They say that truth is stranger than fiction. The more pressing question is how to distinguish between the two. Narratives are easily created – it is my stock in trade, and the trade which every sports writer plies – but where does stringing together a collection of related facts move from being a factual reconstruction into the realms of invented fantasy? When different individuals view the same facts and draw radically opposite conclusions, are we to believe that one is delusional and the other is sane and objective? Most of all, how much value should we attach to the opinions of each side? Do we change our opinion of the facts based on our sympathy or antipathy for the messenger?
That is the confusion which the final round of MotoGP has thrust the world of Grand Prix racing into. What should have been a celebration of the greatest season of racing in the premier class in recent years, and possibly ever, was rendered farcical, as two competing interpretations of a single set of facts clashed, exploded, then dragged the series down into the abyss. Bitterness, anger, suspicion, fear, all of these overshadowed some astonishing performances, by both winners and losers. Looked at impartially, the Valencia round of MotoGP was a great day of fantastic racing. But who now can look at it impartially?
The day started well, with a thrilling battle in Moto3, with an outcome that did justice to all concerned. Miguel Oliveira won his third race in a row with a brilliant and masterful performance, shaking off the attentions of Jorge Navarro, Romano Fenati, Efren Vazquez and Niccolo Antonelli in a race-long battle, never letting the lead out of his grasp for long. After a dismal qualifying, which saw him start from eighteenth on the grid, Danny Kent finally rode the safe, solid race he needed to wrap the title up, becoming the first British Grand Prix champion since Barry Sheene in 1977. That is a very long time indeed.
Getting it done
All weekend long, Kent had professed he was not nervous. On Sunday, the celebratory championship jersey – well, more of a vest really – wrapped firmly over his leathers, Kent admitted he had been putting on a front. We knew it, and he knew that we knew it, but we kept up the fiction, as it was easier to do that than to keep asking the same, pointless question. Kent's crew chief Peter Bom had expressed his exasperation on Saturday night, he and the team having turned his bike upside down in search of the right feeling for Kent. A long swing arm, a short swing arm, up at the back, up at the front, stiff shock, soft shock, nothing could please Kent. In the end, they had gone for something neutral, but the key set up change was to Kent's mind. After the morning warm up, Kent had told his team manager Stefan Kiefer that he was ready to do what needed to be done. He did exactly that.
Kent's journey has been a long one, ranging from Aprilia Superteens to Red Bull Rookies, from Moto3 to Moto2 and back again. Kent lost two titles by just a single point, and many feared history might repeat itself. That it did not is down in large part to the Kiefer team, and especially to crew chief Peter Bom. The pair are very close, sharing a hotel room at every round, sometimes continuing their discussions on bike set up from garage to hospitality to hotel, sometimes just shooting the breeze about the most random of subjects.
You've got to have faith
Most importantly, Kent has absolute faith in what Bom is doing for him, and Bom has faith in the talent of Kent, and the ability to convince Kent of the Englishman's own talent. It is not Bom's first title, having won Moto2 with Stefan Bradl, and World Supersport with Chris Vermeulen, and that experience stood them in good stead. Bom and Kiefer proved the value of a good and competent team, sadly surprisingly rare, even at this level of racing.
Kent may have deprived Oliveira of the Moto3 title, but the Portuguese rider put himself on the map this year with the Red Bull KTM team. Once KTM brought the new chassis, Oliveira's performance went through the roof, coinciding with the slide of Kent in the second half of the year. Together, the two men utterly dominated the Moto3 class, Kent owning the first half of the season, Oliveira the second. The two men move up to Moto2 with Kiefer for 2016, and will make a very strong pairing.
The Moto2 race itself was a close-run affair, the race cut short then restarted after a massive crash caused it to be red-flagged. Tito Rabat took the win in his return to racing, saying farewell to his Marc VDS Moto2 team with a victory, and paving the way to walk in the other side of the garage on a MotoGP bike on Tuesday, when he moves up to the premier class. Alex Rins secured second, though it looked like he might actually grab the win, before he got distracted by his second place in the championship. Rins has been a phenomenal rookie in Moto2, following in the footsteps and on the bike of Maverick Viñales. MotoGP factories are already making discrete (and not so discrete) enquiries about Rins' availability for 2017, once the Spaniard has served his time in Moto2.
