Cairoli, Herlings, Prado: Red Bull KTM Factory Racing’s MXGP riders for the 2020 season with a combined total of 15 FIM World Championships in the two categories. Has there been a more decorated, potent and lethal collection of athletes in Grand Prix history?
That the trio have ‘collided’ this season to steer the KTM 450 SX-F is fact, but Cairoli claimed his last crown as recently as 2017, Herlings is only 25 but already a ten year veteran of Grand Prix while Prado has already eliminated himself from MX2 for a term thanks to back-to-back titles in 2018-2019 (thus being pushed out of the category according to the rules).
Cairoli (34, the second oldest athlete in MXGP and based in Rome), Herlings and Prado (19 and Rome/Belgium set) all have different style and approaches. Cairoli was the definition of flamboyance on a 250, who matured into one of the best all-rounders the sport has ever seen with an unparalleled rate of consistency that casted 89 victories (12 away from the record total) and 162 podiums (5 away from another record). Herlings is an animal of attacking riding, strength and an insatiable desire to win. A record-smasher in MX2 he assembled one of the most memorable campaigns on record in 2018 with 17 wins from 19 appearances (the other two results were 2nd place) and has a career tally of 86. Prado is arguably the best starter in the modern era with a 50% ratio of holeshots in two years and a smooth and graceful technique that ensures his universal competitiveness and low rate of mistakes and crashes. He is already Spain’s greatest motocrosser thanks to his 31 triumphs and is the premier class rookie for 2020.
Fittingly each rider has either been developed by KTM or has assisted the factory team’s bloom into an outfit that has owned both MXGP (previously ‘MX1’) and MX2 seven times in the last decade. It has helped the ‘orange’ squad to be the powerhouse of the paddock. “We worked on that image and we’ve had it now for a while with MX2 and MXGP titles over the years, sometimes even in the same season and that’s something unique,” offers Team Manager and Technical Coordinator Dirk Gruebel; the German has been part of the crew’s management since the end of the ‘00s. “You get used to it, but it should never be taken for granted. Winning both titles in the same year and by the same team is a huge achievement.”
Cairoli – in his eleventh season with Red Bull KTM – was signed in 2010 and helped establish the KTM 350 SX-F concept that eventually helped the KTM 450 SX-F evolve to become the standard for the category. He aced championships with both bikes. Herlings was groomed by the factory as a teenage prodigy who made his GP debut as a fifteen-year old and won his first race after just three rounds. Prado’s story is similar to the Dutchman’s but he was in KTM development channels from puberty and through 65, 85 and 125cc levels to the world stage. He scored a podium on his first full GP appearance and won in his maiden term having just turned 16 years of age.
Their results and numbers establish immediate credibility. “I don’t think we’ve seen something like that, with the amount of titles under the same tent. It’s very rare,” offers Gruebel. When it comes to ranking the trio as ‘the greatest’ there is a degree of subjectivity away from the statistics, and comparison of eras and the different demands, techniques, length of the seasons and standards of equipment means the exercise can be fruitless. For many, even inside KTM, there is only one possible rival.
“KTM is a bit like the new Honda of the 80s,” opines KTM Motocross Manager Joel Smets, a double champion himself for the manufacturer. “The full HRC line-up: when I was a kid I remember thinking ‘how is that possible?’ It really was a dream team.”
In 1985 and 1986 the red triplet of Dave Thorpe, Andre Malherbe and Eric Geboers finished 1-2-3 in the 500cc World Championship in that order. The team would shape-shift with the likes of Jeff Leisk and Jean-Michel Bayle coming into the frame. “They didn’t have that many titles when the original three came together and I think Eric still had to win in the 250s or 500s – he believed he was going to blow everyone away, but he fell on his face a few times. Malherbe was a double world champ and Thorpe won in 85-86,” Smets describes.
