Will 2019 be a year of resurrection and redemption for Kiwi battler Courtney Duncan?
For three years in a row, the Otago rider has come agonisingly close to winning the Women’s Motocross World Championships (WMX), only to be cruelly denied on each occasion.
The 23-year-old took two more giant strides towards winning the 2019 edition of the series when she dominated in the Czech Republic in late July and then took two more big steps when she repeated the feat at the following round at Imola, in Italy, three weeks later, again scoring back-to-back wins over the weekend.
This gave her an impressive tally of seven race wins from eight starts in the series thus far. Her only blight was the seventh placing she recorded at the series opener in the Netherlands in March. Duncan flew in from her hometown of Palmerston, near Dunedin, to blitz the qualifying session at the Czech Grand Prix at Loket, registering a time two seconds quicker than the next best WMX rider at the high-profile event.
She then won easily both WMX races on the hard-packed Czech track. Racing this year for the first time for the British-based Bike It DRT Kawasaki Racing Team, she did not return home after the Czech GP, but travelled instead to her team’s UK base and kept training there for the final push.
“There was a big gap between the first few rounds so I went back home after each one but now I will stay in the UK with the team until the end of the series,” she explained.
The flying Kiwi is now a solid 23 points in front of her German rival Larissa Papenmeier (Yamaha) with just one round (two more races) remaining – at Afyon, in Turkey, on September 7-8.
With 25 points on offer for a race win, Duncan’s 23-point advantage means she could possibly wrap up the world crown after the first race in Turkey.
Duncan crossed the finish line a massive 36 seconds ahead of Dutch rider Nancy Van De Ven (Yamaha) in race one in the Czech Republic and then repeated the dose, winning race two by the exact same margin, on this occasion crossing the line ahead of Papenmeier.
Duncan’s dominant performance at Imola, while not quite as stunning – she beat Papenmeier by eight seconds in race one and beat Papenmeier again, this time by just four seconds, in race two – it was still a major achievement.
“I was happy to come away from Imola with a maximum 50 points and extend the championship lead heading into the final round,” Duncan said. “My riding was far from my best. I was struggling to find my flow and couldn’t really catch a rhythm until towards the end. I was riding a little cautious in the first few laps with the title in the back of my mind, but when I came back after my slip I saw I could catch up and you don’t say no to a win if it’s on. Getting the wins on tough days makes the victory even sweeter.”
“I’m just so happy for myself and the whole team both here in Europe with (Kawasaki team owner) Steve Dixon and back home in New Zealand; everyone has been working so hard to achieve this success,” she said. “It was really nice to race with the 2020- model bike first the first time at Loket; I tested it a couple of weeks earlier and, after just 10 minutes, I knew it would be the bike I’d love racing. I’m very happy with the refinements Kawasaki have made. It’s a new engine so the power is a lot different, but it’s just so good and I could really feel the difference from my old bike.”
This season is Duncan’s first on the Kawasaki bike and she is well on target now towards emulating the Women’s World Cup successes achieved by fellow Kiwi Katherine Prumm when the Pukekohe girl took her Kawasaki KX250F to finish top in the world in 2006 and again in 2007.
Duncan should probably have already been crowned world champion. For three seasons now, the intrepid Kiwi has had luck abandon her in her hour of need. Twice she was denied the world title through injury and on the other occasion she was the victim of a controversial decision by officials.
Leading the series in 2016, she struck an errant photographer who was standing out on the track at the German GP, crashed and broke her wrist. In 2017 she was again on target to win the title when a muddy hillside at the final round in France became impossible for the riders and the race was abandoned.
Instead of the race being wound back a lap prior to the stoppage (when Duncan had been leading) and a result declared from that, as normally happens, it was controversially decided to give the title to the French rider who was leading at the moment the race was finally halted, despite so many of the riders by that stage having illegally cut the course to avoid the hill.
Again leading the world series in 2018, she suffered further misfortune, this time injuring her right foot during a non-WMX race between the GPs, ruling her out of the final two GP events.
So, more determined than ever to finally achieve her goal, Duncan this year made the decision to join the Kawasaki outfit.
“They’ve given me an awesome opportunity and I’m very motivated to put them on top in 2019. A fresh start was what I needed and I couldn’t be more excited than to do that with Kawasaki. Kawasaki New Zealand have also come on board to support me at home, for which I am also very thankful.”
2019 WMX Championship top 10 after four of five rounds:
- Courtney Duncan (NZL, KAW), 189 points;
- Larissa Papenmeier (GER, YAM), 166 p.;
- Nancy Van De Ven (NED, YAM), 163 p.;
- Amandine Verstappen (BEL, YAM), 135 p.;
- Shana van der Vlist (NED, KTM), 122 p.;
- Lynn Valk (NED, YAM), 120 p.;
- Sara Andersen (DEN, KTM), 109 p.;
- Anne Borchers (GER, SUZ), 82 p.;
- Line Dam (DEN, HON), 81 p.;
- Nicky van Wordragen (NED, YAM), 65 p.
Words and Photos: Andy McGechan, Videos: MXGP TV