoli, they would often go to America, like Jean-Michel Bayle, Greg Albertyn, Ken Roczen, Marvin Musquin to earn big money and test themselves against the challenges there. But some stayed, like Stefan Everts, Mickael Pichon, Cairoli etc. and won numerous titles.
These two, Cairoli and Villopoto then are both at the top of their game. RV (as fans call him) seemed to have an edge in speed over all his rivals in America and Cairoli while not always the fastest, was by far the most consistent of the MXGP riders. And now fans get the chance to see them square off against each other.
Popular opinion is that Villopoto is faster, but is going to have to learn the tracks and the different GP conditions. In MXGP there are races on sandy tracks like Holland, RV will have little experience of that, the nature of the tracks is often faster, more open than American tracks, obviously the weather can play a part too. But in man made areas like Qatar, Villopota might have an advantage over Cairoli as that is similar to a supercross environment.
Either way it promises to be a fascinating insight of two total legends of dirt bike racing going head to head, and will also bring MXP to an audience in America, somewhere it has struggled to gain popularity for obvious reasons as there are few Americans competing due to their own series being so strong.
The pair ride for the teams they have won everything on. Villopoto for Monster Kawasaki, though not his US team, and Cairoli for Red Bull KTM. They start as championship favourites.
Last years runner up was Jeremy van Horebeek on the Yamaha, his speed, consistency and pace on a bike that often struggles at the top level in America and Europe was impressive. He stays with Yamaha and will do well to finish second again.
Gautier Paulin didn’t fancy having Villopoto as a team-mate and who can blame him so he has signed for the team doing most consistent damage in the States right now, Honda who have Evgeny Bobreshev from last year there for a smooth transition. The Honda has not done much winning in recent years in MXGP, Paulin, a real talent, could be the spark Big Red needs.
What of Suzuki? Well Clemant Desalle, so often in the shadow of Cairoli yet again will be fast for sure along with Kevin Strijbos on the Rockstar Suzuki, Desalle wins GP’s has done for a while, but that little Italian is always there it seems.
As in America, Husqvarna have come back to world level motocross and signed talented German Max Nagl from Honda to spearhead their attack.
Cairoli’s team-mate at Red Bull KTM is Ken de Dycker, another talented rider who can win GP’s and push for podiums every week.
They are likely to be the main players then, but MXGP is perhaps less predictable than supercross, some tracks really favour a certain type of rider, a fact Villopoto will have to adjust to quickly. If he can do it he can boldly claim to be the greatest of his generation, maybe one of the greatest of all time.
But it is going to be tough, bring it on. We, like most fans can’t wait.