24-year-old Dutch phenomenon blasted the very best of the international motorcycle racing community in 2018. Marc Marquez, Pecco Bagnaia, Jonathan Rea, Leon Haslam, Michael Dunlop: not a single rider can hold a light to the staggering achievement of Red Bull KTM’s Jeffrey Herlings, who swept MXGP – the FIM Motocross World Championship – with 17 victories from 19 rounds.
In only his second season in the premier class and riding KTM’s potent 450 SX-F, three-times MX2 world champ Herlings forged the numbers. He won 33 from 38 ‘motos’ (a motocross grand prix has two 30-minute plus two laps races, with accumulated points casting the final classification), never missed a podium ceremony and dropped only 17 points from a maximum tally in the seven months of MXGP competition from February to September.
But this was no rudimentary campaign of unchallenged dominance or technical superiority. Herlings ruled arguably the world’s toughest, closest and most punishing motorsport by leaping over a series of hurdles, some as high and daunting as the spectacular jumps found on the racetracks themselves.
He not only had to avoid the injury that afflicts almost all MXGP riders at some stage of a season but he had to go toe-to-toe with KTM team-mate, reigning champion and legend of the sport Tony Cairoli; the motocross equivalent of MotoGP’s Valentino Rossi and a nine-times title holder, still at the height of his powers at 33.
Tellingly, one of the principle moments of 2018 MXGP occurred at the very first outing. The opening fixture took place on the fast, volcanic earth of the Neuquen circuit in the heart of majestic Patagonia. Cairoli owned the first race but could not supress a vibrant Herlings, who reduced a nine-second deficit in nine laps to overtake on the final lap and hoist his first trophy of the year. A torch had been passed.
Like MotoGP world champion Marquez in full flow or Peter Hickman around a TT lap, Herlings’ motorcycle handling and bravado was simply sensational: edgy, risky, captivating and humbling of the sport’s leading figure. Argentina was the first ‘bell ring’ on a contest that eventually saw both Herlings and Cairoli finish on the podium 13 times together as the Sicilian tried to keep pace with his foe, nine years his junior.
Another flashpoint came prior to round 10 of 20. Herlings crashed while training and sustained a multiple break to his right collarbone. Cairoli thrived in his team-mate’s absence to chop a championship points deficit from 60 to 10 in one weekend.
Herlings was back for the Grand Prix of Indonesia two weeks later and less than three weeks after surgery. He gambled heavily with a freshly inserted plate in his upper torso to defeat Cairoli, who injured his hand at the same meeting.
Indonesia was the reaffirmation and booster that Herlings needed to reinstall belief that 2018 was his. In the remaining eight meetings he would remain unbeaten and made history for Holland in front of his home fans at Assen for the penultimate date in September.
Herlings’ 2018 feat was achieved with bombast. His attacking, barrelling style was unmatchable, his intensity on the motorcycle unattainable for his peers. He was the definition of synergy with a bike whether in his favoured sand, on hard-packed terrain, wet mud or loamy earth.
Herlings matched a skill set with utter versatility and a rabid thirst to conquer. “To push all the laps it is very difficult to keep with him,” said Cairoli in Assen. “It’s an honour to finish behind Jeffrey because he is the fastest rider in the world at the moment and I didn’t finish second to a slow guy. I don’t think I’ve had such a strong competitor. He pushed the level a bit higher.”
Raised as a starlet and awkwardly thrust into the limelight as a 15-year-old (he had his grand prix debut in Bulgaria in 2010 and by round three had his first podium, by round four his first victory) Herlings has stubbornly grown in the public eye.
He has been burned by flashes of immaturity and outbursts against rivals and felt the harshest side of motocross with various broken collarbones, a snapped femur (that caused him to lose the 2014 MX2 series by just 8 points after he initially had a margin of 145), dislocated hip and a mangled little finger.
Today, at 24, Herlings cuts a more humble, shy and disconnected figure: the focus and reluctance of stardom still bizarrely contrasted by his winks to flamboyance with the personal treat of a new Lamborghini and open desire to smash the record books of the sport.
He admitted that this year carried a considerable cost. He talked numerous times of the compromises of endlessly pursuing a goal, of watching his food intake, adhering to a strict training programme and a riding schedule between races that baffled other fellow Grand Prix riders also based in the Benelux region to make the most of the sandy tracks and facilities on offer.
Herlings talked of “living like a monk” and was openly craving a break and feast of fast food as the season drew to a close. He felt the physical and mental toll of “halting life” to use his body as an instrument for a goal: his six-foot frame often very slight, his aspect pale and his demeanour distant at frequent Grands Prix.
Herlings paid a price, but obtained his objective and in a fashion unlikely to be seen again. Many observers of a sport that remains decidedly niche but has immense grassroots following and perhaps the youngest demographic of interest and support in the two-wheel world (even most road racers have off-road backgrounds) are asking, What next?
It is unfeasible and unrealistic that Herlings can rule to the extent he managed this year. Cairoli has been significantly piqued to face the toughest challenge again in a 14-year world championship career and grasp a record-equalling 10th crown in 2019.
Herlings, meanwhile, needs another 17 Grands Prix to overhaul the hefty all-time haul of 101 wins set by Stefan Everts to head the list every racer aspires to.
“Jeffrey is hungry to prove that this was not just a one-time thing,” said his team manager Dirk Gruebel last week as the champion resumed testing for the next season.
Herlings might be able to extend his authority on MXGP once more in 2019 but the way he trampled the scene in 2018 will be unforgettable.