Mat Oxley – MotoGP

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The men behind the visors

One of the delights of motor sport is that the competition is not always about macho beefcakes. The most important muscle in the motor sportsman’s body is the thinking muscle, which is why geeks and nerds have always taken their chances to become champagne heroes on the race tracks of the world.

Look at Honda’s MotoGP title hope Dani Pedrosa; at five foot two he looks like an earnest college kid working out some complex physics conundrum, which, of course, is exactly what he is doing. Nevertheless, it’s a wonder that the eight-stone Spaniard can control a 150kg motorcycle at 210mph.

Pedrosa is one of four men fighting for this year’s MotoGP World Championship. Not one of this gang fits the tough guy biker stereotype. Reigning champion Valentino Rossi is tall and willowy, Casey Stoner seems way too squeaky clean to be a bad boy biker; only Rossi’s upstart team-mate Jorge Lorenzo has something of the street about him.

Pedrosa and Stoner are the anti-heroes of the bunch: uncomfortable with fame, ill at ease with fans and deeply suspicious of the media, their podium faces usually a twisted mix of post-race joy and anguished embarrassment. They are racers, not performers.

“I am here to race and this is what I want to do and the rest of it is just murder to me,” says Stoner, who destroyed Rossi to win the 2007 MotoGP title on his mega-fast Ducati. “Some people enjoy the media but I hate attention, I hate people talking about me. It’s really something I dislike, it’s difficult for me to handle. I’d really just prefer to be a little mouse in a corner, forgotten about.”

Pedrosa has had plenty of criticism for his downbeat public persona. Some of his detractors call him gloomy; too much thinking, perhaps. Others call him ‘Pedrobot’, because he is better at relentlessly grinding out robotic lap times than he is at racing tooth and nail.

Pedrosa insists he’s not gloomy: “Just because I don’t always smile doesn’t mean I’m not enjoying myself. I think some racers smile but they don’t enjoy racing as much as me. I feel that some of them show another face when they are off the bike.”

The former 125 and 250 World Champion is taking a well-aimed shot at crowd-pleasing rivals Rossi and Lorenzo, who mix genius race craft with a talent for show business. Rossi was the one who started it all, bringing an element of pantomime to his post-race celebrations: popping into a marshal’s trackside Portaloo halfway through a victory lap or celebrating his first MotoGP title in Rio de Janeiro with members of his fan club wearing Brazil’s World Cup-winning football kit.

“We usually decide the ideas in a bar in Tavullia [Rossi’s hometown) at two in the morning!” says motorcycling’s one and only superstar. “When I started winning GPs we decided we should try to make some big fun, because back then all the riders were very, very serious. We just wanted to do something new to show the big emotion of winning races.”

Rossi’s early celebrations were guileless displays of teenage exuberance but over the years they’ve developed into something more artful; he has used the elaborate melodramas to attack the media for giving him a hard time, to laugh at his rivals and occasionally to laugh at himself.

No wonder then that Lorenzo had his own victory routine well rehearsed when he came into MotoGP last year. His ‘Lorenzo’s Land’ skit is a constant: he collects a Lorenzo-logoed flag from a flunky, swaggers into a gravel trap, falls to his knees and plants the flag like he’s some kind of Conquistador. Every GP he wins is another country conquered. “I think every rider wants to conquer the world,” he says. “It’s not a serious idea, it’s a joke, but I think it’s fun and I think it looks good.” Of course it’s corny, just like Rossi’s antics, but the fans seem to enjoy the theatre.

Lorenzo’s ultimate desire is to eclipse Rossi, both on the race track and in global profile. His off-track persona is certainly studied – last year he attended drama school in London – but on track he’s no poseur, he is really a pretender to Rossi’s crown. The youngest of the four at just 22, Lorenzo might well be Rossi’s greatest rival this year if he can avoid the bone-crunching mistakes that blighted his debut season in MotoGP. When he stays on board he has a habit of taking races by the scruff of the neck and making his rivals look second-rate.

Rossi is the oldest and definitely the wisest of the four. He turned 30 earlier this year, having won more elite-class GPs and earned more money than any bike racer in history. The hunger is still there but one wonders how long he will be prepared to keep taking risks to beat his youthful rivals, all of them already stunningly fast and getting older and wiser with every race. For the moment at least he has equipment on his side, though so too does team-mate Lorenzo, because Yamaha’s YZR-M1 is currently the best all-round performer in MotoGP.

The usually meek and mild Pedrosa has grown horns this year, his glass-smooth riding style more angry and animated, perhaps his own way of reacting to rumours that he may lose his ride to Lorenzo if he doesn’t start winning more races. The two Spaniards don’t like each other, so much so that they received a personal telling-off from King Juan Carlos on last year’s Spanish GP podium.

Stoner is arguably the fastest of them all when things go his way, but the feisty Aussie sometimes struggles to control his fiery, fickle Ducati. Under pressure from Rossi last year, he rediscovered the crashing habit that had tainted his earlier seasons in GPs. Keeping an ice-cool head under brain-boggling pressure may well be the crucial factor as this four-way title fight moves towards its climax.

*****

One-make Moto2: A sign of the times?

Motorcycle racing will have its first World Championship powered by a single engine supplier next year. Honda will provide engines for the new Moto2 series, and what’s more, the engines won’t be racing units, they will be sourced from the marque’s top-selling CBR600RR road bike.

The announcement was greeted with horror by purists, but organising body Dorna insists the radical transformation is vital in a time of spiralling costs and plummeting sponsorship. The CBR engines will be owned, maintained and transported by the series organisers, then randomly distributed at each event. Dorna hopes that teams will be able to put a competitive Moto2 bike on the track for about £100,000, whereas the current 250 class is ruled by machines leased for £650,000 per annum.

Shuhei Nakamoto, vice-president of Honda Racing Corporation and formerly Honda’s F1 boss, explained the rationale behind its involvement: “Honda is the leading company in motorcycles so it is one of our responsibilities to help maintain racing. MotoGP costs a lot and we don’t want another expensive class. If the engine spec was free then another engine development war would happen and costs would go up and up.”

*****

Red devil humbles Hayden

Ducati’s fiery MotoGP bike is strengthening its reputation as a man-eater, with the factory’s latest signing Nicky Hayden (above) struggling at the back of the pack. Marco Melandri had a similarly disastrous 2008 aboard the blood-red machine; this year the talented Italian is enjoying something of a renaissance with Kawasaki.

The Ducati is a conundrum – lightning-fast in the hands of Casey Stoner but way off the pace in the hands of other riders. The Italian factory had hoped that Hayden’s dirt track racing background would stand the 2006 MotoGP champ in good stead, but it hasn’t worked out like that.

Hayden says he doesn’t get the feeling he needs to be fast. “Sometimes it’s okay, so I push harder, then I’m off line or in the dirt,” explains Nicky, who finished outside the top 10 in the first five races of ’09. “I can’t get the bike turned for the corner exit, so I’m accelerating on the side of the tyre, which makes the rear end pump really bad. It makes racing tough – when you’ve been World Champion and you see P17 on your board, it takes the fun out of it.”

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