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?
There is nowhere left to hide. On Sunday, it is time for the men and women of Grand Prix racing to stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, and lend their eyes a terrible aspect. Much is at stake: a Moto3 title that really should have been wrapped up by now; a MotoGP title rendered complicated by the impetuosity of youth and old age; and just sheer thirst for glory in Moto2. Glory is what is at stake in all three classes, what young men and women dedicate their lives and sacrifice their bodies and their time to chasing. Sweet victory is there for the lucky few, the bitter draught of defeat for the rest.
It looked like the cards had already been dealt ahead of Sunday's race when the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected Valentino Rossi's request to have his three penalty points suspended. Then Rossi came out swinging on Friday and Saturday, not his usual eight or ninth times, and a struggle to make it through to Q2, but strong pace from the outset and competitive times. "I've been impressed with how fast he's going," Nicky Hayden said of Rossi after qualifying today. "He's looked very solid. We know he's a nine-time champion because he's fast on Sunday, but he's come out of the gate, might not be breaking track records, but compared to a normal Friday, Saturday, he's looking strong."
Then came qualifying. Rossi had earned passage to Q2 by right, and had told us on Friday he would be treating qualifying the same as he had every weekend, pushing hard for a fast lap. Rossi seemed to have the upper hand going into Q2, especially as Jorge Lorenzo was clearly suffering with nerves. He forgot to take off a tear off in the pits, then spent long seconds trying to sort it out with his assistant, before finally leaving the pits in a bit of a fluster. Not a good omen, we all thought.
We are creatures of habit in the paddock. After having had our biorhythms put out of whack by a wild and weird Thursday, having bikes on the track on Friday brought us all back into line, and restored a sense of normality to MotoGP. This was a race weekend once again, and the arguments and backbiting have been put aside for a moment.
Though the return of racing motorcycles going fast around a circuit brought some joy back to the paddock, the day was also tinged with sadness. Two events punctuated the day, celebrating two mighty monuments of the paddock, who depart for pastures new. At lunchtime, Nicky Hayden was inducted as a MotoGP Legend, with a ceremony and a brief press conference. In the evening, Bridgestone held an official soiree to take their leave of the paddock, as they ended their role of official tire supplier.
A Farewell to Arms
Hayden was given a warm reception, a full press conference room calling in to pay their respects to a rider who has gone through a tough couple of years. He went over all of the old ground and answered questions he has faced a million times with the same dignity he has shown throughout his time in MotoGP. Best moment? The championship in 2006, of course, when he captured the dream he had been chasing since he was old enough to know what he wanted to do with his life, become a world champion. The two wins at Laguna Seca, and victory at Assen, when Colin Edwards threw the race away in the final chicane.
Thursday at Valencia was one of the strangest days in MotoGP that I have known since I first started covering the sport professionally. Maybe it's just the fact that the usual schedule was disrupted. Every race weekend has a rhythm: on Thursday, it's a late start, then rider debriefs, then a press conference, then work; on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it's an early start, watch practice, rider debriefs/press conferences and then work.
That rhythm was wildly out of sync at Valencia. Earlier start, Moto3 press conference, HRC press conference, a couple of rider debriefs. Then an unnatural lull, as the riders headed into the press conference room for their meeting with the Permanent Bureau, consisting of Dorna boss Carmelo Ezpeleta and FIM president Vito Ippolito addressed the MotoGP riders and their team managers. Ten minutes after the riders started streaming through the paddock on their way to the meeting, they were all heading back out again.
What happened in the meeting with the Permanent Bureau? The first rule of meeting with the Permanent Bureau is don't talk about meeting with the Permanent Bureau, apparently, as no one was willing to tell us about it, apart from some platitudes from Jorge Lorenzo about it being interesting to get different perspectives from people to get new ideas. Not that anyone truly believed that the riders came out with new ideas, but still.
Here is the one thing which everybody has wrong about Valencia: the 2015 MotoGP championship isn't over by a very long chalk. Whether Lorenzo qualifies on pole or the front row, whether Valentino Rossi starts from his qualifying position or the back of the grid, the championship won't be done until the last rider gets the checkered flag. Everything is still to play for.
Why is the championship still wide open? Because Valencia is a fickle mistress, with a record of throwing up more than one surprise. Both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo have won here, and both men have lost championships here. Both men have dominated, and both men have crashed out. Races at Valencia are rarely straightforward, throwing up startling results more often than not. Throw in a spot of unpredictable weather, and anything can truly happen.
