Going through images of the 2008 British GP at Donington Park, I got to thinking about what a strange road it has been for Ben Spies. It started when Loris Capirossi was injured and Suzuki needed a rider to wild card at the event. Ben was their hot young AMA Superbike champ, and together with Mat Mladin, accounted for years of utter Suzuki dominance in the class.
I spoke briefly to Ben that Thursday as his #11 was displayed to replace Capirossi’s #65 for the first time. As soft-spoken and affable as ever, Ben didn’t seem over-awed by MotoGP, but just got about his job of not crashing Loris’ motorcycle. He would later go on to win the World Superbike title, and was rookie of the year at Tech 3. Again, all with his typical composure.
Since then we have seen his rising star take a sharp turn to port. He has managed to show signs of his potential, such as his win at Assen last year. But this year in particular he has been a frightful reminder that talent, hard work, and a good machine are not quite enough for success as a motorbike racer. As Ben’s bad luck has refused to come to an end, I’m not the only one in the paddock thinking about it. In Ben, the riders have another walking reminder of the uncertainties they face.
Yes, this is a shameless plug, but every time I visit Scott at his office, I admire this print of Casey Stoner that he has hanging on his wall. I am obviously a bit biased when it comes to Scott’s work, as any Asphalt & Rubber reader probably already knows, but his photos have classed-up more than a few MotoGP-related articles here on A&R. I have stared at my fair share of Scott’s photography, but this photo of Casey has always struck me though. If you had to summarize Stoner’s dominance in the 2011 season, and maybe his career in MotoGP overall, I think it can be done in this single-instance that Scott has captured.
People will always have their opinions about Casey Stoner, and many of his detractors put an asterisk next to his MotoGP Championship victory in 2007. Whether Casey was on the right tires, or Rossi was on the wrong ones, the fact remains that Stoner won a championship on a machine that spoke a language that Capirossi, Bayliss, Checa, Gibernau, Melandri, Hayden, and Rossi could not understand. A polarizing figure, sure, but any person capable of truly appreciating the art of riding a MotoGP machine to the limit will recognize the mastery in Stoner’s 2011 season, and possibly his career as a whole.
Finishing off the podium only once, when Rossi’s “ambition exceeded his talent,” Stoner didn’t just ride a consistent Championship, he rode a dominant one. Dragging elbows at will, spinning the rear-wheel down impossible racing lines, and decimating his competition in turn, it is hard to go from Casey’s masterful 2011 season, to the beginning of 2012 where he stunned the paddock and announced his retirement.
Looking at Scott’s photo of Casey at Catalunya, it is hard to imagine that we will soon be running out of examples of this kind of performance on two-wheels. Thankfully we do have moments like this in the public record, and for a fortunate few, the capturing of Casey at his finest can be held everlasting. I was with Scott at Laguna Seca when Stoner signed these prints earlier this season, and even the reigning-World Champion seemed impressed with Scott’s photo — maybe even a bit reminiscent. I think the lucky few who happen to buy one of these limited edition prints will be equally impressed with them as well. Some words from Scott after the jump.
If you were writing a script for a blockbuster movie based on MotoGP, you would be off to a great start with a premise centered on Tech 3′s current riders: Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso. This current season would be the backstory, perhaps told in flashbacks or in a montage behind the opening titles. Next season is where the drama would unfold in earnest, as each character pursues a World Championship on a different team.
But perhaps there’s too much backstory to fit into the opening credit sequence. In 2012, on nearly identical equipment, they battled for “Best of The Rest” over and over again. Silly season saw each one looking for a chance to move to a factory bike, as each felt a satellite machine was incapable of winning a world title. One rider is courted by Ducati, then abandoned in favor of the other. This leaves one right where he started, but ironically, on a satellite Yamaha that will likely have better results than his rival, who has landed the factory ride both sought.
We could write a long list of what those involved in the Valentino Rossi-Ducati partnership have lost. Money, reputation, time, all have been lost in large quantities and on behalf of some of the most important people in motorbike racing. Smaller losses of various kinds have been incurred by many more people whose livelihoods are tied to Rossi’s success. But a huge number of people have lost something intangible but nonetheless important because of the inability of Rossi and Ducati to produce a winning package.
As fans of motorsport, we have been fortunate to be present to watch and participate in, even if only as spectators, the career of a truly remarkable sportsman. World Champions gain entry into an elite club, but multiple World Champions whose careers span many years, formulas, and sets of rules, are rare indeed. And among those few individuals, the even rarer sort who not only win and win and win on the track but also inspire millions of fans across boundaries of nationality, gender, brand loyalty, and so on are even more remarkable.
Rossi is one of those supremely rare people, and he holds that distinction regardless of having his detractors. Whatever a minority chooses to feel about him, he has accomplished more as a motorcycle racer than anyone since Agostini, and in some ways he has accomplished much more. One of those ways is in his ability to charm millions of people via his skills in the media.
Agostini raced before the internet, before today’s massive TV audiences, and simply didn’t have the opportunity to reach as many people as Rossi has. Those many people who were attracted to motorcycle racing because first they felt an attraction to Valentino Rossi have lost something since his switch to Ducati. They have not felt much of the joy that his style and success thrived on during the Honda and Yamaha years.