Thursday March 9, 2017 at 3:02pm
The opening round of the Maxxis ACU British Motocross Championship supported by Pro Clean takes place at Culham Moto Park on Sunday where the country's fastest racers will be banging bars for the biggest prize in domestic racing.
The mostly natural track snakes up, down and around an imposing bank on the side of the River Thames near Abingdon and will provide a super-tough test right from the start of the eight-round series that's widely regarded as Europe's best.
With its big drop-offs, fast straights and spectacular leaps out of the valley, Culham is a favourite with riders who love the wide choice of lines that invariably appear as the track cuts up rough.
“I’m looking forward to Culham, I really like it," said Buildbase Honda's Graeme Irwin who ended the 2016 season fourth in the MX1 championship. "It’s quite natural and it’s one of those tracks where you have to be really smart with your riding and pick and choose lines which makes it easier to pass.
"It always gets quite rutty down at the bottom which I’m looking forward to because again that means more passing opportunities.”
There's no shortage of talent in both championship classes but Irwin will start as one of the favourites for the MX1 crown alongside defending champion Tommy Searle (Monster Energy DRT Kawasaki), Jake Nicholls (Hitachi KTM) and 2013 champ Kristian Whatley (Apico Husqvarna).
Searle will be forced to sit out the opener as he recovers from knee surgery which could put Nicholls – fresh from his 11th-placed finish in the MXGP of Indonesia – in pole position although Whatley certainly fancies his own chances.
“I’m pretty handy around Culham," said Whatley, who will be racing for the first time since midway through the 2016 season. "I like it there with all the lines. You’ve got to be thoughtful around there because it’s quite technical which can definitely catch you out."
Other quick riders to watch out for around Culham include GP winner Gert Krestinov (Phoenix Tools Honda), former champion Brad Anderson (Verde Sports Racing KTM), two-time MX2 champ Elliott Banks-Browne (Geartec Husqvarna) and fast Frenchman Steven Lenoir (Hobbs Racing Kawasaki) – although there's no shortage of other riders who could spring a surprise.
The field is potentially even closer in MX2 where there's a fascinating mix of older talent and a wave of hungry young riders looking to break through.
With defending champion Adam Sterry (Monster Energy Kawasaki) concentrating on GPs, 2016 runner-up Steven Clarke racing Stateside and third-placed Bryan MacKenzie retired the door is open for a new top three and there's no shortage of contenders jostling for position.
One of the more senior stars looking to take his first Maxxis title, 29-year-old Ulsterman Martin Barr (Buildbase Honda) was leading the series in 2016 until a big crash at his home round at Desertmartin derailed his challenge.
“I like Culham," said Martin, who ended the season fourth. "It’s a very good track and gets nice and rough and rutty. It’s a challenging track and that’s what I like. I’m looking forward to my second year with Buildbase Honda and trying to win the MX2 championship – that’s our main goal this season.
"It’s not going to be easy – I think I’m maybe the oldest in the class and there are a lot of fast young kids coming through – but I’ve still got the drive, still got the hunger.”
Liam Knight (Hobbs Racing Kawasaki), Brad Todd (Putoline Planet Suspension Husqvarna) and Jake Millward (Verde Sports Racing KTM) finished fifth, sixth and seventh last year separated by just 17 points so expect them to renew their rivalry and push for the podium.
Mel Pocock (REVO Husqvarna UK) should also be a serious threat in his first full season back after 2015's hand injury, fast Finn Harri Kullas (MVR-D Route 77 Husqvarna) has a ton of top-flight experience and Ben Watson (Hitachi KTM) could beat them all as he continues his comeback from last season's foot injury.
If that's not enough talent then what about the raft of teens moving up into the Pro division including Alexander Brown (Apico Husqvarna), Dylan Woodcock (Team Green Kawasaki) and last year's Maxxis MXY2 champion Jamie Carpenter (REVO Husqvarna UK)?
While we’re on the subject of the Maxxis MXY2 championship, Culham will also host the opening event in the five-round series.
With most of last year’s big-hitters heading up to MX2 for 2017 the only real indicator of form we’ve had in this class so far this season was the HIMX back in early February.
An impressive nine riders from the top 10 at Hawkstone will be in action on Sunday so check out these names and try to pick a potential winner…
Tom Grimshaw (HCR/Putoline/Apico Yamaha), Howard Wainwright (Redline Honda UK), Charlie Cole (Husky Sport), Josh Peters (Cab Screens Husqvarna), Joe Cadwallader (RMJ DBR Husqvarna UK), Lewis Hall (Team Green Kawasaki), Keenan Hird (Craigs Kawasaki), Jake Edey (Gear4 KTM) and Sam Nunn (Lings Husqvarna).
…but there’s bound to be few more future pro stars up at the front and fans are guaranteed two exciting races.
Admission is £20 for adults and £5 for children with family tickets priced at £45. Practice starts at 9am with the first race in the six-moto programme at 11.55am. Culham Moto Park is just off the A415 between Abingdon and Clifton Hampden. Nearest postcode is OX14 3DA.
Picture © Nuno Laranjeira