When it comes to being a great, you need to not only win championships, or Grand Prix’s, but it is often the way you go about your victories or defeats. Red Bull KTM Factory rider Jeffrey Herlings already has three world motocross championships and 74 Grand Prix victories, so his place in the record books is set in stone.
Now, at 23 years of age, he is starting to put in the performances that will pit him along with the all-time greats, the Everts, DeCosters, Roberts or Geboers. What the young Dutchman is going in 2018 is not just handy work, its like a Picasso, or a Rembrandt, something we see once in an era, similar to that of the previously mentioned legends.
This year, on the Sunday of the GP races, Herlings has gone 2-1-1-1-2-2-1-1-1-1-3-1-1-1-1-1-1-1 and leads Antonio Cairoli by 54 points. He is just nine GP wins away from the Italian (83 wins) and closing fast. With 11 rounds still to go in 2018, he might just pass him in that statistic and then go after Everts 101.
While Stefan Everts is watching Cairoli with baited breath, Cairoli is already doing the same with Herlings. The present is sometimes unkind to the past, and legends quickly pushed aside by the next generation.
We caught up with Herlings and asked him about his brilliant weekend.
Tell me, yesterday, just amazing. We talked in Latvia, we talked about that race being comparable to your performance at the AMA Nationals last year, but yesterday, that was really an impressive, calculating performance. I have said it before and I hear more and more people saying it, but we haven’t seen anything like this before, the way you are winning these GPs. How did it feel for you?
I mean, the result made it enjoyable to come out on top and go 1-1, that was the cherry on the top, but it wasn’t easy. Tony is good at that track. He won a championship at that track and he won some GPs at that track. He just rode well, and he was very motivated after Germany, and I knew he would come in motivated. Both times I put myself in a good position in the start and I could see his lines and work from there. It’s a beautiful track, and its wide and stuff, but it was really hard to pass. When your biggest rival is really close in speed, then its harder. I thought he would blow himself up and at the end he would let the pace go, but he charged until the end and it proved he is in really good shape right now, and I just had to go until the last corner.
Still, it was like you just did what you wanted, and when it was go time, you went and just passed him where you felt like it. I mean that pass in the second moto, when you drove under him, that look like it was just an impossible place to pass. Was that the case, but you pulled it off anyway?
I had been studying him and seeing his lines and seeing where I was catching him, and I knew where he was faster. I had picked out a few places to try and pass. I knew I would go for it in the last two laps. I tried at first to wait until he got tired, and I knew if I passed him, I wouldn’t get away from him, so I decided to go for the last two laps and do it that way. Second moto I was like, this guy is still in good shape, and I needed to get going. I had a few places I knew I could pass him, and one of those spots was where I did pass him, because on that corner he was running it wide and I knew I could cut inside him and run it inside and I could make the pass stick. It worked out, and I knew I only had one lap to do it. The good thing was I had three spots and it was a risk doing it that late, but I knew I was fit and ready to go.
The pass itself was spectacular, did it feel like that when you did it?
The thing is, I wanted to pass him where I passed him the first moto, but he cut me off a little, which is normal to defend his line. So, he cut me off, and it was a bit like (hard), so I decided to cut onto the back of him, and then run him on the inside. During the moto I was constantly thinking where I was going to do it. With Tony, he is a big champion, and a big athlete, and you have to surprise him sometimes.
That pass on Everts corner, when you rode around the outside of him, feet on the pegs and just railing that corner. Was it possible in a race situation to realize that everyone was reminiscing about Everts and Stewart? How did that feel?
You know, at that point I wanted to make the pass earlier, but I went so flat through that turn, that I clipped my hand-guard and it basically broke, so that is why he passed me back, and in the next turn I felt like my front brake was biting, and I was so confused, and he passed me back. Then he passed me back and a lap later I passed him back again. It was a spectacular pass and I was third gear and pinned and just lent it right in. It must have looked pretty good.
When you crossed the finish line for the GP victory you looked back at Antonio, right at him. Was that mind games?
No, not really it was just something that happened in the moment. I just jumped and wanted to know where he was at. Normally I would do a fist pump or something, but this time I did something different. I don’t know, just something from the moment.
After the first moto Antonio didn’t shake your hand when you offered it, and he sort of cut you off going through the metal gate. Tony is a very proud champion, and I get him doing it a little, but what was your opinion on that?
Nobody likes to lose, and for sure not in that way, and I wouldn’t have been happy either, but its part of the game. At that moment he should have stopped and shaken my hand, but I get he led the whole moto and lost on the last lap, so I get that, but from watching, and sportsmanship, it didn’t look that cool I think.
What about the response from people at the moment on your performance. I am hearing a lot of people, former greats and also public saying they haven’t seen this type of thing done before in the sport. How does that feel?
It feels pretty impressive that people compared me to the likes of Carmichael, Everts or Cairoli. Even some big names in the sport are saying this type of thing, so its nice. I proved myself in the MX2 class, but I still haven’t won a premier class, even this year I haven’t won yet, but fighting Tony, the man of the moment and beat him multiple times, that is pretty amazing, but a lot can still happen. With Tony it isn’t over until it’s over.
Tell me, I was speaking to Tony on Saturday and he mentioned you won’t be able to keep this speed all season long. Have you thought about that, and will you have to regroup at one stage and go again later in the season?
No, not at all, because these tracks are not my type of tracks. Germany, Matterley, I know the track I am racing now are not my favourite. The second part of the season, the tracks will suit me more, like Lommel, Assen, Imola, Ottobiano. I mean France won’t be easy, but I think I can keep this pace and I am not doing anything crazy and in control. I am super motivated and every weekend I get more and more motivated. We are half way through the championship and this is my chance to beat one of the biggest names in the sport and even that gives me extra motivation. It gives me more motivation to wake up in the morning and hurt myself to be in pain to accomplish your goals.
Talking about that, I can’t remember you looking so chiseled, really in the best shape you have ever been in. Is that the case, have you changed something or 2018?
I have, I had to raise my game. Last year I thought about it, being too easy, and I was still on the MX2 program. Hanging out with my friends, sometimes going to the cafeteria, out with friends in the evening, doing things and training, but not that serious. I was eating healthy, but still drinking soda drinks or going to the snack bar and eating pizza. I am not doing that anymore, I am waking up and going to bed and all I am doing is motocross, that is all I am living for. When you are winning it doesn’t matter if you are giving everything up, because you will be rewarded for that. You get results, but day after day, week after week and month after month, but up until now I get the results and that gives me the motivation. I am counting down the months, June, July, August and September, so only four more months to really do this and be at the top of my game.
Last question. Antonio is pretty pissed at the moment and he is going to go to France and want to really turn his season around. France suits him more than you and he will come out firing. What are you expecting?
Yep, I was expecting that last weekend, and I think he will be even more motivated going into France. Also, in Italy the weekend after, he will be super motivated. I am now in a position that I have something to lose. For him there is just one thing that counts, the championship. For him there is only first place and I need to be more careful not to make big mistakes, but I am still a racer and I want to win. German was a track that would suit him more, but I got a lot of points on him there, so that can happen to him, but also to me. It can go either way in France and I can go 5-5 in France and him 1-1, so anything can happen, with the bike or with a crash.
What about KTM:
Yes, a special thanks to Red Bull KTM, they have been there for me, now nearly 10 years and we have scored 100 podiums and 74 GP wins. So, thanks to Pit and everyone over the years. A big shout out to them for giving me a great bike every weekend.