All is not what it seems
Then came the MotoGP race, and as at Phillip Island and Sepang, a tense and thrilling battle was ruined by the events which surrounded the race afterwards. Whether you regard the events post-race as a valid complaint against an obviously rigged result, or the wild ramblings of a man desperate to apportion blame to anyone but himself for his own failure depends entirely on your perspective. There are facts which are beyond dispute, and facts which are open to interpretation, but on one thing, everyone can agree. The aftermath has besmirched what has been undoubtedly the greatest season of premier class racing in recent years. Once again, there are no winners here, and that is very sad indeed.
The facts beyond dispute? That Jorge Lorenzo did what Valentino Rossi feared he would, and took off at the front. That track temperatures were round about where they were yesterday, high enough to cause problems for the hardest option front tire as the race went on, especially for the Hondas. That Valentino Rossi rode the race of his life, making surgical passes left, right and center, quickly working his way forward to fourth. That Marc Márquez had the pace to follow Lorenzo for all of the race, though he had to ride at the limit to do so. That Dani Pedrosa was first dropped by the leaders, then came back again, launching an attack on the penultimate lap on Márquez. That Márquez struck straight back when Pedrosa ran wide, but never attempted a pass on Lorenzo.
All of these facts then leave room for interpretation. Why did Márquez never attack Lorenzo? The Repsol Honda rider says he was biding his time to attack, as he has done so often this year. He was waiting for either the last or the penultimate lap to take a shot at Lorenzo, but Pedrosa upset his plan, he said. Rossi, on the other hand, claims Márquez played "bodyguard" to Lorenzo, riding on tail and protecting his back, not passing Lorenzo, but passing Pedrosa straight back once he was passed by his teammate.
Just the facts...
Márquez says he was right on the limit trying to follow Lorenzo, and points to the gap between the two which yoyoed constantly, Márquez pushing hard to close up on Lorenzo, but only really faster than the Spaniard in the second sector, Turn 6 being the only real option for a pass. Rossi points to the race of Pedrosa, who first dropped back, then upped the pace to close up on Márquez again, to try a final pass. If Pedrosa could catch Márquez again, then clearly the Honda was capable of being faster, Rossi's thesis runs.
Márquez said he went for the win, but was simply incapable of beating an unleashed Lorenzo. Rossi says Márquez was protecting Lorenzo's back, and ensuring that the Spanish Movistar Yamaha rider would win the title, rather than Valentino Rossi.
Which version of events represents the truth? Deciphering that is extremely difficult, as both versions of events share the same two key characteristics: they are plausible, and they are entirely unfalsifiable. There is a chain of events we can follow, and each individual part of the claim can be dissected, but even then the picture which emerges is still open to interpretation. So it comes down to Occam's razor, and the simplest explanation being the most likely one.
Firstly, was Marc Márquez really on the limit, or was he easily faster, as Valentino Rossi would claim after the race? What we do know is that both Lorenzo and Márquez were eleven seconds quicker than in 2013, the last time there was a dry race at Valencia. Though the circuit has been resurfaced since then, the race times of both Márquez and Lorenzo are not hanging about.
On the outside looking in
Can you judge from the outside how hard a rider is trying? Certainly, Márquez looked to be going fast enough through Turn 13, both wheels sliding through the corner. But was that at the limit? I turned to a disinterested party for an opinion, in this case, Andrea Dovizioso, who happened to speak to us after Valentino Rossi had made his accusations of foul play. "It's true, for us is normal to see Marc fighting a lot in the battle. So to see that, it was quite strange. But only the riders know exactly the problems they have in the bike. So I don't know if he was on the limit, over the limit, or he was controlling the race," Dovizioso said.
Is it possible for one MotoGP rider to see when another MotoGP rider is on the limit? "Normally yes," Dovizioso replied, "but you can't know every detail the riders can have. Especially when you ride a different bike." You can make general judgments, Dovizioso implied, but each bike is different, and the precise limits of the bike and where it struggles is not immediately visible. "This is my experience, because I rode already three bikes, and until you try a bike, you can't know every detail of it. Especially the difference from the morning to the afternoon. The conditions always change. So yes, the riders can normally understand and analyze the situation, but it's easy to not see everything." How accurately could another rider judge it? As accurately as 95%? "Maybe less," Dovizioso said. "If you race in your career just one bike, it's less. If you have different experience, you can know more about that, but the rules change, the bikes change, so I can't speak about Honda, it was a long time ago."
