Monday 11th & Tuesday 12th December: CLOSED> The tracks are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Bracing for world’s best at MXoN racing carnival

By Adam Wheeler

maddix park mx

Those motoring up the M3 past Winchester this weekend might be aware of the distant echo of straining bike engines. Adjacent to the ancient capital, one of the oldest motorsport events in the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme canon, the Motocross of Nations, will welcome an eclectic crowd numbering around 80,000 at the Matterley Basin circuit for what is the 71st edition of the race and one of the biggest meetings set to occur in the UK this year.

The annual gathering has a fitting stage in the vast Matterley ‘bowl’. The Nations, or ‘MXoN’ was born in 1947 as a dash between three flags – the British, Dutch and the Belgians – and was won by the Brits (who went on to claim status as ‘world champions’ another fifteen times, a total eclipsed only by the USA as the contest morphed into a ‘Ryder Cup’ spectacle through the 1980s and the proliferation of rapid Americans). MXoN has travelled to North America, France (twice), Belgium, Germany, Latvia, and Italy so far this decade.

From those humble beginnings and ‘scrambles’ on vintage machinery like BSA and Ariel, the 2017 incarnation will see almost forty countries selecting their three fastest off-road motorcycle racers to compete for the Chamberlain trophy and bragging rights as the quickest nation across the dirt and the spectacular jumps of the Matterley course; a venue constructed specifically for the 2006 MXoN and now the well received pad of the British Grand Prix.
Winchester will also be a hub of activity and attention for official factory entries from the likes of KTM, Husqvarna, TM and the Japanese, not to mention a swollen attendance from figures and brands within the motorcycle industry. In particular the off-road segment, which is often the first contact for a great many bikers and still a past time with a very dedicated and widespread grassroots following.
Motocross of Nations 2017

How does a motorsport team event work and why is this one-off flagship for a niche sport so popular? The time-old premise sees three riders per team and per category (MX2 for 250cc bikes, MXGP for 450cc and MX Open for either/or). Twenty Nations qualify from ‘heats’ on Saturday and enter three thirty minute-and-two-lap races on one day: MXGP and MX2 face-off followed by MX2 and MX Open and then the climax of MXGP and MX Open (usually a forty rider field of 450s).

Each country posts six results and can drop their worst classification. The upshot is that final podium positions go down to the last laps and minutes of the meeting as crucial points are lost and won by a rider’s progress on the track. It’s dramatic and exhilarating stuff even if it does involve some simple arithmetic.

What resonates so firmly about the MXoN is the celebratory end-of-season vibe from the public and the history that has seen some of the true greats of motorcycle racing taking part (names like Everts, Carmichael, McGrath, Villopoto, Smets, Dungey, Cairoli, Pastrana, Bailey and many more). Generally, in recent times, it has felt like blatant patriotism is something to almost be ashamed of but in the bubble of motorsport the Nations is a beacon of unadulterated jingoism.

For good reason the ambience has frequently been compared to that of a football match and all the passion and reaction the sport evokes. The euphemism of the MXoN as the ‘olympics’ of motorsport and motocross is a tired one.

It is more like the World Cup, and because it shoves one of the most solitary and individual sporting pursuits into an alien team dynamic then this is part of the curious allure. Watching riders and rivals who have been battling, sometimes bitterly, across the course of a world championship campaign suddenly having to work together, be aware of the other’s position, concede the better slot in the start gate and present a united front only increases the sense of national pride.

Eleven years after Matterley initially drew fans of this unique fixture from across the continents (the flags, costumes and carnival atmosphere instantly shows the cosmopolitan blend) the circuit has again been given the honour of drawing the best-of-the-best.

The facility is the brainchild of local resident and Grand Prix team owner Steve Dixon, who drafted in revered designer and builder Johnny Douglas Hamilton to turn a wide ‘basin-set’ location into a site that would entertain major international races only a few times a year. Permanent upgrades including paddock space, parking and communication lines have chiselled Matterley over time as a reference for 21st century motocross staging.

Rated as one of the finest tracks in Europe thanks to the challenging contours, wide, fast turns, immense jumps and wide viewing potential, the English soil will see Team France trying for a fourth consecutive win but facing hungry opposition from the likes of the Dutch, Belgians, Americans, Swiss and of course the hosts.

The British crowd unwittingly vie with the French as the most vocal and passionate when it comes to raucous support of their athletes’ efforts. As seen in 2006 and at British Grands Prix through the years the swell of noise will be one of the spine-tingling factors of the weekend.

The harshest zone of the spotlight will fall onto the helmets of Dean Wilson, Winchester-born Max Anstie (both on Husqvarnas) and 2012 British GP winner, Kawasaki’s Tommy Searle; all wearing the Union Jack and bidding to be the first UK team to make the podium this century after several near misses. The dream of a seventeenth victory has been bubbling low since 1994 but the Brits to have a decent track record of performing well on home turf in other sports so there is an air of optimism around the coming weekend.

“Just thinking back to the 2006 Motocross of Nations the crowd was the biggest to date and this year’s will be even bigger,” three times former world championship runner-up Searle says. “We’ve been so close to getting a podium. It just comes down to the day and if we can make it happen then I think it will be one of the best experiences of my whole life. It would be hard to top that.”

“From a racer’s perspective Matterley has everything we could ask for: the jumps, the hills, the elevation,” he adds. “Any rider they will say they love it.”

When the Chamberlain trophy is packed away with race machinery late on Sunday night and teams start to think of 2018 motocross testing days prior to the off-season winter break (and onto the arenas for supercross) the countdown will already have begun until MXGP promoters Youthstream moves the whole show to North America in 2018. 71 years and counting: the Motocross of Nations continues to ripen.

 
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