The switch from Ducati to Honda worked out extraordinarily well for Casey Stoner. The Australian was fast in testing, took victory in his very first race aboard the Honda RC212V at Qatar, and despite a temporary glitch at Jerez, where he was knocked off his bike by Valentino Rossi, the man who had taken his place at Ducati, was leading the championship by the time the MotoGP circus rolled into Assen for the Dutch TT, and would not relinquish it again, going on to secure his second world championship in dominant style, winning 10 races and taking pole 12 times along the way.
We had a chance to interview Stoner at Assen, after he had taken the championship lead from Jorge Lorenzo and just as he appeared to be getting into his stride. During a long and interesting conversation, Stoner covered a lot of ground, discussing subjects as diverse as Bridgestone tires, track memory, options for expanding the grid and the selective memory of race fans. But we started off by trying to winkle Stoner's secret from him, and find out just how the Australian manages to be so fast, right from his very first lap of the track. Here's what he had to say:
MotoMatters: What I want to know, is how come you are so fast? Every time I see the time sheets, it seems like that, as soon as you're out, your first lap will be fairly fast. Your first hot lap will be either top 3, and your second, third lap will be at the top of the time sheets. How do you do that? How come you don't need the time to work towards something?
Casey Stoner: I don't know where it comes from. When I go out there, whether I know the track or I don't, my first laps become more natural. I ride the track naturally. You'll never be as fast riding a track naturally, but it's how I just start out.
Then, once I feel that I've got my pace up a little bit, that's when we start working on set up, we start finding braking points, entry lines, things like that. So the first part I suppose is just not worrying or thinking about it too much. It's just going out there, finding your pace, finding your rhythm, then you can start working on it. There is no point in working on set up when you're three seconds off the pace. So you may as well get there first, unless there is something really badly wrong with the bike.
You know, for me, I just go out there. I already know most of the braking points. If it's a new track I will go and find them. Or just use my vision to try and find those braking points early, and just ride naturally, not thinking about it too much. Just ride to what you see.
MM: You say you just ride naturally. What does that mean, can you explain that?
CS: When you're not riding naturally, you're riding more clinically. You start to think about what the bike's doing; you think about your braking point, how many gears you're going back. As you go into a corner, you're thinking about what the bike is doing, where it's tucking, what sort of position the bike is in. Whether you need a little bit more confidence in the front; what it's doing in what part of the corner; when you're getting on the gas, how much it's turning; if it's not turning, how much it's wheelying...
All these different things you got to go through in your head to try and get the best setup that you can. And those things, I can leave them out of my head when I'm riding the first laps. I'm just worrying about the track. I'm looking at patches, I'm looking at how far they've painted that curve out, I'm looking if they have made a new line to that track at all. If they have put a new bit of tarmac on, something like that.
You're just feeling those points out in the early laps and you don't have to think about those other things until you get used to the track. So basically I'm just leaving my riding very simple, and not having to worry too much about getting the bike set up and thinking of every aspect of the corner.
MM: You almost have like muscle memory of where the limit of the bike is and you can find it almost straight away.
CS: Well, that's why it looks like we're going fast straight away, but we're still quite a long way off the pace. So in the early laps it looks like sometimes we're able to go a lot faster than everyone. It looks like we're a lot faster than everyone and that we're close to lap records, but we're not, we're still a long way off.
It's just that I am able to go out there, roll through the corners a little bit faster, trust the tires and trust my body a little bit more maybe than the others. And so if there is any slipping or sliding, I'll feel it immediately anyway and be able to counteract it.
But like I said, in those early laps, not thinking as much as you normally do when you're trying to get those last few final points of setup.
MM: One of the things which people really struggle with, especially people coming into the class, is the tires, the Bridgestone tires. They take a lot of time to get up to temperature. They are brilliant once they are up to temperature, before that there has been a lot of complaints about them and there have been big accidents with them. Cal Crutchlow said something really interesting. He said there are only two people here who can get tires straight up to temperature in one corner, and that is you and Nicky. Because you go in, hit it full out and the tires grip. Is that how they work, and because you can go out and ride it naturally immediately, is that an advantage?
CS: Myself and Nicky both come from dirt track and riding those things, so we don't mind if the bike moves and slides a little bit around. With Nicky doing it, I guess it's the same sort of thing, he can feel his way around the track rather than trying to make it do it and feel it out and get everything properly warmed up. And sometimes, and especially with the Ducati, it takes a little time to warm the tires up, a little longer than other bikes. So if you can go out there and attack faster, then the tires warm up quicker, and you can still warm up the tires in the same amount of time.
But I've even noticed when I'm on the Honda, I can take my time to warm the tires up, because I know they will come up to temperature. On the Ducati if I never did push hard in that early laps, then they never would quite get up to temperature and we always struggled.
