Seven days ago, we were talking about how the 2015 MotoGP season will go down in history as one of the greatest of all time, with the Australian Grand Prix as its glittering highlight. A week later, we saw its low point. There were some truly remarkable and admirable performances in all three classes. Dani Pedrosa confirmed his return to form with a formidable victory, his second of the season. The arm pump surgery has been a huge success, and if Honda can resist the temptation to build an unrideably powerful engine, Pedrosa will be back in title contention again next year. Johann Zarco proved once again he is the class of the Moto2 field, stalking Tom Luthi all race and riding to the very limit of physical endurance to snatch victory from what seemed like a foregone conclusion. And Miguel Oliveira demonstrated that he is capable of dominating the second half of the Moto3 season the way that Danny Kent dominated the first half, denying the Englishman the title and taking the championship to Valencia.
The trouble is, those stunning performances were overshadowed by one of the ugliest weekends of racing we have seen in a very long time. The tragedy may not have been physical this time, but it was tragic nonetheless. Three great champions let their masks slip at Sepang, revealing the egotism, spitefulness and petty rivalries that underly their success. And the fans added insult to injury, booing at a result they did not like.
So we shall skip past the victory by Dani Pedrosa, failing to shower him with the praise which he deserves. We shall overlook the stunning ride by Jorge Lorenzo, passing riders at will and subduing everyone but Dani Pedrosa. Instead, we must focus on the battle for third, the clash between Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez. On the breathtaking battle that went sour, after Rossi finally lost his cool at Márquez' provocation and unwillingness to surrender, and precipitated Márquez' crash.
The pocket rocket
Pedrosa got away at the start, and once he was into Turn 1, he was basically gone. The Spaniard did not pull out the kind of gap that Jorge Lorenzo does on his first lap, but he still went faster than anyone could follow. His teammate tried, but it was clear from the start that he could not match him, Márquez struggling with an unwilling front end and a full fuel tank. Behind Márquez sat Valentino Rossi, close on the Spaniard's tail, but never able to threaten him. Rossi's Movistar Yamaha teammate was on his way forward, putting a brilliant pass on both Ducatis at the same time at Turn 4. A lap later, Lorenzo was outbraking Rossi into Turn 1 to take third. Rossi tried to come straight back, but Lorenzo had the line, held on, and pushed away.
Lorenzo was on a charge, and he had only Marc Márquez between him and Dani Pedrosa. Márquez had lost touch with Pedrosa, while Lorenzo was coming up hard from behind. Going into Turn 4, Márquez made a mistake on the brakes and nearly ran wide, skimming along the edge of the rumble strip and nearly hitting the dirt. Lorenzo slipped easily past into second and went charging off to chase Pedrosa.
Here is where the madness starts. Where truth becomes indistinguishable from conspiracy theory. Where naked facts are used as building blocks to construct vast, sprawling narratives that may or may not have any correspondence with the truth. Where fans and observers fill in the blanks the unknown motivations of riders occupy. Normally, if a rider misses a braking point, it is seen as exactly that: a rider making a mistake. But not at Sepang.
Down the rabbit hole
An alternative narrative had been launched on Thursday, when Valentino Rossi came to the press conference armed with a timesheet and an agenda. The Italian had run through the Phillip Island race in his mind and come to the conclusion that Marc Márquez had deliberately got involved with the battle for second, to hold Rossi up and allow Jorge Lorenzo to escape, in a bid to help Lorenzo win the championship. Or more accurately in a bid to ensure that Valentino Rossi lost the championship. Up until that moment, we had all been basking in the glory of one of the most exhilarating races in over a decade, and perhaps the best race of the MotoGP era. Now, though, the seed of doubt had been planted, and with Rossi's green fingers behind it, planted in fertile ground. Rossi's theory quickly spread far and wide, people starting to claim they had been suspicious of Márquez' race all along. Though curiously, they only raised their concerns after Rossi had expressed his.
