I have written this article twice. The first version was an irreverent story with a lot of jokes about the dangers of upsetting Rossi fans and how hormonal they get as a result. I don’t take myself very seriously, and my failings are all too obvious, so it was easy to play about with the idea of waking up next to a blue and yellow horse’s head with a 46 sprayed on its nose, and being Jorge Lorenzo’s long lost English relative. Writing the piece was going to be a lot of fun.
Now, things have changed – and very much for the worse, not only for this year’s MotoGP World Championship but for motorcycling as a whole. The seismic shift came about when I received a press release from the FIM containing the following information:
“On the basis of Article 3.4.2, para 3 of the FIM Road Racing World Championship Grand Prix Regulations, Mr Valentino Rossi has filed an Appeal against the decision taken by the Race Direction of the Shell Malaysia Motorcycle Grand Prix in Sepang, penultimate round of the FIM MotoGP Grand Prix World Championship, and confirmed by the FIM Stewards, to award 3 penalty points to Mr Rossi following an incident on Turn 14.
“In appealing to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), Mr Rossi seeks annulment or reduction of the penalty. He further requests stay of execution of the decision in accordance with Article R37 of the Code of Sports-Related Arbitration.
“The FIM will not comment any further at this time.”
The #SepangClash has turned this year’s MotoGP World Championship on its head, and not for the better.
What does this mean in practical terms? Rossi’s representatives have asked that the judgment against him be suspended until the appeal is considered on November 8 – the day after Valencia. In simple terms, Vale can’t lose. If his appeal is successful he suffers no penalty points. If it fails, he still starts from whatever grid positions his qualifying times give him at Valencia and then he begins from the back of the grid at Qatar next year – and that is no punishment at all. Either way, his actions at Sepang will go unpunished.
Let’s begin with the facts. I am, and always will be, a huge admirer of Valentino Rossi as a motorcycle racer. I have watched, and worked with, many of the greatest riders of the last four decades and there is no one as complete as Valentino Rossi. So, yes, disagree with this article but do me the courtesy of not accusing me of being anti-Rossi because to do so is palpably untrue.
The second fact is that what Valentino Rossi did at Sepang was wrong. It was an illegal act in terms of MotoGP regulations and it was morally abhorrent. It doesn’t matter how much Marquez taunted or irritated him, no one, not even the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, can repeatedly look at another rider and then cause him to crash.
To do so is to contravene a moral absolute and, if anything, the punishment of starting from the back of the grid in Valencia is vastly too lenient. I have been watching the Rugby World Cup for the last six weeks and, there, players who could quite literally kill each other with effortless ease stay within the rules. When they break the sport’s moral absolutes, for example with a high tackle which could fracture a neck, they are sent from the field of play – without argument or debate.
In a similar way, persons of authority exercise absolute restraint on innumerable occasions. The teacher, baited relentlessly by disruptive pupils, cannot exercise physical retribution. The police officer, taunted by rowdy drunks has to exercise self-discipline. Even front line soldiers, in the intense heat of battle, have to follow a moral code – and they do.
It is therefore morally unacceptable to have a rider undertake a premeditated action which could result in injury or even death. For Rossi to look at Marquez repeatedly before the collision is evidence of a premeditated act rather than unintentional contact in the heat of intense racing.
Vale has millions of devoted fans, some who go to extreme lengths to show their support.
In my previous article about this incident I was heavily criticized by fans of Vale because I said that the actual cause of Marquez falling was Rossi interfering with the Honda rider’s front brake. The argument was that front brake guard, which is now mandatory in MotoGP, prevented this happening. Anyone with a working knowledge of racing would know that the guards only provide a nominal protection for the front brake. This has now been confirmed by Honda data.
Here is what Shuhei Nakamoto, Vice President of HRC had to say:
“First of all, we would like to state that we believe it is very important to speak about the facts, not about assumptions. A fact is a fact and there is only one interpretation. Assumptions can be translated in different ways, depending on which side you are. For the good of our sport, we would like everybody to just consider the facts that occurred.
“It is clear that Valentino intentionally pushed Marc towards the outside of the track, which is out of the rules, therefore Marc had no other option other than to run wide.
The data from Marc’s bike shows that even though he was picking up the bike trying to avoid contact with Valentino, his front brake lever suddenly received an impact that locked the front tire, which is the reason for his crash.
We believe that this pressure was a result of Rossi’s kick. The data acquisition from Marc’s bike is available if anybody from Dorna, the FIM or media want to check.”
How could the pressure be applied? Quite easily because a knee slider is suitably thin enough to go under the brake guard. Remember also that with carbon brakes the slightest pressure on the lever will lock the front brake – an issue exacerbated by the slowness of the corner where the incident took place.
Any other rider, except Valentino Rossi, would have been black flagged for this act of reckless and gratuitous violence at Sepang. However, all other riders are not Rossi so he got off very lightly with no deduction of points. Interestingly, this will set a very, very, very dangerous precedent for the future. Race Control has now shown that you can deliberately cause a fellow competitor to crash and not suffer any loss of points. In a sport where serious injury, and even death, is a credible possibility this stance could well have tragic consequences.
However, the leniency of the punishment was not enough to satisfy Rossi and he has lodged an appeal. The key reason for the appeal is that starting from the back of the grid at Valencia is a real problem because of the unique nature of the 2-mile track. The Circuito de la Comunidad Valenciana Ricardo Tormo is an oddity on the GP calendar because of its ultra-tight nature. GP riders, and the MotoGP paddock, describe it as a go-kart circuit because of its multiple stop-go corners.
