The pre-event press conferences held on the Thursday ahead of each MotoGP round can vary a good deal in interest. For the most part, they are full of pleasantries and platitudes, both riders and journalists doing their best to look interested and not start playing with their phones. After the utterly entrancing race at Phillip Island four days ago, we expected this to be one of the less interesting ones, the only mild interest being the dismal air quality in Malaysia.
How very wrong we were. Yes, there was the discussion of the obvious, of how the championship chances of Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo, and of Danny Kent in Moto3 would play out. But there was also an explosion of interest once Rossi made accusations that Marc Márquez was trying to help Lorenzo win the championship, accusations he pressed home further once the press conference finished.
It first livened up once Andrea Iannone and Valentino Rossi were asked what they thought of the abuse which had been plastered all over the Facebook and Instagram feeds of Iannone after the race at Phillip Island, where Iannone finished ahead of Rossi and took valuable points in the championship. Iannone shook it off, saying that 90% were positive, and the rest were "just an opinion."
Rossi was much stronger in his condemnation of the behavior of people calling themselves his fans. "I think that in reality they are not my real supporters," he said. "Is a great shame, because these people are very stupid. Unfortunately, this is the time of the social network where everybody can say his idea, even if it's a very stupid idea. The people like to speak bad about other guys that are more lucky than them, with more talent, and more happy, because they do with their life what they want." Rossi pointed out that he held no grudge against Iannone for beating him. "He just did his race, and is normal that he try to beat me."
Beware the wrath of the fans
It is a theme that runs though motorcycle racing, and all forms of media. Fans, in their passion, in their enthusiasm, and in the anonymity offered by an online identity, throw themselves into debate with fans, and interaction with the stars of the sport they follow. They forget that on the other side of the conversation is a human being, a person of flesh and blood, someone who has feelings and passions and insecurities just like them.
Even when they are elite athletes: at least one MotoGP rider has told me that they have stopped posting on social media, because they were getting sick to death of the constant barrage of abuse they faced. When that happens, everyone loses. Social media offers a chance for fans to genuinely interact with their idols. When people abuse that and scare the riders or athletes (or writers or pop stars or whatever) off social media, then everyone loses. The stars are more reluctant to interact with fans, and social media becomes more of an echo chamber, fans reliant once again on second-hand opinions from intermediaries such as journalists.
It is worth bearing in mind that passionate and unreasonable reactions by fans is hardly something new. In Ancient Rome, charioteers wore colors to allow the spectators at the Colosseum to be able to distinguish one from another. Fans flocked to each color, to the Red, to the White, to the Green, to the Blue. Violence between the factions, as each group of fans were known, was commonplace, getting worse as the factions grew in importance in society. At the end of Empire, in Byzantium, the rivalry grew so great that it almost provoked a coup to overthrow Emperor Justinian, who in turn provoked a riot between the Blue and the Green, backed by the military. When the dust finally settled, 30,000 lay dead. Things are not quite so bad between fans nowadays.
Tossing in a hand grenade
The press conference really ignited once Valentino Rossi was asked a question about the race at Phillip Island. Could we see a repeat of the thrilling race in Australia, came the question. After noting that it was indeed a great battle, the Italian produced a curious claim. "If we can see another race like this, especially we have to speak with Márquez," Rossi said. "Because during the race, was more difficult to understand, but after when I saw the race later, it was very clear that he play with us very much. Because mainly I think his target is not just to win the race, but also help Lorenzo to go far and try to take more points on me. So I think from Phillip Island it is very clear that Jorge have a new supporter that is Marc. So this change a lot, because for sure Marc have the potential to go away alone, and maybe can for sure be another type of race."
Both Lorenzo and Márquez looked on in a mixture of surprise and bemusement. Could Rossi really be implying that Márquez had deliberately assisted Lorenzo? At first, they didn't seem to take it seriously. When asked if he thought that Márquez had helped him, Lorenzo played along with what he thought was the joke: "Yes! Mainly in the last lap, a lot." That was the lap Márquez passed him and took the win.
