Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Marquez. Multiple world champions one and all.
Have you ever noticed how those that hold a single world title carry themselves with a certain dignity? Nicky Hayden, Jenson Button, Damon Hill – all well respected, rounded individuals (well, apart from Kimi that is!).
But multiple world champions, no. They all tend to have a major character defect caused by one thing – ruthlessness. Lewis Hamilton, Mick Doohan, Ayrton Senna, Casey Stoner, Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel and the three MotoGP stars mentioned above. They will sacrifice everything to be the best. As demonstrated last season. The ego’s of the multiple champions were fully on display for all of us to behold. And it wasn’t pretty.
Before I go any further I will state the following to make quite clear my allegiances: Channel 5 in the UK began showing MotoGP on terrestrial TV in 2000. This happened to coincide with Valentino Rossi moving up to the top 500cc 2-stroke category. The conclusion of his ‘learn in the first year, win the championship the next approach’ in the junior categories extended on into the premier class. His demeanour and fun loving personality, post race stunts and boundless enthusiasm for motorcycle racing was fantastic to witness – fun and entertainment in motorsport, really?
The very antithesis of the dour Michael Schumacher winning everything like a machine in my (at the time) beloved F1. Sunday afternoons were suddenly great. It did not escape Rossi that sport is entertainment as well as competition – this is lost on many, but key to becoming a legend; Muhammed Ali and Usain Bolt are others to have realised this.
From then on I watched every MotoGP race, always supporting Rossi, through the golden years, the leg break, Ducati and his Yamaha rebirth.
That first couple of years of watching MotoGP, while it was still the 500’s; it was the likes of Garry McCoy backing it in to every corner, Capirossi and Barros on the West Pons Honda sticking it to the factory team and this upstart young Italian starting to hang on to the coat tails of the established front runners.
But, I have always had respect for all of the riders – unless they did something on or off track to the detriment of their competitiors. This is where I and many others now find ourselves in a quandary. The actions of Rossi beginning with the press conference in Sepang last year are difficult to understand, even now with the full benefit of hindsight. One thing is certain, they did not have the desired effect, but may have a lasting effect on his legacy and future engagements on track with his rivals.
We may never truly know whether Marquez really was playing games, or whether Rossi was the architect of his own downfall – giving Marquez a reason to fight him born out of his own paranoia.
Looking back over the season certain themes and rhythms became apparent; Rossi – as he has through most of his career – almost always ‘found’ something on race day to make him competitive after struggling through practice, but suffered in the initial race laps due to poor qualifying performances. While in unpredictable races his huge reservoir of experience can be drawn upon, as demonstrated in the wet at Silverstone.
To me the championship started to fall away from Rossi at his home round of Misano. In the changeable conditions he demonstrated great pace on degrading wets that enabled him to reel Lorenzo & Marquez back in and take the lead. But his huge mistake was not to pit several laps earlier to get back on to slicks. Lorenzo’s fall mitigated this mistake to an extent. But a bigger points haul was there for the taking. It could be argued that Lorenzo may not have crashed had they had both pitted together earlier, using each other as a reference, rather than Lorenzo seeing a sprinting Redding, scaring him into thinking his pace was too slow.
Rossi then lost out to Pedrosa at his own game in Aragon and was on the defensive during the fly-aways preceding Valencia, having led the championship for most of the year. Undoubtedly Phillip Island will go down in history as one of the great races, but Lorenzo looked catchable by all three of the chasing group – their constant battling stopping them from hanging on to him.
Rossi has worked hard on adapting his style to compete with his young rivals, two second places in the last two championships prove this. But, this one must have hurt to be so close. No 10, what a story it would have been. Instead he has created a cloud that hangs over the conclusion of last year.
In the past his gamesmanship had a clear target, but this time I still do not clearly understand what he hoped to achieve. He obviously felt that he needed to remove Marquez from the equation, but Marquez was already out of championship contention. Perhaps he couldn’t attack Lorenzo directly for risk of upsetting Yamaha? Instead he enraged Marquez – a situation that may last long into future engagements. But he knew he lacked the outright pace in those final rounds and had to find a way to tip things in his balance. He dusted off his old psychological tool-kit, had a rummage around, but was out of practice and came up short.
A the recent Sepang winter test both Factory Yamaha’s ran at the front, though Rossi will be concerned about the gap to his teammate. But history tells us that Valentino is a Sunday afternoon guy, tending to stay within his limits until it really counts.
Lorenzo’s season was split between strange circumstances and absolute total domination. Poor helmet preparation cost him performance at both Losail and Silverstone (interestingly, over the winter he switched to Shark), while illness slowed him in Argentina. But his utter dominance when the championship arrived back in Europe brought him emphatically back into contention.