This means that even Valentino can’t sweep past on the outside of the first corner as he might at one of the fast, flowing, first division circuits. On the contrary, the run down to the first corner, a 90-degree left-hander, is only a few hundred yards and the bunching is horrendous.
The master of this odd bit of racing tarmac is Marc Marquez, who is breathtakingly good into this tricky bend but equally, the supreme starter in MotoGP is none other than Jorge Lorenzo. So, Lorenzo and Marquez battling it out for the lead is the most likely possibility.
The Valentino Rossi brand represents big business for MotoGP.
But, there is an interesting twist to the situation. The current long range weather forecast, and I do know weather can’t be accurately predicted five days in advance – is for sun on Sunday 8 November and this is the last thing Rossi needs.
If the FIM refuses to accept the appeal and gives judgment before Sunday, rather than the day after, rain is Vale’s only chance of pulling off the miracle of all racing miracles because in the dry, Rossi will have to battle past a whole string of mere mortals none of whom will do him any favors. Dismissing the likes of Laverty and Baz will be a mere party trick. The problem will come when he reaches Redding, the two Espargaros, Maverick Viñales and Danilo Petrucci. Clearly, Vale is much faster than these mid-field runners but Rossi has to pass them almost instantly to get to the meat in the sandwich which is the top, upper mid-field runners of Crutchlow, Bradley Smith and whichever of the two factory Ducatis is on form that day. And all this is on a track which in the dry does not favor the super-skilled.
Meanwhile, my prediction is that Lorenzo will not race Marquez at all unless things go demonstrably in his favor. It is utter nonsense – just childish silliness – to suggest that Marquez and Lorenzo have some secret pact. If this were so, Marquez would have over run on a corner in Australia and allowed Jorge to win.
No, a far more likely outcome is that Lorenzo’s pit board will tell him whether he needs to win, or not, and that unless he can take the checkers without taking any risks he will sit behind Marquez and maybe even Pedrosa too.
The sad thing is that no one will actually win anything on Sunday. I have already predicted that this year’s World Championship will result in a morass of appeals and, very possibly, law suits which will stretch on into 2016. This is not good for MotoGP, motorcycle racing or bike sport in its widest sense.
The tragedy, and I use the word literally and accurately, is that the mess also has huge, worldwide implications. This time specific, empirical data is impossible to obtain but here is a flavor of what might happen.
First, if Rossi’s appeal is rejected on November 9, or before, which it ought to be, there is the nuclear option of Valentino throwing his teddy bear out of his baby carriage and retiring. This is something which everyone who is connected with MotoGP commercially dreads: in all honesty, it reduces them to gibbering wrecks. Here’s why.
An average MotoGP ticket costs around $125. If you take a really well supported round, like Silverstone, Sachsenring or Mugello, somewhere in the region of 85,000 spectators, give or take, will pay to watch the race. Clever, well connected observers I speak to reckon that as much as 33% – it could even be higher – of those spectators come only because of Rossi. So, the math is not complex. Race promoters can expect a $3–4 million drop in gate money.
Trackside vendors will be virtually wiped out. At a guess, 75% of the merchandise sold at MotoGP is related to the GOAT. It could be a bit more, or less, but the cash cow is Vale.
For Bridgepoint, who own MotoGP, the situation is just as disastrous. The value of franchise fees for individual MotoGP rounds will plummet and TV rights will be available for two balloons and a goldfish.
The impact all this will have on existing and potential sponsors is obvious. The one, and the only, MotoGP rider who is a commercially bankable asset is Vale. Once he has gone the show is over – definitely not for us race fans, but certainly for the suits who control sponsorship money and look only at viewing figures and market penetration.
All this makes me rather angry. I have been writing polemics for years now saying that Dorna should, must even, make the riders who are the cast in their show, interact with both race fans and the non-motorcycling media and my pleas have been ignored. Riders, and teams, are obsessed only with racing and this is not good enough in the commercial world of the 21st Century.
But, like the employee who has been given a month’s notice before he is fired and still pretends that he has a job for life, Dorna has continued in the fatal delusion that Vale will be around forever and a day. Rossi is the show and, my goodness, the whole financial pyramid is held up by his presence. For this reason, and not because of any justice, I believe that Rossi’s appeal will be successful and there will be a desperate sigh of relief if the circus gets another year’s service out of the star which keeps their galaxy from freezing.
But there will be consequences and, ironically, they could be good for MotoGP – at least for a single year. My very, very well connected contacts say that Lorenzo is already planning revenge and this will be a release from his Yamaha contract and a move to Ducati. Why would Yamaha permit this? Because it would get them out of the tightest of tight corners. Not even Lin Jarvis’ iron fist and management skill is going to build a harmonious team with Rossi and Lorenzo sharing the same garage.
Bradley Smith would move up to the works team and will be delighted to be #2 to Vale, and Ducati will, for the first time since Casey Stoner, have a rider capable of winning a World Championship.
For their part, Honda – and every other manufacturer – need Rossi in place to make the world series financially credible.
The lubricant to make all this happen will be Dorna, for the reasons I have identified. It won’t be fair and it certainly won’t be justice but it will be Realpolitik red in tooth and claw and this is the powerhouse in any capitalist society.
Finally, a personal note. I am delighted to read all the comments readers express about my articles and feel very privileged that you do me the great honor of making them – even when my senility, parentage and sanity are called into question!
However, you might like to think of the poster which was on the back of the wall at Velocette when I called in there as a 16-year-old. “For maximum efficiency, engage brain before opening mouth…”
Thanks for reading.