Requirements for great rivalry: 1) Genuine personal dislike between the competitors – CHECK. 2) Competition at the highest caliber – CHECK.
Jorge Lorenzo is days away from snatching his first career MotoGP crown. It is an impressive achievement, huge news… The biggest news. Yet the most interesting plotline running into Sepang is something else – Lornenzo’s escalating rivalry with Valentino Rossi. The focus has shifted, once again, back to Rossi, and this is due in no small measure to the actions of Lorenzo himself.
The acrimonious teammates tangled in the final laps of the Japanese Grand Prix. Lorenzo, with some justification, felt the moves were too aggressive for ‘teammates’ where one rider is knocking on the door of the championship. Lorenzo made a huge mistake, however, by venting his frustrations in public after the race. Then he twice blundered by complaining to Yamaha racing bosses about the moves, demanding that Rossi clean it up.
Lorenzo would do well to look at Rossi’s past rivals as he charts through the remainder of the season. Against the charisma and popularity that is Valentino Rossi, there can be no victory. His best means of dealing with The Doctor is on the bike, not off it.
All Rossi’s great rivalries have a singular incident that cements the feud in the fan’s psyche. With Biaggi it was Suzuka 2001. Mad Max ran the then sophomore rider, Rossi, wide off into the straight with an apparent elbow. The Doctor responded on the next lap with a clean pass and the finger. Rossi went on to the title, Biaggi into GP obscurity – eventually blackballed out of the series.
Sete Gibernau became Rossi’s loathed rival in 2004 at the Qatar Grand Prix. Rossi and other teams were forced to start from the back of the grid after doctoring their starting grids for better traction. Rossi reportedly blamed Gibernau for squealing on him and vowed a curse. Gibernau never won another Grand Prix, his closest finish afterward was a second-place the following season in Germany, where Rossi famously ran the Spaniard into the dirt on an aggressive overtaking maneuver on the final lap.
Casey Stoner was the next great rival, with the pair’s defining moment coming at Laguna Seca in 2008. Heading into the USGP as the defending GP champ, Stoner was neck and neck with Rossi for the 2008 crown. During the race the two tussled repeatedly for the lead, including a particularly aggressive pass by Rossi in the gravel down Laguna’s famed corkscrew. Rossi would win the race after Stoner tucked the front end. Stoner, much like Lorenzo later, questioned Rossi’s racing tactics post-race, going so far as to say he’d lost respect for him. Stoner would go on to DNF the next two races and see his title hopes fail, Laguna a highwater mark of sorts for his former domination aboard the Ducati.
Now these past two seasons it has been Lorenzo’s turn as Rossi foil. Their tenure as factory Yamaha teammates has always been icy. At the beginning of the season, it was Rossi on the ropes, with Lorenzo seeming to get under the Italian’s skin. Yet Rossi has slowly reversed the momentum since his return from a broken leg. His most recent Motegi podium-grab at the expense of Lorenzo came after a recent interview with the Italian GQ, where the nine-time world champion did not mince words regarding Lorenzo and Repsol Honda’s Dani Pedrosa.
The Italian has an uncanny knack at always coming out ahead in any media exchange with a rival. He remains the people’s champion, and Lorenzo’s attempts to emulate can’t change that fact, no matter how he tries. The Mallorcan’s post-race celebrations seem a pale shadow compared to Rossi’s genuine hucksterism, with Lorenzo’s embarrassing moon landing schtick at Laguna Seca the most egregious example.
If you find yourself wearing lunar gear, you’d better be on the moon, extremely drunk, or in a really bad-ass music video.
Lorenzo’s stomping off to Yamaha execs to make Rossi play fair after Motegi was bad form, no matter whether it was justified or not. It smacked of a tattletale and pouter. And what could it accomplish anyway? Yamaha no longer has any real sway over Rossi, who essentially entered lame duck status with Yamaha ever since he broke his leg and with it his legit title hopes. Without a championship to win, Rossi’s only real pleasure can come at beating down his upstart rivals.
How much better would it have been for Lorenzo to shrug off the Motegi last lap jostling with an air of nonchalance. Roll with the punches. Give the media something succinct and vaguely threatening post-race like: “I won’t forget it” or “next time it will not be so easy.” Better yet, embrace the fairing bashing exchange. Engage The Doctor as a worthy foe, not a petulant rookie.
There is only one way Lorenzo can ever hope to emulate the Doctor: Dominate on the track.