MX2 World Champion Jorge Prado seems to have it all at 18 years of age. So, we asked those close to him: How can #61 possibly improve?
OK, firstly the essential data: Jorge Prado recently turned old enough to buy a drink but became an FIM Motocross World Champion in only his second full season of Grand Prix in 2018. He claimed a podium finish in his very first MX2 appearance as a wildcard in 2016 and won on his sixth outing as a Red Bull KTM rookie in 2017. He’s the first world champion from Spain. He owns the most holeshots from any rider in all classes from both 2016 and 2017.
Possessor of superlative technique and phenomenal starting prowess he rarely makes mistakes, is still blossoming with his physical condition and is a protégé of teammate Tony Cairoli and the De Carli camp inside Red Bull KTM. KTM Motorsports Director Pit Beirer recently claimed that Jorge could be placed in the same mold as other teenage sensations like Ken Roczen and Jeffrey Herlings.
So far in 2019 Prado is undefeated on the track. A haematoma on his left shoulder after a crash while training caused him to miss the British Grand Prix but every other moto and round has fallen to the reigning champion. Prado said that he decided to keep the #61 for 2019 (rather than simply remove the ‘6’) because he feels he has not done enough to earn the #1 plate in his career so far. It is an odd and humble self-assessment, and recognition that Prado is not the finished article. However, to the fans, the rest of the paddock, his rivals and even those tight with the Galician inside KTM there is not much more to add to his arsenal of talent and capacities.
“Riding-wise and technically I don’t see a big window for improvement anymore,” straight-faces KTM Motocross Manager Joel Smets. “His timing is almost spot-on perfect. He will look at a jump and from the first attempt he will clear it perfectly. His position on the bike [also good] and even his starts! You cannot imagine him to be much better with those.”
Team Manager Claudio de Carli’s son, David, has been working, training and tutoring Prado since he veered into the Italian’s circumference in the off-season of 2017. David may claim that “the second time is always harder” when it comes to claiming a championship, but Prado has looked simply superior in 2019 MX2. “When we started last year, we found some areas where we could improve the training but for 2019 I think he was on another level and, at the moment, this is really, really high,” David adds. “When he is training with Tony – which they do together a lot – it is almost like a race. They push each other to the limit, they are lucky, and it is good for both of them. Jorge is another year older and with another year of experience; it’s normal that he is better.”
De Carli’s role cannot be understated in Prado’s evolution. The family’s Roman home became a new base of operations as opposed to Belgium. From an inconsistent rookie term – where four wins were celebrated but the then-sixteen-year-old also pulled out of two Grands Prix due to exhaustion – the acceleration of his potential has hit the highest gears. “The more of a unit you are then the stronger you are … but of course it is not easy,” he says. “You need to know the rider’s character and how to take him. You need to talk direct to him – not confuse any issue – and then you’ll be on a good line.”
As well as being a training partner and focusing on his own efforts in the MXGP class, Cairoli has also been implicit. “Jorge is going really well and I think he has improved a lot compared to last year,” #222 claims. “He’s much faster and stronger physically. I think it will be an even better year for him in 2019 and he’ll be really good. He’s really down to earth and this is nice.”
“He has developed well,” says MX2 Team Manager and Red Bull KTM Technical Director Dirk Gruebel. “In the beginning there was a lack of strength but that was related to age and it seemed that he grew out of it in 2018. He is also just human and this season he made a mistake while training and crashed. Sometimes you don’t know what an injury will do to you but riding-wise, speed-wise it is tough to see how he can be better.”
From 44 grand prix appearances at the time of writing Prado has 27 podiums: 20 of those being wins. It’s an impressive ratio in such a small space of time and he is already the most successful Spaniard in the history of the FIM World Championship by far.
But there must be some weakness. Surely?
“At the moment there is nothing to say,” smiles De Carli. “I think we have already improved a lot from 2018 and I think the training crash this year is the only thing we could have avoided.”
“Probably there is still room for improvement physically,” Smets demurs “but technically he is already so good and can beat everybody now.”
“A thing he could improve on is some race craft occasionally,” the Belgian says after some thought. “He can get a bit over-confident and then mistakes come. He reminds me a bit of Ben Townley [Red Bull KTM’s first MX2 World Champion in 2004] – he had the same thing: He could show so much confidence that it got scary! It’s about staying within your limits and your focus. Maybe Jorge has a bit too much nonchalance and it’s the same for some other guys. You see it with the scrubs and the way they move the bike because they feel great and are having a lot of fun. To judge everything about a race comes down to experience. I think this is quite normal for Jorge at his age [to miss that]. Once he gets his focus and confidence dialed-in I cannot see anybody that can beat the kid.”
