Valentino Rossi has been through them all. He’s the ancient prize fighter who has taken out Max Biaggi, Sete Gibernau, Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo and the rest. His premier-class duels go so far back into racing history – all the way back to 2000 – that they cross generations. The same time span of 16 years would’ve had John Surtees taking on Barry Sheene, Mike Hailwood comparing genius with Freddie Spencer, Kenny Roberts doing battle with his own son, Wayne Rainey having a go with Casey Stoner and Mick Doohan with Marc Márquez. Hard to believe, but do the maths; it’s true.
The first racer who caused Rossi a real problem was Stoner – finally here was someone who had the sheer talent to beat the old master. Now there’s Márquez.
But Márquez is different from all the others. We’ve seen Rossi happily resort to getting physical when times get tough. None of his old rivals enjoyed returning the compliment, at least not on the racetrack. At Catalunya in 2001 Biaggi waited until after the race to get physical. He had just been made to look silly by his young upstart rival, who had come from way behind to steal the glory that should have been his. So on their way to the podium, Biaggi landed a head butt.
Gibernau, Stoner and Lorenzo never wanted to lock handlebars or land head butts, they just wanted to race bikes. The determination of Rossi and Márquez goes deeper, so deep that everything and anything can be countenanced in pursuit of victory.
Their attitude coincides with one of the greatest writers of the 20th century: George Orwell, author of Animal Farm,1984 and Homage to Catalonia.
‘Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play,’ wrote Orwell in 1945, after witnessing football matches in various far-flung countries. ‘It is… war minus the shooting.’
But don’t for a moment think that what happened in Argentina on Sunday was Rossi locking horns with Márquez. It was a racing incident, fair and square: both riders were somewhat disturbed by their collision at the hairpin, Rossi moved to the right to set himself up for the next left, Márquez underestimated the manoeuvre and tagged the rear of the Yamaha. And anyway, Márquez has initiated more than his fair share of paint-swapping in recent years.
After last season and winter testing, we knew Rossi had a chance of winning this year’s championship, but I’ll admit I thought the real title duel would be fought out between Márquez and Jorge ‘Mantequilla’ Lorenzo; in other words nutter versus butter. It turns out that instead that it will be nutter versus nutter. And I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense.
Most sponsors and their PR machines try to paint motorcycle racing as a shiny, pretty sport, but it is usually dirtier than that, and that’s the way I, and I think most fans, like it; up to a point, obviously. Some years ago when Troy Bayliss referred to Rossi as a maniac, after they had enjoyed a particularly fierce battle at Mugello, he did so with a smile on his face, meaning it as a compliment.
Now here we have two maniac magicians, both with their eyes on the glittering prize, both prepared to go further than anyone to get there. Where will it all end? Safely, I hope.
While Rossi and Márquez plan their next duel at Jerez – no doubt both recalling what they’ve done to rivals at the final hairpin – their engineers will be staying up late, making their brains hurt as they try to find the slightest technical advantage.
You could well attribute Rossi’s 110th Grand Prix victory and Márquez’s disastrous no-score to a simple case of correct tyre choice versus incorrect tyre choice. But better to go deeper than that.
At the end of last season Yamaha said it wanted to make its bike more like a Honda, while Honda said it wanted to make its bike more like a Yamaha. It’s corner speed versus stop-and-go.
So far, Yamaha seems to have made the greatest strides. It’s maintained its corner-speed advantage while somehow improving the bike’s in-and-out performance. Usually you can’t gain in one area without losing in another, but perhaps Yamaha’s done just that.
Its new seamless downshifter (it finally got there, years after Honda) has allowed Rossi to close right up on Márquez in the braking zone, where the youngster and his Honda RC213V were once incomparable. And the full seamless offers further benefits. By improving braking stability it reduces physical and mental demands on the rider, allowing him to spend what he saves elsewhere, as in a late surge to victory.
The Yamaha is also improved on corner exits, its 2015 geometry putting more load on the rear to give Rossi more acceleration traction.
We are set for a great contest for the championship. Perhaps never in bike racing history has there been such a contest where both riders have so much talent, intelligence, aggression and high technology on their sides.
Rossi is certainly the most intelligent motorcycle racer I’ve ever known, though Márquez comes very, very close and he’s still only a kid and still learning, as he proved on Sunday.
Both are very good at mind games – Rossi most famously – and psychological warfare may be something they deploy increasingly as their title fight rages on.
And, of course, when it comes to mind games you can say just as much by saying very little; so what exactly do you think Márquez was trying to say when he said this on Sunday evening? “I’ve always said that Valentino is my idol and my reference, so you always learn things from him.”