2021 AMA Supercross 450 Class Season Previewby Jack Gaffney January 16, 2021 0 comments
Tonight begins what is possibly the single most unique season in the near half-century history of Supercross. There will be no races at Anaheim’s Angel Stadium. Angel Stadium has hosted the season opener for 21 consecutive years dating back to 1999. Stadiums will be hosting multiple races in a week similar to that of a barnstorming bubble due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The 450 class field that, last offseason was billed as the deepest ever, casually added both 250 Class Regional Supercross Champions. Along with them, other 250 title contenders from last year were added. A relatively new manufacturer in the form of GasGas will be making its stateside debut on the big stage starting this weekend in Houston, Texas. So, all in all, this is shaping up to be one memorable season.
What is Supercross?
Here’s a bit of an introduction to those that are unfamiliar with the sport. Supercross takes place in major stadiums in North America, including AT&T Stadium and Lucas Oil Stadium, along with one of the sport’s most prestigious venues, Daytona International Speedway (yes, the one you’re thinking of). The season usually starts in Anaheim. Unfortunately, that race isn’t happening due to Covid restrictions in California. Tracks are constructed by a company named Dirt Wurx. The tracks are designed to give riders different challenges on a week-to-week basis. It is not typical that you see the same track twice in a season, or ever, for that matter.
There are two classes in Monster Energy Supercross. The premier class is the 450cc division. The 250cc division is split up regionally into 250 East and 250 West. This class acts as a feeder system for riders to make it to the 450 class. Each 250 class runs a partial schedule, which is different than the full 17-race slate the 450 riders race.
Race days work as follows. Both classes qualify hours before the main show to set themselves up for one of two Heat Races. For these heat races and all races for that matter, riders do a standing start from behind a starting gate. When the gate drops, the race timer will begin. Each race is a different amount of time with laps added on once time expires. Heat Races last 6 minutes regardless of bike class, with an extra lap added on once time expires.
The top nine finishers from each heat qualify for their class’s main event race. Meanwhile, everyone else tenth on, go to a Last Chance Qualifier Race. These LCQ’s last five minutes with an additional lap once time expires. Only the top four finishers qualify for their class’s main event. For everyone else, their night is over at this point.
Now for the Main Events. Races are the only way to earn championship points and race times are different for each class. For the 250 riders, races are 15 minutes plus an additional one lap, while 450 Main Events are 20 minutes plus one lap. Finishing first in the main event will award that rider with 26 points. Second place receives 23 points, third place 21 points, fourth place 19 points. Each position after goes down one point per position.
Preseason Power Rankings
With a somewhat brief synopsis out of the way, let’s name some riders you should expect to see contending this season for race wins and a championship in the 450 Class. This is also sort of a personal preseason power ranking.
10. #14 Dylan Ferrandis – Monster Energy Star Racing Yamaha (Rookie)
Ferrandis comes into his freshman year in the 450 class as one of the most intriguing riders in the entire sport. The 26-year-old Frenchman has spent the last two years in the 250 class. He has shown insane speed, and skill winning back-to-back 250 West Supercross Championships, along with an Outdoor 250 Motocross Championship, but enters 2021 with a hand injury he suffered in a practice crash late last year.
Ferrandis also happens to be maybe the biggest villain in the sport. This is for his aggressive riding style. For the most part, it is unwarranted. An incident last year with Christian Craig at the third round of the year in Anaheim, where he took him out right after the finish line jump sealed the deal for most people perception wise. He was booed consistently every time he was interviewed from that incident on for races that had spectators in 2020. Ferrandis showed that the boos didn’t affect him last year, and I doubt they will this year either.
He also has the added benefit of Factory Yamaha revamping their 450 program. Factory Yamaha had been abysmal since 2012, as the team only won three main events in that span. His riding style should translate well to the big bike, and if he can overcome his preseason hand injury and not ruffle the feathers of the wrong guys, it’s a strong possibility he could steal a win or possibly two this year.
9. #25 Marvin Musquin – Red Bull KTM (8 Career Main Event Wins)
While a fellow Frenchman like Ferrandis, the team, bike, and most of all, the circumstances are much different for Musquin. This could be the last year in Musquin’s championship window as the window is closing rapidly. Musquin is set to turn 32 years old at the end of this year, which is similar in this sport to what Tom Brady or Drew Brees are in the NFL. He also missed all of last year’s season with a major knee injury.
