The psyche of most racers is a precarious thing. Their confidence is like a magician’s conjuring trick – it can disappear in a puff of smoke. There’s something almost spiritual or hallucinatory about that inner belief: one moment it’s definitely there, though you’re not really sure why, then the next it’s gone, like you never had it in the first place and like you may never find it again.
Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo currently stand on the opposite sides of that trick of self-confidence (or self-delusion if you prefer). Confidence builds confidence which builds confidence. That’s where Rossi stands right now. Lack of confidence diminishes confidence which then further reduces confidence. That’s where Jorge Lorenzo sits huddled now.
These are upward and downward spirals and that’s the really tricky thing: finding the right part of that spiral to place your racing psyche and keep it there – week in, week out – is mostly impossible. Wayne Rainey – 500 world champion in 1990, ‘91 and ‘92 – was better at maintaining his psyche than most, but he also had team boss King Kenny Roberts on hand to help.
“When Wayne was down I was someone to talk to and lift him back up,” remembers Roberts, who won his own hat trick of 500 crowns in ‘78, ‘79 and ‘80. “And when he was too high I was somebody to say, ‘hey asshole! Just back her down a bit.’”
Beyond often complex technical reasons, this psychological fragility is why riders’ results improve or worsen apparently without reason. It’s also why it’s impossible to judge what’s going on in a racer’s mind.
Figuring the riders out
Trying to work out what’s going in a MotoGP racer’s brain is a matter of guess work unless you know them intimately (which neither you nor I do). So, when Rossi broke his leg at Mugello in 2010 I believed he might quit, because that’s what I would’ve done.
If I’d won nine world titles and 105 GPs and was getting fed up having the shit kicked out of me every few weeks, I would have stopped: thanks everyone, I’ve had a great time, now it’s time to slow down, swap speed for comfort, and continue having a nice time on my sofa. But I’m not Rossi, so I was wrong on that one.
It was the same with his rather sad 2013 season. Despite some good results, Rossi must surely have sensed that he had turned that corner and was on that downward path that’s been walked by so many heroes as their results drift from dazzling to gloomy. The racer in decline struggles on as his results diminish, his sponsors stop kissing his arse and his fans quietly disappear.
So why not just park the bike now, when you can still walk though the paddock with your head held high, count your Babylonian riches in the bank and have a few glasses of wine with lunch? And most importantly, serenely contemplate the fact that you won’t soon be limping up the steps of the Clinica Mobile, where doctors will stick a dozen needles into the back of your broken left hand, hopefully without hitting a nerve, then send you back to your pit, where your mechanics will pat you on the back and you will climb stiffly aboard your 215mph motorcycle, hoping to keep it on the race track more successfully than you did last time.
If I was Rossi I know exactly where I’d be: I’d be someone warmish, reclining in a nice old mansion with a Francis Bacon on the wall and a cellar full of fine wines, wondering about slipping into my swimmies for a quick dip in the pool. But I’m not Rossi.
If Rossi’s renaissance – the result of a new crew chief, and a revised and improved chassis – continues, then Hollywood will be dusting off the script of the biopic that was rumoured to be under development a few years back. He’s been the king, he’s been downtrodden and now he’s fighting back, it’s pure Hollywood.
But if I was the screenwriter I’d use a little artistic licence: I’d forget his grim two seasons with Ducati and replace them with a couple of out-of-control years lived in the back streets of Milan, scoring cocaine off the Latin American drug-packing glitterati and getting into all sorts of scrapes with various beautiful women.
Back to reality… So, Rossi has exceeded my expectations and I must eat my recent words that suggested he’s past his sell-by date. Qatar 2014 was great, but he battled at the front there last year, so that result didn’t get me very excited. Austin and Argentina were worse, suggesting another summer of chasing vainly after podium finishes, the only result that makes racers really happy at the end of a weekend.
When VR took a very close fourth in Argentina I mentioned to one of his coterie that he must’ve been happy to finish just 1.6 seconds off the podium. I got a filthy look and was informed that “Valentino went into this season with the expectation of finishing races on the top step of the podium, not a few seconds off the bottom”.
Next came Jerez, where he comfortably dismissed challenges from Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo – two guys he’s hardly beaten in four seasons – to finish second to Marc Márquez. Then Le Mans, where he fought his way to the front, opened a gap, tried a bit too hard on the brakes, made a mistake and let Márquez through. Heck, if it wasn’t for that whippersnapper, he would’ve won the last two races and be on his way to securing his 10th world title!
The Le Mans post-race press conference was an entertaining love-in between the two. As downtrodden members of the media, we have to endure many excruciating press conferences where riders who clearly hate each other let their PR training do the talking, so they mouth platitudes, smile thinly at each other and tell lies about their mutual respect. At Le Mans it was great to see two riders who genuinely like and respect each other, both for their personality and their racing prowess.
Rossi swooned over the 21-year-old champ, laughing at the kid’s genius, finding genuine delight recalling the brief few moments he had spent with the champ during the race. He laughed, then remembered that the next race is Mugello and added that he wished he could be 22 years old again, so he could fight with Márquez.
Márquez, who knows full well that a really psyched-up 35-year-old racer can easily turn himself into a 22-year-old for a few days, laughed and replied, “At Mugello, Valentino will be 22 years old again!”
Mugello will be a road block: it will be Rossi’s 300th race and the first time since 2010 that he’ll go into his home GP with a chance of winning. He will surf on a tidal wave of confidence, stirred up by the worshipping masses who know that if this isn’t his last chance, it can’t be far off.
Márquez on the other hand may be just a tiny bit reticent. He had by far his worst weekend last year at Mugello, when he crashed four times in three days, including a 209mph get-off in practice and his only DNF of the season.
And then there’s Lorenzo, winner at Mugello for the last three years. At Le Mans, Rossi suggested that Lorenzo has dug himself into a hole of frustrated negativity, because the 2010/12 champ started this season convinced that he would be fighting to steal the title back from Márquez. The shock of the first five races – just one podium and now 80 points behind his young rival – has destabilised his psyche and left him struggling to reach the podium, which brings its own problems.
Last year lightning-quick starts were a vital weapon in Lorenzo’s armoury – he won six of his eight races leading from lap one to the chequered flag – but this year he finds himself jostling with the pack and he’s no good at that. What Lorenzo needs to go fast is a clear road ahead of him, so he can carve his astonishing cornering lines without getting tripped up. Without clear track ahead he’s lost and he admitted so on Sunday. “When I’m in sixth place it’s not the same, I struggle to be smooth,” said Lorenzo.
If Lorenzo sorts his head out in time, if Rossi continues to surf his wave of confidence and if Márquez doesn’t clear off and make everyone look silly, Mugello could be the race of the year at the track of the year.