MM: Have you noticed that also in your approach? Because certainly when you were on the Ducati, basically your second lap out and just like that, you'd have a red helmet.
CS: There is something strange with Bridgestone tires. If you go out there, when you first go out on track, sometimes they can be really good. And they feel great, that first half a lap. Silverstone is a perfect example: We were out there and within half a lap, they're great.
That next half a lap or a lap later, they really come back down, so they are actually getting colder. Even though you're pushing reasonably hard, they're actually going colder. So straight away good, then they start tapering off again before they start to properly warm up.
So there's something strange going on with the way their tires work. And when you do have to run them in from something that is not working at all, I mean, you're going through the first couple of laps, or the first lap at least scrubbing the tires. People don't realize when we're scrubbing the tires, we're actually losing the front, losing the rear the whole time in the first lap. It's just like you're in the wet. You stick your knee out, you scrub, the front tire closes and it just "kkkrrrkkkrrkkrr" it pushes across the track. Just trying to get rid of whatever film is on top.
And I don't know why they have done it. When I rode with them in 2007, 2008, they weren't still great at that sort of thing, we struggled a lot more than the Michelin's at warming up, but not quite as much as the way they are now. They seem to be really just trying to cut costs, I guess, they have to make them this way to make sure they last, to make sure they can get the life out of them. For testing, for other reasons, not just finishing a race distance, but for actually getting distance out of them in testing.
It just makes things difficult for us sometimes when we just can't get them scrubbed in, we can't get them warmed up. And until you basically almost break the carcass, with some heavy braking and heavy pressure on the tire, it just doesn't want to work, you can't get any feel in it. But if you give it two or three laps and make your way slowly, progressively get faster, then it's fine, it'll come up to temperature. Unless we're at a track where we not working one side hard enough, then normally they'll come up to temperature fine.
MM: One of my readers said that he thought that, especially on the Ducati, the way you got it to turn was, you would almost flick it, it would almost force a crash, and that would get the tires to grip and get the bike to turn. Is he imagining things or was that the way it was working?
CS: No, it kind of looked like that, because as I was getting on the gas, with the Ducati it's quite aggressive, so as we cracked it, the rear would come around and at that exact point I would flick it up, because if I just stayed down, it wouldn't come around, it wouldn't get the drive. So basically you can't pick the bike up when you're not on the gas. So you need to be on the gas, so first you need to crack the gas. Once you crack it, then you can pick the bike up. So it was just in that exact moment that I was picking the bike up, the rear would just crack a little bit and step away from me on the edge of the tire. But once I picked it up it would be fine.
MM: Nicky Hayden said about your throttle control, that your throttle control is just that little bit better in the last seven or eight percent of the throttle. Do you think that's your strongest point as a rider? What is your strongest point as a rider?
CS: I don't really know. I don't think that I have one strong point. It's not braking; accelerating, I would say that's Dani's strong point, his accelerating. Jorge is quite a balanced rider; I feel that I am quite balanced. Jorge is quite heavy on the brakes. I am sort of more or less in the middle, of most things, I don't feel that I've got one strong point that is better than the others, in any particular way. I just think I try and balance everything out the best I can and try and get advantage in whatever area is my worst.
I think, the biggest point I can get, is part of why I am faster than the others, is I don't need to look at data to find out where I'm slow, why I'm slow. Occasionally, if I'm having big problems in one area, I'll have a look. That rarely happens, I normally know where I need to improve, and where I don't need to improve, and sort of stick to that without seeing any data or anything. So I normally understand what I need to do, or what the bike needs to do.
MM: How do you know this, where does this knowledge come from? Is it from riding dirt track? Whenever I speak to you, you certainly have an interesting level of technical knowledge. You seem to understand the nuts and bolts, part of the engineering. Where does that come from?
CS: I think, the engineering side of things, most riders that have enough feeling should be able to understand it. We know what a bike does most of the time and we make certain changes on the bike, and what balance we change on the bike and how it reacts. So in theory we should all have some knowledge of engineering for this reason.
So for me it's just a matter of learning, watching, listening, and most of the time you can figure things out. When you are completely lost it's the hardest thing, but when you find something after you have been lost for a long time, that knowledge is embedded with you. So you can understand why it worked and why it helped and in what way.
And sometimes the roles will be completely reversed. In the past, in 125 days and British championships, if a bike wasn't turning, you put a little more weight on the front, and if you didn't have grip, you put a little more weight on the rear, but it's not quite that simple these days. But you learn things and you know some of them are dead simple, that if it's not doing this then we'll move it that way a bit, and that's going to work, but sometimes it's completely the opposite. And you're sort of scratching your head. You're just trying to think outside of the box and trying to figure things out for your self, rather than go with the flow and everybody else and following like a sheep.