Musquin seemingly lost alpha dog status at KTM when Cooper Webb won the 450 Championship in his first year with the team in 2019. Outside of his rookie 450 season in 2016, and last year, which he missed, Musquin has never finished worse than third place in points. Skill and talent have never been an issue for him. Anyone that has watched the sport regularly can tell you that Musquin is one of the best on the planet. The problem has been on the mental side with him mainly. For instance, he could be leading a race, get run down and passed by someone for the lead, and seemingly give up.
He works with the sport’s biggest trainer Aldon Baker. The mental side is something that Baker has tried to help him get better at. Regardless, Musquin should be contending for podiums and race wins. He could be a slight longshot pick for the title this year.
8. #23 Chase Sexton – Honda HRC (Rookie)
Sexton is a rider I am super high on for this season and the future. He made an early jump to the 450 class after winning the 250 East Championship last year. He also happens to train with one of the single greatest riders in the history of the sport. That rider is James Stewart. For some reason, Sexton is similar to former four-time 450 SX Champion Ryan Dungey, and it’s not for the fact that Dungey’s brother Jade happens to be his mechanic. Everything he does on the bike looks super smooth. It doesn’t appear that he makes major race errors. Sexton lets the race come to him and doesn’t succumb to pressure. He showed this last year in his championship battle with Shane McElrath.
Back to his trainer for a quick minute. I do not think Stewart would have come out of hiding (he did not make many public appearances post-retirement from ’17-’19 but semantics) to be a riding coach for anyone. He thinks highly of both him and his training partner Adam Cianciarulo, who we will get to later. So, I have no reason to believe that he will not have a successful career at the 450 level. If I had to pick someone that would be considered a dark horse, or just not one of the expected favorites to win the 450 Championship, it would be Sexton without question.
7. #51 Justin Barcia – Troy Lee Designs Red Bull GasGas (4 Career Main Event Wins)
Barcia enters the 2021 campaign in an interesting spot. He has won the season opener the last two seasons with Monster Energy Yamaha. Unfortunately, he ended up 5th and 13th in points these last two seasons (for context he missed races in 2019 due to injury, which explains the 13th-place finish). Now he finds himself on a brand-new factory team and on a manufacturer that is making its debut in Monster Energy Supercross this season.
As a couple of caveats, GasGas ran last year’s World Motocross Championship, MXGP, in Europe. The company’s top rider Dutchman Glenn Coldenhoff finished eighth, so the brand isn’t a stranger to the sport. If you want to be technical, GasGas is more or less just a KTM with red plastics. They are owned by KTM as is The Husqvarna Brand, but back to Barcia.
He is known as one of, if not the most aggressive riders in the sport. He would probably put an 8-year-old kid on a 50cc bike in the 2nd row if it meant he could win the 450 Championship. Now he has, for the first time in years, we can assume, a good program behind him and a bike to match. If anything, I’d like to think being the first rider to win a supercross race for a brand would be a nice feather in Barcia’s cap, and for him hopefully, that’s not all.
6. #21 Jason Anderson – Rockstar Energy Husqvarna (7 Career Main Event Wins) (2018 450 Champion)
I do not know if there’s any guy on this list that’s like one Jason Anderson. One of the best personalities in the sport currently without question. Anderson is one of the most relaxed and slightly aloof riders in the pits on the surface, but when it’s go-time, he is all business. He never truly got a chance to defend his championship in 2019 after suffering a broken arm and fractured ribs in a practice crash right before the third round of the season.
Last year was solid for the man nicknamed “El Hombre”. He managed a fourth-place finish in the points and was approximately one seat falling off his bike (as in the part of the bike where he sits on literally came off the motorcycle, I don’t know how I can stress this enough) away from a win in the final of seven Salt Lake City races.
Last year, he broke off with Baker as his trainer to be on his training program out west. He cited that he needed a new routine and needed something new as opposed to going through the motions every day in an Instagram post last April. It’ll be interesting to see how he does in his first full supercross season off the Baker Program. But I’d expect Anderson to be a week in week out contender for podiums and race wins. If everything goes in his favor, he will be in the title hunt for the second time in his career.
5. #16 Zach Osbourne – Rockstar Energy Husqvarna (1 Career Main Event Win)
All in all, it was a rather good year for Zach Osborne last year. He got his first career 450 Supercross win in the final race of the year in Salt Lake City. He then went into the outdoor motocross season and won the championship that he pretty much led from wire to wire. Osbourne is bringing a ton of momentum from 2020 into 2021. During last year’s bubble in Salt Lake City, the only rider who scored more points than Osborne was Webb. Osbourne found himself in a position to win more races last season, but end up giving up some late leads. This issue was not a problem in the motocross season, which has longer races (2 30-minute races +2 laps once time expires). So if he can close out races consistently, a championship is absolutely in reach.
