If the Movistar Yamaha launch at Barcelona made one thing clear, it is that the feud between Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez will be just as bitter in 2016 as it was in 2015. In Barcelona, Rossi once again repeated the litany of charges he leveled against Marc Márquez at the end of last season. Márquez had decided early in the season he would try to stop Rossi from winning the title, had played with Rossi at Phillip Island, done far worse at Sepang, then stayed behind Lorenzo at Valencia to hand him the title. For Valentino Rossi, nothing has changed since Valencia 2015.
Is this a problem for MotoGP? Those in senior positions in the sport certainly think so. At the Movistar launch, Yamaha Racing boss Lin Jarvis spoke of the need for respect from all parties. On Friday, the FIM issued a press release containing an interview (shown below) with FIM President Vito Ippolito, in which he said the FIM had asked Honda not to release the data from Márquez' bike at Sepang, which Márquez claims shows evidence of a kick by Rossi, to prevent throwing more fuel on the fire.
Entirely predictably, neither strategy worked. When asked about Jarvis' comment on respect, Rossi retorted that neither Márquez nor Jorge Lorenzo had shown him any respect at the end of last year. Ippolito's statement that the FIM had asked Honda not to release the data led to a host of news stories in the media, and more outpourings of rage among fans on social media and forums. This was a conspiracy, to hide the facts from the fans, they said. The controversy was back, and strong as ever.
Why the data is irrelevant
Would it have made any difference if Honda had released the data, as they promised and so many people demanded? None whatsoever, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, what would the data have shown? Racing motorcycles (including MotoGP bikes such as Márquez' Honda RC213V) collect a vast array of information from a large number of sensors placed around the bike. Those sensors measure almost everything, from engine speed to wheel speed, from coolant temperature to oxygen levels in exhaust gases, which gear is selected, how much throttle the rider is using, whether the suspension is compressed or extended, and much more.
In the case of the Márquez/Rossi incident, the data which might show something are the gyro and accelerometer data, showing the attitude in three axes Márquez' bike, the front wheel speed, and the brake pressure readings form the front and rear wheels. What the data shows, I was told by someone who had seen it, is a massive spike in brake pressure on Márquez' front brake.
Does this prove that Rossi kicked Márquez' front brake, as the Spaniard claims? Of course it doesn't. It proves that Márquez' front brake was applied powerfully and incorrectly, but it provides absolutely no evidence of what caused his front brake lever to be depressed. Could it have been a kick by Rossi? Perhaps. But it could also have been as a result of the two bikes coming together, or Márquez' hand being squeezed in the collision, or Rossi's leg colliding with Márquez' arm and causing it to jerk, accidentally pulling the brake lever, or Rossi's leg or bike accidentally hitting Márquez handlebar, pushing the bar forward and the brake lever into Márquez' fingers.
Intent, or who meant to do what
What the data will not show is intent. Whatever the data shows, it will not show whether Rossi intended to cause Márquez to crash by trying to kick his brake lever, or whether Márquez used the opportunity to try go get back at Rossi by squeezing the brake lever himself, crashing in the knowledge that Rossi would be penalized (the craziest fan theory I have heard on the affair).
There is no visual evidence for the kick either. Former TV commentator Dennis Noyes said on Twitter that he had spoken to TV directors from BT Sports and Dorna about the incident, and they had not been able to see a kick. At the time, I wrote that it looked to me that Rossi's leg got tangled up with Márquez' handlebars, an inevitable consequence of two riders coming so close together.
Does this mean that Marc Márquez was lying when he said that Rossi kicked him? I believe that Márquez truly believes that this is what he saw. But things happened so fast, and in such a strange and unexpected way that it is easy for Márquez to interpret the chain of events in such a way. Rossi sat up, was looking over at Márquez and tried to run him to the very edge of the track. The pair were no longer racing, a situation initiated by Rossi, and which Márquez had just a fraction of a second to react to. The entire episode took less than two seconds, the crash happened in a tenth of a second or less. Human brains are hardwired to try to construct patterns to explain sequences of events. Márquez' brain did just that, and came to the conclusion – almost certain erroneous – that Rossi kicked him.
Damned if they do, damned if they don't
How would HRC releasing data have cleared this situation up? It wouldn't. It would merely have triggered another round of arguments and speculation over exactly what the data showed. Supporters of Márquez would have claimed that the only explanation was a kick, and have drafted in a host of data engineers who agreed. Supporters of Rossi would have claimed that all the data showed was a spike in brake pressure, with nothing pointing to the cause of that spike. And they, too, would have drafted in their data engineers to support that claim.
So Honda and the FIM faced a choice: they either refuse to release the data, which has triggered a storm of protest and conspiracies that they have something to hide. Or they could release the data, which would trigger a storm of controversy over what exactly the data showed. Either way, more fuel was poured onto the fire, and arguments started all over again.
The most confusing thing to me in the whole affair is why the FIM expected the situation would calm down. Incidents such as the clash at Sepang, and the bitter hatred it has created lead a life of their own, and cannot be controlled. If the FIM had not made a statement about the HRC data, Honda would have faced questions about it at the Sepang test, and the whole affair would have kicked off again. In Barcelona, the press (especially the Italian press) asked Rossi about what happened last year, in Sepang, the press (especially the Spanish press) will ask Márquez for his reaction to what Rossi said in Barcelona.
My rider, right or wrong
The point is, incidents as big as Rossi vs Márquez in 2015 simply do not go away. In part because the media have an incentive to keep the story going (and yes, I am aware of the irony of me making that statement in an opinion piece on the affair). It is an easy way to fill column inches, and it sells magazines, newspapers, attracts visitors to websites. In part because the participants cannot let situations like this go, as Rossi demonstrated in Barcelona. But above all, because the fans won't let it lie. They are as passionate about it now as they were directly after Sepang, and after Valencia.