MM: Do you have a good memory? Just in general. [Adriana nods vigorously] If Adriana says you have got a good memory, that means you have a good memory. Because the things you're saying, you have absorbed basically from riding for so long. But you still have to remember everything. So for example, can you remember what happened at every race?
CS: No. Some races stick out to me a lot more vividly than others. I can see almost everything the way it happened and what happened. Other things, like Cristian [Gabbarini, his crew chief] will come in and say "we're going to use the setup that we used here," and so on and so on, and I'm like, what was that? Because I have no clue so he has to go and redo it again. And other things, I'll be straight on it.
So things stick with me that seem to be important, and don't stick with me the ones that don't seem to be important. I seem to have a good filter, that I don't purposely do. But when I need to know something or remember something that is really important, than normally I will remember it. If it's less important or something that didn't really go correctly then whether it's something to take a lesson from or whether it's something you don't need, it just seems to filter itself.
I don't really have set points. I like learning some things and things I'm interested in, and I want to be able to remember more, but I still can't. So it just seems that sometimes I remember the right things and sometimes not.
MM: We talked about your strong points. What about your weak points? What is it that you think is your weakest point as a rider?
CS: Honestly, again, bits and pieces of everything. There is not one thing I am really weak at. I used to be weak at overtaking. Not weak, but I think too polite, I never wanted to upset other riders and stand them up and do things like that. And now because that's happened to me so many times, I just don't care. But I think in the past it was maybe overtaking, setting the bike up to be better on the brakes, that was something we struggled with a lot, was on the brakes, especially in 2007 and 2008.
But since that time, now I'm known to be one of the strongest, especially on Ducati the last two years. People really struggled to ever pass me, so now it's one of my stronger points and I've sort of balanced that out again to where it's at a good level.
But it's the same with my weaknesses as with my strengths. I think more or less it's a little bit of everything. I've still got to become stronger at. I'm still not the rider I want to be, I think I can be a lot better. I think I can explain to the crew a lot better. I think we can get the bike a lot better. It's just all little bits and pieces here and there that I think I can be a lot better at.
MM: Who is the rider that you want to be?
CS: Bits and pieces of a lot of people, to be honest. There is a lot of people out there that all had really strong points and weak points. But I would say out of most I always wanted to be Mick Doohan. He is a person I have basically based my career on. I have always wanted to, not necessarily become like, but he is my idol. He is the person that I looked up to and I respected what he did.
I think people forget how many championships he won, with a really bad leg, you know? People don't give him enough respect for it. He's not forgotten, but almost forgotten in this paddock. They're all that obsessed with statistics and results, that they forget what some riders had to come through and endure. And I think that's disappointing in today's day and age. So Mick is definitely the person I look up to for what he did and I am sure he's got weak points that he will tell you that as well, as a balance. I think it's a mixture of a few different riders, but the much bigger part would be Mick.
MM: It's funny, I was talking to Dennis Noyes earlier about Mick Doohan, and he said, the worst one to deal with as a journalist was Mick, because Mick would pick fights with journalists. Sometimes your relationship with the press has been difficult. Have you struggled with that as well?
CS: I definitely struggle with the media. I wasn't brought up around it, you know. I was an outcast in terms of media. People didn't really look after me with it. They just put me in a room with them, some of my old teams, and they never looked after me, never helped me with it. I would sit there for hours having questions asked to me, just because they wouldn't cut it short, so it just becomes heavy on you. And it's not what racing was about to me.
Yet I was getting attacked so many times, so many different things that weren't my fault. And if I did make a mistake, mine was so much bigger than somebody else's. And it was frustrating, you know. Also during my time with Ducati, we had a lot of other commitments and a lot of other things, and a lot of pressure. And I won the championship in '07, but I got more recognition and more respect in 2008 when we didn't win it. So it becomes quite frustrating.
Even this year, when I won in 07, they said I was riding the best bike out there. And whenever I win, obviously my bike was the best. It seems to be like that again this year. So it's, something I've got to take as a compliment really, because any bike I go and win on, they all seem to just think it's not possible for me to win until I'm on the best bike. I suppose it's a compliment, but it's hard work.
MM: A couple of questions about the direction of MotoGP. First of all, you once said you would like to ride at Spa Francorchamps. it's one of my favorite tracks, it's a wonderful track. And you've also talked about the danger, the joy being the danger. Spa is an incredibly dangerous track.
CS: That's maybe with the racing the way it is these days, it's too much. If you go back even to the early '90s, you go and watch the 500 races. And you will see them leaving meters from the curb. Nobody was touching that white line every lap. People were leaving a lot of room. And that is what the limit was in those days, that's how far they were willing to push.
