FIGHT! Whatever happened to MotoGP’s thrilling rivalries?


Rivalries define sport, so why has MotoGP run out of the head-to-head battles that used to fire up riders and fans?

Valentino Rossi and Max Biaggi

Rossi and Biaggi had a bitter rivalry and made sure they ignored each other, except when they were fighting, on or off track

Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

On the afternoon of June 17, 2001, Valentino Rossi and Max Biaggi were making their way to the podium at Barcelona-Catalunya, after finishing the MotoGP race first and second. As they climbed a narrow staircase towards the podium the two pumped-up racers, buzzing on adrenaline and mutual hatred, started throwing punches at each other.

Rossi’s team manager separated the pair and received a headbutt from Biaggi for his efforts. During the podium media conference half an hour later a journalist asked Biaggi, “What’s that mark on your face?”

“Mosquito bite,” Biaggi replied.

“It was like being at school, ‘He started it!’ ‘No, he started it!’ ‘No, he started it!’,” Rossi told me later that year. “Biaggi said that I started this f**king shit but it’s necessary to think about what happened before. I started the race from last and I arrived first at the flag, I made the fastest lap and I made a fantastic victory, so why would I want to make all that shit?”

“If they insist on riding like this I’ll bring a gun with me next year”

Biaggi told me that Rossi only whacked him after someone had got Biaggi’s arms behind his back. “That wasn’t nice, it was unfair,” he said.

Unfair or not, this was the grisly, golden rivalry that turbocharged the Rossi phenomenon and turned a lot of people on to MotoGP. And the nine-time world champion didn’t stop there: Sete Gibernau, Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez all became sworn enemies and vital parts of the Rossi story.

Eleven years before the Rossi/Biaggi brawl the fight for the 1990 125cc world championship went down to the final round at Phillip Island, where the title fight was a straight duel between Italian teenager Loris Capirossi and Dutch veteran Hans Spaan.

Well, not quite a straight duel, because Capirossi had team-mate Fausto Gresini and fellow Italians Doriano Romboni and Bruno Casanova fighting in his corner. Gresini, Romboni and Casanova did everything they could to screw with Spaan to make sure he didn’t win the title. Finally – and not surprisingly – Spaan lashed out at Gresini, punching his helmet as the gang sped towards what’s now Stoner corner.

Hans Spaan hits Fausto Gresini while racing at Phillip Island in 1990 125cc Grand Prix

Spaan lashes out at Gresini during the 1990 Phillip Island 125cc GP


“If they insist on riding like this I’ll bring a gun with me next year,” an enraged Spaan told Motocourse after losing the title by a few points. “It was not man against man – it was me against a football team.”

Spaan’s red-mist moment made TV news across the globe and people still talk about that race and that rivalry. Do they talk about the 1989 or 1991 Australian 125cc GPs? No.

Seven years before that, Freddie Spencer and ‘King’ Kenny Roberts fought arguably the greatest premier-class title of all time. Between them the pair won all 12 races, their battle effectively decided at the penultimate race at Anderstorp, Sweden, where Spencer out-braked Roberts at the last-but-one corner. Roberts tried to get into the corner in front, running wide and off the track, which allowed Spencer past.

From the archive

Roberts was raging after the race. “He ran me off the track and I don’t think he realised what might have happened,” he told Motocourse. Forty years later, Roberts still doesn’t like to talk about what happened that day.

This all-American rivalry certainly got the fans fired up.

“After Anderstorp it definitely felt like more of a war,” remembers Spencer mechanic Nick Davis. “Freddie had death threats at the last race at Imola, just because Kenny was so popular.”

These menaces came in the form of cards dropped into the back of the Honda garage.

“We weren’t sure there was anything real in it,” adds Davis. “But Freddie definitely kept away from everything as much as he could and, just in case, we used Freddie’s and Erv Kanemoto’s motorhome drivers [who did double duty as gofers and bouncers] on the start line to protect Freddie.”

In 1968 things got even nastier between British pair Phil Read and Bill Ivy. Both were factory Yamaha riders, contesting the 125 and 250cc world championships, with little serious opposition from elsewhere, so Yamaha decreed that both must ride to factory orders: Read would win the 125 title, Ivy the 250.

Bill Ivy and Phil Read at Assen TT in 1968

Read leads Ivy at Assen 1968. He obeyed team orders and let Ivy win this race but double-crossed his team-mate a month later


All went to plan until the Czechoslovakian GP around the old Brno street circuit, where Read wrapped up the 125 title. Hours later he dropped his bombshell – he was going to double-cross Ivy.

“As we lined up for the 250s I said to Bill, ‘Okay, if you think you can beat me when we’re riding to orders, well, now you’re going have to race me for it’. He said, ‘Ah, f**kin’ ‘ell, Phil’. So we raced, I won and he was second.”

Read secured the 250 title at the Monza season finale, where Ivy had one last, and somewhat crazed, attempt at making the crown his. He filed a protest against his team-mate, claiming that Read’s number plates didn’t comply with regulations. It didn’t work.