From that moment on, every meter Marc Márquez rode on a MotoGP bike would come under suspicion, every time that Valentino Rossi rode near Marc Márquez came under scrutiny. Practice sessions were pregnant with meaning, no stone unturned, no incident unexamined. The pair ran across each other in FP3, then again briefly in FP4, and the Internet filled with claims of "mind games". Marc Márquez left pit lane first, Jorge Lorenzo lining up behind him, and again, the cry was "See! Márquez is giving Lorenzo a tow!" The fact that several other riders followed Márquez out at the same time was irrelevant, as was the fact that as a tow, it wasn't much good, Márquez putting in a mediocre lap at best.
Is there merit in Rossi's claims that Márquez had actively tried to hold Rossi up, and help Lorenzo win the championship? I did not believe so on Thursday, and I do not believe so now, as the evidence seems to be lacking. But it is impossible to prove a negative, and so we must allow that we cannot prove that it is not true. What is certain is that Rossi believes it is true, and this would come to play a key role in the race at Sepang.
Treachery and old age
Rossi, seeing Márquez go wide and Lorenzo pass the Repsol Honda with ease, must have suspected the worst. He was quickly with Márquez, but passing the Spaniard was not as easy for Rossi as it had been for Lorenzo. This, too, would be key later on. It took Rossi nearly a lap, the Italian getting through on Márquez at Turn 4, the corner where the Spaniard had been struggling all weekend. Márquez was not about to simply roll over and let Rossi past. He planned his counter attack, but was having to ask a lot of his Honda RC213V, the rear sliding and stepping out when he did not want it to. Márquez looked at Turn 15 but ran wide, got past at Turn 1, but allowed Rossi to get back underneath. Márquez tried again at Turn 4, but at his weakest corner, he could only get past at the cost of leaving himself open for Turn 5. Rossi was straight back again.
From this point onwards all hell broke loose. The crowds lapped it up, as Rossi and Márquez swapped places several times a lap. The pair were pushing each other to the limit, striking back as soon as they were passed, making passes in improbable paces. The risks being taken were evident. Three times Rossi's foot slipped from his footpeg, as he saved the bike from a near crash. Rossi grew increasingly frustrated, at one point turning round to look at Márquez and waving his arm in the air, as if to ask, "what the hell do you think you are doing?"
On lap seven, Rossi finally cracked. After a couple of close passes through the section leading out of Turn 9, Rossi took the inside line through the long right hander of Turn 13, slowing and pushing Márquez ever wider as they approached Turn 14. The act of slowing caused Rossi to adopt a jerky motion, Rossi turning a little and sitting the bike up a little, turning and sitting up. Márquez was taken entirely by surprise by the behavior of the Italian. Forced off line and out, he kept trying to make a judgment as to when Rossi would turn in for Turn 14. He judged it wrong just as Rossi pushed him wide even further, and Márquez leaned in as Rossi moved out, the pair colliding. Márquez helmet collided with Rossi's kneeslider, knocking his leg off the peg, which collided with his handlebars. Márquez claims Rossi kicked his bars, causing the front wheel to lock. Rossi denies this, says Márquez' handlebars hit his leg. Race Direction say they have no conclusive footage to prove the case either way.
Duped by data
That hasn't stopped the Internet from coming to two entirely opposite conclusions on their own. Many video clips are circulating, one allegedly proving that Rossi kicked Márquez' bars, another allegedly proving that Márquez' headbutted Rossi's knee. Both sets of video clips suffer from the problems faced by anyone trying to investigate situations like these: by focusing in on the tiniest of detail, the bigger picture gets lost. You can indeed clearly see that Márquez appears to headbutt Rossi's leg, but you can only accept it as a headbutt if you ignore the previous five seconds of footage on the way into the corner. You can also clearly see Rossi's leg come free, and touch Márquez' bars. But again, what is missing is the second or so before, the moment when the two bikes come together, and Rossi's leg is knocked off the pegs, and his boot gets caught behind the handlebars.