Marc Márquez' initial reaction was to go back to the question about what a great race Phillip Island was. It took a supplementary question from one of the keenest journalists in the room to bring him back to the subject. Márquez was clear about whether he had played with Iannone and Rossi in an attempt to help Lorenzo win the championship. "Of course not." He had ridden his own race, dictated by the conditions and his tires. He pointed out the inconsistency of Rossi's charge. "If I want to help Lorenzo, I wouldn't pass him on the last lap, and I wouldn't push to the limit, and I wouldn't take the risk."
Márquez went on to repeat exactly what he had said after the race itself: that he had been struggling with the front tire overheating when he made his charge forward in the middle of the race. "In the middle of the race I try to push and I try to open a gap, but was not possible," he said. On Sunday, he had explained it as follows: "In the race, the temperature was coming up, and in the beginning it was difficult to find especially the front feeling. But then I come back, I try to catch Jorge, I overtake him, I try to push but then I saw that the front tire was moving a lot with this temperature and then I say OK, it's time to cool down again, and try to manage to the end. But always [the front] was closing, I had some moments, but my plan was on the last three laps try to push a little bit more."
If anyone was in any doubt that Rossi was serious, when he spoke to the assembled Italian media, he went on to repeat and expand on his claims. To add weight to them, he produced a set of timesheets from the Phillip Island race, complete with his annotations. The entire transcript of what he said is up on the official MotoGP.com website, but it boils down to a number of claims: that Márquez clearly had the pace to beat everyone, but held back to hold up Rossi and Iannone, while allowing Lorenzo to escape; that Márquez kept overtaking him on the straight, knowing he would struggle against the Ducati of Iannone; and that Márquez was doing this on purpose to spite Rossi.
Why would Márquez do a thing like this? Here too Rossi had his reasons lined up. Márquez is angry at him, Rossi claimed, because of what happened at Argentina and Assen. Márquez believes he intentionally moved from his line at Argentina, Rossi said, causing him to crash. Márquez believes Rossi stole victory from him at Assen, the Italian said, when Márquez hit him in the side and forced him to cut across the dirt.
More than that, Rossi claimed, Márquez was motivated by ego. He does not want Rossi to win the championship because he has been unable to win it this year. He is aiming at Rossi's record of championship victories, and if Rossi doesn't win in 2015, that is one less title for Márquez to win in the future to match him. As an example for this claim, Rossi pointed to Laguna Seca in 2013, where Márquez cut across the inside of The Corkscrew to pass Rossi, an echo of Rossi's iconic pass on Casey Stoner in 2008.
The case for the prosecution
Is there any merit to Rossi's claims? Without knowing the exact details of when and where he believed Márquez was slowing up, it is hard to judge. And the chances of any journalist actually sitting down with Rossi to analyze the lap and sector times, and the race, and get his perspective of it are zero.
What we can do is analyze Rossi's claims and Márquez' response. Márquez' race was indeed peculiar, his times bouncing up and down, from the slowest lap of the leaders (a 1'30.943 on lap 6, as he got involved in a dogfight with Rossi and Iannone) to a string of low 1'29s, culminating in the lap record on the final lap. From lap 13, Márquez chased down Lorenzo, finally overtaking him on lap 18. He led for two more laps, before being caught again by Lorenzo and giving up the lead. Márquez rhythm was unusual, the Spaniard usually much more consistent once he gets to the front of the race.
Márquez says the variance was down to the front tire overheating. "We saw on the data with the team that the Honda is pushing a lot the front tire. This race, this was the softest compound that we have, but it was the only tire that we had able to race," Márquez explained. He had pushed in the middle of the race to catch Lorenzo, but once he got past, the tire was moving around too much, and he had to back off a little.
Was it really the tires?
Is the tire claim credible? It is true that the Honda RC213V loads the front tire a lot more than any of the other bikes on the grid. This is down to the lack of engine braking available, the engine too aggressive to manage it properly. Riders have to use the front tire only to get the bike stopped, and that uses the front a lot. Though the situation has improved immeasurably in the second half of the season, the first half saw Honda riders crashing out left, right and center, the front giving up the ghost once it had too much heat in it.