The one point which Rossi did press home in his attack on Márquez was that it was unusual for the Spaniard not to ever attempt to pass the rider in front. "For me, if you check the races of Marc Marquez in the last two years you know he always tries to overtake and minimum on the last lap," Rossi said. "So the question is why Marc Marquez never tried to overtake Jorge Lorenzo and never tried to make one attempt on the last lap?"
Márquez' explanation was simple. "I don’t know about Dani, but I was struggling with the front, especially in the beginning," Márquez said. "Then in the end, in the last six laps, I see that the victory was possible, but when Dani overtake me we lose this half second, it was impossible to catch Jorge again." Márquez said that his plan had been to try to pass in the final lap, but his attack had been preempted by Pedrosa, the exchange between the two Repsol Hondas putting too much gap between them and the Movistar Yamaha of Lorenzo.
Horses for courses
Why had Márquez not attacked Lorenzo earlier? At the last race, Márquez had passed Rossi and been passed back nine times in a single lap, but at Valencia, Márquez had not attempted a single pass. In part, that was down to tactics, Márquez following the same strategy he had used at both Indianapolis and Assen, following the rider in front without challenging for most of the race, only launching an attack in the final laps – or in the case of Assen, in the final corner – of the race. In part, it was down to the nature of the bikes and the track, one anonymous MotoGP rider ascribing the passes between Rossi and Márquez to the different nature of the Honda and the Yamaha, Márquez striking where the Honda was stronger, Rossi hitting back in the area where the Yamaha was better.
Then, of course, there was the fact that the two races were held under very different circumstances. At Sepang, Márquez was racing against a rider who had publicly attacked and humiliated him in the press conference on Thursday, and his blood lust was up. Márquez had received a private dressing down from Race Direction for those actions, and been told not to take unnecessary risks around riders racing for the championship. A suitably chastened Márquez was racing at Valencia against a rider who was looking to win a title, and was never quite close enough to make a clean and safe pass. The Spaniard was only occasionally close enough, but it was never possible to do so cleanly, and without a major risk of crashing.
The biggest problem Márquez had was the difference in acceleration out of the final corner. The Hondas have been complaining of a lack of acceleration all year, the rear tire spinning too much to provide good forward drive. The Yamahas have fantastic mechanical grip, getting drive out of the final corner to launch themselves down the straight with enough advantage to easily hold off the Hondas in the braking zone into Turn 1. Turn 6 was the only place where Márquez had the pace to pass Lorenzo, but he could never do it safely in previous laps, and had Pedrosa to deal with on the last couple of laps.
Santa's little helper?
Did Márquez really decide the title in favor of Lorenzo? That seems an odd accusation for two men who have little love lost between them. Lorenzo regards Márquez as the Spanish usurper, the man who stole the popularity which by rights belongs to him. Márquez regards Lorenzo with the same disdain he has for all of his rivals, as an obstacle to victory and to championship glory. Márquez revels in attacking and beating Lorenzo, especially given Lorenzo's public complaints about Márquez' riding. There is nothing Márquez likes more than to beat Lorenzo in a close battle, after the comments which Lorenzo has repeatedly made about how dangerous a rider Márquez is.
The strangest aspect of Rossi's attack on Márquez is that he appeared to be shifting the responsibility for winning the title from the Italian's own shoulders onto the man he had so publicly attacked. Despite Rossi's brilliant early laps – and they were truly things of beauty, passes executed with surgical and ruthless precision – his race pace was simply not up to that of the front three. Lorenzo and Márquez ran laps of between 1'31.5 and 1'31.9 just about all race long. Pedrosa ran laps of 1'31.7, lost ground as he slowed up with an overheating front tire to clock a string of 1'31.9s and 1'32s, before upping the pace again and hitting a 1'31.5 to catch the leaders.
Rossi, meanwhile, was running consistent 1'32.1 and 1'32.2. Fast enough for fourth, but nowhere near good enough for the win. Even if Rossi had started from the front row of the grid, and not had to fight his way forward through the pack (a battle which was over shortly after one third distance), he did not have the pace to beat Lorenzo, nor even the pace to beat the two Hondas. Rossi finished where his race pace dictated, regardless of where he had started. That race pace was roughly in line with what he had shown during practice, a couple of tenths short of the pace of the leaders.
If you ain't got the speed ...