From Marc Márquez' perspective, it is entirely understandable that he should believe that Rossi kicked his handlebar. Márquez found himself caught up in a situation he hadn't expected, with Rossi sitting up, looking at him, and pushing him wide. The next thing he knows, he sees Rossi's boot swinging past, and he is on the floor. Is it likely that Rossi kicked Márquez' bars? Given that the Italian was focusing on pushing Márquez off the track and into the dirt, there seems no real need for him to do so. His aim, the Italian admitted, had been to slow Márquez up, get him completely off line, so he could try to get away from the Spaniard. If you are trying to push a rider out into the dirt, there is no real need to kick his bars. The collision with Márquez' head seems much more probable.
Was it Rossi or Márquez who initiated the contact? From the video, it seems that Márquez leaned into Rossi as the two touched. Of course, that does not mean that Márquez is at fault for the contact. The Repsol Honda rider was taken completely by surprise by the situation, and was not expecting to be pushed out wide by Rossi. He was trying to judge the right moment to turn in, something which proved to be impossible. At some point, he had no choice. If Rossi had been aiming to take the corner, instead of pushing Márquez off the track, there would have been no contact. Race Direction judged that this was Rossi's fault. Márquez claimed it was Rossi's fault. Rossi admitted he had been trying to push Márquez wide. He had not been trying deliberately to make Márquez crash, Rossi said. But it was equally clear that it was an inevitable consequence of his actions.
Cracking under pressure
What had brought Rossi to this point? The Italian claimed that Márquez had been trying to hold him up, slowing in the corners and not opening the throttle fully on the straights. If Márquez was not opening the throttle on the straights, then it must have been down the back straight only, as the lap charts show that Márquez' top speed on the laps when he was ahead of Rossi were pretty much in line with that of Dani Pedrosa's (327 km/h to 326 km/h), and Rossi's top speed was only a couple of kilometers down on the speeds he would reach after the crash, when he was circulating on his own (321 km/h to 324 km/h). The lap times were undeniably slower, lap five a second slower than lap four, and lap six a couple of tenths quicker again. Was that Márquez slowing Rossi up, or the inevitable result of the two swapping places several times a lap?
Race Direction, having access to lap times, data, and every possible camera angle at the circuit, including some which the TV feed does not show, believe that Márquez was doing something, acknowledging that the Spaniard was getting in Rossi's way. "What Rossi said about Marquez deliberately slowing down the pace and affecting Rossi's race also had some merit to it," Mike Webb told reporters. The problem was that Márquez' behavior is not illegal. From the outside, it looked just like Rossi and Márquez were engaged in a thrilling battle, fighting for third position in every corner. That is the prerogative of every rider on the grid, as long as they are both contesting the same position. There is no rule – or at least, not a written one – that a rider who does not have a shot at the championship should not race against a rider who is. As long as they do so without causing the rider chasing the championship any danger, then they are free to try to hold their place. And given the premium (and probable bonus) placed on a podium position, you would expect the battle to be even harder.
History repeats itself
It is not even unique to this race at Sepang. The example which sticks most in my memory is of Phillip Island in 1990, when Dutchman Hans Spaan went to the last 125cc race of the year trailing Loris Capirossi by just two points. Spaan started from pole, and all he had to do was finish ahead of Capirossi to lift the title. The problem was that Spaan lined up ahead of a gaggle of Italians, all of whom were out of contention for the title, and were working together to help Capirossi win. The scrap that developed became legendary, Dario Romboni, Fausto Gresini and Bruno Casanova all blocking Spaan at every pass and trying to push him wide. In the end, Spaan lashed out at Gresini, trying to punch the Italian out of sheer frustration. The plan of the Italians worked, Spaan finishing fourth and Capirossi taking the crown in his rookie season, an amazing debut.
