There is no denying, when a great rider has his mindset right, then anything is possible. It is crazy to think that after not racing a Grand Prix since Italy in 2018, and after just a month back on the bike, after four months off it, Jeffrey Herlings returns in Russia with a fourth place overall.
Now with track conditions far from his favorite last weekend and still running close to the front of the pack, nothing would surprise me to see Herlings actually battling for a moto win, or even a GP win in the sand of Kegums, Latvia.
Of course, I know nothing about racing at this level, so the mindset of Herlings is a little clearer and sensible. He wants another top five or even a podium, and being a realist, he knows that getting up to the speed of a very confident Tim Gajser.
As always “The Bullet” gave us his time to chat about Russia, Latvia and the battle between Tim Gajser and Antonio Cairoli for the 2019 MXGP championship, a championship currently owned by the Dutchman.
Good to have you back racing. Fourth place overall, which was pretty good for your first race back. Can you explain how you felt it went?
It went well. I mean Russia isn’t my favorite track or place to be. I had a car accident there in the past and it is very hard pack and slippery and that is one of my weakest points. So, I went there thinking anything between five and 10 is fine, and I came away with fourth overall, so it was better than we expected. I was just three weeks on the bike, after four months off, so to come back with a fourth we are really happy with. It was a good performance considering the situation.
There was a lot of pressure in the races, a freight train of guys behind you sometimes. How did you deal with that, because you must have been dying at the time with your condition?
Well, some guys might hate me. I wasn’t fast enough to hang on with the top guys, like Gajser, Tonus or Febvre, in the first moto, so I was riding my own speed. I was riding the perfect lines and the track wasn’t easy to pass, and I was still struggling with some arm pump in the first moto. I was just too slow, and I wasn’t going over 100%, maybe 70% or 80%. I didn’t want to make any mistakes and I didn’t make any mistakes all Sunday long. I was holding up the pace and it seemed like a train behind him, like a train, maybe six, seven or eight guys behind me. So, I was just holding them up. The second moto I had a really good jump out of the gate. I lined up a bit too much on the outside, and I wanted to turn inside, but I got in touch with Tonus and he went wide and I had to go even wider, and I messed up really bad and had to fight back from around 12th place. It was really hard to overtake, but around halfway through the moto I almost matched the lap times of the top guys, so I felt during the weekend we improved and also the second moto I didn’t have arm-pump anymore. With Russia not being my favorite track at all, with it being fast and hard and slick, so going into Latvia we have a completely different mindset. We will do another three days of practice this week and come in feeling better.
You went down in the qualification race on Saturday, what were your thoughts at that moment?
You know, it was the last moto of the day and the track was like concrete and going down there was so dust from the guys in front and that spot was like blue groove and I slipped over. That was the same spot that got Tony, Bogers and others, it was just a slick spot. Nothing much happened, I had to wait for the full pack to go past, because I was in the middle of the track. It didn’t matter so much; the gate pick wasn’t that important. So, I finished 15th or whatever it was.
How was it lining up at your first GP back since 2018, at a track you don’t really like, and you know your condition and race speed won’t be what you would want it to be. How is the mindset for that?
Well, I can tell you the mindset was different than going into Assen, it was a bit different. I can tell you my man, believe that one. You know, last year I would have trouble getting to sleep, because I was winning every single GP nearly, and I felt so much pressure, but in Russia, I was just like, go have some fun, go race. I am not even fit; it was way different. You know, you don’t have that ultimate goal inside you, like I need to win. Of course, I want to win, but I have to be realistic. Hopefully, I can get that feeling again. It is just weird, because all those years fighting for the championship and this time, I am just out of the championship race. It is weird lining up and not really having a goal and it is a tough pill to swallow, and I will try and do my best.
I want to ask you about Tony. It is funny, but after eight rounds last year, he has the same amount of points as he does this year, with 338pts, and around this time last year he also started to struggle with mistakes and losing a lot of points. I wonder at his age is it hard to keep the concentration for a full season? I mean you don’t ever write Tony off, because he is such a great champion, but two years in a row, and he is riding the best he ever has, but still the middle of the season he started making mistakes. What is your opinion on this battle with Tim?
I don’t know. He was so good at the beginning, but the bad thing is, Gajsers tracks are coming. Latvia might not be the best track for Gajser, but he can get a podium and maybe even win it, then he has a lot of tracks coming up that he will really like, like Germany, Semarang in Indonesia, Loket. The four races coming after Latvia, I think the hard pack tracks, like France, and Russia and Trentino (where Gajser has gone 1-1 at each of them). Gajser is getting good starts and it will be hard for Cairoli to fight with him in these races coming up. You know, there is one thing you can’t train for, you can’t buy it, and that is self-confidence. The guy (Gajser) is getting so much self-confidence, and I know how that feels, because I had it last year, and when you start winning and keep winning, then it’s hard to beat that. I always say when it is your year, it is your year. You don’t want Gajser to have too much confidence, because I remember Gajser with confidence and with that confidence, he could also win at Lommel. I don’t know, I hope for KTM and Cairoli he can get his 10th championship, but at the moment, the complete Gajser puzzle is looking strong. He has an off day in Mantova, but he has won six motos in a row now and Tony has left 50 points on the table. I think Tony needs to win this weekend, because if he loses, then it will be tough. Then again, if you look at last weekend, some guys got injured and even with Tim, if he loses concentration anything can happen. If everything goes like it is now, it will be a difficult one. I hope Tony wins, but I don’t know.
Speaking of Gajser, you know I am a big Jeffrey Herlings fan, and think you are the fastest guy on the planet, but Tim is riding so well at the moment. I have thought, will he have something for Herlings when you get up to speed?
I don’t know. Last year he wasn’t as good as he is now, and I am looking forward to getting my speed up. I want to be there in four to six weeks, I think that is realistic and then I should be where I was last year, maybe after Indonesia. I can’t wait to fight him again, but then you get the same situation where he is fighting for a championship and I have nothing to lose. The most stupid thing he could do is get in a fight with me. I know Tony, Tony is smart enough not to fight me, he will only be busy with whoever is in the championship contention. If Tim is smart, he should fight with Tony and if my speed comes back and I am faster, he shouldn’t even worry about me. I got nothing to do with the championship anymore. Even if I won every single moto, it shouldn’t matter to them. Tim is really fast this year, and also Tony, but you got to remember, the guy is getting 34 this year and it doesn’t last forever. He has been in the business 17 or 18 years, and if he doesn’t win it this year, it will get more difficult I would say.
Last question. We go to Latvia, now this is a track you like, and it isn’t the best track for you, but it is probably in the top three or four. What are the expectations now after your fourth in Russia?
I always love going to Kegums. I love the country and I love everything around it. I love the track and hopefully, I can be close to the podium. Third place would be a dream come true at the moment. Four weeks on the bike and a podium at the GP would be awesome. If I am top five, I will take that, and we will keep working and do our best. I go for the top five, but a third place would be a win right now.
Ray Archer images