By placing the onus on the Hondas to beat Lorenzo, he is deflecting responsibility of his own failure to do so. All throughout the year, every rider in the paddock bar one has said that the championship has basically been between Jorge Lorenzo, who is the faster of the two, and Valentino Rossi, who has been more consistent and smarter. The faster rider may not always win, but over a full season of eighteen races, having the speed helps.
Even in the races where Rossi has accused Márquez of helping Lorenzo, his accusations do not bear close scrutiny. In Australia, Rossi accused Márquez of holding him and Andrea Iannone up in order to allow Lorenzo to get a gap, which only Márquez could bridge. Yet Márquez finished ahead of Lorenzo, taking five points from the Spaniard, and Iannone finished in front of Rossi, taking three points from the Italian. At Sepang, Rossi was not fast enough to catch Lorenzo after he forced Márquez wide, lapping slower than his teammate. If he had not been suckered into battling with Márquez – clearly Márquez' plan, as revenge for Rossi's humiliation of him in the press conference – then Rossi would have finished either third or fourth, again losing points to Lorenzo. And if Rossi had truly been faster than Márquez, he would have quickly disposed of the Spaniard and gone on to chase Lorenzo. But Rossi wasn't quicker than Márquez, and got sucked into a battle he had nothing to gain from and no point fighting.
Jorge Lorenzo made his feelings about the entire affair clear in the press conference after the race. "I think I clearly deserve this world title," Lorenzo said. "If you see the statistics compared to our rival, we beat him in everything: in victories, in pole positions, in fast laps, in laps leading the race, in laps leading the practice, and everything. Only in podiums, and in the consistency, he beat us." If Rossi could point to events that worked against him, so could Lorenzo: a loose helmet lining at Qatar, bronchitis at Austin, tire troubles at Argentina, visor fogging at Silverstone, and a stupid mistake at Misano. If Lorenzo had not got suckered in trying to follow Scott Redding at Misano on slicks fresh out of the pits, the Spaniard finishes in second or third, Rossi then finishing in sixth. In that case, Lorenzo heads into Valencia with either a 14 or 11 point lead. Either way, the task goes from being difficult to being impossible, with or without help from the two Repsol Hondas.
While the above may be open to interpretation, There are a couple more indisputable facts about the 2015 championship which bear consideration. The first is that this has been one of the most thrilling and keenly contested championships in years, the title only being decided in Valencia. The second is that Yamaha built a fantastic bike in the YZR-M1, arguably the best racing motorcycle ever to see the light of day. The 2015 M1 kept all of the strengths of last year's bike, while the combination of chassis revisions, electronics and the fully seamless gearbox removed the bike's weaknesses.
The third is that both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo deserved the title, both riding better than they have ever done in their careers. What Rossi has done at the age of 36, and after spending so long in the doldrums at Ducati and afterwards, is truly remarkable. To be able to summon up the self-discipline and desire to push his body and his riding skills to try to beat younger men than he, men who grew up watching Rossi, copying him, learning his tricks and trying to improve upon them, is a feat that puts Rossi on a level beyond anything seen in history.
For Jorge Lorenzo, in 2015 he came back stronger than he has ever been in his career, having learned from his mistakes of last year, and inventing new ways to ride around problems whenever he encountered them. Lorenzo may have a strong preference for the Bridgestone tires with more edge grip, but he never had to search for the perfect set up, being quick on the bike despite the setting he had in it, and more consistent when Ramon Forcada fixed the problems he had.
Poisoning the well
Most of all, though, Rossi's decision to attack Marc Márquez so publicly has thoroughly destroyed the credibility of the series, and detracts both from the value of Jorge Lorenzo's championship and his own performance in 2015. By attacking Márquez, Rossi is admitting that he did not have the championship in his own hands, and needed help from other riders to win it. Why he thought those riders would want help him after he launched such blistering attack on them is something of a mystery.
The timing and method of Rossi's attack was itself interesting. Firstly, he spoke to Italian television to make his complaint, his preferred way of speaking directly to the Italian people, a method he used on occasion to try to persuade Ducati to make the changes that were needed if the bike was to be competitive. Then, in his customary media debrief, where he explains to the press how his race went, he broke the habit of every debrief I have ever been in with him, speaking first in Italian (and live on TV) before switching to English. That was curious indeed, but it allowed him to make the accusations in his native language first, the language he is far more comfortable with and in which he can be more precise. He then repeated the same claims in English, and though his English is excellent, it was clear that he was still thinking in Italian.