The combination of tires and temperature actually worked against the Honda at Phillip Island. Bridgestone's asymmetric front tire was a brilliant solution to a complex problem, finding grip at a track with wildly varying temperatures and an awful lot of very fast left handers. To cope with that, and learning lessons from last year Bridgestone used extra soft rubber in the center of the tire and on the right, saving the soft rubber (one step harder than the rubber on the right) for the left edge. This meant that the front did not cool down too much in the straights and in the couple of right handers which grace Phillip Island, while still being able to withstand the loads placed on it by the long lefts.
That extra soft rubber in the middle was the part causing he problem for Márquez. Braking extremely late into the Honda Hairpin and MG Corner, or the fearsome right hander of Doohan at the end of the straight, puts a lot of stress on what is very soft rubber. If the temperatures had been a degree or two colder, or the wind had been a fraction harder, that may have cooled the tire enough to keep it perfectly within its operating range. If the temperatures had been a little warmer, then the Hondas could have considered running the symmetric soft tire, giving them a little more support in braking.
Is it possible to overheat a tire and for it to come back? As long as you don't totally cook it, you can. Bradley Smith did the same at Brno back in August, after pushing too hard on a softer tire. After dropping back for a few laps, he could push on again, the tire coming back to him
And the motive?
Those are the facts from the race, but what about motivation? Rossi is absolutely correct that Marc Márquez has turned against him this year, what seemed like a master-pupil relationship quickly going sour. Rossi puts the start of the decline at the race in Argentina, though to outsiders, it was not that visible. Assen, though, was different: Márquez had been lining up the move he tried to pull on Rossi all through practice, and when he and Rossi arrived at the GT Chicane together, he believed he had the race in the bag. He was bitter about having the victory taken from him, unable to understand that the move had failed to come off, and believing that Rossi should have been penalized for cutting the chicane.
Rossi is also right to note the scale of Márquez' ambition, though it is also true that every time he has been asked about the record books, Márquez has denied that they mattered much. The only thing that matters to him is winning races, Márquez says, and winning championships by winning races.
It is precisely this characteristic that renders Rossi's claim that Márquez was trying to let Lorenzo get away and take the win so improbable. Marc Márquez loves winning, or to put it more precisely, he hates losing, despises it with every fiber in his being. Márquez is always able to put a positive spin on losing, celebrating a great race as vigorously as anyone else. But you can be sure that the feeling is very different indeed, if he ends up just behind another rider, instead of in front.
One incident comes to mind that illustrates Márquez' attitude to winning. At the first Superprestigio in Barcelona, at the beginning of last year. Márquez had tried to prepare for victory. He invited American dirt track champion Brad Baker over, and the two trained together and got along very well. The final came down to a straight duel between the two, Baker and Márquez the quality of the field. But Márquez lacked the experience of the American, and crashed trying to keep up with him. On the podium, they were both all smiles, and Márquez expressed his disappointment, but said he was happy at having been competitive.
Losing really sucks
Behind the scenes, it was a very different story, however. One of the people involved in the event told me afterwards that after Márquez rode his bike back out of sight of the crowd before the podium celebrations started, the young Spaniard was fuming. Furious at himself for having made a mistake, but above all, furious at having lost, at the event he organized, in front of the crowd which had come to see him win.
He took that loss very seriously. He changed his training routine, modified the bike, and at the following Superprestigio, he was faster than the Americans he had invited. He was helped by the fact that Brad Baker managed to crash and injure himself during the heats, but he still beat Jared Mees. He was not going to lose again.
Remember the image of Márquez after he crashed at Aragon? Standing over his bike, screaming abuse at it in frustration, because the front end had let him down again. Márquez believed he could have beaten Jorge Lorenzo there. But he crashed.
Would Marc Márquez let anyone else ever beat him? "I will only help if it's my teammate," he said in the press conference. "If it's not my teammate, I will push for the victory."