Was it the Italians' fault that Spaan was robbed of the title? There is nothing in the rulebook about helping other riders, or trying to slow them down, as long as it is done safely (a word open to interpretation). But you could turn that question on its head: was it Capirossi's fault that Spaan was not quick enough to shake his pursuers off? What happens out on the track is racing, and any result, any motive is a valid one. The primary goal of racing is to finish ahead of your rivals. Sometimes, though, the reason you want to finish ahead of someone is more than just the position on the grid. The rulebook says nothing about motives.
Spaan had his fate in his own hands in the same way that Rossi had his fate in his own hands at Sepang. If Rossi had had the speed to hold off Lorenzo for third, he would not have got tangled up with Márquez. If Rossi had had the outright speed to leave Márquez behind, he would not have had to slug it out over several laps. Without the speed to do either of those things, then collecting sufficient points to get his hands on the championship was always going to be difficult.
The master meets his match
This, perhaps, is the source of Valentino Rossi's frustration. The Italian senses that this is his best, and perhaps his last chance of a tenth world title. Yet in the three races prior to Sepang, he was beaten in a direct duel twice. At Aragon, Dani Pedrosa produced some brilliant passes to shake off Rossi and take second place. Two races later, at Phillip Island, Rossi found himself losing out to both Marc Márquez and Andrea Iannone, forced to settle for fourth, and lucky that Márquez could pull a blistering lap out of the bag and beat Jorge Lorenzo. In both cases, afterwards, and in private, Rossi sought out the other riders involved to ask them why they had put up such a fight. According to the leading Spanish newspaper El Pais, after Aragon, Rossi went to find Dani Pedrosa to ask him why he had put up such a fight.
At Sepang, he once again found himself losing out against a younger rider in a direct battle. And fighting with Márquez is even worse than battling Pedrosa, Lorenzo or Iannone. Márquez has always said he was a Valentino Rossi fan, and the one element of Rossi's style which he has copied and improved upon is the counter attack. Any time Rossi is passed in one corner, it is a racing certainty that he will try to pass straight back, either at the next corner or on the exit of the turn he was passed in. Márquez does the same, but he brings his own extra tools to the skills he learned from studying Rossi. One of the reasons Márquez spends so much time practicing flat track is to be comfortable around other riders, and finding ways to try to pass them when it does not seem possible. Marc Márquez has found a way to beat Valentino Rossi at his own game. And Valentino Rossi does not like that one bit.
So Rossi faced a rival capable of beating him at his own game. He also faced a rival who he had spent the whole weekend goading, after his outburst in the press conference accusing Márquez of trying to help Lorenzo. It was not as if Márquez needed much encouragement: the clash at Argentina had not sat well with Márquez, but the incident at Assen had infuriated him. Márquez believed – utterly wrongly – that he should have been awarded the win at Assen, when he slammed into Rossi and forced the Italian into the gravel, unwittingly handing him victory. Those two incidents had bred resentment, and Rossi added another twist speaking to Italian media. Márquez' manager, Emilio Alzamora, had told him that Márquez believed that Rossi had knocked him out of the championship, because of the crash in Argentina and second place at Assen.
When Valentino Rossi sat in the press conference at Sepang and accused Márquez of helping Lorenzo, it merely enraged him further. Whether or not there was any truth to Rossi's accusations of his behavior at Phillip Island, at Sepang, it was inevitable that there would be at Sepang. Márquez was determined that if he could not win the race, then he was going to do whatever it took to make Rossi's life hell.
The clash on the track was inevitable, once Márquez could not stick with Pedrosa and Rossi could not hang with Lorenzo. They were destined to meet, and once they did, their mutual hatred and rage was destined to blow up into an incident of historic proportions. Both men lost their minds, and all sense of perspective. Rossi allowed himself to get tangled up with someone he had no business being concerned with, and Márquez got involved in a battle out of petty spite and anger, giving vent to frustration at a year when he could not be competitive on the bike Honda had given him.
Was Marc Márquez' riding fair? He has every right to fight for his position on the track, but it is deeply unsporting to get involved with a rival with other priorities, unless you can beat them simply. There is nothing in the rules about being sporting, though, just about not being dangerous. Márquez' passes were legal, but they were extraordinarily aggressive for a battle for third place just five laps into a twenty lap race.