That is why they are called "fans". The word fan is almost certainly derived from the word fanatic, and fans are fanatic in their loyalty to the riders (or teams) they support. Their loyalty is blind, and they choose the side of their rider without question. No amount of argument or debate, no amount of data or evidence can change their mind. They become entrenched in their positions, repeating their arguments over and over again, impervious to the arguments given by the other side.
This is hardly a surprise. There is a growing body of scientific evidence showing that it is almost impossible to get anyone to change their minds on anything, no matter how conclusive the proof. If people aren't prepared to change their minds on subjects as important as vaccines, climate change, or the effect of legislation on market operation, gun ownership, abortion or immigration, the chances of them viewing the outcome of a sporting event differently are infinitesimal.
Lessons from history
Estoril 2006 provides a classic example. Even today, nearly ten years later, you can find Nicky Hayden fans who are still furious at Dani Pedrosa for the mistake Pedrosa made in crashing and taking his teammate out, handing Valentino Rossi the lead in the championship. Fans are still fuming despite the fact that Hayden went on to win the championship, and that Hayden himself has long left the incident behind him.
Incidents such as Sepang, or Estoril in 2006, or any number of other incidents in the past are part of the mythology of motorcycle racing. Rossi cleaning the grid at Qatar in 2004, Rossi vs Biaggi at Suzuka in 2001, Doohan and Crivillé at Jerez in 1996, Freddie Spencer vs Kenny Roberts at Anderstorp in 1983, all of these pass into legend, and form part of the rich tapestry of motorcycle racing history. At the time, the incidents cause controversy among the fans, and bitterness among the riders, but as the years go by, tempers cool and they become part of motorcycle racing lore.
Will the fallout from Sepang 2015 be much worse than in the past? The main difference between now and then is the existence of the Internet, and especially Social Media. That allows fans to express their outrage in public, and to do so whenever the whim takes them. But that does not mean that the fans felt differently in the past. Previously, fans could only spew their bile to their friends over a few drinks. Now, it is made public, for the whole world to see.
The melodrama continues
So the Rossi – Márquez situation will continue to rumble on for the foreseeable future. Rossi fans will continue to claim until their dying breath that the Italian was robbed of a tenth world title by Márquez. Márquez fans will continue to claim that the Spaniard had just as much right to race for a podium as any other rider on the grid. Lorenzo fans will continue to claim that he would have won the title whatever happened, as he was simply faster than Rossi throughout the year. Each will claim that the others are blind to the facts and incapable of logic. In this, all of them will be right.
Is there anything the authorities can do to calm the situation down? Not as far as I can see. The Italian media will continue to produce stories backing up Rossi's claim he was robbed. The Spanish media will continue to produce stories saying that Rossi was looking for a scapegoat for losing. The rest of the media will continue to report on the stories in both countries, while piously proclaiming they are just covering the events. And the fans will stick with the sides they have already chosen.
Ironically, the bitter hatred between Rossi, Márquez and Lorenzo is good for the profile of motorcycle racing. Die-hard fans may claim they are only interested in the racing, but the money is in growing the pie, making the sport bigger and attracting new fans. New fans need a narrative to give them an understanding of the sport, and to give them a reason to care about it. Sepang and the fallout from it do just that. That is good for the sport in the long run.
In the short term, it is mildly annoying for the die-hard fans who have heard about little else for the past four months. Fortunately for them, the first MotoGP test at Sepang starts on 1st February, a few days from now. Rossi vs Márquez won't be going away any time soon, but at least we get to talk about what is happening on the track. There is nothing quite like 130dB of roaring MotoGP machine to silence the bickering.
Below is the FIM press release interview with Vito Ippolito:
Three questions to Vito Ippolito
A. Can you give us a brief review of the 2015 sporting season?
It is an undeniable fact that the number of spectators and the TV viewership have continued to expand. This is a reflection of the constant improvements being made in the quality of the competitions. We have worked on that this year and the results are encouraging. It is also worth noting that new countries have hosted several of our championships. That is also one of our objectives and we continue to work in that direction.
B. During the year, the media also picked up on some difficult situations. What can you tell us about those?
True, there have been difficult moments, and I would say that it is inherent to the sport. The most important thing is to manage to find the right response to such situations or at least to limit the damage and make adjustments, as was the case with the International Six Days of Enduro in Slovakia. I would say the same about the end of the MotoGP season, which was a fantastic saga and also a dramatic one.
C. In the two cases you refer to, are the matters now fully closed?
Yes. In the case of the ISDE, the FIM panel restored the rankings of the nations to what it would have been. Finally, the Australian team were declared the winners. This case also prompted us to review some important aspects of the regulations and procedures.
In MotoGP, the dispute was brought before the CAS and the case is now closed. It is true that at the end of the season the polemics around the Rossi-Marquez case swelled to unprecedented levels. For that reason, we asked all the people involved, including the teams, to refrain from engaging in controversy about what happened in Sepang. During the last competition in Valencia, team Honda informed us that they had all the telemetry relating to the incident. Now the data are in our hands, and Honda and the FIM have decided together not to release them so as not to fuel further polemics.
For 2016, the FIM’s goals and plans are clear and we shall continue to pursue them. We shall continue to move forward and I am sure that the changes we shall be putting into effect will bring about positive results. Motorcycle sport has many disciplines and there are therefore a great many fields of action, but I am confident that our specialists will all do a great job. You can ask me again at the end of the year!
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