When you look at the regular riders of the MotoGP this year, you find what can only be described as a “class act”. Of the regular eighteen riders, eight have won world championships in the various classes, and that’s not counting the rival World Superbike Champions currently riding in the MotoGP series.
From the earliest races, it was apparent that there was an upper echelon of riders this year. Four riders looked like they would fight for the championship all year: Jorge Lorenzo, Daniel Pedrosa, Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi. These riders didn’t have top billing rites to themselves this year. There were standout performances from other riders as well. As the season progressed, the challengers started to fade away, leaving the two protagonists from last year (Rossi and Stoner) to resume their on track rivalry.
It is typical of top-level sports performers, that injury plays a major part in the “luck” department. The risk of injuries in motorcycle racing is far more apparent than some other sports, but from a spectator’s viewpoint, the result is the same: An injured sports-star cannot perform at their best.
The first of the four contenders to “fall” was Jorge Lorenzo, with not one, but two spectacular (and painful) “high-sides”. High-sides* are (thankfully ) rare these days. The smoother power delivery of four-stroke engines and the advent of traction control systems reduce the times you will see a rider “sail” through the air. Regardless of rarity, Lorenzo managed two of these accidents, sustaining injuries and clearly denting his confidence in the races that followed.
Pedrosa “faltered” next, his championship aspirations being dealt a fatal blow when he fell whilst leading the rain sodden MotoGP in Germany. In the second half of the season, the other two riders (Rossi and Stoner) were simply a class above the rest of the field.
Casey Stoner looks to be a rider with sufficient talent to see him become one of the true greats of the sport. At numerous times in the last two seasons he has simply been the fastest rider out there – by a long way. At quite a few races he has dominated every practice session, every qualifying session and every lap of the race. That the Ducati he rides is fast, is beyond question – but you need only look at how incompetent the other three Ducati riders have looked this year to realise it’s not just the bike!
This year’s champion elect is none other than Valentino Rossi. As in all sports, comparisons against competitors from previous years can be nothing more than speculation. Statistically, he is already second in terms of “premier” class world-championships and first in “premier” race victories.
Whether or not he is the greatest racer ever will be the subject of much pub-debate for years to come. In my mind, he is the ultimate racer, for the following reasons:
He is a fierce competitor. Even where a podium would suffice to seal a world championship, I can’t think of one instance where he has settled for a place rather than push for a win.
He appears to be instrumental in improving the performance of the bikes he has ridden. Developmental riding of a racing motorcycle is an undefined and rare skill. Not many riders do it well, but the success of the bike manufacturers seems to follow Rossi.
He is a sponsor’s delight. He is thoroughly charismatic and consistently “clowns around” for the amusement of others.
He is driven by the challenge. He swapped teams when winning on a Honda became “too easy”.
One point which is often overlooked about Rossi’s most recent World Championship, but is telling about his competitive nature:
There aren’t many riders who win a world championship, then lose it, who come back to win again in later years. I think the last rider who did this was Giacomo Agostini …
* Most single bike racing accidents fall into two categories: A “low-side” is where (normally) the front end of the motorcycle “washes out” from the bike. The bike and rider fall down – on the side that the bike was leaning. This is roughly the equivalent to a car “under-steering”. A “high-side” typically occurs when the rear-end of the motorcycle runs-wide. This tends to happen when the rear-wheel spins faster than the front. (Roughly the equivalent to a car “over-steering”). The immediate human reaction to the rear wheel “stepping out” is to back off the throttle. The problem with this is the rear tyre can suddenly start to grip again and the bike is thrown violently upwards as it does so. Where this happens the rider is thrown over the “high-side of the bike”.
Photo courtesy of: Kyn Chung, released under a Creative Commons licence.