Ultimately, though, it was Valentino Rossi who lost out most by losing his cool. Throughout his career, Rossi has been known as a master of psychological warfare, of intense mental strength, as someone who can withstand any setback which fate can throw against him. After his outburst on Thursday, we started to wonder if cracks were starting to show in what had until then seemed an impregnable wall. A strong qualifying on Saturday seemed to remove those doubts, but the race proved that our eyes had not deceived us. Andrea Dovizioso put it bluntly. "He is really the best to control every situation, every sensation," the Ducati rider mused. "But not today. He fights for something important, the tenth title, but everybody knows Lorenzo is faster." All that anger and frustration came boiling to a head at Turn 13 at Sepang, ending with Marc Márquez on the ground, and the reputation of both Márquez and Rossi in tatters.
For neither man came out of this well. Márquez showed himself up as a petty man, driven by spite to try to prevent another rider from having something he could not. Rossi showed his weakness, his fear of being able to match Lorenzo in a straight fight, and his willingness to go to extreme lengths to achieve his goals. The Teflon layer which had always allowed accusations of foul play to slip off him, shrugged off with a joke and a smile, was irrevocably damaged. For once, he did openly what he had previously kept hidden. Both men remain great champions, and the finest motorcycle racers of their generation, but if you wanted to see the underlying truth of how bitter and ugly elite sports can get, Sunday at Sepang was the proof. Rossi and Márquez share the same ambition, ruthlessness, and blind hatred of their rivals as every other elite athlete on the planet. If they did not have that hunger, they would not go to the lengths they do to achieve success. They give up everything – friends, lovers, family, time, starving themselves to lose weight, training themselves to exhaustion – just for the sake of a shiny piece of metal with their name on, and the satisfaction that they triumphed over others.
The question is, why was the situation allowed to get so far out of hand? Did no one sit Valentino Rossi down and ask him whether it was a good idea to launch an attack on Márquez at such a crucial time in the championship? Did no one point out to him that his main rival is on the other side of the garage, not down at Honda? Did no one take Márquez to one side after Rossi's attack and tell him to behave with dignity, that if he wants to race Rossi, he should do so fairly and cleanly? Did no one from the organization take the pair of the riders aside, and tell them to behave themselves?
They did not. There was a role for management to play here, and management did not step up and play it. Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis told reporters that Rossi had told him of his opinion of what Márquez had done, but he had not expected Rossi to actually express those concerns in a press conference. If Rossi's claim is true, that Alzamora said Márquez blames Rossi for taking Márquez out of the championship, then someone at HRC should have been monitoring that situation, and spoken to Márquez. But HRC appear to have entrusted care of Márquez to his manager, Alzamora. Alzamora has very different priorities than Honda, and HRC should have realized this, and taken steps to prevent it. After the clash on Sunday, HRC, Yamaha and Dorna were left to pick up the pieces, to clean up the mess their riders had created for them.
Judge and jury
Though two riders were at fault here, only one has been punished. After the race, Rossi and Márquez were called in to Race Direction to review the footage and give their version of events. It was an ugly affair, with bitter words spoken between the two. "Honestly, I prefer not to say what he said in Race Direction. I have always had a lot of respect for him, and I prefer not to comment on what he said to me," Márquez said afterwards. Rossi admitted he had spoken to Márquez in the meeting. "I told him what I think of him. But it was personal." No doubt Márquez had some choice words for Rossi too.
In the meeting, the two men stuck to their version of events. Márquez believes Rossi kicked his handlebars, or at least deliberately took his foot off the pegs and nudged his bar and brake lever. Rossi said that Márquez was trying to hold him up, and he had grown tired of being harassed by Márquez, deciding to push him wide and try to make him lose time. He had not meant for him to crash, Rossi said, but that when Márquez and he collided, Márquez' handlebar hit his knee, and that is what caused Márquez to crash. To get the full account from both sides, see this story on Crash.net for Rossi, and this for Márquez.
