The Imaginary Snub, Or What Really Happened When Spies Congratulated Lorenzo
At Sepang on Sunday, Jorge Lorenzo committed what a very large group of motorcycle racing fans consider the most heinous of crimes: Taking a MotoGP championship from Valentino Rossi. The fact that Lorenzo took that championship by dominating the series all season, finishing off the podium only twice all year and off the front row just once, despite starting the year with an injury, is irrelevant, it seems; by becoming champion, Lorenzo has upset The Natural Order.
Lorenzo's crime was compounded by his reported behavior a week earlier at Motegi. After a bitter and physical two-lap battle with Rossi, which provided some of the most exciting and intense action of the year but which Lorenzo should never have allowed himself to be drawn into, the Spaniard spoke to Yamaha management about the passes made by Rossi. Rossi, who reports would have us believe is Lorenzo's teammate at Fiat Yamaha, was then called in by Yamaha's bosses and asked not to jeopardize Yamaha's chances of lifting the individual, team and manufacturer's championships for 2010. Lorenzo's request and Yamaha's response saw both parties vilified across large parts of the internet, and lampooned in the Italian press.
So at Sepang, Lorenzo was the object of intense scrutiny, his every action dissected and discussed like a presidential candidate's acceptance address. And naturally, when Lorenzo pulled over on the cool down lap after finally securing the championship that had been his life-long goal, the fact that he missed Ben Spies' hand offered in congratulation was jumped upon by the voracious pack and imbued with a significance normally reserved for the actions of mystics and gurus.
It was a Deliberate Act, said those whom Lorenzo had angered by stealing Rossi's crown, a Snub. It was aimed at Establishing the Pecking Order in the Yamaha garage for next year, the conspiracists insisted, kicking off the 2011 season within seconds of the 2010 season being settled. Lorenzo, the angry mob proclaimed, deliberately ignored Spies to show him who was boss.
Watching the video in isolation, you might even be persuaded that the conspiracists had a point. Spies pulls up next to Lorenzo, tries to shake his hand, which Lorenzo does not respond to, then Spies rides off shaking his head. Proof positive that it was a deliberate and malicious act, say the conspiracists.
Like all conspiracy theorists, those who say Lorenzo deliberately snubbed Spies overlook one major factor, however: Human nature. When Spies pulled over to congratulate Lorenzo, the Spaniard was in a daze. Members of his fan club had started the preparations for the complex and impenetrable celebration they had planned before the race, and Lorenzo was clearly struggling to remember what it was he was supposed to be doing. He had marshalls, photographers and his friends all around him, all slapping him on the back, poking him in the gut and touching his arms. There was a lot going on.
Most of all, though, this was the moment that it all started to sink in for Lorenzo. After a tough race in stifling tropical conditions - the race had been shortened by one lap at the request of the riders, because the Sepang race is so physically demanding in the heat and humidity - Lorenzo had finally crossed the line in one piece, and with enough points to win the title. He had achieved a lifelong dream, a goal he had dedicated himself to for at least the past 15 years. A goal that he had sacrificed his relationship with his family, his relationship with his manager, and even his relationship with the only girl he ever loved to achieve. Finally, for the first time in his life, he was MotoGP World Champion.
He had gone through several harrowing weeks before finally reaching this goal: He had lost points to Dani Pedrosa three races in a row, putting Pedrosa back in with a chance. After Pedrosa injured himself at Motegi, and Lorenzo could have wrapped up the title, he was surprised to be given a good old-fashioned smackdown by his teammate, reminding him that the title is never certain until it's officially in the bag. Those fairing-banging passes between Rossi and Lorenzo reminded the Spaniard of his vulnerability, that a simple mistake can cause a serious injury, and undo all the hard work of a season in a fraction of a second.
Finally it was over, and the title was in the bag. At last, after weeks of pressure, Lorenzo could relax. As he pulled over, the emotions washed over him, elation, relief, exhaustion. Within seconds, he had fans around him starting on the Spaniard's meticulously planned celebration. He had barely gathered his thoughts to start dealing with the complexities of that celebration when Spies pulled up beside him, tried to shake Lorenzo's hand, then rode off shaking his head, probably in bemusement at the state of Lorenzo, a reminder of his own emotions at winning the World Superbike title last year. By the time Hiroshi Aoyama shook Lorenzo's hand (the third rider to do so), he had recovered enough of his composure to act as expected, and acknowledge the gesture appropriately.
There is no question that Lorenzo's actions are open to interpretation. The video only shows men whose faces are hidden by helmets, and whose intentions are therefore much more difficult to interpret. It is entirely possible to read the entire event as a deliberate snub to Spies, and a warning for the future. Occam's razor, however, suggests a simpler explanation: that Lorenzo was overwhelmed, and not completely aware of what was going on.
Later, once Valentino Rossi arrived to congratulate the Spaniard, Lorenzo had fully recovered his composure. He accepted the Italian's congratulations in the spirit in which they were offered: begrudgingly and half-heartedly. Once in parc ferme, the childish rivalry continued, with Lorenzo trying to hog the limelight after winning the title, and Rossi trying to steal it after winning his 46th race for Yamaha. They both may ride the same bike and bear the same colors, but Rossi and Lorenzo are still a very long way from being teammates.
The rivalry between Lorenzo and Rossi is much of the fuel feeding the conspiracies about Lorenzo's behavior. With such a fierce rivalry between the current teammates, surely this must continue into next year, when Ben Spies takes the place of Rossi in the factory Yamaha garage? That is surely the driving force behind Lorenzo's behavior in those few seconds, the conspiracists ask.
Lorenzo himself today responded to questions on the issue on Twitter, posting the following response to the many people who had asked him if he had deliberately ignored Spies at Sepang: "I had some messages asking me why I didn't pay attention to Spies when he wanted to congratulate me. I have to say that I didn't see... ...And feel he was there at that the moment of our celebration. I just told this to him. He is a good guy and we have a good relationship."
Naturally, that will not appease the conspiracists, for they will see what they want to see. After committing the worst crime that a motorcycle racer can commit - beating Valentino Rossi - the benefit of the doubt is the last thing that some fans are willing to give Lorenzo. With a brand new MotoGP championship under his belt, he will not lose too much sleep over it.