The cause of those surprises? Running a race at the beginning of November in Valencia means the weather is always a gamble. Even when it is dry and sunny, as it is expected to be this weekend, the cold mornings and strong winds can cause tires to cool, turning Valencia's right-hand corners – few and far between – into treacherous affairs. If it rains or is damp, the wind means a dry line forms quickly, turning tire choice into a gamble.
The problem of waiting on the racing line for a tow in Moto3 is an intractable one. Race Direction have tried just about everything to stop them. First, they tried issuing warnings. Then they started handing out penalty points. When that made no difference, they brought everyone in for a stiff talk.
That had little impact, so they brought them in for another talk, and a new kind of penalty. Anyone guilty of going slowly (110% of their fastest sector time) through three consecutive sectors would be punished by dropping three places on the grid. The aim was to take away the benefit they gained from looking for a tow. In some cases, Race Direction also forced the Moto3 riders in question to sit out the first ten minutes of warm up on Sunday morning.
It didn't help. At Sepang, there were once again gaggles of Moto3 riders waiting on the racing line, looking for a two along the Malaysian circuit's two massive straights. At Valencia, it will be much the same, given the amount of time which can be gained down the front straight at the track.
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.
2015 Sepang MotoGP Saturday Round Up: The Mundane Reality Behind Mind Games, The Tow That Wasn't, And Some Title Mathematics
The atmosphere hangs heavy over the Sepang International Circuit, both literally and figuratively. The thick gray haze casts a pall over the circuit, dulling the light, restricting vision, cloying at the throats of everyone at the track, and in the region. There is another oppressive weight over the proceedings, this time of expectation. There is the pressure of a MotoGP title battle going down to the wire, and a Moto3 championship that should have been wrapped up two races ago, before a new rival emerged on the scene. Then there is the electric tension created by Valentino Rossi, when he decided to use the pre-event press conference to accuse Marc Márquez of helping Jorge Lorenzo at Phillip Island.
Since then, it has been impossible to view any action by either Rossi or Márquez with an objective eye. Rossi's accusations, Márquez' defense, and Lorenzo's entry into the arena color everything that happens, on and off the track. Coincidences disappear, otherwise common behavior is highlighted, and conspiracies, real and imagined, spiral wildly out of control. All eagerly egged on by MotoGP rights holder Dorna, the TV director picking up and highlighting each and every encounter between the protagonists. There have never been so many clips from practice, interviews and specials up on the MotoGP.com website, and TV broadcasters – especially in Spain and Italy – leap onto the bandwagon with their own speculation, interviews, stories and angles. And before anyone points an accusing finger at me, mea maxima culpa.
So when Marc Márquez came up on the back of Valentino Rossi as the Repsol Honda rider prepared to start his time attack in FP3 on new tires, to ensure passage to Q2, he slowed up, unwilling to give him a tow. Rossi, looking back and preparing for his own attack, saw Márquez behind him and slowed to let him down. The pair got slower and slower through the third sector of the track, going through it in over a minute, instead of the normal 38 seconds or so. It looked like a sur place, a standoff in track cycling where two cyclists come to a standstill with a couple of hundred meters to go, each waiting for the other to lead off the sprint. Mind games?
2015 Sepang MotoGP Friday Round Up: Marquez And Lorenzo's Right To Reply, And There Was Practice Too
After the raft of accusations he had made on Thursday, Valentino Rossi decided to keep his council on Friday. When asked by the English speaking press about the responses of Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo to his charges, Rossi cut them short. "I said everything yesterday, and I don't have anything else to say." To the Italian press, he was a little more expansive, but still insisted that he had had his say. When told that Márquez had said he had been surprised by the accusations Rossi had laid against him, Rossi rejected the suggestion. "Marc said he was surprised? I don't think that's true. And now, I have said everything, I have nothing left to say."
As it turned out, he did have a little more to say, but it was short. When told that Márquez has said that all Rossi needs to do is finish ahead of or directly behind Lorenzo at the next two races, Rossi had a cutting response. "Tell him I already know that." Did he think that he would be safer on track with Márquez, now that he had had his say? "I don't know. I took a risk, but I could not remain quiet. Maybe my words will have a positive effect, maybe negative, but at least I can sleep well at night now."
The accusations made by Rossi on Thursday had left the paddock mystified, struggling to work out exactly what he had hoped to achieve. "After some hours, I'm still surprised, like everybody," Marc Márquez said. "I respect Valentino and I will always respect him, but I understand also his situation. That he is fighting for the title, he is really close to getting his tenth title, but he knows Jorge is really strong." Márquez said he had no desire to be involved. "In the end, he needs to beat Jorge on the racetrack. I prefer to be out of this battle."
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."