Casey Stoner – A Personal Appreciation

May 21, 2012
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Aussie Casey Stoner finished on the podium in nearly every round last season on his way to winning the championship.
Casey Stoner announced that he will retire from MotoGP at the end of the 2012 season during a pre-race press conference at Le Mans, stunning the race world.

To say that the motorcycle racing world was shocked by Casey Stoner’s retirement is something of an understatement. Fellow competitors, team managers, amateur racers and spectators alike cannot understand why someone with such sublime talent at racing motorcycles should want to give up everything which defines his greatness.

I am not a friend, or even a passing acquaintance, of Casey’s, but I can begin to comprehend why he has turned his back on the GP paddock. The situation is more complex than it seems – and all the more interesting for this.

My only direct contact with Casey was a somewhat awkward 10 minutes spent with him when we were both riding at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2006. I am a world class gossip, and can talk for Britain, but I got very little from the shy young man who was, in truth, not in any real conversation with me.

Even at that time, the young – very young – 21-year-old was a formidable talent and he already had 17 years of racing experience. As a child in Australia, he reportedly rode in 35 races over one weekend – and won 32 of these. So, as a racer he was incredibly mature but my then 12-year-old daughter was vastly more experienced about everything else in life’s rich matrix. In the simplest terms, Casey’s life has been ruled, controlled and defined by motorcycles, paddocks, qualifying and race results and very little else.

It is difficult to overstate how much Casey’s life has been dominated by racing. Since childhood, he has been judged not by his ability in the classroom, or his love for a pet lizard, or the way he made elderly people happy by singing carols to them at Christmas but by lap times.

Casey Stoner - 2011 Phillip Island MotoGP
Stoner celebrating another victory in 2011, this one at Phillip Island. The Aussie rider won the 2011 MotoGP championship by 90 points over Jorge Lorenzo.

Cut a tenth of a second from your lap time and you are a good person. Add a tenth and you are not. Is that slice of pizza going to assist your diet or will it slow you down? Are you too tired to race at your peak because you stayed up all night watching a movie, eating popcorn and talking to your girlfriend?

Motorcycle racing gave all it had to give to Casey – but never imagine that the price it demanded was cheap.

That Casey ever made it to be a World Champion was, in no small part, due to extremely strong family support but even this emanates from racing. His parents sold their small farm and the family lived in a caravan in England so that he could race aged fourteen. He met his wife to be, Adriana, at Philip Island when she asked him to sign her stomach. Almost since then, they have been inseparable.

If you are controlled, and defined, by racing then – inevitably – you become extremely vulnerable and this, I would argue, is the core of Stoner’s decision to retire. Without looking back through a rose tinted visor, riders from my generation were, largely but not exclusively, honorable and honored. If they agreed to ride for a team or sponsor on the shake of a hand then they did so.

The converse was also true. Teams were loyal to the riders and the relationships were personal. My sponsors, even when I was being paid to ride, were my biggest fans. They liked and respected me – as I did them.

When six-time World Champion, Jim Redman, was approached by Yamaha, with an offer of much more money than Honda were paying him to ride for them, Jim politely refused the offer because he had verbally promised his services to Soichiro Honda. In case you feel this is a matter of there not being much money changing hands, Jim’s contract was worth millions of dollars converted to current prices.

Stoners incredible results at Losail extend into raceday where he finished  fifth overall - Qatar
Stoner in 2006, his first year riding in the premier class. That year he rode for the LCR Honda satellite team.

In fact, Redman never once had a written contract. He would visit Tokyo, talk to Honda and agree a price and that was it: absolutely nothing written down. Contrast this to the pressures Stoner faced and the dissembling manner in which he was treated once Rossi became available to Ducati.

The way Ducati treated Stoner was appalling – nothing less than shocking. In a recent TV interview, Casey bemoaned the fact that he thought that he had a family in Ducati – and they let him down. Imagine the mental torment which a rather vulnerable young man faced when he found his adopted family had dumped him for what they thought was a better child!

Ducati’s dismissal of Casey’s lactose intolerance must have torn him apart. What child isn’t tearful when his parents don’t believe he is ill?

It’s no use railing at Stoner and telling him to take it like a man, stand up straight and not act like a tearful limp wrist. He is what he is and that means a miraculous talent on a motorcycle but with a touching vulnerability which needs protecting and a sensitive ego which demands gentle, kind care and attention. Is this a unique set of needs? Far from it. Many high achievers, in whatever field, are high maintenance and emotionally fragile.

The final part of the equation is the arrival of baby Alessandra Maria. Children affect parents in different ways. Some mums and dads treat the kids as administrative inconveniences and just get on with their lives.

Others let the child dominate them so that they cease to be sentient adults.

In my case, I fell out of love with having a real job and wanted to be with our new baby for no other reason that I loved being with her. Changing diapers – which I did incredibly badly – singing to her – which I also did badly – or just stroking her head and watching her smile at me were never chores but complete pleasures.

Casey Stoner is a giant-killer so far this season  exceeding expecation on the Marlboro Ducati and owning a 10-point lead in the championship after his Istanbul victory - Istanbul
Stoner in 2007 riding for Marlboro Ducati, the year the Aussie won his first MotoGP championship title.

In my case, I gave up a very well paid job, with a polished briefcase and a smart suit, simply to be with my new toy. I have a feeling that Casey is in the same ball park. Baby Alessandra isn’t interested in lap times or race results but only whether Casey strokes her cheek and smiles at her. It’s a powerful drug and one which I guess has got Casey well and truly hooked.

So, how good is, or was, Casey in the pantheon of motorcycle greats? To answer this question, I am in the privileged position of having seen some of the finest motorcycle racers over the last 50 years. With this long view, I would make the following observations.

In terms of outright ability to ride a motorcycle very quickly Casey is one of the greatest riders of all time. His ability is sublime and I feel privileged to have seen him on the track. Probably only Mike Hailwood had as much natural ability – and for me Hailwood was, and is, the greatest motorcycle rider of all time.

However, Casey rates less highly as a motorcycle racer than he does a motorcycle rider. As a racer, Rossi is a galaxy better – tactically and in terms of winning races in all conditions. Forget the current blip with Ducati, Rossi is in a different league to any other rider.

Fifteen-time World Champion Giacomo Agostini also possessed a sublime riding talent combined with an immense racing brain, so this puts Casey down into the second league of motorcycle racing Gods and leaves unanswered questions. Given another five years, how good would he have been?

I feel that we will never know. I remained convinced that he will stay away from bike racing not the least because he has already been offered a highly paid, and very comfortable, job racing V8 cars in Australia.

Additionally, the Stoner family has been very careful with Casey’s money. Honda offered to double his already very generous pay if he would ride for one more year and Casey turned them down, so he clearly won’t be applying for food vouchers in the near future.

I think that he is a wise young man and I admire and respect his decision. Motorcycle racing will be much the poorer for Casey’s absence but he has already given us so much that we need to be thankful – and wish him God’s speed for his new life.