Herlings talks MXGP return, Cairoli as Red Bull KTM team manager, missing racing and the state of his feet

20230209-Herlings (3)

Words: Adam Wheeler / OnTrackOffRoad

Five times world champion Jeffrey Herlings has not started a Grand Prix since that fateful day at Mantova, Italy in early November 2021. The 28-year-old is now only weeks away from returning to MXGP action for the first time since his lifted his fifth title and his second in the premier class.

The Dutchman, who recently confirmed yet another two-year extension to his ongoing Red Bull KTM contract that will make him the longest-serving motorcycle racer for the factory, missed the entire 2022 campaign (and the chance to wear the #1 in MXGP) due to a broken left heel, sustained in a crash only three weeks before the opening date in the UK. Herlings could have entered Grand Prix at some stage in 2023 but complications with his right foot, broken in another pre-season spill in 2019, meant he was persuaded to undergo surgery and place all his attention on 2023.

“The right foot was the worst,” he said in an interview published recently on the official KTM Blog www.blog.ktm.com. “There were a couple of bones that had exploded. They grew back together but there was cartilage damage and it was not quite clean; there was a lot of ‘wild’ bone growth. So, we did a clean-up operation last year and all the metalwork and bone graft came out. The foot generally is pretty complicated, and there is not a lot of space. They tried to give me more flexibility and I ended up with more movement and less pain. The left heel was just a break…but it was misplaced so that’s why I needed a long recovery time. I had three surgeries, two of them correctively and needed to fix the position.”

Herlings admits he is not quite 100% from the injuries and his limbs are unlikely to be normal but he is no longer in pain or discomfort when he rides. The forced absence in 2022 was initially tough to accept for a rider who stands just 2 victories away from equalling the all-time Grand Prix win record, but Herlings admitted that the prolonged hiatus did have some benefits. “It gave me some peace because I didn’t need to look at the training side of life, the physical conditioning, the diet, the riding, the media,” he admitted to the Blog. “But, I do feel fresh now and ready to go for at least another three years. People forget that I only just turned 28 a few months ago because I’ve been in this business and winning races since 2010, so that fourteen years ago. I’m already getting to be an ‘old guy’ in the class even though I’m just 28. I’m good for another few years!”

2023 will be Herlings’ seventh year in MXGP and with the KTM 450 SX-F. He will have three new teammates in the MX2 division with Andrea Adamo, Sacha Coenen and Liam Everts all fresh in Red Bull KTM colours and all aged under 20. Another twist is the presence of former teammate and championship rival Tony Cairoli as Team Manager, meaning a different dynamic between the pair who tussled regularly from 2016-2021. “It is strange because we fought each other for many years and now he’s in that Team Manager role, so I’m curious how it will be during the season but I guess it will be a completely different thing compared to when he was racing,” Herlings says. “To be out there [as a racer] you need to be super-competitive and thinking about the rivalry, and as a Team Manager you need to be very open and ready for something very different. I’m actually excited to see how he will be in his new role.”

Herlings has won a Grand Prix in five of the six years he has been in MXGP. Fans are now waiting to see if he can rediscover the speed and the competitiveness that helped shaped one of the best and most exciting contests in recent memory during ’21. “It is going to be weird, having been out of MXGP for that long,” Herlings mused on his chances. “I can see myself building into the season. Don’t forget the fact that this year we’ll have sixty races instead of forty motos, with the Saturday Heats now counting for points. We will have time to get into the championship.”

The first round of nineteen in 2023 MXGP begins at Neuquen for the Grand Prix of Argentina on March 11-12.

Images: KTM Images / JP Acevedo

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