Most of the previews of Misano you will read over the coming few days will focus on whether Marc Marquez can match Mick Doohan's record of twelve wins in one season, whether Valentino Rossi can finally get an elusive win in front of his home crowds, and whether the test at Misano last month will give the Ducati riders a better chance of a decent result in Italy. My own preview, once I write it, will likely focus on these issues, and more. But they won't be the most pressing issues at the San Marino round of MotoGP by a long stretch. The fortunes of the major players in the premier class will matter to them and to the fans, but further down pit lane, careers will be saved and dreams will be shattered.
The culprit? The Aragon deadline for entries in the Moto2 and Moto3 classes. By the end of this month, the Moto2 and Moto3 teams will have to submit a list of their intended riders for the 2015 season, and pay a deposit. IRTA will then go through the list and finalize the entry list for the two support classes for next season. Though the teams will not be held exactly to the rider line ups they submitted, they have to be credible. Anyone claiming that Marc Marquez has agreed to race for them in both the Moto2 and Moto3 categories next season will have their applications rejected.
With 32 places in each of the two classes, there are a lot of seats up for grabs. But there are more than enough riders to fill those seats many times over. The further up the points standings a rider is, the better his chances of securing a ride for next year, but even then, it is not simple. Scoring points is often not enough: it is whether a rider has scored the number of points expected of him, or in many cases, agreed in the contract they signed.
The real struggle is among those who have no points yet. Of the 38 riders who have taken part in Moto3 this year, 12 have not scored a single point. In Moto2, it is 9 of 37 who have no points. That they have failed to score points is not so much a matter of talent. Backmarkers are rarely lapped these days, even at short tracks. In the Moto3 race, Ana Carrasco finished 1'02 behind the winner, Alex Rins, an average speed difference of 4.1 km/h, or 2.67%. If you watched the two riders from track side, you would not be able to see any discernible difference unless you had raced yourself.
The higher you go in any sport, the less it is about talent. Without a massive dose of talent, you never even manage to be competitive at the national championship level. At that point, it becomes more about desire, commitment, work ethic, and focus. Not necessarily in that order. Indeed, it is hard to see them as separate qualities, so interconnected are they. Without total commitment to the sport, it is impossible to be focused. Without the desire to achieve, to win, it is impossible to commit yourself sufficiently to be successful. And without the necessary work ethic, it is impossible to harness the focus, commitment, desire and talent into winning.
The problem riders entering the piranha-infested waters of Moto3 or Moto2 face is the quantum leap in those qualities they require. Look at most national championships – even the very strongest, like the Spanish championship – and the talent pool is shallow. The fight may be tough among the top five, but look past that, and the gaps start to grow. Success breeds confidence, and confidence breeds desire. That desire feeds the commitment and focus needed to train harder, focus better, and try to do even better at the next race. Riders get better and better.
But enter the Grand Prix paddock, and you find not five riders at the same level as you, but thirty five. Those tiny mistakes you made during qualifying in the national championship, the ones that made the difference between starting on the front row or the second row, they suddenly drop you twenty places, not two. You are no longer fighting for the front row, you are fighting to be able to see where the front row is.
Things are even tougher once the flag drops. Following the battle at the front, the cameras capture every transgression and semi-acceptable move. In the media blackout of the second half of the pack (after all, who cares how tough the battle is for 25th?) the blood flows freely, with riders using any means necessary to defend every inch of the way. Just as in the movies, the camera focuses on the generals on their lofty hilltops, surveying the field of battle, not the grim and bloody disemboweling going on in depths of the trenches.
In addition to having to accept being bumped down the grid, the former national championship front runners find themselves fearing for their lives as ten riders all try to squeeze into the corner at the same time. They see the leading group slip away as they get caught behind a rider who got to the head of the group with a ridiculously dangerous move which forced everyone off line and on the brakes. They find themselves taking more and more risks of their own to get to the front of the group and try to lead the chase. With ten riders risking everything to try to escape the clutches of the group, the battles suck the speed out of the bunch, slowing everyone up. This, in turn, triggers an even more frantic round of attacks as the riders ahead slip further and further away.
Once you lose touch with the battle for the points, you know your team will give you hell for not scoring. Yet even then, you can't afford to let up. There may be no difference in points between 21st and 22nd position, but your team will give you even more hell if you end the race at the back of the group that lost touch, rather than at the front. You know that what awaits you when you enter the garage is a row of sullen faces. The only question is how harsh the criticism will be.
