In a few weeks Casey Stoner is due to ride the final race of his career. The Australian rider's decision to quit while at the top of the sport still seems surprising five months after he made the announcement.
So far, only two other premier-class World Champions have decided to get out of motorcycle racing while wearing the crown. At the end of 1960 John Surtees hung up his leathers to switch full-time to Formula 1. A year later Gary Hocking also quit, sick of his friends getting killed on bikes. Ironically, the Rhodesian died a few months later while driving a Lotus Climax.
Stoner's reasons for getting out are very different. Firstly, he hates MotoGP's new direction, away from fire-breathing prototypes towards cheaper, slower machinery. Secondly, he's had enough of racing. Stoner may only be 26 years old but he's been racing bikes for 23 of his 26 years. In other words, he's burnt out, by the politics, by the travelling, by the hassle.
Stoner first arrived in Grands Prix in 2002 as a wide-eyed 16-year-old. It was immediately obvious that he was a genius. True, he crashed a lot, but his technique and aggression were something to behold. He won victories in the 125 and 250 classes, then got his MotoGP chance in 2006, riding for the privateer LCR Honda team. He scored a pole position in only his second race, dazzled with his speed and crashed no less than 14 times.
At the end of that year Ducati took a chance on the fiery youngster. He wasn't their first choice but he hugely exceeded expectations, dominating the 2007 championship. Last season he moved to Honda and dominated once again. During these years Stoner has been much misunderstood. He has not been popular with fans because he doesn't seek their approval. A country boy from a humble background, he can't abide the limelight.
Former British championship contender Ian Newton helped the Stoner family after they had sold everything to come to Britain in 2000. "They arrived in this old Sherpa van and the tattiest little caravan you can imagine," Newton recalls. "They were gypsies, with not a pot to piss in."
Stoner grew up ruling the schoolboy dirt track scene in Australia. In Britain he won his first road race and kept on winning. When Newton suggested he wave to the crowd on his victory lap, Stoner declined. "He said, 'no, I'll feel a real dick'. So he was riding around, hiding inside his helmet, embarrassed with what he was doing."
Stoner's brilliance has only been magnified by Valentino Rossi's abject failure to win races on the Ducati. Many have their own theories about Stoner's technique – usually involving his use of the rear brake – but the man himself has always refused to reveal all.
All he will say is this. "You've got to forget everything you think you know. You can't be proud in the slightest about what you think you can do and you have to ride the bike how it needs to be ridden. You've got to succumb to the bike."
It's a huge shame that MotoGP is losing such a talent. Honda tried desperately to keep Stoner offering to double his salary, but he has too much contempt for the dramatic metamorphosis that is overtaking MotoGP, from control tyres and control ECUs to the decision to ban Moto2 and Moto3 riders from using motorhomes in the paddock. Most of all, he hates CRT bikes, the budget-priced, street-powered machines that lap 2.5sec slower than MotoGP prototypes. "It's like putting touring cars in F1," he sneers.
After the final race of 2012, Stoner will head home to the family farm in deepest New South Wales, far away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. He insists he will be happy there, bringing up his family, looking after his father's cattle and thrashing around on dirt bikes. "I like the quiet life," he says. "What I'm really looking forward to is putting socks in a drawer and actually getting them out of a drawer in the morning, rather than out of a suitcase. I've been living out of a suitcase for 12 years and I'm over it."