It is hard to upstage Valentino Rossi. It takes something large, significant, to take the limelight away from the nine-time World Champion, and the man who has been the charismatic heart of MotoGP for the best part of 15 years. To do that, you have to "Go big or go home," as British road racer Guy Martin likes to put it.
At Le Mans, Casey Stoner upstaged Rossi. The press conference - usually a rather staid affair, with the usual niceties about the track, each rider's chances at the circuit and a couple of witticisms - started unusually, with Nick Harris, the veteran commentator who leads the official press conferences, saying that Stoner would like to make a statement to the press. Stoner then proceeded to press the big red button that set Twitter, the internet and newswires ablaze. In the process, he did not so much ignite the 2013 MotoGP Silly Season, as douse it in liquid oxygen and set a flame thrower to it.
Stoner's announcement that he will retire at the end of this season has been covered in depth just about everywhere - see transcripts of his statement to the press here, and his detailed responses to questions here - but the question is, what happened to the Australian's denials exactly two weeks ago at Estoril of the stories that emerged in the Spanish press? Was the report in Solo Moto correct, and had Stoner already decided to retire at Jerez, or was Stoner being truthful when he denied any decision had been made. Piecing together the puzzle of what happened over the past few weeks, the following picture emerges.
At Jerez, according to the Spanish magazine Solo Moto, Stoner told HRC that he intended to retire at the end of the 2012 season. At Estoril, Stoner denied this, saying to the journalist who wrote the Solo Moto story "Don't read what you publish". The two stories appear to be incompatible, but was there any smoke without fire? What seems to have happened is that Stoner had a conversation with HRC in which he raised the possibility of retirement, and said he was considering it as a serious option. Honda, meanwhile, was trying to get Stoner to sign a two-year deal, though Stoner was only prepared to consider signing on for a single season.
In the week after Jerez, the story of Stoner's retirement appeared in Solo Moto, and at Estoril, there was much speculation as to who could have been the source of the story. The rumors centered on Livio Suppo as being involved in the leak - though they remained rumors, with nothing to substantiate them. Certainly, Suppo would have been privy to any such conversations about retirement, and given his close relationship with the Australian, would surely have been among the first to have been told by Stoner. But why leak such news to the press, especially if Stoner's decision was not yet final?
Presumably - and this is merely conjecture, with no chance of any confirmation ever being obtained until all this has long since blown over - someone in HRC decided to leak the news in an attempt to pressure Stoner into making a decision. The hope must have been that by forcing the Australian to issue a denial, he would be forced to think seriously about the consequences of retiring, and that that prospect would have brought him back into the fold.
That appears to have backfired, badly. The media storm which it unleashed merely reminded Stoner of all of the things he hated about MotoGP - everything except the actual racing, basically - and made his decision final. At Le Mans, he made his announcement, and the rest is history.
His answers to the questions put to him by journalists revealed the underlying disappointment Stoner has faced in MotoGP. His talent was immediately obvious once he climbed aboard a MotoGP bike in 2006. After missing most of the preseason due to surgery, he finished 6th in the season opener at Jerez, then qualified on pole at Qatar, and finished on the podium at Istanbul. On the lowly satellite LCR Honda, last in the queue for parts from Honda, and last in the queue for tires from Michelin, Stoner never finished worse than 8th, and got close to the podium a couple more times. But the Michelins he was using were unpredictable, and he found himself picking his bike out of the gravel on too many occasions in his first year, and gaining a reputation as a crasher. The reaction to his transformation into a race winner and World Champion once he switched to Ducati was one of incredulity, rather than the accolades that he himself - quite rightly - had expected. It was put down to the bike, not his ability.
In 2008, things got worse, when Stoner lost the title to Valentino Rossi again. In one of the greatest races of the last decade, Rossi beat Stoner at Laguna Seca by using all of the guile at his disposal to get ahead and disrupt the Australian's race. In the end, Stoner ran wide at the final corner, eventually toppling over in the gravel, and the race was lost. Later, Rossi's crew chief Jeremy Burgess would tell me that Stoner lost that race because he "didn't have a plan B." With crashes in the races that followed, at Brno and Misano, the press and the fans wrote Stoner off as being mentally fragile, as crumbling at the first sign of pressure. Once Rossi climbed aboard the Ducati, he would discover the reason why there was no plan B: if you didn't ride the bike as hard as possible from the off, the tires would cease to grip.
The events of 2009 merely confirmed the fans' and the media's perception of Stoner. After he decided to sit out three races in the middle of the season to find a diagnosis for the problems of extreme fatigue which had been troubling him since the beginning of the year, he was once again labeled as mentally weak, with reports of poor dietary habits and a strange approach to exercise causing his problems. Rumors that he would retire surfaced for the first time, and even though Stoner explained upon his return at Estoril that he had been diagnosed with and treated for late onset lactose intolerance, media reports continued to speak of his "mystery illness". Another dismal start to 2010, where Stoner kept losing the front end of the Ducati Desmosedici, reaffirmed his reputation as a crasher in the minds of the fans, despite the Australian going on to win three of the last six races once his crew, led by Cristian Gabarrini, found a solution to his problems at Aragon.
A crasher. Mentally weak. Not a serious racer. The man who only won the 2007 title because he had the best bike. And a rider who relied solely on traction control to be fast. That was Casey Stoner's reputation at the end of 2010.