Race Direction ruled that they could see no clear evidence for a kick, but that Rossi's actions had caused Márquez to crash. Mike Webb told reporters that Rossi had pushed Márquez wide, and that was what had caused the crash. They believed that there was some fault on both sides of the argument, but that all of Márquez' passes had been clean and with no contact. They understood that Rossi had been provoked, but said that his reaction had gone against the rules, causing the contact which brought Márquez down. Causing contact which brought another rider down – whether intentionally or not – had to be penalized. Rossi was handed three penalty points, and because he already had one point he had picked up during qualifying at Misano, he will be forced to start from the back of the grid.
Mike Webb explained the justification for awarding three points: though Rossi had sought contact with Márquez, Rossi had stated he had not intentionally brought Márquez down. They had a precedent from earlier in the year, when Karel Hanika had caused Juanfran Guevara to crash after the flag at Jerez. At that time, Hanika had admitted he had intended to make Guevara crash, and had been handed five points. Without intent, Race Direction could not hand Rossi more points than Hanika, or disqualify him completely. The penalty had to be severe enough for Rossi to feel truly punished, while not being more severe than the points handed out to Hanika. To read Webb's full explanation, see this story over on Crash.net.
Grab the pitchforks
Immediately after the crash, there was a storm of debate as to whether the penalty was either too lenient or too harsh. Carlo Pernat, prominent rider manager, said in the press conference that he felt Rossi should have been immediately disqualified, or given a ride through penalty. At Le Mans in 2011, Marco Simoncelli had caused Dani Pedrosa to crash, and been awarded a ride through penalty a few laps later. Surely, many said, there should have been an immediate sanction, instead of waiting until the race was over?
Webb's version is that they knew this was an incredibly important incident that would have a major impact on the outcome of the championship. They did not want to impose a penalty before examining all of the facts, and in the middle of an active MotoGP race, they could not devote the resources to giving it the attention it deserves. That meant waiting until the race was over, which would also allow them to bring the two riders in and speak to them both, and allow them to explain themselves.
Would it be better to issue an immediate judgment? Instant justice may be a lot more satisfying for the fans, but it creates a situation which cannot be reversed. Should closer scrutiny reveal that the penalty was too harsh, or the crime merely a figment of Race Direction's imagination, then they have no way of making amends. As with the death penalty, exoneration after the fact becomes rather meaningless.
On the other hand, a ride through penalty may not be the punishment it would seem. With the incident coming on lap seven, the earliest Rossi could realistically have been handed a ride through penalty would be lap ten or eleven. He then has three laps to come in and pass through the pits. It takes approximately 27 seconds to ride through the pits at Sepang (at least, that is the length of time Ant West took to perform a ride through there in 2007). Rossi would have reentered the track as twelfth, and with the pace he was running at the time, could have fought his way to the battle for what would have been sixth. Sixth place gives ten points, instead of the sixteen points he got for third. Rossi could have been heading to Valencia still leading the championship by a single point, and with no penalty to serve. Holding on to the sixteen points he got for third at Sepang, and being forced to start from the back of the grid is likely a more severe penalty.
Et tu, brute?
In the press conference, Jorge Lorenzo expressed his disgust at the penalty handed to Rossi. After a brilliant ride that could be a big step on the way to a third championship, Lorenzo added his ugly reaction to the ugliness of the incident between Márquez and Rossi. He had received a race ban for a similar incident in 2005, so why should Rossi receive such a light penalty, conveniently overlooking the fact that Lorenzo had earned a reputation as a wild and dangerous rider at the time, something he refers to himself. It was not fair, Lorenzo said, the look on his face one of utter disgust. If someone in Moto3 had done the same thing, they would have been penalized more heavily, Lorenzo claimed. Rossi was getting away with because of who he is. "His name is very important for the championship," Lorenzo said. "If another rider did what Valentino did today, he would do minimum a ride through, minimum a black flag, minimum a race of penalization. But it didn't happen, and I'm disappointed, very disappointed."
