Are the 450cc factory bikes of MXGP and the premier class of the FIM Motocross World Championship becoming too fast? We decided to ask…

@ Ray Archer

The stark realism that motocross is brutal and unforgiving is never far away. It took only ten months for Red Bull KTM to feel the extremes of the sport. In September 2018 Jeffrey Herlings had defeated nine times World Champion Tony Cairoli for the MXGP title after the pair had claimed all-but-one of the twenty Grands Prix. Fast-forward to June 2019 and both the Dutchman and the Sicilian are sidelined with long-term injuries and the works squad has to negotiate more than half a season without their prolific winners.

2019 has been a hard-hitting year for MXGP. At least three of the five factory teams in this dynamic and exciting motorsport have had their FIM World Championship dreams smashed because of surgical procedures.

The state of the injury list (an issue that has also afflicted AMA Supercross consistently over the years) and the knowledge that the average speed of MXGP crept up to a vivid 62 kph at Orlyonok for the Grand Prix of Russia (another half a dozen venues touch almost 60 when mid-low 50s is the norm) has reignited the old debate that the 450cc motorcycles used in the premier division are simply too strong and too fast.

@ Ray Archer

As with most sensitive and speculative discussions involving competitive sport there is no clear-cut answer. Motorcycling technology has undoubtedly advanced since the four-strokes became commonplace from the middle of the last decade but so have the ability and technical level of the riders. The standard of track preparation prompts endless commentary despite notable efforts to slow circuits through tighter turns, jumps and obstacles. Other paddock insiders also feel that factors such as the quality of suspension is another contributor that permits relentless all-out attack of the various terrain in MXGP that will eventually carry consequences among the twenty Grands Prix, forty motos and sixty races (counting the Qualification Heats).

KTM famously won their first MXGP crown with an innovative KTM 350 SX-F raced by Cairoli from 2010-2014. The motorcycle was created in response to the explosive and unwieldy generation of 450s, but it was soon rendered obsolete as a machine like the KTM 450 SX-F became far more compact and manageable and extremely close to the physics of the younger brother – the KTM 250 SX-F – but with more performance. Cairoli believes that the latest version of the 250 (raced by protégé Jorge Prado) is almost as strong as his old 350.

In an effort to gain a clearer picture we picked up some opinions from Tony (who gathered his nine titles from 2005-2017 on 250, 350 and 450cc machinery), Red Bull KTM Factory Racing MX2 Team Manager and Technical Co-ordinator Dirk Gruebel as well as WP Suspension Racing Service Manager Wilfred Van Mil. Are the bikes really too fast? And if so, what can be done about it?

Tony Cairoli @ Ray Archer

The state of play
Tony Cairoli: Sometimes when you ride in MXGP you don’t feel out of control or too fast but when you see the races from the outside then you see the bike is very strong. You cannot make mistakes and you have to react very quickly to stuff…and that is not always the case.”

Dirk Gruebel: “I think the average speed is too high. We have to see how we get that down because you cannot hold back development of the bikes: frames have developed, suspension has developed and overall the bikes are capable of higher speed but how can you restrict it? You cannot do it if you have a 450, 250, 300… Jorge Prado is the fastest rider at a grand prix many times and that’s on a 250. The team’s job is to make the bike ‘faster’. There is no universal solution at the moment.”

Wilfred Van Mil: Riders learn from each other. A really talented guy like Tony or Jeffrey comes along and it means all the others are looking at them and their style. If you look generally at riding styles now compared to fifteen years ago then it is very different. All the youngsters look up to the big names and try to copy.”

Dirk Gruebel: “We could pack much more speed into the 450 than the riders actually use. It is not the end of the line. If they want five horsepower more then we can give it. It’s just not necessary. A 250 is around ten horsepower less but it still goes the same speed on the track, so it is not about horsepower but how riders handle it and make the most out of it. The weight difference between our bikes from a 450 to a 250 is two kilos, that’s it. Not a hell of a difference.”

Dirk Gruebel @ Ray Archer

Tony Cairoli: Suspension has made such a big step compared to a few years ago and it is so easy to ride the bike. I can see it in the amateur races I follow when I am in Rome or Sicily: everybody goes so fast and maybe they ride twice a month! They have a lot of power but the suspension now allows you to do crazy stuff.”

