The Losail Circuit in Qatar is the largest floodlit sporting venue on the planet. The lighting system includes over 1000 structures, 3 million kilos of concrete, and 500 kilometres of wire. The system would power 3000 homes. Three and a half thousand separate light sources produce 450 million lumens of light. On Sunday the 7th of April, those 450 million lumens will bathe one man. Valentino Rossi.
There are others of course, every bit as worthy of the spotlight as Rossi. But people watched Muhammad Ali fights to see Ali, not the guy who was going to beat him. The focus of every spectator at the circuit and every television viewer globally will be on Rossi because, like Ali, the story is utterly compelling.
MotoGP has somehow (more by happy accident than design) contrived to take its staid feature race, replete with little overtaking, few wheelies and certainly no burnouts in these days of limited engine availability, and serve up a season that has the hallmarks of a potential classic.
How we got here is how we got here. A guy retired, another walked away from his team, a bike was uncompetitive, a rookie rule was dropped, a potential champion became injury free, and an angry young man matured into a two-time world champion.
As the cards fell, the deals were done and the seats filled, what emerged was a script which even the most sniffy nosed Hollywood Producer would regard as having too many plot lines and far too much intrigue for any small town mid west audience to follow.
Fortunately this is MotoGP, not Hollywood. Whilst it may be regrettable to some that the series remains Euro centric, the fact is that 2013 may just serve up cinéma vérité of the highest order, with a plot to match the best of Greek mythology.
Valentino Rossi, playing the part of Odysseus returning home battle weary from his travails in the Bolognian wars to reassert his rightful place as King of Ithaca, will take the starring role in the feature presentation.
But this is motorsport, not a movie. It will serve up a happy ending for someone, but just because the audience are rooting for their hero it doesn’t mean they’re going to get the ending they want.
So what are the chances?
One in four. No, make that one in three. Wait. ‘Marquez’. One in four.
Will it be Valentino Rossi? Perhaps.
The perceived wisdom and accumulated knowledge of the MotoGP paddock states that whilst Rossi will be competitive and undoubtedly pick up podiums and the odd win, he won’t challenge for the championship. The reasons: his main competitors, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, have grown in the last two years. Both are better, faster, more consistent and mature than they were before. The current bikes require to be ridden with a level of precision at odds with Rossi’s late braking, dive for the apex, sort it out on the exit style. Put simply, the paddock reckons he’ll expend so much energy, both mental and physical, just keeping up with the metronomically fast pace of the other two that his season will consist of coat tail hanging with the odd bit of luck here and there. This could be true.
Paddock wisdom is good, but holds sway only to the end of the pit lane. After that, a race breaks out. There can be no better illustration of the vicissitudes of a season of world championship Grand Prix motorcycle racing than that given by former U.S Secretary of Defense (sic), Donald Rumsfeld (on, admittedly, another topic);
“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know”.
The known knowns are the factory teams of Honda and Yamaha. They possess the fastest, best handling, most technologically advanced machines on the grid. Each will field two. Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi will ride for Yamaha, Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez for Honda. One of these four men will be the 2013 MotoGP world champion. Any other scenario is firmly back in the land of our Hollywood producer with the constantly streaming nose and oddly unquenchable thirst.
The known unknowns are that during an 18 race season, stuff happens. In 2012, Jorge Lorenzo unexpectedly met Alvaro Bautista at a turn one apex. He ended up in the gravel, race over, engine blown. At Misano, desperately trying to make up lost time after an altercation with, of all things, a tyre warmer, Dani Pedrosa met a similar fate. These incidents are, however, part and parcel of motorsport. Only the very fortunate make it through a full season without something interrupting a perfect score of finishes. It always happens to someone, it could happen to anyone. Known unknowns.
The unknown unknowns. The thing about the unexpected is its unpredictability, due to the very nature of its unexpectedness. Before a wheel was turned in the 2012 season it was difficult to see anyone other than Casey Stoner winning the title. Lorenzo had a shot, a good one, for sure, but it was Casey’s to lose. The Honda was magnificent and Stoner’s riding imperious. The title was his unless something completely unexpected happened. It did. Chatter. Then a new tyre was introduced, further hampering the Honda. Then, an unforced error from the kind of rider who rarely makes unforced errors resulted in a broken ankle and his championship challenge being over. An unknown unknown.
So where does this leave our returning King?
It leaves him fighting for his crown with not only the current King but also the Crown Prince and the Young Pretender.
The current King has grown in stature since Odysseus departed. No longer a youth, he has matured, learned well and now bestrides his empire exuding the steely confidence of one who knows he is fit to reign.
The Crown Prince has suffered the slings, arrows, and indeed the stuck throttles of battle. His standing in the Royal Court is at an all time high, but he knows he must seize the crown now if it is not to skip a generation.
No mere child or upstart, the Young Pretender has proven himself in battle time and again. He fears no one, for he has never experienced the emotion. His speed, determination, and panache in victory remind Odysseus of his younger self. As well it might, for the Young Pretender has a ruthless streak.
Each of the four protagonists must defeat not only his main foe, but the one on each flank as well, at the same time. Consistency wins championships. In the race for the 2013 MotoGP crown, this will be truer than ever.
At each race there are three podium positions. Ergo, at each race one of the four contenders will be not be on the podium. Satellite riders will take podiums, possibly wins, during the season. At these races, two, conceivably three of the four contenders will be off the podium. Who fails to make the podium, and when, will play a big part. All four contenders will not finish every race. Who, where and crucially, when, this occurs will also have its say in the final outcome. Known unknowns.
Of the four, three have a point to prove. Lorenzo, that he can have Rossi as his team mate and not blink an eye. Pedrosa, that he can be world champion. Rossi, that those who dared question him were wrong. Marquez has no point to prove, merely a destiny to fulfil. And a train of thought which simply does not understand the concept of waiting for a year.
On paper, there are two favourites and two underdogs. But MotoGP races on bitumen, not paper. In the cold light of a race day sunrise there are four riders between which it would be difficult to squeeze a cigarette paper. Each has the both the ability and the equipment under him to take victory on any given day.
Valentino Rossi has a one in four chance of becoming world champion in 2013. No more, no less. Given recent travails, it’s difficult to imagine that he won’t grab those odds tightly with both hands. To win, he will need to shorten them.
Homer’s epic poem ‘The Odyssey’ was written sometime in the 8th century BC. Its hero, Odysseus, returns home not only to reclaim his rightful place as King of Ithaca, but also to be reunited with his one true love. Renowned as a brave and brilliant warrior, Odysseus was given the epithet ‘mētis’ due to his intelligence, adaptability and most of all, his cunning.
Remind you of anyone?
Qatar. April 7th. Bike number 46.