June, 01 2012
I have been thinking a lot about my column before arriving here at Barcelona for this weekend.
Le Mans was an interesting weekend on track with a great ride from Jorge Lorenzo, taking off from the start and followed home by the No. 46 Ducati. An encouraging result for Valentino Rossi and I hope, one that bodes well for the rest of the season. The Tech 3 duo of Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow showed their pace again and had a fascinating battle before both crashed and recovered. The Hondas couldnt match their performances in qualifying but looking at last year, no doubt Casey will be strong here in Catalunya and it is Danis home track so expect to see him in the hunt. Well see how all that carries over into the race.
Of course, the real story of Le Mans was Casey Stoners announcement that he is going to retire from MotoGP at the end of this year. It came as a bombshell in the pre-event press conference and dominated the conversations in the Paddock and I am sure with all of you, for the rest of the weekend.
Ever since my arrival in Grand Prix racing, over 35 years ago, I have tried to remain truthful and honest in my views about our sport and upon my rivals, while I was still racing and ever since, watching the younger generations that have followed. In all that time, there have not been many such significant moments as Caseys decision and the statement that he made to the world in his announcement.
In many ways it marred the weekend in Le Mans and has cast a shadow over MotoGP. It was, of course, a shock but beyond that I was saddened to hear that this is the way he sees the future and does not feel he can continue. I use the word sad as I feel that we are set to lose one of the very greatest racers ever to ride in MotoGP and a rider who has graced the sport for too short a time.
To throw that decision out now, only four races into the Championship, leaves a big hole partly because it came out of the blue and partly as it is so early in the season. Obviously, Casey has his reasons and has thought about this deeply, within himself and with his Family and I respect that, even if I do not fully understand his reasoning.
What I do know is that Grand Prix racing has changed dramatically in recent times. One of the biggest differences now is the amount of investment in the Sport from manufacturers and sponsors and the increasing demands that puts on the riders and teams.
When I started in the World Championship, from 1979 on, the level of racing was very high but the level of technology and sophistication was nowhere near the heights we have reached now. That means it is now very expensive to compete in Grand Prix racing and the investment needed brings performance, but with it, responsibilities that did not exist before. Also, the number of races has gone from ten GPs in 79 to eighteen at present. Again, the demands on the riders and teams are much higher and this appears to be part of the problem for Casey.
Looking at the demands of racing at this level, I do not see great differences between my time and now; the pressure to perform, to get everything right during the weekend and to be competitive on Sunday has always been stressful. The standard at Grand Prix level is always exceptional but that is also what makes it so compelling for the riders. To be the best and race at the very top needs both the talent and the ability to pull everything together for those twenty odd laps on Sunday.
But now, with the equipment being so good and the level of technology so sophisticated, the margins are tighter. Riders have to work harder at the set-up and electronics to get the whole package right for the race. Back in the 70s and 80s, it was all about figuring out how to make the most of your tires so they lasted for the last five laps of the race, ready for the final battle to the line. Now, the whole race is a sprint and getting everything sorted to be quick for the duration of a GP takes enormous effort and intense concentration. It is not just during the weekend either, that intensity lasts all weekend and between GPs, back at the team bases.
On top of the demands of the racing, there are the physical demands that the current generation four-stroke, 1000cc, machines make on the riders. I cannot say enough about the level of fitness these guys now have in MotoGP. They are true athletes with very specific and punishing training schedules, pushing them all the time between races.
Finally, the strains of the racetrack are doubled by the requirements from sponsors, the team PR activities and the media. Multi-million dollar contracts come, as I said earlier, with equally big demands. Manufacturers and investors need a return and this often includes access to the riders and extra commitments on their time, both at the track and between races.
Let me say, though, that MotoGP is not unique in this situation. All high level professional sport is demanding and intense for those participating. Golf, Tennis, Football, Formula 1; all require big commitment from the athletes and the more successful you are, the higher the intensity. Champions have to live with it, when competing and whenever they leave the house.