That is what he did at Phillip Island, in that final lap. Is that lap proof that Márquez had something up his sleeve? Clearly Márquez had something, but perhaps what Márquez had was just an outright willingness to try to win or crash trying. The Repsol Honda man described it as "a qualifying lap," and that is exactly what it looked like. He pulled it off, and so we speak of his stunning victory. Had he crashed – which he could very easily have done, especially as he came out of the hairpin and headed up to the Hayshed, the bike getting very unstable indeed. The fact that Márquez' mechanics quickly covered his rear tire in Parc Fermé, to prevent others looking at it, is perhaps a sign that there was something strange about it.
A blast from his own past
So no, I am not inclined to think that Marc Márquez was prepared to countenance letting anyone else win a race if there was anything he could do about it. Given the incredible level of the championship at the moment, with four, maybe five riders racing at levels we have never seen before, and the differences between the two absolutely minimal, it is hard to believe that anyone on the grid has anything in reserve that they can use to play with others during the race, and attempt to hold them up. It is also an incredibly risky strategy, with no guarantee of success.
Rossi is no doubt looking back to his own past, the early part of his career, when he could do exactly that. Just how much margin Rossi used to have in the early years of MotoGP became apparent at Phillip Island in 2003. Punished with a ten second penalty for overtaking under a yellow flag, Rossi dropped his pace from mid 1'32s to mid 1'31s, lapping consistently around a second faster than Loris Capirossi, the man who he was chasing, and the man he had to finish ten seconds ahead of. His lead at the end of the race was over fifteen seconds. It was perhaps the best race he has ever ridden. But it also spoke of just how superior he was to the competition of the time. It also helps explain how he managed to switch to Yamaha the following year, win the first race, and win the championship at the first attempt on a different bike.
Such a feat would be impossible now. Races have on occasion been won by big margins, but only under exceptional circumstances. The biggest margin of victory in the dry this year has been less than six seconds, and all of those wins have been taken by Yamaha riders, either Valentino Rossi or Jorge Lorenzo.
Why has Rossi brought this up? It was clearly a deliberate ploy by the Italian, as he came armed with timesheets to the press conference, intending to raise the subject at the first opportunity. He went on to repeat and further explain his theory, first to the Italian press, then to a number of TV outlets, including UK broadcaster BT Sport. He was at pains to explain that Márquez had done nothing that was against the rules, but that he was disappointed in what he felt was unsporting behavior by Márquez.
Mind games, but whose mind?
What is he trying to achieve? Frankly, it is mystifying, even to Marc Márquez. "I don't understand it," Márquez told the Spanish press. "Normally, Valentino always takes indirect shots at you, but once which you understand perfectly are aimed at you, but this time, I don't understand. He is very good in press conferences, he always knows exactly what to say at any time, but this time, he is trying to put pressure on me. But the person he has to beat on the track and in the championship is Jorge. That's why I don't understand."
Márquez knew that Rossi believed he had helped Lorenzo, because the Italian had told him so after the race at Phillip Island. He had been surprised, Márquez said, because he had passed Lorenzo on the last lap and taken a lot of risk to do so.
Why is Valentino Rossi trying to put pressure on Marc Márquez? Could it be that he wants to pressure Márquez into going out and trying to win races? If there is one rider that needs no encouragement to do just that, it is surely Marc Márquez. As noted above, Márquez hates losing, and is prepared to take a great deal of risk trying to win. So much risk, in fact, that if he had perhaps backed off a fraction and accepted the occasional fourth place instead of crashing out, he would still be in with an outside chance of the title. He could not help himself, like the scorpion who hitched a lift from a frog in the parable, it is his nature to risk everything to try to win.
Is this perhaps a roundabout way of attacking Jorge Lorenzo? It is hard to see how. Lorenzo looked bemused more than anything, surprised by the turn of events. Saying that Márquez wants Lorenzo to win is hardly going to change Lorenzo's attitude to the race. He knows he has to take points from Rossi, and that the championship is out of his hands. That leaves him riding without pressure, especially after giving away points at Misano through a silly mistake. "We just can win it, we cannot lose it."
