I write this story with incredible sadness because, truly, the collision between nine-time World Champion Valentino Rossi and four-time World Champion Marc Marquez could have been a scene taken directly from a Shakespearean tragedy.
It is also a universal narrative from life itself. The aging alpha male, so long the supreme leader of the motorcycle racing tribe, now approaches the end of his tenure and is challenged by the next young male in the order of ascendency. In his final attempts to hold back time, and so maintain his position, the old silverback does things he would never have done in his prime. It is the everlasting cycle of birth and re-birth, ascent and descent, renewal and decay which is the inevitable story of the universe.
So let’s try to sort out the facts from what happened in Turn 14 of the Malaysian GP at Sepang – and then look at the implications.
First, Rossi is not the fastest rider in this year’s MotoGP Championship. Regardless of how great a fan you are of Rossi, or an admirer, as I am, at best Valentino is third quickest in this year’s championship. Through extreme professionalism, breathtaking skill and several large slices of luck Rossi finds himself leading the World Championship, but everyone knows this is an artificial position.
There is nothing wrong with this state of affairs. I can name half a dozen World Champions who were not the fastest in their class but in the end it is their name, and not some other, which is recorded in the FIM Annuaire as Champion du Monde.
The problem with Rossi is that, in his glory, he was the fastest rider ever to race a motorcycle. In good weather and bad, from Pole or the back of the field, Vale dominated. He was the most complete, the most dedicated, the most talented, the most intelligent, the most professional motorcycle racer of all time. Now he isn’t.
Sadly, Vale knows this better than any of us. I can touch his feelings, albeit from a vastly lower level. I remember being passed in a championship race by a rider 15 years younger than me and who I could have ridden rings round two years earlier. It seemed so unfair. You know how good you are and yet the simple passage of time, over which none of us has any control, makes you slower. Yes, it is a tragic situation.
In this knowledge, Vale lashes out verbally. He accuses Marquez of delaying him to favor Lorenzo in Australia. Then the accusations become ever more facile and petty. Now, Rossi allegedly says Marquez has told lies about the poster the young Spanish rider had on his bedroom wall when Marc was a child and an ardent Rossi fan. Marquez’s mother becomes involved and produces a photograph of the poster. The Shakespearian tragedy has been reduced to Elementary School playground bickering of who did what to whom and when.
At this point a number of things will, for certain, happen. First, the battle with Rossi stops being GP racing and becomes personal. Once mothers and siblings are brought into the equation, logic then goes out of the window.
For his part, Rossi is holding back the inevitable tsunami of time with one last supreme effort. Just one more World Championship – one last unimaginably great effort will belie those 36 years and show that age can be held at bay.
The two Alpha males lock jaws in combat. The scene ought to have been from a wildlife film on the African savannah rather than a MotoGP race.
The next steps are simple and pellucidly clear. Marquez was not riding to hold back Rossi for Lorenzo’s advantage: his only interest was in beating, humiliating, humbling and making it clear that Rossi is no longer the pack leader. His day is over – gone and never to return.
So, Marc rides to prove his veracity and to show that he did have Vale’s poster on his wall. He rides to show that he has integrity and his mother should not have to produce photographic evidence of his honesty. All this, and the passion of a 22-year-old, leads to racing which is manically frenetic.
Eventually, Rossi sees that Marquez’s determination will breach his dam causing time to roll inexorably across his life and so in his anger and his frustration and his shame he deliberately forces Marquez off track. The act is calculated, as much as any manifestation of violence can be intellectualized. It isn’t one of the numerous racing incidents which Vale has been involved in over the years but the lancing of the cyst of frustration.
Did Vale want Marc to crash? The answer is almost, but not absolutely, certainly not. As the two bikes come together, Rossi’s knee slider catches the front brake lever on the Honda and the end result is both predictable and inevitable.
What Rossi wanted, needed and lusted for, was for Marc to be out of the way and the gap to Lorenzo closed. With it closed, the tenth World Championship would be in reach. It is this single-minded determination which has made Rossi the greatest motorcycle racer of all time.
However, like the bar brawl where someone takes a fairly innocuous punch, then bangs his head on the floor and dies, Rossi’s action could have had huge consequences. Marc could have easily been badly injured – or worse – and this would have been a direct consequence of the unforgiveable act of gratuitous violence carried out by Rossi.
Sadly, this is fact.
Race Direction was put in a completely invidious position following Rossi’s clear cut aggression. Because these are litigious times, Race Director Mike Webb could not immediately black flag Rossi and pull him from the track. His only course of action was the one he followed – to formally interview both riders and then examine the TV coverage in forensic detail.
Up to this point, I was in sympathy with Webb. However, I cannot agree with the imposition of only three race license penalty points and the compulsory start from last position at the next MotoGP round. The punishment was excessively lenient, and Rossi’s claim that the collision was a racing incident was palpably untrue.
Yes, Rossi should be made to start from the rear of the grid at Valencia but his third-place at Sepang should have been struck from the records. As things stand, he directly benefitted from his pre-meditated aggression and this sets an extremely dangerous precedent for what is already one of the few sports where participants actually have a credible chance of losing their lives.
The leniency is so bad that I still see a situation where there will be multiple appeals to the FIM. For absolute certainty, if Rossi and Lorenzo were not, nominally at least, in the same team the lawyers would already be issuing the writs.
Yamaha has already appealed the penalty and it has been rejected by the FIM. The appeal did not sit well with Lorenzo because he feels Rossi’s status has protected the GOAT. I really enjoyed my time in team management but I certainly wouldn’t like to be in the shoes of Yamaha Racing’s MD, Lin Jarvis, at Valencia.
However, there is still the chance of more litigation following Valencia. The possible reassignment of the championship following an FIM tribunal at some time in the New Year will be a sad end to what has been a fascinating season. The best outcome for motorcycling will be for Lorenzo to win the World Championship in Valencia and then this tragic incident can be concluded, at least in the eyes of the public.
I have lived through Rossi’s whole career and I have been inspired by his riding ability, his race intellect, his courage and his sheer magnificence as a motorcycle racer. My dearest wish is that he now moves on to the next stage in his life – as a team owner, TV pundit, property developer or whatever. Let us sit back in wonder at this incredible racer rather than see the passage of time corrode his glory.