On the morning of Friday the 22nd June 2007 I experience something that will live long in my memory. Stood alone on the infield slope beside the Craner Curves at Donington Park, wearing shorts in the driving rain, black clouds roll overhead. I contemplate why I had arisen at an ungodly hour, to travel the length of the M1, in order to suffer the discomfort I currently endured.
Between the beating of the rain, in the distance behind me, an engine fires… First Practice for the British GP had begun.
The revs rise and fall, gently at first. Gears begin to shift, the noise grows from distant to cacophonous in mere moments. To this day this may be the single most beautiful sound to ever pummel my ear drums. In the peripheral vision of my left eye a single small red projectile explodes into view. Flicking from side to side, as it negotiates the curves of the Craners. Down, down, towards the Old Hairpin, which on this day resembled the foot of a waterfall. The pilot, fresh from the pit lane moments earlier, is fully committed on the untested surface. Riding the grip of his bespoke Bridgestone wets as they cut through the surface tension of the standing water. The sound by now has reached its glorious peak. I no longer hear it, it is so loud it inhabits my very soul, inside my head, vibrating the fabric of my being from the inside out.
I can only describe the sound thusly; imagine what you might believe to be the sound of sheet metal tearing. Couple this with what can only be described as the ground opening up before you, topped off with a sprinkling of the finest violin concerto ever performed. This, my beloved readership, is the sound of the 2007 Ducati Desmocedici. With a young antipodean, named Casey Stoner, perched atop. You may have heard of him?
After years of following it on TV, this was my first ever sighting of a MotoGP missile in the wild. And boy did it deliver. It was visceral. The volume made it a struggle to concentrate. Stoner tipped into the old hairpin, and accelerating away to my right, possessing no fear in the lack of knowledge of the grip level he might find. The traction control, trying its best to rein in the rampant beast, sounding like a hail of gunfire.
It was, however, the following minutes that taught me a lesson that could not be learned through years of consuming TV coverage. As the other riders tentatively joined the track, it became apparent as the session continued, that Stoner was earlier on the throttle than every single other rider on the track. And not just a little, but a lot. You could hear it, every corner, every lap. I had seen the new kid on the block blitz the opposition through earlier rounds that season. Having foolishly assumed that Ducati had built a mighty bike to annihilate its opposition. But this moment made an indelible mark, this guy really lived up to his name, he definitely had ‘Stones’.
To this day I believe this is why Stoner always made his team mates look ordinary. Why only he could extract everything from the Duke, even as it became more difficult to handle as the years passed. I continued to visit the GP year after year, as Stoner followed Suppo from the Italians to the Japanese. The fact remained, he steered the bike to the apex on throttle, using less traction control than the others. This straightened his exit, which allowed him to accelerate earlier, harder and faster than his rivals. This was how, I believe, Stoner tamed the Duke. Who needs front-end feel when you steer from the rear?
Years later I watched him tackle the reprofiled Club corner at Silverstone, now aboard the Honda, with the rear tyre lit, the bike drifting gloriously from apex to exit kerb lap after lap. A wry smile crept across my face. Impressive. Similar fun could be had watching him on TV as he carved a line sideways through the aptly named ‘Stoner’ Corner at Philip Island or the penultimate curve at Valencia.
I never completely warmed to Casey the man, many times looking like he’d lost after actually scoring another victory or pole. A man that just wanted to do his job and go home. But I found the Donington crowds booing of him over the years thoroughly distasteful. To this day, it is this first experience of him on the Duke that I will always remember when someone mentions MotoGP to me, and it is why I will always have total respect for Casey’s talent on a motorcycle…
Am I alone in craving his return to measure himself against his spiritual successor Marc Marquez, his rejuvenated old foe Rossi, and the buttery smooth Lorenzo? Surely the four greatest to have walked the earth since the halcyon days of Rainey, Spencer, Doohan, Roberts et al.
Well, with Stoner having recently fallen out of love with Honda, seeing him return to the Ducati fold as a test rider, we may yet be treated to this spectacle. There is much talk that Casey may make a wildcard appearance at a race or two this season, in addition to his testing duties. Who would bet against Philip Island being top of his list. If we have a race anything like last years rumble-down-under overtaking-fest, with Casey in the mix, now that would truly be something to savour…
Roll on the 2016 Season.