The most interesting thing about the climax of the 2015 MotoGP season was that on track events exposed some uncomfortable truths, and in that sense has been very refreshing.
ROSSI DENIAL SYNDROME
For a while now – in fact since Valentino Rossi was first discomforted by Jorge Lorenzo in 2010, precipitating Rossi’s disastrous move to Ducati – it has been clear that winning a tenth world title would likely prove to be a bridge too far for the Italian. Quite apart from the fact that the opposition has arguably become more formidable, time waits for no one. Racing motorcycles is a sport which is reaction time critical, and by the time you hit 30s your reaction / reflex times have commenced a lengthy but inevitable decline. All other things being equal (bikes, tyres etc) the key determinant in putting in fast laps is the processing of optical information (see Bg feature on Sports Vision including research). Rossi is still fast enough to find consistent podium places, but this year scrutiny of his race lap times vs Lorenzo (never mind qualifying) suggest that he simply isn’t as fast as the Spanish rider. As long as they are on comparable machines, that situations seems unlikely to change. There is no shame in being 37 years old and coming second in the championship: in fact it is a remarkable achievement.
Which makes the denial around Rossi all the more baffling. The excuse that the Honda Spaniards’ protection of Lorenzo handed him the title is marginal: Rossi himself benefitted from other riders letting him through, and even with a clear track was unable to match the pace of the three protagonists – never mind putting pressure on them. If anything, Pedrosa’s late surge was the key determinant in the outcome, since it ultimately cost both Hondas time at a critical moment: indicative of cock up rather than conspiracy. Had Rossi not taken on Marc Marquez off track as well as on, the notorious Sepang incident would have been avoided, Rossi would not have found himself at the arse end of proceedings come Valencia, and – crucially – Marquez would not have been lectured by Race Direction on safe riding, with consequences which (ironically) mediated his Valencia performance. Rossi has been a master of PR, but this year pressure and frustration forced him into a campaign which backfired badly. The bottom line here is simple. Relatively speaking, Rossi is slowing down – not because he is any less skillful or brave, or because he is being consistently slowed down by other riders, but because he is subject to the same deterioration in visual processing as everyone else. It’s just that in his job minute levels of deterioration are foregrounded. Ageing is the one opponent who just keeps coming back for more.
Dorna have long been the subject of Bg scrutiny, most recently in 2013. One consequence of the climax of the 2015 season is that light is again being shed on a very dark corner, namely Dorna’s relationship with Honda. Recent events have put some strain on this marriage: Dorna and Repsol, Honda’s long term GP sponsor are both Spanish companies, as of course Pedrosa and Marquez are nationals. But Rossi is the goose who lays the golden egg, and seen by many of his global legion of fans as being infallible. Despite Marquez committing no transgression of the rule book in Sepang, he was reprimanded, while Rossi’s sanction was arguably on the mild side. It has been impossible for Dorna to re-imagine GPs without Rossi, Honda notwithstanding. But the writing is on the wall: Honda are a better long term bet than Valentino and the ties which bind the company to Dorna to would shame a Shibari adept. They are everywhere: Honda’s abandonment of stroker production precipitated Dorna’s, and the former’s subsequent engine monopoly in Moto2; the relationship between the companies fostered by Alberto Puig and his heir apparent as Svengali to the upcoming stars, Emilio Alzamora. Puig oversaw GP’s academy – Red Bull Rookies – and fast tracked the most talented riders Honda’s way, the whole operation being presided over by Dorna. Compared to FIFA – another monopololistic, secretive media rights holder presided over by an ageing despot – Dorna don’t leave paper trails, and very few people within the industry, press included, are willing to take them on. The closing of the 2015 season saw Dorna exposed, unsure which way to jump, caught between the Japanese giant and a fading star who has illuminated the GP heavens for a very long time, vastly increasing the sport’s marketability – and Dorna’s wealth – in the process.
THE PRESS, THE FANS
To get any sane perspective on GPs you have to read stuff written by people who are not under pressure to cater to a fan base. Bg enjoys reading David Emmett’s commentaries and Matt Oxley’s reflections precisely because of their objectivity, which means calling it cold, without prejudice. Lorenzo may not be a charmer but watching him ride on a good day is pretty much as close to perfection on a motorcycle as you will ever see. Whatever else he does and doesn’t do are irrelevant to this attribute. You shouldn’t go racing and expect to find Mr. Nice Guy among the main protagonists. Rossi’s great personal charm and charisma may make him more likeable than some of his opponents, but they don’t make him The Good Guy per se. People like Emmet and Oxley accept this. Fan bases and publications which feel obliged to cater to those constituencies do not, and nothing has foregrounded this distinction more than recent events on and off track events. It is worrying that so many of Rossi’s fans seem completely unable to deal with the reality which boils down to this: Lorenzo is faster most of the time and on that basis deserves to have finished above his team mate – again.
Rossi’s demise is going to be a big problem for Dorna and indeed the sport in general. To some extent Dorna have themselves to blame, promoting an F1 like culture of blandness and mediaspeak which excludes character and authenticity. But all that went by the wayside when Rossi’s fortunes began to wane in 2015, and at last we were seeing plenty of authenticity – another reason why we should celebrate recent of events instead of solemnly pontificating about sportsmanship. To find a champion with Rossi’s ability and persona is going to be a well nigh impossible task, but one way of attracting an audience is to keep things real. That means avoiding a new generation of media savvy clones and encouraging an individual, relaxed approach. That is no easy task in a world where everything is mediated by corporate interests.