Lorenzo had wanted Rossi disqualified, arguing that his teammate should have exactly the same points as Marc Márquez, the man he had caused to crash. Allowing Rossi to continue had meant Lorenzo had been forced to push hard and take some amount of risk to ensure he finished ahead of Rossi and scored points. He could have crashed because of the risks he was taking, Lorenzo argued, and been left with no points at all. Starting at the back of the grid at Vaelncia was not as harsh as it seemed, he argued. "If Valentino starts in last position, maybe it is raining, and in one or two laps he is there at the front. If it's dry, he will have more problems, but he can champion. This is not fair know what happened today on the track. So if this happens, for me he will not be a fair champion for this championship."
It was a petty reaction, as petty as the reaction by Marc Márquez that had caused him to engage Valentino Rossi, and as petty as the behavior of Rossi in pushing Márquez wide and causing him to crash. Lorenzo had a chance to look presidential, to look dignified, like a worthy champion. Instead, he sat and blamed Race Direction for not handing him the championship. He was not happy at having secured a podium, he was only bitter. It was unedifying.
In his defense, he had some reason to be disgruntled. He had come off the bike feeling exhausted, drained by the heat at Sepang. At the podium ceremony, he was greeted with boos from the crowd – yet more ugliness on a bad day for racing, though nothing compared to the torrent of abuse which has followed among fans on social media and forums since – walking off early claiming he was feeling faint. We have to take his word for it, but being booed for finishing ahead of another rider is not going to make anyone feel invigorated. After the podium ceremony, and the obligatory TV interviews, Lorenzo and Pedrosa waited in the small TV room for Valentino Rossi to return from Race Direction and join them for the post-race press conference. They waited the best part of an hour, tired, dirty, drenched in sweat, but mainly bored. Sat waiting for a man who is notorious for keeping others waiting at the best of times, but who was very much persona non grata at that point in time. In the end, Dorna decided to go ahead with the press conference without Rossi, as he showed no sign of making his return. That would have tried the patience of a saint. But Lorenzo had a chance to make a good impression at Sepang, a chance he completely blew.
The only rider to come out of this with any dignity was Dani Pedrosa. In addition to riding a peerless race, his comportment in the press conference was thoughtful, composed, and honest. "First of all, a very weird press conference," were the first words he spoke, summing up the occasion perfectly. He talked about his race, expressed his happiness at being able to give his team the reward they deserved after what has been a very tough season, the Spaniard having missed so much of it after his arm pump surgery.
He then gave a clear, concise and considered analysis of what had happened between Rossi and Márquez, which captured the events perfectly. "I don't think it's a good thing. I don't think it's good for the championship. It's not good for any of us. I don't think it's good for Valentino, for Marc, for Jorge or me, even though I wasn't involved. It's not a good thing to be happening in this late part of the championship.
"From my point of view, I can say that the battle has been there from the first laps, sure heated up from the press conference and practice sessions from them. And they get together and they start fighting quite early. The maneuvers were OK until then. Sure, Valentino wanted to have a more calm race and maybe try to catch Jorge for second, but Marc maybe wanted to stay on the podium, of course, because Marc is always fighting, he has a fighting spirit, and he has quite a good way to manage the bike and do special overtaking.
"But what I can say from the last maneuver, I think when you have the inside, you can go as wide as you want, because the guy on the inside has the preference always, so normally the guy on the outside should cut. But I can see that the speed at this time was already going very slow, so Marc understood that, and close completely the throttle, waiting for Valentino to turn. And then there is one moment where I can see Valentino's leg moving, and Marc crash. I would like to see more times the image of this moment, but I can see that I don't understand why this leg is moving there, and why Marc is crashing out. Unfortunately, not a good thing, and really disappointed about it."