4. #94 Ken Roczen – Honda HRC (15 Career Main Event Wins)
I feel like those in the know may feel this is a low ranking for Roczen. It feels like, at least, going into the season, this ranking makes sense. I would have felt a lot better about him if he didn’t skip the motocross season. In his defense, he became a father for the first time around that time, so I can’t fault him for wanting to spend time with his son. Roczen has also dealt with some form of an illness these last two years, which has slowed him down the further he gets into the year.
Before the big shut down last year, he was tied for the lead in points with Eli Tomac after Daytona. Rozen had three wins to his name. In the Salt Lake City bubble, he was noticeably off the pace compared to the other title contenders the further he got into main events. He would wind up losing second place in points to Webb.
I don’t think there’s an athlete who’s gone through more health-wise in the last decade save maybe Washington Football Team quarterback, Alex Smith. In 2017, he suffered a career-threatening arm injury after bailing from the bike in mid-air. He hit a triple and landed on his arm very hard. There was a very real chance he could have lost his arm, but he managed to come back the very next year. He had another injury with his other arm that knocked him out of action for the remainder of that season.
So, in short, if that 2017 injury didn’t happen, Roczen would probably be atop this list. The speed he showed in the two races before he got hurt was mind-blowing. He won A1 that year by nearly 20 seconds over second-place. I’d probably wager that Roczen is gone but by no means is he, not a race-winning and championship-caliber rider anymore, health permitting he can win this championship.
3. #9 Adam Cianciarulo – Monster Energy Kawasaki
Last year as a rookie, Cianciarulo, from the second they took his bike off the trailer to get ready for the first practice session in Anaheim, showed race-winning speed. That night last year, he led all practice sessions, qualified first, finished second in his heat race, and finished second in the main event that he led the good majority of. He had some rough moments making mistakes that cost him podiums and even top-five finishes, but you could see elite caliber speed and take positives from his performances. Much like Osborne, the key to any potential success in 2021 for AC comes in the form of being able to close out races.
With a full year of 450 experience under his belt and now training with James Stewart, the ceiling for his second year is, say, in the earth’s stratosphere. The biggest thing in his way would however be the next two guys on this list, one of which happens to be his teammate.
2. #2 Cooper Webb – Red Bull KTM (11 Career Wins) (2019 450 Supercross Champion)
One of the most shocking championship seasons I have ever seen in motorsports came from this gentleman in 2019. Webb was Yamaha’s top 250 prospect after multiple 250 Supercross Championships. When he ended up not performing up to the standard that they had hoped, they cut him loose in the 2018 offseason. This is where Red Bull KTM comes in. They swooped him up on a 1-year prove-it deal, and then he proceeded to win seven races that year, including a photo-finish win over Ken Roczen in Dallas along with the 450 Supercross Championship in convincing fashion. If you polled 100 people on who would have won the title that season, I can all but guarantee you not a single one would have said Webb.
While last year wasn’t bad for him, it definitely could have been worse. He suffered what appeared to be a serious back injury in Dallas, having to eject from his back and ended up landing back first on solid concrete. He then proceeded to miss zero (that is none for the kids back home) races and finished second the week after. Webb went on to win three races in the Salt Lake City Bubble. While he did miss a gigantic chunk of the motocross season due to lingering issues from that Dallas crash, I’d imagine he is well-rested and good to go for this season and enters as a title favorite.
1. #1 Eli Tomac – Monster Energy Kawasaki (34 Career Wins) (Reigning 450 Supercross Champion)
There has not been a more dominant but perplexing athlete on the planet over the last half-decade than Eli Tomac. At the top of his game, there is not a single rider on the planet that can match him on a Supercross track. He has an inhuman 30 wins over the last four seasons, including a stretch of 5 straight wins in 2017. But then there are times when he makes very odd mistakes that in the past have cost him championships (See East Rutherford 2017, Anaheim 1 2018, and Dallas 2019 as prime examples). Finally, last year he put it all together to win his first 450 Supercross Championship.
The good news is that the pressure to win one is no longer there. The bad news is the pressure to repeat is going to be just as much. With 34 career wins and being sixth on the all-time wins list, and depending on how long he plans to continue racing, getting as high as possibly second not being out of the realm of possibility. The question soon will be where does The Pride of Cortez, Colorado rank among the pantheon of the sports all-time greatest. Tomac is currently my pick to win the championship this season.
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