The life of a mid-pack rider is one filled with panic, fear, and frustration. The mental pressure can quickly drain the confidence from you, and grind you into the ground. The strain of having to ride over the limit all the time with little or no reward sucks the joy of racing out of you. Taking risks is much easier when there is a champagne soaking on the podium at stake. Taking the same risks or more when you are fighting over 19th is infinitely tougher. If you think the battle for 3rd is hard, you should see the battle for 23rd.
With your confidence ebbing away, it becomes harder to maintain your focus. The desire to win may still be there, but when the podium is 20 places and 30 seconds ahead of you, that desire can turn from a powerful motivator into a bitter, angry bundle eating away inside. You start to question your commitment, you look for reasons, for explanations. You know your talent got you into Grand Prix, so that is not the problem. It must be the bike. Or the team. Or the suspension. The factory playing favorites. The mechanics not getting the bike right. The crew chief not listening to what you are telling him. The data guy not interpreting your feedback correctly.
There is another pressure, even harder to face. Most riders entering Moto3 will have had to find the funds to pay for their ride. With each disappointing result, a rider has to face an army of disappointed backers, the people who paid for them to get into the class in the first place. In the worst case – a terrifyingly common scenario – the rider's family will have mortgaged their home or their business, or taken all the family savings to fund the ride. Every failure brings the end of your Grand Prix career closer, and the chance that the investment others have made in you has been wasted. You face the uphill task of finding 300,000 euros for another shot next year, rather than the 200,000 you needed this year. The alternative is a life of hard graft just to repay the loans taken out to put you in the position you are.
It is a vicious circle, a brutal downward spiral into despair. You turn to others for comfort. You spend time with your girlfriend, rather than go over the data from the last race for the umpteenth time. You slope off to hang with your racer buddies in the Alpinestars hospitality, or hold wheelie competitions with your mountain bikes at the far end of pit lane. You gather to sympathize, to share the pain of your situation. Your focus switches to escaping the bleak situation you find yourself in. Anything to lighten the load. It is at this point that some take a wrong turning, down the path to self destruction, in drink, drugs, sex, food.
Beating that descent into despair is the measure of the true champion. Turning that situation around is the toughest challenge any rider will face. The mental strength required is seemingly inconceivable, yet some still manage it.
How do you do that? By breaking the challenge down into its constituent parts, and mentally taking on one piece at a time. Key to it all is compartmentalization, the ability to separate problems into the areas which they affect, and confine them to those parts of your life, ignoring them when they are not immediately relevant. That parking ticket you got last week matters when you are home, but not at the race track. That argument you had with the tire guy over who took the last of the chicken at dinner only matters at dinner, not in the garage. Away from the track, your girlfriend is the most important thing in your life; at the track, only racing counts.
Besides focusing on what matters, when it matters, you also need to distinguish between what you can change and what you can't, and focus on changing what you can. If your bike is slower than competing manufacturers, then your first order of business is beating everyone else on the same bike, starting with your teammate. Work on finishing ahead of everyone on the same bike, rather than finishing ahead of everyone.
Take this focus, and with the confidence it gives you, work on what you can get from the tools you have at hand. You don't get to Grand Prix without a huge dose of self belief, of belief in your own talent. You know you are fast, it's just a matter of unleashing that speed. If your bike is down on top speed, don't waste energy complaining about how you are down on top speed. Focus on figuring out ways to compensate, areas where you came up the deficit. Is your bike weak on the brakes? Try carrying more corner speed. Down on acceleration? Block pass your rivals into the corner, and they are stuck behind you, their acceleration smothered as effectively as your own. Stop worrying about your weaknesses, start thinking about how you can exploit your strengths, or at the very least, compensate for your weaknesses.
Taking the vicious circle and turning it into a virtuous one is the measure of the true champion. The examples are legion: Marc Marquez on the Suter against the superior Kalexes; Valentino Rossi on the Yamaha M1 against the superior Hondas; Kevin Schwantz on the Suzuki which only brakes better than the Hondas and Yamahas, nothing else. The opportunities are there for those willing to seize them.
All this and more will be running through the minds of the Moto2 and Moto3 riders under threat of losing their rides for next season. Misano is their last chance to really impress and get another chance at a ride before the Aragon contract deadline. Failure is not yet written in stone; riders must fear they have it written in their hearts. Almost every rider on the Moto3 and Moto2 grid is in with a decent shot at the top five, if their stars align. Their task at Misano is to force those stars to align. It is not easy. But it is possible, and if they are to have another shot at kickstarting their Grand Prix careers, they have to make it work.
Misano is above all a test of mental resilience, especially for those slugging it out in the trenches. The glamor soon pales when your future is at stake. But if you started motorcycle racing for the glamor, you are clearly in the wrong career.