Once upon a time, it was pretty easy to see who the fast guys were and who the slow guys were. The fast guys all had low numbers, taking the numbers allotted to them by virtue of the championship performances in the previous year, while the guys with the high numbers were privateers, or rookies, or people heading towards the tail end of their careers. Then, after a young British champion insisted on using his lucky number instead of the #1 plate he had earned by winning a title, riders, teams and sponsors saw the power of marketing, and numbers became a part of a rider's identity.
Since then, riders have increasingly held on to a single number to use, regardless of their performance the previous season, and the grid was awash with increasingly individual, and increasingly illegible, stylized number plates, with the number becoming the brand. As a consequence, we now all know that #3 is Max Biaggi, #33 is Marco Melandri, #100 is Neil Hodgson, #15 is Sete Gibernau, and #21 is John Hopkins (or Troy Bayliss, depending on the series we're watching).
This trend reached its pinnacle with Valentino Rossi, with the 5-time world champion from Tavullia stubbornly refusing to take the #1 plate, and keeping hold of his beloved #46. Such is Rossi's superstition, and his shrewd sense for personal marketing, that all around the world, #46 is instantly associated with Rossi's name, by both fans and non-fans alike. The cult of 46 goes so far that even other riders using the same number, such as Graves Yamaha's Josh Herrin in AMA Supersport, self-consciously style the numerals and their leathers to match Valentino Rossi's.
But now, something remarkable seems to be happening. It started last year, after Nicky Hayden dropped #69, the number he'd been using for many years, to wear the #1 plate after becoming world champion. And this tradition continued into this year, with Hayden's successor, Casey Stoner, also electing to drop his usual #27 in favor of the #1 plate. But Stoner wasn't the only one: Chris Vermeulen also announced that he would be abandoning the number 71 which he had used for the last 2 years in MotoGP, in favor of the number 7, a number he'd wanted to race with for a very long time, in honor of the man who started this whole trend off back in the 1970s.
So the news that Dani Pedrosa has announced that he will be dropping his #26 plate in favor of the #2, which he earned the rights to by finishing 2nd in the MotoGP series last year, is perhaps less surprising than we might expect. And yet it remains an unusual move to make: there is a lot of pressure from teams and sponsors for riders to take the #1 plate, as it makes for such magical marketing material, but the same cannot be said for the number 2. What's more, Pedrosa is sacrificing a lot of branding built up over the years he spent coming up through the 125 and 250 classes, before reaching the pinnacle of motorcycle racing in MotoGP.
So why is he doing this? There are two explanations, both of them psychological, one for internal consumption, and one for external consumption. The external reason is perhaps the easiest to expound: By taking the #2 plate, Dani Pedrosa is rubbing Valentino Rossi's nose in the fact that he beat the Italian into 3rd place in the championship in 2007. Pedrosa, who has been at the receiving end of Rossi's mind games, particularly during his rookie season in 2006, and serving The Doctor up a dose of his own medicine. Every time he passes Rossi, he wants Rossi to be reminded of the fact that Pedrosa beat him, and can beat him again.
The internal reason is slightly more complex, and perhaps darker. 2007 was supposed to be Dani Pedrosa's year. He'd spent a year learning the bikes, and the tracks, and being the top Honda rider after a rules change, was generally regarded, and regarded himself, as the heir apparent, and the man who would bring the MotoGP title back to Spain. The pressure in the Spanish media was unbelievably intense, and Pedrosa's every move was watched, scrutinized, and criticized extensively. Pedrosa was under as much pressure from the media as the front runner in a US presidential race, and no room left for maneuver. So for Pedrosa to fail in 2007 was a disaster, for himself, and for Spain. And it wasn't even Pedrosa's fault: HRC made a dog's breakfast of the 800cc RC212V, and only managed to make the bike competitive as the season approached its close.
Now, Dani Pedrosa is taking the #2 plate as a form of castigation, of self-flagellation, to remind him that he failed last year, and to ensure that he will not fail in 2008. Like Valentino Rossi's stark, military haircut, Dani Pedrosa taking #2 is a sign that the playing is over. Pedrosa means business, and if you thought Dani Pedrosa was good last year, this year he is going to be even better.