Pecking order established in MX nationals
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Bay of Plenty's Cody Cooper had one hand on New Zealand's premier motocross trophy right from the start of the nationals and now he has two – and he's not letting go any time soon.
The reigning five-time New Zealand MX1 motocross champion from Mount Maunganui took command at the opening round of his title defence at the first of four rounds of the series in Timaru in early February and then he extended his advantage to 13 points over great rival and last season's runner-up Dean Ferris, from Australia, after the second round at Rotorua just over a week ago.
It is a similar story with the MX2 (250cc) class too, with Takaka-raised but Takapuna-based rider Hamish Harwood, the defending champion in the class, enjoying a massive 20-point lead over his nearest challenger, Christchurch's Dylan Walsh.
The 125cc class is less settled, with Taihape's Hayden Smith and Karaka's Kurtis Lilly sharing equal first position.
With the series now at the halfway stage and a pecking order established, it means the final two rounds will be frantic as leaders try to consolidate and title hopefuls go on the attack.
While weather conditions improved following the rain-delayed start to the day at round two in Rotorua, the track remained tough and extremely deep ruts made racing difficult and passing almost impossible.
But Honda’s Cooper had all the answers for that.
Cooper twice finished runner-up in the early part of Sunday's race programme, behind Yamaha's Ferris and then another Australian visitor, KTM's Luke Styke, before letting rip in the third and final race of the day, Cooper leading from start to finish to cap off a brilliant weekend.
Australian Dean Ferris (Yamaha), challenging hard for MX1 honours. Photo by AndyMcGechan, BikesportNZ.com
In both the day's earlier races, 33-year-old Kiwi international Cooper had to call upon all his vast repertoire of race skills – the same ones that have made him champion in New Zealand for the past four consecutive seasons – to fight his way through traffic on a track that offered only a few good passing options.
"When I got a bad start I had to ride aggressively to push through traffic and I think I hit a few people today. But that's what you have to do sometimes," Cooper smiled.
"It's fantastic that I was able to leave here with a bigger points advantage than I had started the day with. I’m riding within my comfort zone and feel that, if Dean (Ferris) steps it up, I can still go harder."
Just as had happened at Timaru, Ferris was forced to settle for runner-up spot again at Rotorua, while it was another Honda rider Todd Waters, also from Australia, who claimed the final step on the podium and moved himself from fourth to third in the championship chase.
In the MX2 class battles, it was actually Hamilton's Josiah Natzke who won the day at Rotorua, stealing the thunder from championship leader Harwood.
Takaka's Hamish Harwood (KTM), well-positioned in defence of his MX2 crown. Photo byAndy McGechan, BikesportNZ.com
The two men each scored a race win and both of them finished no lower than third in their other outings and it was really little more than a hiccup for Harwood who still managed to extend his championship lead.
Harwood began the day 11 points ahead of Walsh and he ended it with a 20-point buffer.
With such a points advantage and just two rounds (six more MX2 races) to go, Harwood seems well on target to keep the title, while Natzke has slightly bigger fish to fry.
The Rotorua event was Natzke's sole appearance in the domestic series as he switches his focus back to racing overseas.
He now flies out to prepare for another tilt at the European 250cc Championships (EMX250) in what will be his third full season in Europe.
Perhaps the most exciting class to watch during the domestic series has been the one with the smallest engines – Smith and Lilly virtually inseparable in the 125cc division.
Trailing Smith by just three points at the start of the day at Rotorua, Lilly turned in three solid rides, posting a 1-1-2 score-card and rocketing up to take a share of the championship lead.
“Finally I’m here at the top,” said an overjoyed Lilly afterwards. “This is the realisation of all I’ve been striving for. I was off the bike, recovering from injury, for seven months before the nationals started, but I’m obviously 100 percent fit again now.”
The 2017 New Zealand Motocross Championships series next heads to Palmerston North for round three in just over a week (on March 12), with the fourth and final round set for Taupo on March 25.