PHOTOS | KTM/Ray Archer
Many thought Antonio Cairoli’s reign over the Monster Energy FIM Motocross World Championship had come to an end. Two injury-plagued, championship-less years had taken their toll on the Red Bull KTM MXGP rider’s rank in the sport, despite the eight titles that were already mounted to his mantle. But that all seemed to change the minute the gate hit the dirt for the opening round in Qatar this season. The thirty-two-year-old Sicilian racer controlled the point standings from the very start and withstood the advances of past champions like Romain Febvre and Tim Gajser, as well as the rise of Jeffrey Herlings late in the year. With another title now clinched, the ninth of his storied career, we had an opportunity to reflect on the year and what comes next. As you soon find out, there’s no sign of slowing down for Ac222…
Congratulations on the year and your ninth world title. How does it feel to do it again? Is it something that gets easier the more you do it or more difficult?
It's never easy, but it feels great because after two years of struggling we finally found a good setup with the bike and myself. We are really happy about the bike at the moment and how it works. We stayed away from injury so that we could train very well through the season.
We talked about that in Florida, that you had a healthy offseason for the first time in two years. What was it about the winter that helped so much?
We could work a lot and develop the bike how we wanted, and this made a difference. I made a lot of hours to build a good condition that I was missing for two years. It was a very good winter and that's where we built the championship.
How much does your training program change year after year? Do you do anything to keep it from going flat?
It is actually quite similar since I started and not many changes are going on.
You had the red plate from Qatar on. Did you expect that?
We expected to be competitive and to be consistent. That was our goal to make it through the championship. That's how we planned before. I knew that we could not be the fastest sometimes, but the consistency was key to make it through the championship.
I would think the highlight of your year was Arco. That was an amazing race to watch and see how you came from the back. Would you say that was the best race or is there another one that sticks out?
I think Arco was one of my best races because it was very difficult with the home crowd and with a track that was very difficult to get a pass, it was very tiny and slippery. We made a very good race and result, and I'm very happy with this.
In watching that race, you can tell that you waited for opportunities to make passes. You know where the spots were and used your race craft, something I don't think other people have. Other riders try to make things happen when the opportunity isn't there. What goes through your mind when you’re in a moto and know that you have to make the positions up?
In the mind, it goes to the championship. I had to be consistent and I wanted to be on the podium or at least in the top-five for all of the races, so when I crashed on the first lap, I had won the first moto and really wanted to win in front of the home crowd in Italy. I did my best and found a spot where I could pass a lot of people and I used it the best that I could to make it happen. I finished second in the moto and won the overall, so I was happy about that situation. I looked to have the best situations and right choices through all of the season.
You managed to be consistent when a lot of your competitors weren't, riders like Tim Gajser and Romain Febvre had big crashes that cost them motos. How do you maintain a level of steadiness through everything?
Sometimes I was not the fastest, but I know when it's the time. I have a lot of experience now and I can tell when I need to give it extra or when it's not the time, because it's a risky sport. If you are healthy and strong, a small mistake is always around the corner with the speed that we are carrying. It's very easy to make an injury. When it's not necessary, I know worth it to give 100-percent.
In the last four that was exactly what you did. You knew that Jeffrey Herlings was coming on, but you knew that you needed to stay in the top-five because the point gap was enough.
This was my plan. If you are not strong in the beginning of the season, you will be strong in the end. And the ones that are strong in the beginning struggle to keep the physical training at a high level. This is what happened, I knew that he would be strong in the end and that I was dropping with the training and losing a little bit of the condition. I had a good gap that we were able to manage.
Going into Assen you knew that you needed to be in one spot to clinch the title. How was it to cross the line knowing that you had won?
It was amazing because I worked a lot since the end of last year to keep the good setup of the bike and as best as possible, because I know it was difficult. The 450 is a difficult bike to understand and the last title I won was with a 350, so I didn't really test much with the 450 how I wanted because I was injured and had difficult winters. This year I knew it was a good winter.
For most of your career, you've had the same crew of people around you. Do you keep it that way knowing everyone is aware of their duties at all times?
I like to have my mechanics that I have always had and my team manager is always the same. When I moved from Yamaha to KTM, I asked for the package so we could move the whole team and this was an advantage. When you have a good group of people, it's stupid to change it. If you can keep it, that is best.
What was your first season with KTM?
2010 at KTM.
How much as it changed from 2010 to now? When you were an MX2 rider, KTM was still an odd brand but now they are the biggest team here.
I think we gave a lot of push to KTM, in the world championship and in the USA. Since we started winning in Europe in the world championship, they started believing in it more. The team got more consistent, more factory, and the results came there. I'm really honored to say that I was the one to bring the winning attitude to the KTM team in all of the world.
When you first had the option to come to KTM, what was it that drew you here?
From Yamaha's side it was very bad how they acted. I won the world title with them in 2009 and had no contract for 2010, but I was sure that they would continue with me and support me. I was happy with the brand and everything. When I started talking with them, going to headquarters for negotiations of the contract, they say to me that they didn't have space anymore and that I could find another ride. This was late in the season, like August, so everything was settled. I was very surprised about that. They said they had other plans for other riders, so I tried to find something else for racing in 2010. I had to choose KTM, but I am happy that it came because then I chose the best brand.
What caused the decision to go from the 350 back to the 450?
The decision was mainly because when we started with the 350, there was a time that the 450 was a strong bike and no one could really handle it despite the power. The 350 was very difficult to make the choice because it was less power but I believed it was possible to win with that. We were competitive with this bike and made it so many times. But at one point in 2014, I was already struggling a little bit because the 450 got easier to ride and the suspension got better. It was difficult for me to keep the pace on the 350 and it was already on the limit, so I asked for more power. The engine was more or less on the top of what they could develop. It difficult to make it better, so we started working on the 450. It took a little bit longer because it was a difficult bike, but I'm really happy with it.
You've raced for so long and seen the sport change so much. How has it been as a racer to adjust your riding style?
I've been racing with a lot of generations. The tracks have for sure gotten better and the organization is better and more professional, the team is more professional, and everything is better. Everything is evolving.
You have a year left on your current KTM contract. Can you give me an idea of what the next few years look like or is it too soon to say?
I hope we can continue for at least another two or three years, this is my goal. 2020 is when I would like to go to and then we will see what we can do. If there is still a possibility to get a title, then I will stay.
Some people think that with Jeffrey coming on so strongly, you'll just use next year as a goodbye tour. But you're still competitive and want to be here, so it's not like you're looking for a way out.
No way. I think Jeffrey is a very good rider, but nobody is God and unbeatable. Everybody has to fight so I think I treat him as another rider. He is very good and talented rider, but this year he had nothing to lose. He had no pressure to win the title, so when it's like that it is easy for everyone to go fast. When you are leading the championship, you need to control and stay on alert. If you crash or land on top of somebody, it's not easy. When you are in second place, you have nothing to lose and you go flat out always.
If you raced until 2020, how many years would that be as a professional?
Sixteen years professional.
After the championship was won, you received a steering wheel from the Red Bull F1 team. You have an interest in car racing and what is it you like about that?
I really like cars and rally. Formula 1 is the top of motorsport and I like it, but for me it is more important to have fun. The thing I like the most after motocross is rally, so it's possible that we have something to do with that.
By racing for fourteen years, you've become "the guy." Fans in the United States and around the world know who you are, one of the best riders in the world. Is it what you expected?
You expect to be one of the best, but to keep the hype for so many years is difficult. This is what I'm very proud of.