Pedrosa also pointed out that Rossi had been quick in the past to excuse behavior such as that displayed by Márquez. No doubt colored by his experience with Marco Simoncelli, Pedrosa pointed out that Rossi had been quick to defend the Italian when he was accused of being dangerous. "Always Valentino was saying, well, this is racing, and racing is like this, and we should fight," Pedrosa said. "And now he is changing his comment to what I was saying before. But a little bit of contradiction at this moment of what he said then, and what he is saying now. "
Pedrosa's behavior was a ray of light on a dark day for racing. He may never have won a MotoGP championship, but he behaved like the great champion he is. In the last few years, Pedrosa has matured and developed, become more human, more approachable. He can still be surly in press debriefs, and talking to the press is still something he does not take much pleasure in. But he also has a wry wit, and can give precise and detailed analysis of events and bikes when he feels like it. Which sadly, is not often enough, to my liking.
This is not as bad as it looks
This is a dark and sordid tale, which has exposed the unpleasant side of racing, and of racers. I have had harsh words for the protagonists involved, but I should add that this is just one side to their character. Off track, Valentino Rossi remains a man of unfailing charm and wit, who retains an incredible calmness and dignity in the face of being almost constantly surrounded and harassed by fans. He cannot step outside his motorhome without being mobbed by fans, and he diligently and patiently signs caps, posters and shirts, and poses for photos with as many as he can, while still attending to the business of racing. If he did not turn some people away, he would never actually find time to race his bike during the weekend.
Rossi has a passion for racing, and is putting his own money into helping to bring on the next generation of young Italian racers. He acts like a mentor for these young riders, and treats them as equals, never showing any signs of arrogance toward them – unless, of course, they should have the temerity to try to beat him at his dirt track.
Marc Márquez is similar, always finding time to sign things and pose for fans. He gives much of his time to charity, and is witty, charming and intelligent. He never has a harsh word for the media or fans, even when we ask stupid questions or try to goad him into an ill-judged response. He treats his mechanics with the greatest of respect, eating dinner with them every evening and joking and laughing with them all the time.
Even Jorge Lorenzo, the strangest of the bunch – hardly his fault, robbed of his childhood by a father determined to turn him into a world champion before Lorenzo had a chance to make the choice himself – is at heart a good man. He too supports charities, but not just by donating money, but by putting time and effort into it. The work he did with Ana Vives, a woman with Downs syndrome who is an artist and represents the Downs syndrome community in Spain, went well beyond the patronizing stance so often seen. The pair worked as a partnership in designing Lorenzo's helmet and his number, and have worked together for a good cause.
So to paint these men as flawed and tainted is an unfair and incomplete picture of such complex characters. But underlying them all is an ambition which drives them to succeed. They hate losing, are prepared to do almost anything to win, and believe without question that they deserve to succeed. They are indignant when riders challenge them on track, incapable of understanding how another rider could have the temerity to get in their way. It is a peculiar mindset, to put it mildly. But indispensable if they are to succeed at this level of racing. Normally, such unpleasantness is kept hidden by circumstances, the participants putting on a brave face. What was unusual about Sepang is that three of the greatest riders in the world all let the mask slip on the same day.
We will overcome
In the aftermath of Sepang, fans and media are engaged in writing the sport off, declaring MotoGP to be dead, killed by Race Direction for either being too harsh on Valentino Rossi, or not being harsh enough. Headlines talk of fallen idols, of shattered illusions and broken dreams. Analogies abound, though no one has so far ventured to bring Milton into it, and draw parallels with Lucifer before and after the fall.
Most of that is melodrama, though, a natural consequence of the nature of professional sport. It is, as darts promoter Barry Hearn put it, soap opera for men, a genre characterized by inflated emotions and overwrought responses to events of lesser significance. The intense passions of MotoGP fans can explode in unexpected directions, but once the bikes hit the track again, the trauma of the previous race is forgotten. Big words are being spoken with great passion, but the same passion is what keeps us coming back for more. The Sepang MotoGP round of 2015 will be spoken of for a very long time in the future. But it is just a single chapter in the never ending story of the sport. Valencia awaits.
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