Many times, the world of MotoGP has talked about the way Casey approaches his racing and how he has struggled to find comfort with the world of professional sport, when he is not actually on the bike. Now, his words have put that approach into sharper focus. I have no doubt that if he could just turn up on Sunday, race and go home, he would race all his life.
In the past, with Mick Doohan, Wayne Gardner and Kevin Schwantz, accidents brought their time at the top to a premature close. Freddie Spencer melted away from a glittering career, as did Kenny Roberts who felt he was steadily falling from the level required to keep on winning. Casey is still dominant and at the very top of his game. Indeed, it may be that the very best is still yet to come. That made it seem like he would be around for many years yet and again, that puts his decision into even sharper focus.
I respect his decision because I know how hard he finds the world of MotoGP, outside the actual racing dealing with the press and being in the spotlight. I also know how hard it is to leave your home when youre still a teenager and move to the other side of the world to pursue your dream. Whether youre American, Australian or from anywhere a long way from Europe, World Championship racing is a huge commitment and young riders have to grow up racing in Spain and Italy. Being away from home for most of the year is not easy and getting used to different cultures, customs and languages is also not easy, especially for youngsters.
Nowadays, I am on the press side, covering the sport rather than racing but I still see it from the riders point of view. I know what they go through and how they feel and Casey is no exception. I do not believe any athlete likes the attention, or press and sponsor demands, day in day out but it comes with the territory and with success and you either find a way to deal with it or it begins to take its toll. Casey doesnt want to deal with it anymore and the option of time with the family and other interests has become attractive.
Looking at his comments about the sport now and the direction it is heading, I have to say that the world has moved on. I talked earlier about the level of investment now needed for MotoGP and given the state of motorcycle sales around the world and the difficulties in the world economy, not least in Spain, MotoGPs principle market, something has to give. The cost of racing in MotoGP is prohibitive and even if some manufacturers continue to make the investment, the smaller teams are being priced out. For the good of the sport, we need to change and be aware of what is going around us.
From my side, what I do 100% know is that Casey leaving the Championship is leaving a huge hole. He is absolutely magical on a bike and able to ride fast no matter what the limitations of the machine and the track conditions. We all have to be very content that we have seen this amazing rider, one of the very best, not just in his own generation but in the history of the sport.
Ironically, looking back to Le Mans, the battle between Casey and Valentino was just what we had all been hoping for in MotoGP and I hope we see again before the chequered flag falls in Valencia.
Given that we now know he is not going to be around for much longer, unless there is a dramatic change of heart which I, personally, do not see happening, I encourage you all to enjoy the time that is left; respect him and support his presence. If it is the last opportunity to witness Casey Stoner at work, make the most of it!
On the subject of the last race, I want to mention Michael Schumacher who made an appearance at Le Mans. It was great to have the seven time Formula 1 World Champion there on race day and despite the weather, he was full of enthusiasm as I took him around.
Michael continues to watch MotoGP and ride a bike himself. During the MotoGP race we went to several corners to watch the action and as always, he appreciated the racing and the atmosphere. It was interesting to hear him comment on Caseys announcement, saying he thought Casey should take a sabbatical and come back in a few years. Now there is a man who knows.
I also want to applaud the French fans who showed Michael such respect everywhere he went. They really gave him a great reception, acknowledging his status in the world of racing.
Moving on, this weekend in Barcelona looks an intriguing prospect. Weather predictions are good for Friday and Saturday, with a chance of showers on Sunday. No matter what the weather brings, I am looking forward to the race and the continuing battle between Honda and Yamaha at the front and to see if Ducati really are making progress.
From Barcelona, I travel north to England on Sunday night to take part in a Riders for Health charity event on Monday, in Newcastle, with Bradley Smith, Niall McKenzie and his son Taylor. We will be riding there as part of the Gary Routledge Ride & Show (full details on www.riders.org) and then off to the Isle of Man for a demo lap around the famous TT Mountain Course and the launch of my new helmet design.
Ill let you know all about it next time.