Ironically, the pressure is on Rossi, despite having a lead in the championship. With a lead of eleven points and two races left, the title is Rossi's to lose. At the same time, an eleven-point lead in the championship is not a comfortable one at all. Danny Kent, also in the press conference, leads the Moto3 championship by forty points, and he is having a nasty case of the wobbles in the last few races. As Julian Ryder wrote on Superbike Planet earlier today, the championships Rossi has won have been with huge points leads. The last time Rossi was involved in a championship that went to the last race, the Italian crashed out at Valencia, handing the title to a deserving Nicky Hayden. That is not a memory Rossi cherishes.
The last hurrah
Is the pressure getting to Rossi? Valentino Rossi has a reputation for both incredible mental strength and his ability to put pressure on his opponents. His subtle – and sometimes not-so-subtle – digs at other riders are legendary, and helped him more than once plant the seed of doubt in the minds of his opponents, which would one day sprout into mighty oaks and fell them when they heard the bark of Rossi's engine behind them.
What is less well known is his strength, his ability to endure and still keep pushing. The dignity with which he comported himself at Ducati was a remarkable thing to behold. While he suffered through two long years of failure, at least once a weekend, Rossi would be asked exactly the same question: Casey could win on this bike, why can't you? Not once did he lose his cool, or snap at the questioner. Every time, he gave the same calm, collected reply. "Casey rode in a very special way. I cannot ride like that."
For me, that period was Rossi at his greatest as a racer and a human being. To endure, to concentrate, to try to work and figure things out, and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to borrow a phrase from the bard, and come back for more. To come back to where he is today, competing for the championship, at the ripe old age of 36, winning against two generations of riders who grew up with his poster on their walls, and knowing they had to be better than him if they wanted to be champion. To do that is a mark of greatness, a mark of real fortitude.
And perhaps it is also starting to wear on him. It's been a long season, not just in terms of MotoGP, but in terms of the preparation which Rossi has had to endure to get to where he is. He runs, he rides, and he has worked continuously at his riding style, working through the winter and into the start of the season. He has pushed every race, managing the gap, seeing his lead ebb and flow, hoping to win the title, but never in a position to be certain. An early lead of fifteen points at Le Mans evaporated to just a single point at Barcelona, two races later. The lead was back up to thirteen points by the Sachsenring, and gone completely at Brno two races on. Another two races, and he held a twenty-three-point lead over Lorenzo, leaving Misano with the championship clearly swinging his way.
At Aragon, he lost a crucial battle to Dani Pedrosa, taking third instead of second and giving away nine points. At Motegi, he took four points back from Lorenzo, only to give seven more away at Phillip Island, after being beaten in a face-to-face battle for the second time this year, this time by Andrea Iannone. He has been on planes, in hotels, and chasing from place to place for two weeks without a pause, and faces his third race in fourteen days. This is mentally an incredibly tough time for everyone in the paddock, and especially for the riders racing in the championship. To have the weight of the championship battle added to the normally stressful flyaways is not an easy burden to carry.
Then there is his age. Rossi is still fit, and riding better than ever before, but he must know that the number of championships he can still win is very limited. When one comes within his grasp, he has to seize the opportunity, not let it slip away. When he lost in 2006, and even 2007, he knew he could get his revenge. Even though he has a contract for 2016, winning another title will be incredibly difficult. Honda have to bring a more competitive bike next year, meaning Márquez will be harder to beat. Lorenzo will be even more determined than before, work harder and focus more to try to take another championship. The Ducati GP16 may make the extra step that Andrea Iannone needs to get into the mix. If the Suzuki is much better, then Maverick Viñales could be a threat. After 2016 there is Alex Rins on the way, Fabio Quartararo, and more riders who may surprise us.
The time for Rossi's tenth title is now. To have achieved what Rossi has achieved, and know that this may be your last shot at a championship? That is a very, very heavy load to carry. Perhaps cracks are starting to appear.
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