Dirk Gruebel: “There has been a lot of development suspension-wise because riders are not afraid of a jump now: they just hit them because they know the equipment will absorb it and won’t throw them off. I had a discussion with Joel [Smets] about the downhill double jump at the bottom of the hill at Loket [Grand Prix of Czech Republic] and he said in the past you’d come out of the turn, gas-it a bit but choose your line, close the throttle and then gas it on the take-off just to clear it. Now the kids don’t shut-off. The speed is down to riding technique, suspension and better preparation.”

Wilfred Van Mil: I think development with suspension is always improving. It is not huge steps but there are always small things, and combined with frames and handling characteristics, then it all fits together. We make the riders as comfortable as possible on the bike and if that happens then they go quicker. Every year we make a small step. It is the whole team’s job to make the rider go faster. They are many people working on that.”

Dirk Gruebel: “It is all about rideability. You always want to improve the lap-time. We have our reference tracks where we test in the winter and if you bring along an improvement that allows you to shave off a second or half-a-second then you have done a good job. We’re not stopping that! Everyone is doing the same, that’s our job. You have to get the power to the ground but it also needs to be a smooth delivery so the riders can easily open and don’t be hesitant on the gas or need to pay too much attention to it.  The more they can concentrate on the riding and less on the bike then the faster they can go.”

Jeffrey Herlings @ Ray Archer

A solution?
Tony Cairoli:
I don’t think it is a bad idea to reduce the power of the bikes because the 450s are on a level [that is very high] especially for our tracks in Europe that are very tiny – except for Russia which is very fast – narrow and not so many lines. They dry quickly and there is a lot of hard-pack. The 250 class is very good at the moment for the world championship because the power is so strong that is almost compares to my old 350. So to reduce the power in the MXGP class is not a bad idea and would mean fewer injuries.”

Wilfred Van Mil: “Sooner or later they will downgrade the CCs. I think if development continues like this then inside ten years we’ll have a 250 that is stronger than a 450 at the moment. You cannot get a sixteen year old on a bike like that: it will kill the sport.”

Tony Cairoli: “A 450 is a strong bike lately. I think reducing the power a bit would be a good idea.”

Dirk Gruebel: “I don’t think capacity change will solve it. If they [FIM] told us next year that MXGP was down to a 300cc limit then we’d still do our best to be the fastest out there and I think it would end up being as fast as a 450 at the moment.”

Wilfred Van Mil: “For suspension development it is engineering and new techniques, small details like different pistons, shapes, overlaps and in the end it becomes a big thing. You cannot solve everything with just suspension; it has to match the frame and the engine behaviour. We do many tests where a change to the engine character has produced a change on the suspension as well. The 250 at the moment has the same amount of horsepower as a 450 from 2004.”

Dirk Gruebel: “I don’t think you cannot solve the speed issue just by the bike. We need to get average speed down and that somehow has to happen with track design. Jeffrey mentioned at one point in the U.S. you cannot go flat-out on a Sunday like in the GPs because the track has not been touched and the lines are too deep: if you hit them flat-out then you are gone. The riders know it and respect it because they get their warnings. [More] jumps don’t help because the riders hit them full-gas. We should look into corners [layout] or laden turns where it is not possible to go that fast. It needs to be tested.”

@ Ray Archer

Tony Cairoli: “The dirt is the main thing. It must be good and make a lot of bumps. That would slow the speed and also produce line choice. At the moment, if you ride somewhere like Russia or Czech Republic you really need to be aggressive to pass and being so fast [leaves less room for error].”

Wilfred Van Mil: “From hard-pack to sand there are no big setting changes; it is more a balance thing and a couple of clicks but most of the time not even that. We do a lot of testing – that’s our big job in the winter – and we end up with one base setting that works more or less on all the GP tracks. We then just play a little with the fork line and the free sag and small details each weekend. It’s another reason why the rider becomes faster because he has the same bike every week. In the past they’d had vast setting changes from one track to the other track and the rider would have to get used to the bike again and have a feeling for it. These days the base set-up is so much better and they get more and more confident.”

Tony Cairoli: “If you had a wider track with more lines and more bumps then you’d have safer riding because you’d slow down as it gets more physical. People will get tired, and you can make a difference over who is training and who is training hard. When the tracks are as flat as they are now then you don’t see the difference, as you used to before.”

Images: Ray Archer/KTM