The most informative vignette was on Italian television, when Carmelo Ezpeleta came along to congratulate him on a great season. Rossi made a very public show of saying to Ezpeleta "I told you so! Didn't I tell you on Thursday this would happen?" Rossi had apparently been to see Ezpeleta on Thursday, to warn him of a "Spanish plot" against him. The most intriguing words followed, an almost throwaway line. "I will see you in my motorhome later," Rossi said. For a MotoGP rider to be summoning the CEO of Dorna, the man who runs the series, to his motorhome, is a sign that the balance of power is out of kilter. Carmelo Ezpeleta should be summoning riders to his office at his own convenience. He should not be at the beck and call of riders, for them to summon him as they please.
After his bitter attack on Márquez, Rossi then did not show up at the FIM Gala Award Ceremony, the official prize giving ceremony for the 2015 championship. That is a snub not just of Dorna, who organize the series, but of the FIM, the international federation under whose auspices MotoGP is run. It is a further sign, if any were needed, that Valentino Rossi has taken this loss exceptionally badly, and is in no mood to be gracious in defeat. He believes that someone else is to blame, and he is not afraid to call them out for it.
Bigger than the sport?
There is a grave danger to Rossi's strategy, one that hurts both the championship and himself. Rossi's attack undermines not just the credibility of this year's championship, but of every championship in the future. If fans believe this year's title was fixed, they are more likely to regard next year's championship as fixed as well. Accusing other riders of foul play is opening a Pandora's box of conspiracy and paranoia that will not be tamed, and will grow wildly out of control. If fans stop watching because they believe that MotoGP is not fair, fewer fans will watch to see Rossi enjoy success in the future.
Is MotoGP rigged? If it was, then it would be rigged for maximum financial gain, and that would mean that Valentino Rossi would win every championship. Rossi remains the giant of the sport, the man who is bigger than the series, the rider who sells the championship to casual fans and brings an international appeal to motorcycle racing. If Dorna had their way, they would not choose to have Jorge Lorenzo – clearly the fastest man this year, and arguably one of the fastest riders ever to walk the earth, but not a lovable or even likable character in the slightest – win the championship. Instead, they would have their big ticket riders, Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez win the title.
Does Marc Márquez want a Spanish champion? He certainly does, but only if that Spanish rider is called Marc Márquez. Motorcycle racers are deeply egotistical, and care only about their own achievements. Marc Márquez helping Jorge Lorenzo to beat Valentino Rossi makes as much sense as Max Biaggi helping Rossi beat Sete Gibernau. There is a logic there, but it is an entirely abstract logic which bears no relation to the human reality of the situation.
The truth is out there
Can we believe what we saw on Sunday? The facts speak for themselves, but we should be careful not to read things into them which may or may not be there. Did Marc Márquez really let Jorge Lorenzo win? Whether he did or not, we will never know, and speculating about it is particularly pointless. Did Marc Márquez cost Valentino Rossi his tenth world title? This we can be a little more certain of: blaming Márquez is as valid as blaming Andrea Iannone for Phillip Island, or Rossi himself for a misjudgment at Misano where he stayed out too long, or Andrea Dovizioso for being faster at Austin, or Iannone at Mugello, or Pedrosa at Aragon. All of those riders interfered with the championship, just as all the riders who let Rossi past at Valencia interfered with the championship. It is an entirely simplistic and narrow view of what a MotoGP championship is.
There were eighteen races this season, and points were handed out at each race, each race was run under its own specific circumstances, and there were surprises, oddities and weirdness every race weekend. The point of a motorcycle championship over so many races is to even out the rough patches, to average out the performances, so that the rider who has performed best over the course of the season receives the title. In 2015, that was Jorge Lorenzo, by one of the slimmest margins in a very long time. Valentino Rossi fought like a lion, and comported himself with great dignity as a racer, all the way to the end. But from Sepang onwards, that dignity disappeared, and Rossi looked like an old racer searching for excuses.
That tarnishes the image of a rider who has a legitimate claim to be regarded as the greatest of all time. More importantly, that tarnishes the image of Grand Prix motorcycle racing, and MotoGP in particular. That is a very bad thing indeed, as Grand Prix racing will continue long after Valentino Rossi retires. Sometimes, an athlete is bigger than the sport he competes in. But that sport has to ensure that it is not crushed under the weight of that athlete's reputation when they leave.
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