From the archive

(This particular rivalry ended tragically. After Monza Ivy quit bikes and went car racing. He took pole at his first Formula 2 race, ahead of three-time F1 champion Jackie Stewart, who said Ivy had “more natural ability than anyone I’ve seen coming into motor racing”. But Ivy needed money to subsidise his car career, so he accepted an offer from Czech factory Jawa to ride its fast but fragile 350cc V4 two-stroke, which seized during practice at the Sachsenring in July 1969. Ivy was killed in the ensuing crash.)

Great rivalries define sport – that’s the whole idea of sport, isn’t it? “Serious sport is war minus the shooting,” wrote author George Orwell. It’s a fight, whether it’s on a racetrack, a football pitch, or a tennis court.

So what’s happened to MotoGP’s great rivalries? The racing is closer than it’s ever been, which you’d think would create plenty of rivalry, but in fact there’s no real feuds or friction, no guns or handbags at dawn. Nothing for fans or the media to sink their teeth into.

Why is this? As usual, there’s a few reasons…

Many people suggest that today’s MotoGP riders are too nice, too PR-friendly, that they’ve been brainwashed by PR people not to say the wrong thing. There’s some truth to that.

Doohan Schwantz Kocinski and Rainey in 1991

Doohan, Schwantz, Kocinski and Rainey in 1991 – “the old dogs”, according to Rossi


Back in the days of Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz, Mick Doohan, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Gardner and John Kocinski the vibe was a bit redneck, with machismos bubbling over every weekend.

Rainey and Schwantz hated each other, Gardner and Doohan hated each other, they all hated Kocinski and Lawson was always angry with someone or something, presumably to fire him up for Sunday afternoons. And the fans chose their heroes and anti-heroes accordingly.

“The fans want duels, they want two or three riders fighting”

“They were the old dogs,” says Rossi. “I think in this time it was more like war than racing.”

Usually there’s always been an asshole or two on the grid – riders I really didn’t like because they treated you and others like pieces of faecal matter on the soles of their shoes. Not that I want all racers to be nice. It’s great to have one or two bad boys – idiots who behave like spoilt brats and say stupid shit.

Now, however, there’s not a single rider on the MotoGP grid that seems like an asshole; to me, anyway. They’re all friendly, happy to chat to mere mortals like journalists and they’re not slaves to their machismos. Until they climb aboard a motorcycle, of course.

And then there’s another thing. A while back Rossi explained that the price of opening your mouth nowadays is too high. “So you stay quiet,” he said.

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Instead of a few shock-horror headlines in a few newspapers a rider can create an internet storm, which whips itself into a whirlwind as thousands of fans and trolls hurl abuse at the riders, at each other and at anyone else that happens to wander into the crossfire.

Who would want to be in the centre of a storm like that? Especially the uproar that engulfed MotoGP at the end of 2015, which got so toxic that it stunned the entire paddock. These things are ugly, but more importantly they’re a distraction and a waste of energy for the riders.

And top racers have never been busier, nor under more pressure. When they’re on track they’re chasing hundredths and thousands of a second from FP1, so the risks of crashing have never been greater (crash statistics prove this trend). And when they’re off the bike they spend hours and hours – much more time than they spend on the bike – examining data and talking in technical meetings with their various engineers.

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Last year’s Valencia GP – can there be such a thing as too many rivals?


The days of sunny evenings having a barbie outside your motorhome or ambling around the paddock catching up with mates are long gone. “When you arrive home from a race you are destroyed,” Aleix Espargaró told me last year.

Therefore riders need to keep 100% focused, so they don’t want to spend mental and emotional energy on arguments.

Also, most riders have worked with sports psychiatrists, hoping to find an extra 1% of performance. Psychiatrists tell riders to always think positive, to never let negativity get inside their head. So riders just keep smiling and save the nastiness for the track, subtly if they can, not so subtly if they can’t.

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Finally, the current lack of great rivalries is also a result of MotoGP’s drive towards equalising machinery across the grid, so no one can have a massive technical advantage and the racing becomes closer and more exciting. Great idea, but even great ideas can have unintended consequences.

In 2020 there were nine different winners and the last two seasons had seven winners each. Compare that to 2001, when there were four winners, or 1983 when there were two, or the 1968 250cc championship when there were also two. Rivalries have been dissipated by the crowd of riders battling up front.

“The fans want duels, they want two or three riders fighting,” says VR46 rider Luca Marini, Rossi’s half-brother. “In the past our sport was so loved because of the duels between Vale and Biaggi, Vale and Gibernau, Vale and Lorenzo, Vale and Marc.

“I think the problem now is that there are 11 riders fighting for victory, so our rivalry is shared between ten or more riders. If you fight with only two or three riders your rivalry is only focused on those guys, so the rivalry will be more.”

It’s the same for the fans. When there are two or three riders fighting for a championship, getting gnarly with each other, fans can take sides and really get into it. When there’s many more riders it’s not so easy to find someone to love and someone to hate.