They could take 30, 40, 50 meters off each other on the brakes, no problem, pass three, four guys on the brakes, make the turn, no dramas. You just can't do that these days. It's just everything is becoming that much more precise, and people are running it out to the limits. And to have walls and barriers around, I think it's just getting too much, you know?
MotoGP, I don't think everything's becoming that much more safe. There is still the risk factor there. But I think with the lower categories, 125 and Moto2, they're running off on the grass. And because there is no grass, there is astroturf or there is tarmac across chicanes. They're just running across and joining back. There is no penalty for that, they use every fricking inch of the extra tarmac runoff area, and not stay on the track.
I think that sort of thing, I am getting really sick and tired of seeing, to be honest. People are using every bit of track and much much more, and not getting any penalty for it.
I have seen a lot of people run off, Le Mans isn't too bad, because there is not really a big runoff area yet. But Catalunya, it's all tarmac the whole way through there. Whoosh, they pick it up, and nail it through again, go back the way they were. And it should be "No, you made a mistake, you ran off, deal with it."
That's why it's hard to watch sometimes, they just don't seem to be afraid. There is no grass there, at the edge of the track now, there's astroturf. They can run on it and come back on, and come back on half crossed-up. But if there was grass there, people don't really want to run off, because when you run on the grass, it's a little more slippery.
MM: So you think fear would create better discipline, greater punishment? You know, have gravel or grass where you could fall off would create a bit more discipline among the riders?
CS: Definitely! I think there wouldn't be so many outrageous maneuvers. I think people would give each other a bit more respect. For example, the last two corners in Misano, there's grass right up against the edge of the curve and no one runs off there. And if they do, they back off and bring it back on track, instead of just pinning it and coming back on in the middle of the field. it's quite a lot different.
With those factors gone, racing is getting a little bit loose. With some overtaking moves that needs to be rethought and punished. And also these years the punishments are becoming so random… So yeah, today we'll punish someone, but tomorrow, oh yeah, that's fine you know? There's no consistency to their decisions at all. Racing has changed definitely, especially in the last six, seven years. It would be nice to get back to the old days, when people had respect for each other.
MM: Next year we got the 1000s. There doesn't look like being very many bikes on the grid [this interview was held at Assen, before the size of the CRT entries was made public, when the grid looked like being 14 bikes at most - MM] How would you fix that? Do you have any idea about how to get more bikes onto the grid?
CS: Well, as I explained before, they should never have changed the capacity of the category. They should have gone into a little bit more depth and detail about going to 800s before they decided to. Because as soon as they got the 800s and more bikes started arriving into walls than ever before, maybe they realized that going back 200cc wasn't improving safety. It just increased corner speed.
That wasn't the right way to go obviously, and they should have maybe thought about that a little bit more, before they go and change the entire capacity, which has no relevance for streetbikes and capacity of the streetbikes. There's no link, people know when they are buying a 1000 road bike, it's nothing like the 800. It's not the same bike.
So things like that, I think, it was a pretty immature decision. I think if they stay at 1000 and like the old 500 days they can pass back older models that would help. The riders on them are going to know, okay, we're not going to be quite as competitive on these older bikes, but at least they will be able to be in there and give it a show. There is gonna be more people in between and I think there would be a lot more interesting racing.
But as for this whole thing, that it's supposed to be the electronics making the biggest difference, that's just not the case. You know, if you look at Superbikes, there is still some great racing going on there, and they've all got electronics as well. So I don't think that has anything to do with it. it's just that now, it's becoming such a precise sport. Everybody is on the limit.
MM: … it's a more professional sport ...
CS: Exactly, whoever was able to stand out above the rest on that day, they are going to win.
MM: So they're not going between 90% and 91%, but 99.001% or 99.002% …
CS: Something like that. I mean, a perfect example, Barry Sheene and them used to smoke and do all sorts of stuff on the grid and they did not need to train. But nowadays, if you're not fit enough to be ready to go on that last lap, then you're not going to be ready to win.
So there are a lot of things that have changed since the past years of racing. That is what people need to realize. it's never going to be what it was. And actually, if they go back and watch the old races, they are going to realize it was not what they expected. They've got some great memories for some races that I have gone and rewatched, and they ain't what they said they were.
So, we still have some fantastic races each year, and that is all they seem to remember. They remember the nineties. If you go over ten years of our racing as well, there is some great races in there. If you go over ten years of the nineties, there is some great races in there. If you say, ninety-three or ninety-six ...
MM: There are maybe three, four great races ...
CS: Exactly, people have looked at this as a whole, rather then one single season. If in 2030, they look back then they're gonna go, oh yeah, you know, the 2000s had some great racing. And then they're just going to forget about the other races. So everyone at that time is always thinking about what used to be and what was great in the past, but they never realize what is now.
MM: Because every race gets compared against a decade.
CS: Exactly, and that's not fair.