“From the point of view of image and competitiveness, for me, our guys are on the same level. Of course, Tony, Jorge and Jeffrey are top of the bill now, but Malherbe’s nickname was ‘Mr Hollywood’! That was the period shortly after they raced in leather pants and I remember him coming out for a mud race in completely white gear, holeshotting and finishing all white! Eric Geboers was a real star. Thorpe was more the working-class hero and respected as a sportsman but I think Geboers and Malherbe can easily stand next to Tony and Jeffrey. I lived that era as a spectator and perhaps I am not best placed to objectively judge it because now I’m looking at things from an inside point of view. I struggle to remember any other line-up like the one we have now at Red Bull KTM. Yamaha had Donny Schmit and Alex Puzar and later Stefan Everts and Marnicq Bervoets but they still don’t come close to these guys.”
On the awning floor and other members of Red Bull KTM believe that the riders themselves probably don’t have enough distance or perspective to see their general place in the sport’s landscape. “For sure it is up-there as one of the all-time greatest teams,” says Herlings’ mechanic Wayne Banks. “Do they really appreciate it? I think they are too focused on the job and they are all winners. Second place doesn’t mean much. I reckon they’ll [appreciate] it later but now they are caught in the moment.”
2018 saw Herlings and Cairoli tussle for the MXGP crown and classify 1-2 for the year with only one other rider capturing just one of the twenty rounds. 2014, 2017 and 2018 saw inter-team tussles for the prize in MX2, of which Prado was a protagonist of the last. The prolificacy both against rivals and within the team led to a degree of excellence and ultimately the 2020 line-up. “If you wanted to plan it then I don’t think you could,” smiles Gruebel. “As a company it is also a really big effort to have three guys that are all so good that they could each win the title. Why should we make that huge investment for ‘three horses’? It just happened, but you never know what can happen next in racing. Tony is still going, Jeffrey is in his prime and you could say it is quite early for Jorge.”
Arguably the chief architect was Pit Beirer, a seven-times Grand Prix winner and KTM rider and now Motorsports Director, who signed all three to the factory’s bountiful hall of fame. “I think this is the greatest MXGP line-up we’ve had at KTM and, like Dirk said, it is not something you can really plan,” the German said. “You can have a long-term strategy but then all three riders manage to change that! I almost feel sorry to say it, but Tony is still so good for a rider who is into his 30s: we probably expected him to have stopped by now but he’s like a good bottle of red wine. In the middle you have Jeffrey who we thought would have a very strong spell in the class but it was not easy to plan with him because of the injuries that occurred. Then on the other side you have Jorge coming and I don’t think anybody expected him to go like a rocket through all the categories to show up as a two-time world champion in MXGP for 2020. So, the team wasn’t planned but it is a time to enjoy them out there. Let’s all stay healthy and let’s hope we can start the season very soon.”
While all three riders have only appeared on track together twice so far in 2020, away from KTM and there is recognition for the strength of the gathering. “I think there is a case for Suzuki’s era from Joel Robert to Gaston Rahier to Eric Geboers to Michele Rinaldi and then Honda brought nine titles through their three main riders from 1980-90 but if you are looking at a single team, a single line-up then Red Bull KTM has the credentials,” says former Grand Prix winner and now full-time TV commentator and presenter Paul Malin. “Not only are all three supreme athletes but, numerically, of their 15 championship 12 have been won in KTM colors and the scary thing is that they could well be adding more in the next few years.”
“In the 80’s the 500 class was similar to MXGP today; all the best riders and main factories were involved,” offers legendary French journalist Pascal Haudiquert, a man who started covering Grand Prix in the mid-1970s and with more than 500 races under his belt as part of the media corps. “In this period the factory teams lined up with two riders maximum, Honda had three of the best in the world. But since this period no factory had such a strong team as KTM do now, for sure.”
How will the years enrich and preserve KTM’s unique collision of talent? Fortunately for the younger generation of MXGP fans they can savor the sight now and the memories later on. Until the next flagbearers arrive.