He is a rider that thrives on confidence. When he believes in himself and the bike he is an unstoppable force. When his confidence waivers we have instances like Austin 2014, when his jump start showed how important concentration is at this level. He still appears to carry the scars of his monumental off at Assen a few years ago – a little more circumspect in the quick stuff in the final third of the lap there and more reserved in changeable conditions at most tracks.
Unable to prevent himself from wading into the Rossi-Marquez situation, he could have taken the high ground and risen above it.
Back in his 250 days his ego and total arrogance was difficult to watch. Many, many big accidents when he came into MotoGP softened him and the fans feeling towards him. But occasionally he can’t help himself and lifts the veil.
Standing trackside he is the very definition of poetry in motion. He looks like the slowest guy out there, but is in fact the fastest for the majority of this season, so to say that he is not worthy is an injustice indeed. The title celebration with the five ‘Lorenzo’s’ and the Jaws t-shirts was very clever, but overlooked due to the focus on Rossi and Marquez.
From the first winter test at Sepang it looks as though Jorge finds the Michelins very much to his taste, with extremely strong pace compared to the rest of the field. The others should be very worried.
And so to the phenomenon that is Marc Marquez. Rossi’s major problem is that he has hung around for so long that other generations of riders that watched and were inspired by him, are now all grown up. In the case of Marquez he is like the love-child of Stoner and Rossi, version 2.1. Incrementally better at everything on track. Which adds up to a formidable package. Let’s not forget that this guy has only been in MotoGP for three seasons – now going into his fourth – and won the championship at his first two attempts. Incredible.
The big difference between Marquez and Rossi – which built Rossi’s season and destroyed Marquez’s – is that Marc operates on a ‘win it, or bin it’ philosophy. Riding for the podium, to this point, has not been an option. In his first two seasons with a great bike this served him well. Last year with a bike that had some problems, it has not been so successful – with the aggressive engine seemingly carried over to this years bike, judging by struggles in testing.
There is no doubt he has a superhuman ability to extract lap time while riding like he is on the edge of having the biggest accident you’ve ever witnessed. He has also built himself a ‘Senna-esque’ reputation when it comes to overtaking others. Passing unnecessarily close to reinforce the intimidation – just ask Dani Pedrosa and Tom Luthi to name but two.
Perhaps this is what irked Rossi, the Doctor does’t like another administering his own medicine against him. Certainly during the Sepang race there were a few moves in the fast stuff, where Marquez cut across Rossi’s bows, that may have blown the fuse and caused the kick-him-to-the-kerb retaliation.
His lack of experience and impetuosity are sometimes telling, but Marquez is undoubtedly something else. He has caused all of the riders to re-evaluate what is possible on a motorcycle. The image that sticks in my mind is of him turning into corners at Austin last year with his back wheel about a foot up in the air under brakes. He has an extra ability over all of the other riders to ride the bike beyond the limit, get into corners with huge over-speed and still make an apex, to save front-end folds with any part of his body he can get down on the ground. He is the very definition of spectacular.
His style may have been heavily reliant on Bridgestones amazing front tyre. It will be interesting to see how he adapts his riding to the Michelins, whose rear tyre is stronger, the front being sensitive at corner entry – the very place he made huge time gains.
I come away from last season feeling simultaneously elated and deflated. It had almost everything to make it one of the best ever and was easily the most entertaining motorsport series of last year. But the situation Rossi created was unnecessary in my opinion and tarnished the year. It starkly demonstrates how far these guys will go to win, sacrificing a friendship at the altar of the championship.
It has also polarised fans into either Marquez or Rossi camps. Where many were fans of both, now they are sworn enemies.
And, despite fighting each other for the championship, we never really got an explosive gloves-off fight directly between Rossi & Lorenzo on track like Motegi 2010.
But, this period should truly be considered a golden one. We have a living MotoGP legend who is still able to run at the front after 20 years of competition. We have two of the fastest riders ever to have walked the earth, with riding styles at the diametrically opposed ends of the spectrum. One flowing around the track like water, gliding from apex to apex, extracting every last ounce of corner speed available, explosive pace available immediately.
The other all jerks and shudders, improvising lines upon arrival at a corner, a result of higher and higher entry speed, bucking and weaving.
Both elbow down, both offering a different solution to the same problem; how to get their mount around a circuit as fast as humanly possible.
Did they really help each other? I can’t see it. They both had the same enemy in Rossi, it was a positive to both for Rossi to suffer. They too are enemies. At the moment the enemy of my enemy is my friend. That won’t last. If they perceive each other as a threat then that dynamic will change in a heartbeat.
And it’s always easy to tell who Rossi perceives as a threat; you’re know by your first name until the moment you’re identified as a contender, then you are Lorenzo, Marquez, Pedrosa.
Build-up to the new season has already begun. Michelin is here. Bikes must be optimised once more; tyres, weight distribution, electronics, unified software, geometry, aero, chassis stiffness. This year is a different story, more unknowns introduced to shake things up. Who will adapt quickest? Soon we will know…