Highs and lows from an eventful second round of revamped 2023 series.
Words: Simon Makker
Following a string of event cancelations, the FIM World Supercross Championship (WSX) returned in Abu Dhabi over the weekend, with new investors, a confined floorspace and an audience largely witnessing the sport live for the first time. After a troubled start to the 2023 season, all eyes were on round two to see if it could live up to its promises, and make headway at the midway point of the series. MotoOnline answers some of the key questions from a polarizing night of competition.
Q: What were the main differences we saw between Birmingham and Abu Dhabi?
A: There were a number of changes across the board, but some of these were made to adapt to the smaller venue. The most notable was a commentator switch, with Ralph Sheheen and Jeff Emig replaced by Paul Malin and Grant Langston. The race format was also tweaked, where the heats and superpole were run earlier in the day, then the first two shorter main events were done back-to-back, followed by a longer final race later in the evening. Etihad Arena was by far the smallest venue we’ve seen for a World Supercross Championship round under SX Global and the 20-rider starting grid had to be stacked in two rows to ensure they could fit.
Q: Vince Friese certainly lived up to his reputation as the super-villain of WSX, but were there any repercussions for his heavy contact with Dean Wilson or off-track antics?
A: Easily the biggest talking-point of the night was MCR Honda rider Vince Friese’s on-track indiscretions, firstly with an aggressive hit on Dean Wilson (Fire Power Froth Honda) that left the Scottish rider on the ground, then cutting the track to stay ahead of Joey Savatgy (Mobil 1 Rick Ware Racing) later in the night. Ironically, Friese’s MCR Honda teammate, Mitchell Oldenburg was disqualified almost instantly from the third WSX race for entering the mechanics area backwards.
Q: How did the Abu Dhabi dirt hold up?
A: The dirt for the circuit was a big unknown heading into the round, and earlier in the weekend there were concerns that the track would break down a lot, especially as the planned heavy machinery to pack and shape the track failed to turn up, along with seemingly endless faults. Despite that, the track actually held together well and turned out to be quite a hard-pack base. The track itself was very tight and that made it difficult to pass on, but that made for some aggressive, entertaining racing, even if it was much more of an arenacross-style circuit than a full-sized supercross track.
Q: What was the reasoning behind holding both the heats and the superpole in an empty arena?
A: The amount of gate-drops in WSX feels a bit excessive. The race format early in the day was a curious one, especially as the heats and superpole were held before the crowds were in the arena. From a spectacle perspective, it wasn’t a great look to have those gate-drops in front of an arena of vacant seats, when usually they’re done in front of a crowd. The superpole format did play a role in determining which of the riders would have a strong advantage coming into the first turn, while those in the back row faced a tough night trying to pass on a tight circuit. It’s understood that local event promoters, Ethara, wanted a compact main program, which is why they went straight into the finals.
Q: Why did the two championship leaders, Shane McElrath and Ken Roczen, have to start off the back of the grid?
A: Both of the series leaders and defending champions had difficult heat races. SX2 champion Shane McElrath (Mobil 1 Rick Ware Racing) found himself near the back of the pack after a bad start, then finding more dramas midway through the race. Meanwhile, WSX number one Ken Roczen (PMG Suzuki) also had a difficult time after an average start saw him having to try and make his way through the pack on a one-lined track. With both riders finishing outside of the top five in their heats, they were forced to start the finals from the second row.
Q: Did the double-stacked starting gate work?
A: Opinions are split on this, but given the size of the arena, and the fact that WSX needs a 20-rider starting gate, the organizers didn’t have any other option than to stack the gate two-deep. It ensured all riders could still line up for the three finals, and it made the first turn a lot safer. Rather than having the gate picks set for the entire night, a better option could’ve been to have the top 10 riders from the first final take their preferred gate pick for the second race, and so on. That way, the likes of Roczen and McElrath could’ve worked their way into a more favorable starting position as the night progressed.
Q: There was a lot of confusion at the end of the second SX2 final. What happened?
A: A technical error with the timing and scoring caused a lot of confusion. Team GSM’s Maxime Desprey was initially given the win (despite going down in the first turn), when in fact Fire Power Froth Honda’s Max Anstie claimed a comfortable victory out front. The mix-up meant the fireworks went off for Desprey and half the SX2 class missed the last lap as a result. Adding to the confusion, the TV coverage was hinged on the results, so viewers were mostly shown footage of Desprey’s final laps, while Anstie wasn’t given any air-time at all. To their credit, though, they amended the results in near-record time.
Q: Is there a future for WSX after 2023?
A: There’s no doubt that SX Global and their investors will be very, very eager to finish the series on a high note in Melbourne after a patchy first year as a full-fledged championship. Series CEO Adam Bailey and his team know Marvel Stadium well after successful events there in the past and will pull out all the stops to ensure the series ends on a high note, not just for the fans, but for the riders and teams as well. Bailey and the championship’s new investors have expressed a willingness to focus on fewer, higher-quality races in the future, and if the series is to grow and improve next year, they’ll need to silence the critics and put on a more polished show, both at Melbourne, and again in 2024.