Mat Oxley

MotoGP's bad blood

Bitter rivalry and seething hatred are nothing new in motorcycle racing. In the 1950s some riders had a nasty habit of spitting at their goggled opponents during races. In the 1960s Phil Read famously told rival and team-mate Bill Ivy that he would ignore team orders, as they awaited the start at the deadly Brno street circuit. In the 1970s some fiendish racers liked to sabotage their opponents by summoning hookers to their hotel rooms in the early hours of race day. In the 1980s Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz admitted they “hated each other like school kids”. In the 1990s Schwantz was so desperate to destabilise John Kocinski he offered $10,000 to anyone in the paddock who would sleep with JK’s girlfriend.

The 2015 MotoGP season won’t be forgotten for a long time, for both wrong and right reasons. During the first 14 races the advantage swung this way and that between Yamaha team-mates Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo. The racing was usually edge-of-the-seat stuff. Rossi was the king of circumstances, always ready to adapt when conditions went awry. Lorenzo was the prince of speed, unbeatable when everything went his way.

By the time they flew to Australia for the first of the three flyaway races preceding the season finale in Valencia, Rossi held a narrowing points advantage. Phillip Island hosted one of the all-time great races: Rossi, Lorenzo, Marc Márquez and Andrea Iannone fighting a genuinely scary brawl at the fastest MotoGP track of them all.

And then everything changed. Rossi accused Márquez of helping Lorenzo, even though the reigning champion had overtaken his fellow Spaniard on the final lap. A few days later the nine times world champion renewed his attack during the pre-event media conference at Sepang. We all know what happened next. Márquez was enraged by Rossi’s comments, so he set about showing his former hero what he could really do to spoil his race.

Rossi lost his cool, just like Zinedine Zidane in the 2006 World Cup final. He had reasons, but he paid the price for running Márquez wide and causing him to crash.

Rossi wasn’t the only one to lose his cool. At Valencia series promoter Dorna cancelled the pre-event conference and Yamaha canned a party to celebrate the firm’s 60th anniversary. All was panic. No effort was made to bring the riders together to reduce the tension.

Márquez had been after Rossi for more than a few weeks. The pair’s collisions in Argentina and Assen had damaged the youngster’s hopes of a historic title hat-trick. “Valentino is really smart and taught us something,” he said after the Assen clash. “We must learn from it…”

In other words, Márquez was coming to get him. Rossi started the final race seven points in front of Lorenzo but eight rows behind, the penalty for his Sepang indiscretion. The only way Lorenzo was going to lose the title was if Márquez and/or Honda team-mate Dani Pedrosa beat him.

They didn’t. Lorenzo led from start to finish, chased all the way by Márquez, while Pedrosa caught them too late to have his say. A few laps more and the story might have been different.

So, was Márquez riding shotgun for Lorenzo? Those who suggest the race was a dirty fix point out that Márquez never launched a single attack on the leader; and he didn’t.

Rossi was so disgusted with the outcome he refused to attend the prize-giving. “When I knew I had to start from the back I knew already the championship was over. I’m sure Márquez wanted to finish his work and protect Lorenzo,” said the 36-year-old who lost the title by five points. “I’m not desperate [about losing the title] because I played the championship in the best way, but I’m sad for this finish. I was ready to lose to Jorge who is always very fast on track, but this way it’s not fair.”

Inevitably, most fans agree with Rossi. But not everyone in racing believes Márquez held Lorenzo’s hand. They point out that Valencia is MotoGP’s worst track for overtaking and they highlight the fact that every one of Lorenzo’s seven 2015 victories were start-to-finish performances. In other words, once he is in front, using his breathtakingly smooth and devastatingly fast cornering lines, he is difficult, if not impossible, to overtake.

Yamaha’s YZR-M1 improved significantly in 2015. After two years chasing Honda’s RC213V, it was the better bike. Márquez’s results bear this out. In 2014 he won a record 13 races and failed to finish once. In 2015 he won five races and crashed out of six. He never looked the same last season because the RCV was too skittish, so he couldn’t pivot it around the front tyre in corners. Whenever he did try to ride it loose, as he had done so heroically throughout 2015, he ended up in the gravel.

Fellow RCV rider Cal Crutchlow didn’t side with conspiracy theorists. “I know the Honda’s weak and strong points,” said the Briton. “At Valencia the bike didn’t have the traction to let him set up a pass into the next corner.”

And then there was Márquez’s rumoured £200,000 win bonus, which would surely have strengthened his resolve. In fact Márquez admitted he was cautious – he didn’t want to crash again or to wipe out Lorenzo.

Whatever the truth, the atmosphere in MotoGP is more poisonous than ever. Rossi, Márquez and Lorenzo now have several months to cool down, or alternatively to let their wounds fester some more. Much of the media is relishing the 2016 battle, but this isn’t boxing, this is 220mph motorcycle racing. Bad things can happen when emotions run too hot.