2023 has seen another resurgence for Romain Febvre…and Kawasaki.
Romain Febvre’s sequence of five consecutive Grand Prix wins in the premier class wasn’t enough to increase the likelihood of a second MXGP title – and the first for Kawasaki in the four-stroke era – but it was a feat that feels increasingly rare. Tim Gajser managed seven on the spin at the midway point of the 2019 campaign, and the streak was enough to be the bedrock of the Slovenian’s second crown. Jeffrey Herlings’ momentous season in 2018 saw the Dutchman clinch the final nine rounds in a row for one of the most comprehensive campaigns in the history of the sport.
The biggest tally since ‘19 though, and with the likes of Jorge Prado, Jeremy Seewer, Maxime Renaux coming into the series and significant names like Tony, Cairoli, Clement Desalle, Gautier Paulin and others exiting during the pandemic championships, has been three: accumulated by both Herlings and Gajser.
Febvre’s spell was achieved without Herlings and a fit Gajser in play, but still with aplomb, and from diverse territories like Indonesian heat to Lommel sand and Czech hard-pack. Prado has been chasing hard in terms of championship points (he was runner-up to all five victories) but the 30-year-old Frenchman deservingly has the spoils for what is the richest return in his ninth MXGP season.
The rack of five successes was significant also for Kimi Raikkonen’s Kawasaki Racing Team; now a second year into their official status as the factory effort. The Antti Pyrhonen-led crew have waited six years since their last victory, and patiently helped A-list signing Febvre to recover fitness and confidence after his costly leg break in the winter of 2021.
“It was a long dry period unfortunately,” the Finn told us. “In ’18 we had a lot of podiums and ’19 with Pauls [Jonass] and AJ [Arminas Jasikonis] was also a nice season with the two rookies. With AJ in the first ‘Covid-season’ we were so close to winning a GP in Latvia and that triple header. Since that time we were not in the fight. We had rookie riders and bad luck with injuries. A podium then was a great achievement for us.”
Pyrhonen has overseen some of the top riders in MXGP during the last decade. Paulin (owner of that previous triumph in the Netherlands in 2017), Max Nagl, Max Anstie, Jonass as well as hopefuls such as Jasikonis, Ben Watson, Todd Waters and Mitch Evans. The team haven’t quite found the right elixir to reach the peak of the category and dethrone the likes of KTM, Honda and Yamaha despite their notable resources and workshop set-up. The signature of Febvre – fresh from his starring role during MXGP’s best-ever contest in 2021 – was seen as key and something that would help ease the move from Husqvarna Motorcycles to Kawasaki. The injury therefore was a major ‘spanner’ and time was all the squad needed.
“Romain was coming back strong last year; there were many 4th positions and then a [moto] win in Turkey,” Pyrhonen says. “That helped us to launch our 2023 season. We were able to do good training and testing and that was the foundation for this year. The new KX450F was really good and Romain felt like one with it, he was very happy. After podiums and the moto win in France we knew that the GP win was close, and I knew it would mean more confidence and with that he would be able to be more calm, more mistake-free and more calculative. He did it, and from there the wins started to come. He always had the speed, the condition and the starts but we just missed that last ‘something’ to make everything click. Lately it has been happening…but we don’t take anything for granted.”
There was a moment of fear this summer when a crash at the Spanish Grand Prix put Febvre on the sidelines. It was not the 2015 champion’s first concussion but fortunately he was able to return at the next round, his home event, and two podiums on the bounce set the platform for the charge of wins.
“He crashed in Spain, knocked himself and it took a bit of time but Romain quickly felt better, and that has been the main theme this season: he’s just been feeling strong on the bike,” opines Team Trainer Kevin Strijbos. “We have not changed much with the training schedule, we just kept on doing what we thought was best. Once he had one win then it just rolled into the next. Five in a row is quite special I think for this time of the season.”
Febvre is quickly reaching the same career stats as his lot with Yamaha from 2015-2019. His link with the KX450F has spanned two different models but has found the same vein of efficiency. The formerly-monikered ‘IceOne’ team insist the optimisation with Kawasaki machinery didn’t need a full season for competitiveness. Febvre wasn’t this fast in 2022 mainly because of his own health and fitness.
“To be honest we had a very successful transition to Kawasaki,” Pyrhonen claims. “The factory have been unbelievable. KMC [Kawasaki Motor Corps] R&D have supported us so much, but it is not just support, they are really involved 100% every day and every week. It has always been a dream to work with a Japanese factory and they are so precise and professional. Super-respectful and always aiming to improve. We have a lot of similarities for our way of working. This is the foundation for the success and all the effort is visible because of the way the starts are and the way the bike is…and of course the results.”
While Evans’ story involves more peaks and troughs (and it looks like KRT will have yet another alteration to their rider roster for 2024) Febvre has shown the possibilities, and the enduring form of the former world champ. “I’m quite impressed by his mentality and the way that he is a real fighter,” analyses Strijbos. “He doesn’t complain, and he knows how to set up his bike. Sometimes he might take hours on test or practice days but once he has his base then it might just be one or two clicks to change from that point. He is really easy and very secure with that; other riders might start to search and they go left and right and have no idea. It’s one of his strong points. He has a special riding style, let’s say, but it works well for him. For his mentality, I was quite surprised. Even on cycling tests, if he is tired then he continues like he isn’t tired.”
Five in a row did not become six in Sweden, and Febvre’s first moto slip that let Prado through to make the chequered flag was the decisive moment. He still went 2-2 for his sixth podium and tenth from fifteen. “I knew it would stop sometime,” he smiled. “Still, consistent, and two times second. I’m happy.”
In the post-race press conference at Uddevalla, journalist Lorenzo Resta asked Febvre about his 2023 ‘iteration’ compared to the charger seen in 2015 and the protagonist of 2021. “’15, ‘21 and now; they are not the same,” he underlined. “I believe with the young guys coming up then the speed has improved [in MXGP]. In 2015 I was the ‘kid’ that moved to MXGP and then Gajser, Prado and all these others came along and improved the level of MX1 [MXGP]. It is really good to be in this crew today, even if 2015 was ages ago! It’s ten years now I have been able to ride at the top. In ’15 I came and had nothing to show. I had had only two years in MX2 and I did not know about the pressure or anything. Now, you can really feel if it will be your day or not. Setting up the bike as well, back then I didn’t set up anything! I just rode.”
A gap of 98 points means that Febvre can only hope some misfortune falls into Prado’s path for the remainder of 2023 if he wants the gold number plate once more. Otherwise he will still have the compensation of a third top three championship result, and KRT will also toast their best classification yet in MXGP. As standards go, it ranks as success on multiple levels.
Words: Adam Wheeler
Image: InFront Moto Racing