Gruebel sees a slightly different side of being an elite athlete. “You need to be able to take the pressure,” the German says. “Everybody thinks it is so easy for him but they should also think back to what they were like when they were seventeen or eighteen! Probably they can’t imagine what it would be like to be the best MX2 motocrosser in the world. Of course, this is the dream of every kid trying to get in this sport but to actually get there and live through it with all the pressure from the media, all the other racers and sometimes even the family: It is not easy. He did well. He’s one of the youngest champions ever. He’s a handful!”
The analysis leads on to where he will go and what Prado will do next. If he wins MX2 again in 2019 then he is obliged to leave the class. Red Bull KTM could contemplate a fantastical MXGP line-up of Prado, Herlings and Cairoli on KTM 450 SX-Fs. The path might change the dynamic in the De Carli faction of the team and would be the route for Prado to finally eye a righteous claim for that number 1 plate. It would also mean another challenge: Mastering the bigger motorcycle and far more experienced competitors. The difficulty of the task was highlighted by Jeffrey Herlings´ misjudgment in the early throes of 2017 and led the Dutchman to the kind of commitment and sacrifice that formed the basis of his ruthless 2018 title campaign.
“It will be interesting when he moves up a class because of his body size: Next to someone like Jeffrey he looks tiny but he’s growing and he is someone that rides more with talent and technique than strength,” says Gruebel. “I’ve seen him riding a 450 and it is pretty impressive … but that’s play-riding.”
“We are not thinking about it too much at the moment … but I think he will be a really good 450 rider because of his style,” offers De Carli while also warning: “Riding the 450 will mean another step.”
“The day he moves up to MXGP he will need a bit more muscle-power and all-around conditioning … but that will come because his body is still developing at the age of eighteen,” advocates Smets. “By twenty-to-twenty-one he will be even stronger and together with his skills you can imagine how it will be. I wouldn’t like to be one of his opponents at that moment.”
Then there is the USA. At the end of 2015 and into 2016 Prado spent a significant amount of time in California riding the supercross tracks and absorbing what it would be like to move across the Atlantic. “It was a lifelong dream, so I don’t know if it is dead yet,” says Gruebel. Jorge’s public talk of transitioning to SX has not been prevalent in the last eighteen months, maybe because of the effective blend with the De Carli setup. “Of course, I’m happy if he stays in Europe but it is a decision he needs to make by himself and we don’t want to turn him away from a dream,” says David.
Prado is as bright a talent as they come, but he is also a product of the KTM program: The same kind of expertise that has already helped new rookie (another eighteen-year-old) Tom Vialle make a career breakthrough in 2019.
“He has been with us for so long and was picked out as a ten-year-old on a 50/65cc and since then he’s had support and done many training sessions with the team,” Gruebel reveals of the Spaniard. “He kinda grew into it and that helps with handling the spotlight and seeing how the other guys, the older guys, go about their racing. You can learn your lessons quickly as opposed to going through it alone. From our side we try to give him the best material possible like we do with all our guys. It seems we are in a good direction with that because we have produced many world champions so far.”
Red Bull KTM have helped Townley, Tyla Rattray, Marvin Musquin (twice), Roczen, Herlings (three times), Jordi Tixier, Pauls Jonass and Prado become MX2 title holders in the last fifteen years. There is a wealth of knowledge and excellence under that orange awning which means the praise that Prado receives from the crew – and considering what they have witnessed over the years with the KTM 250 SX-F – is something to treasure.
“It is almost magical,” Smets says of his ability. “I have seen him doing things where I think ‘wow, to do that from the first moment is special’. OK, he’s been riding some supercross but not much in the US and no championship races, so it is all just natural judgement. To see him handling the bike like that almost gives me goose bumps. I’m not talking about normal doubles or triples but obstacles that nobody else would think to hit. He sees new options, he will try them and they’ll work from the first attempt. That is natural skill, intuition and feeling. You can do things with your heart in this sport and there are people without fear but that either works or it doesn’t; with Jorge it’s different. He makes anything work.”
Lastly, what about the teenager himself? What else is there to do?
“When I see myself riding I think ‘I can get a bit faster there’ or ‘I can enter the corner quicker here, open the gas earlier or let the bike roll more’: Motocross is a sport where you never know the limit. A half second a lap can be a lot at the end of the moto. It is a tough sport and I’m lucky I have Tony next to me training and that means I have the best reference. Sometimes we’ll be at the track and he’ll pull a very good lap and I cannot get close to him! So I know there is still some room for improvement! I feel there is a lot of work to do to get to that standard. It is difficult now at this level to get better … but with Tony as a reference I’m able to push every day.”
Photos: Ray Archer