Valencia, November 2010. Casey Stoner steps onto the Honda and devastates the field on his very first time out on the bike, with only Jorge Lorenzo capable of matching his times. Meanwhile, Valentino Rossi, the man who was believed to have single-handedly transformed the Yamaha from a basket case to championship winner, who had reaffirmed the belief that the rider is far more important than the bike, stepped onto the bike that Stoner had left behind and was nowhere. An embarrassment; 15th position, 1.749 seconds off the pace.
At last, Stoner's reputation could be placed in some perspective. Rossi - a rider renowned for not crashing - became a regular visitor to the gravel trap. The reputation of being a crasher seemed to belong more to the bike than to Stoner. Ducati went nowhere with Rossi aboard, with the Italian himself conceding that the only way to go fast on the bike was to sail right at the limit of the machine, saving crashes several times a lap, on every lap. He was asked the same question over and over again, and he gave the same answer every time: "Casey rode this bike in a very special way. I cannot ride it like this."
Surely it was just a matter of time before Stoner crumbled under the pressure, then? In 2011, Casey Stoner finished off the podium just once, when he got taken out in an overly ambitious attempted pass by Valentino Rossi at a damp Jerez, spawning a host of jokes about how Stoner, despite having switched to Honda, was still being plagued by front end problems on the Ducati. But despite Stoner's utter dominance of 2011, his resilience, his fortitude, his ability to win when possible while settling for a podium when he couldn't, his detractors once again claimed that Stoner had only won because he was on a vastly superior bike.
Five years of that treatment have taken their toll on Casey Stoner. He still loves riding, and the ambition and desire to compete still burns within him, but he is tired of dealing with all of the crap that surrounds racing in MotoGP, while the work gets ever harder. At Estoril, I asked him if it was the riding or the racing that he enjoyed. His reply was extremely informative: "The riding in this championship, it's not fun. You're out there risking your arse every lap, trying things on the bike that aren't really great, but you have to try them, and you have got to go out there and test all these things that you don't really want to test and go out in conditions that you don't really want to be out in. So a lot of the time, riding isn't fun. And this year, conditions haven't been good for us, so it hasn't been any part of fun. So the racing is the only thing that really gets you going. I still enjoy my racing, but unfortunately, racing is the smallest part of the job, and that's disappointing. The most important part in one aspect is the thing we do the least. It doesn't matter if you're a good racer, you've got to do all this other stuff, and that's the part that ruins it for me. "
And why does he hate his media commitments quite so vehemently? The truth is that Casey Stoner was never forgiven for the cardinal sin of beating Valentino Rossi in a straight fight. Where Yamaha, Rossi and Michelin made so many obvious mistakes in 2006, allowing Nicky Hayden to become World Champion - a title Hayden fully deserved, because of the work he and his team, led by Pete Benson, put in - that Hayden's title was grudgingly accepted by the fans, but when Stoner beat the World's Favorite Rider, there were no easy excuses. Looking back, though the Ducati GP7 was clearly the most powerful bike, it was not necessarily the best. Over the years that followed, the true shape that Ducati in was revealed: though the custom-made Bridgestones helped Ducati in the early years, once the spec tire was introduced, they struggled, with Marco Melandri in 2008 and Valentino Rossi in 2011 providing the real measure of the bike's competitiveness. Casey Stoner's raw talent - greater than any seen on track since Freddie Spencer, or maybe even Kenny Roberts - was the only thing that had made that bike competitive, and without Stoner, Ducati were lost.
Stoner's legacy will not outshine Valentino Rossi's, though I would argue that his talent does. Rossi is the most important rider ever to compete in MotoGP, because of the way he raised the profile of the sport, and the way he realized that motorcycle racing at this level is just as much entertainment as it is sport. While Rossi toyed with his competition - if you do not believe this is the case, go back and watch Phillip Island in 2003, when the Italian dropped his pace by seven tenths of a second a lap to compensate for a time penalty imposed for overtaking under a yellow flag - Stoner could not on the Ducati, and dared not on the Honda, when up against Jorge Lorenzo. If Stoner had no Plan B on the Ducati, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa would not allow him a plan B on the Honda. The game had changed, probably in 2009 once Lorenzo had proved himself competitive. Now, all races were done flat out, any mistake punished mercilessly, any ground lost never to be made up again. So Valentino Rossi will go into the record books as a candidate for the greatest of all time, especially once you look at his numbers. But anyone who saw Casey Stoner ride knew they were seeing something very special indeed. His record will not reflect his ability, but that, too, is typical of Stoner: not in it for records, not in it for the money, only in it to win as many races as possible while he is still having fun. The fun is now gone.
It is easy to imagine that if things had gone slightly differently, Stoner may not have retired after all. If the weather had been better in the early part of the season for the past couple of years, Stoner may have enjoyed the riding just as much as the racing, and decided to stay. If the leak at HRC had caused Stoner to think about missing the riding, instead of missing everything that wasn't riding, he may have decided to stay. If it was not Valentino Rossi he had beaten, but someone else, the fans and media may have appreciated him for the riding genius he was, rather than the man who rained on Rossi's parade, and Stoner may have decided to stay. But that's not how it happened. Once again, Harold McMillan's greatest fear ("Events, dear boy, events") determines the course of history, and we lose an astounding talent.
It was fitting that his retirement should have upstaged Valentino Rossi, the bitterest rival he has faced in his years in MotoGP. Rossi had come to the press conference to clear up the reports that he, too, was considering retiring, and had hoped to make a splash with the announcement that he intends to spend two more years in MotoGP. But Stoner put a stop to that with his retirement bombshell.
Casey Stoner went big, and at the end of the year, he's going home.