The premier MX1 class was about as close as you could ever want it to be in this year’s four-round New Zealand Motocross Championships, the final showdown in Taupo on Sunday a real nail-biter.
Mount Maunganui man Cody Cooper took his trusted Motul Honda CRF450 into battle at this year’s Fox apparel-sponsored series knowing full well that he was a target, the No.1 emblazoned on his bright red bike the treasured reward for anyone who could beat him.
With his winning of seven MX1 titles over the past nine years – his first one in 2011 – it was always going to be a tough assignment for any rider hoping to take that prize away from the Honda star.
Cooper’s title defence this season got off to a rollicking start when he completely dominated the day at the series opener at Balclutha in early February, his hat-trick of wins on the previously-untested circuit sending a clear message to his rivals.
But his nearest challenger, Australian professional Kirk Gibbs (Altherm JCR Yamaha YZ450F), struck back at round two near Rotorua exactly a month later, clawing to within six points of championship leader Cooper.
Round three at Fernhill was a disaster for Cooper, as Gibbs scored his first hat-trick of wins and also took over the series lead.
So when the riders arrived at Taupo’s Digger McEwen Motorcycle Park for the final round on Sunday, Gibbs was five points ahead of Cooper and there was still everything to fight for.
Cooper led from the start of Taupo’s first MX1 race and looked strong in front, until about two-thirds of the way through the race when forearm muscle fatigue (“arm pump”) became a problem for him and he slipped back to finish third, behind Gibbs and West Auckland’s Hamish Harwood (CML Racing Team KTM350F).
“I just couldn’t hang onto the bike,” the 36-year-old Cooper explained.
With Gibbs now a solid 10 points in front and just two races to go, Cooper needed a miraculous fight-back and there appeared a glimmer of hope when Cooper won the next race and Gibbs finished runner-up.
However, the mathematics was simple and Gibbs knew that he only needed a fourth place or better in the final race of the championship for him to take the title.
Cooper won that final race and clinched overall MX1 class honours for the day, but Gibbs settled for another runner-up finish and therefore took the title, the man from the Sunshine Coast earning Yamaha their first New Zealand MX1 title in 12 years (when Cambridge’s Damien King won it in 2008).
Gibbs had previously won the New Zealand MX1 title in 2018, on that occasion riding for KTM, and the previous time a non-Kiwi won the New Zealand MX1 title before that was Britain’s Greg Hanson (on a Kawasaki) in 1987.
Between them, Gibbs and Cooper won all 12 races for the MX1 class this season, the pair sharing the glory six wins apiece, but it was the two third-place results for Cooper that proved his undoing.
Special mention should also be made of the men who finished third, fourth and fifth in the class – Harwood, Hamilton’s Kayne Lamont (Altherm JCR Yamaha YZ450F) and Waitakere’s Ethan Martens (MR Motorcycles Kawasaki KX450F).
Harwood, the double title winner from 2019 (the champion in both the 125cc class and MX2 class last season), was this year focussed on the MX1 class and racing a 350cc machine against his illustrious rivals, all of them on 450cc machinery.
Although he didn’t manage to win a race, Harwood did finish runner-up on three occasions and also qualified his bike fastest at Taupo’s finale.
Lamont, the national MX2 champion (on a Husqvarna) in 2014 and national MX1 No.3 from last season, saw his 2020 MX1 campaign get off to a rocky start.
He sustained deep bruising to his backside after a horrifying crash at the Honda New Zealand Motocross Grand Prix in late January, just one week before the nationals kicked off at Balclutha.
He stunned everyone when he showed up at Balclutha regardless, rode bravely and produced a 5-4-16 score-card that day.
He continued on through the series, scoring a runner-up result in one race at Rotorua, and consistently finished fourth in the other races, good enough for fourth overall for the championship.
Martens crashed during qualifying at round three at Fernhill and injured his shoulder, the 28-year-old truck driver commenting that he was “lucky to be able to carry on riding”.
He battled throughout the series with a tenacious Brad Groombridge (Kea Trailers Suzuki RM-Z450) and managed to chip away at earning solid points with fifth and sixth placings, thoroughly deserving his eventual No.5 ranking. Martens had raced his way to seventh overall in the MX2 (250cc) class last year.
Gibbs was naturally thrilled to be able to repeat his MX1 title win of 2018.
“I really enjoy racing in New Zealand,” he said.
“It wasn’t just me and Cody this year either, it was Hamish too. I’m just happy to sort out my weaknesses and get stronger.
“This was good preparation for me for the nationals in Australia, although the Coronavirus may upset that competition.
“I might go home and have to put my feet up or be in quarantine.” he laughed.
Cooper was magnanimous and gracious in defeat, paying tribute to his rival from overseas, but the Kiwi hero also vowed to win back the title next season.
“My grandfather died this week and so I didn’t do much riding leading up to Taupo. I had other things on my mind,” Cooper said, obviously drained both emotionally and physically.
“We changed a few settings on the bike this week and we got it wrong. It caused arm pump in the first race. But we got it right for the next two races and the bike was awesome.
“I’ll be back next year. I love this sport. I felt good on the bike and I’m now more relaxed than before. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone.”
If Cooper does regain the MX1 title in 2021, he will extend his number of Kiwi MX1 title wins to eight, although he’ll still be a one short of the New Zealand’s most-crowned open class champion, Taranaki’s Shayne King, who won nine Open class/500cc/MX1 titles, most of them on a Honda, between the years 1989 and 2005.
Meanwhile, Mangakino’s Maximus Purvis (Yamaha) wrapped up the 2020 MX2 (250cc) title ahead of Mount Maunganui’s Josiah Natzke (Kawasaki) and Oparau’s James Scott (KTM), while Tauranga’s Brodie Connolly (Husqvarna) was unpressured to win the 125cc class crown ahead of Tauranga’s Madoc Dixon (KTM) and Auckland’s Cobie Bourke (KTM).
Final leading standings in the 2020 New Zealand Motocross Championships:
MX1 class: 1. Australia’s Kirk Gibbs, 280 points; 2. Mount Maunganui’s Cody Cooper, 276; 3. Auckland’s Hamish Harwood, 244; 4. Hamilton’s Kayne Lamont, 203; 5. Waitakere’s Ethan Martens, 176.
MX2 class: 1. Mangakino’s Maximus Purvis, 252 points; Mount Maunganui’s Josiah Natzke, 246; 3. Oparau’s James Scott, 228; 4. Christchurch’s Dylan Walsh 224; 5. Australia’s Caleb Ward, 188.
Under-19 class: 1. Oparau’s James Scott, 300 points; 2. Australia’s Riley Ward, 242; 3. Auckland’s Cobie Bourke, 226.
125c class: 1. Tauranga’s Brodie Connolly, 291 points; 2. Tauranga’s Madoc Dixon, 229; 3. Auckland’s Cobie Bourke, 213; 4. Christchurch’s Marshall Phillips, 202; 5. Rongotea’s Zac Jillings, 167.
© Words and photo by Andy McGechan, BikesportNZ.com
Find BikesportNZ.com on FACEBOOK here
Check back here on www.BikesportNZ.com during this week as we bring you more words and pictures from the weekend.
Full results can be found here: