CAPTION: Hamilton's Josiah Natzke (KTM 250SX-F), who won the day in the MX2 class on Sunday. Photo by Andy McGechan, 

FEBRUARY 20, 2017: Hamish Harwood is well on the way to successfully defending his national motocross crown, despite meeting his match in Rotorua on Sunday.

Harwood dominated the opening round of the New Zealand Motocross Championships near Timaru a fortnight ago, a hat-trick of wins securing him a solid position at the top of the MX2 (250cc) class.

But it was fellow KTM rider Josiah Natzke who stole his thunder at round two of the series near Rotorua on Saturday, Natzke taking the top step of the day's podium by two points from Harwood.

The two men each scored a race win and both of them finished no lower than third in their other outings.

It was really little more than a hiccup for the Takaka-raised but Takapuna-based Harwood because he still managed to extend his championship lead.

Harwood began the day 11 points ahead of his nearest threat for the title, Christchurch's Dylan Walsh, and he ended it with a 20-point buffer as Walsh succumbed to the tough track.

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.

Sunday's event was Natzke's only appearance in the domestic series as he switches his focus now to racing overseas.

He flies out shortly to prepare for another tilt at the European 250cc Championships (EMX250) in what will be his third full season in Europe.

Natzke will be based in England this season as he joins a British KTM team.

"I finished off well at the end of last season but, in terms of the overall championship, I was not that satisfied with the outcome," said the 18-year-old.

"But I have learned a lot and this year I am much better prepared both mentally and physically. Hamilton's Mike Barnes has been working as my personal trainer this year and Rotorua's Norm Cobb has been helping with bike set-up.

"We have done nothing with the engine and just done a few modifications with the suspension to make it suit me better.

"I think I am stronger and faster than I've ever been, although it will be interesting to see what happens in Europe now that they have opened up the competition to allow 250cc two-stroke bikes to be used alongside the four-stroke bikes like mine.

"There will definitely be some very fast guys there ... but there always will be. I just have to make sure I'm one of them," he smiled.

The nine-round EMX250 Championships kick off in Italy on April 15-16.

Rounds will follow in The Netherlands, Latvia, France, Russia, Italy again, Portugal, Switzerland and then France for a second time.

Meanwhile, in the MX1 class at Rotorua, Mount Maunganui’s defending MX1 class champion Cody Cooper also extended his points lead at Rotorua, although he has a talented bunch of Australian riders to keep him honest.

One of the stand-outs on Sunday was Australian KTM star Luke Styke.

Former Australian MX2 champion Styke finished third in the day's first MX1 race, before coming on strong to win race two, his first victory of the series in a competition that he is merely using as a build-up for his assault on the Australian nationals later in the year.

Styke settled for fourth in the day's final MX1 race and, when combined with his earlier results, he was able to move up from fifth-equal after round one to now be alone in fourth place overall.

“Luke achieved good starts all day,” enthused his team boss and former Australian champion Jay Marmont.

“There’s still a lot for us to work on, but Luke seems more comfortable on the bike now (than he was at round one). He spent all his energy and lost himself a bit late in the day, but overall I’m pleased that we have made a step in the right direction.”

In the 125cc class, Taihape KTM rider Hayden Smith still leads the way, although he now has to share the top spot with Karaka's Kurtis Lilly after they again traded blows and shared first and second placings throughout the day's racing at Rotorua.

The national series next heads to Palmerston North for round three on March 12, with the fourth and final round set for Taupo on March 25.

Credit: Words and photo by Andy McGechan,