The Male Ego and Moto GP
The differences between men and women are most obvious in sports. Fueled by testosterone, men sometimes forget that the point is to win, and throw all caution and most functioning brain cells out the window in favor of destroying the opponent. I witnessed this several times in my decades of coaching young men and women. I saw it in the actions of the players, and occasionally in my own attitudes as the coach.
Today presented a classic in the Moto GP race at a track known as Sepang, in Malasia. (Spoiler alert – if you recorded this race for later viewing, stop now and come back after you’ve witnessed it)
The race set up was a classic Western gunfight in a B grade movie. You have Valentino Rossi, the cagey older veteran and 8 time champion, currently leading the points battle by a slim margin, with this race and the season finale to go. Up against him is Mark Marquez, the very young pretender to the throne with one world championship in this class on his resume.
Marquez, due to several forced and unforced errors earlier in the season, will not be able to be the championship this year. His partner on the Honda team is Danny Pedrosa, who will also not be the champion. Rossi’s partner on the Yamaha team in Jorge Lorenzo, who trails him by just a few points in the standings as the race opens.
The drama started several days ago with some trash talk. As a press conference, Rossi stated that Marquez had sandbagged a bit at the last race at Phillip Island, in order to help out Lorenzo. Marquez had the best bike at that race, and it seemed he could have pulled away at any time, but he kept the race close, which afforded some advantage to Lorenzo. (It’s complicated)
Rossi has been the champion of mind games for his entire career, and there is little doubt that he made his statements with the intent to create a furor. He succeeded, even though what he said is most likely correct. One is not supposed to dis the opposition in public statements in Moto GP.
As today’s race began, Pedrosa pulled out a small lead, which he maintained to the end to win the race. Lorenzo came in second. Rossi and Marquez began a battle for 3rd that soon took on epic proportions. Neither one had much to gain with a dangerous duel at speeds up to 200mph, but it soon became obvious to all that this battle had little to do with the points or even the championship. It was deeply personal, and obviously hostile.
Sometimes you’ll see motorcycle or car racers get into battles that take many laps with multiple passes, but there is always respect for the other driver and the contest is “clean.” In these sorts of races, the competitors often shake hands at the end of the race or even embrace, celebrating the joy of a grand battle fairly fought.
This was not like that. Each lap the riders made moves that were incredibly risky, passing late on the brakes, fairings rubbing together, tires sliding on the extreme verge of a crash. From a season championship view, this made little sense, as the two riders in front gradually pulled away. It takes a second or more off your pace each lap when you are riding like this.
For a while I thought I’d figured out Rossi’s plan. Marquez had some issues with front end grip in the opening laps, running wide on a couple of occasions and allowing Rossi to slip past. To counter this, he began braking very late and very hard coming into corners, the rear end of the bike slewing back and forth in wild slides as he fought to keep it under control. “Backing it in” in this fashion leads to increased tire wear, and I thought Rossi was merely going to wait for the end of the race, and then use the better rear traction his bike would have by then to pass and secure a 3rd place. To win the championship, Rossi would need to finish third in this race and just behind Lorenzo at the last race. He did not need to win, but just to manage his slim points lead over Lorenzo.
But no, the battle continued, and you just knew it would not end well. You cannot ride bikes this fast so close to the edge of disaster for an hour or more and not have something go south.
As it did. Rossi carved up Marquez going into a corner, and as he came out of the corner he let his bike run wide. Marquez, on the outside, would need to slow up or be run off the track. To my understanding of the rules, this is legal. Rossi was ahead of him at that point and the leader can use any line he wants.
As Marquez accelerated on the very outside edge of the track, Rossi looked over at him and let his bike drift further to the edge. What happened next will be discussed and debated and shouted about for quite some time. Rossi either let his bike hit Marquez’s Honda, or put his left leg out and actually kicked the front fork of the Honda, or shoved Marquez with his elbow. Even with multiple camera angles, they were so close and at such speed that it is hard to discern what actually occurred.
The result was clear to see. Marquez lost the front end, or had it taken away from him, and crashed out of the race. Rossi continued on to finish 3rd.
And now the rancor stepped up several more notches. The officials declared that the incident would be “under review,” and that their decision would be announced after the race.
To nobody’s surprise, the decision was not satisfactory. To anyone. It was decided that Rossi had been riding dangerously and would be fined. The fine had two parts. He would lose three championship points, which might or might not have an effect on the season, depending on the finishing order of Lorenzo and Rossi in the last race. But with that came a further penalty, in that Rossi would have to start last in the final race. This would put him about 20 positions or so behind Lorenzo, with the need to finish just behind him or ahead of him to win the title. He would have to pass many of the best riders in the world.
And he would have to pass Marquez, unless Marques was leading.
Rossi’s Yamaha team immediately appealed that decision, and the results of that appeal are not yet known. Marquez’ Honda team, of course, is adamant that Rossi should have been disqualified from this race, forced to sit out the final race, and perhaps be exiled to Bora Bora for 6 months. Or something like that.
Drama! All of this is good news for ticket scalpers for the last race, which will be the ultimate race of the season in terms of worldwide interest.
If you ever thought in your wildest fantasies that you could race a Moto GP bike, this race would set you straight. No – you could not. The sheer talent and raw guts were right there on the screen. There are only about a dozen people in the entire world who could handle this situation, and you and I are none of them.
Overall, I would have called it a racing incident. Fair? No. An example or rider skill on Rossi’s part? No.
However, his bike was ahead, and his actions, no matter how despicable, were legal in my view.
In NASCAR and some other forms of racing, egos and competition occasionally erupt in fights in the pits after the race. In Moto GP, the fights take place on the track. That is not necessarily good, but it is what it is.
Copyright 2015 David Preston