The Sepang incident

by Mat Oxley on 27th October 2015

I wish Hunter S Thompson was still alive for many reasons. I particularly wish he had been at Sepang, because no other writer could have written better about MotoGP’s weirdest weekend.

Thompson’s most famous novel – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – had his alter-ego Raoul Duke covering the Mint 400 motorcycle race outside Las Vegas. Thompson also did newspaper work, covering the Watergate hearings that led to the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency.

On the Watergate job the gun-toting acid casualty spent most of his time in the hotel swimming pool, doing lengths and occasionally stopping at one end, where he had placed a portable TV and a bottle of bourbon. The hearings were broadcast live, so whenever the coverage suggested things were about to get interesting, Thompson made his way over the road to the courtroom and took his reserved seat, no doubt scaring colleagues with his fumy breath.

What would Hunter have made of Sepang? The weekend had everything that got him excited: speed, paranoia, a fight and explosions (at up to 16,000 a minute).

I see him doing lengths in the hotel swimming pool, then hurriedly wrapping a towel around his torso and bursting into the pre-event press conference that changed everything, cigar in one hand, glass of bourbon in the other.

He would’ve stood there, blinking against the TV spotlights, slack-jawed in wonder as he listened to the GOAT attempt to dismantle a troublesome young talent sat just a few feet away.

Was this genius or madness? Was he demolishing Márquez or was he laying the foundations of his own destruction?

No one would know until Sunday when, to borrow a few of Hunter’s sports-writing words, the riders’ “nerves burned like open sores on a dog’s neck. White knuckles. Wild eyes. Strange fluid welled up in their throats, with a taste far sharper than bile”.

And then the fans. “By noon, many were weeping openly, for no apparent reason. Others wrung their hands or gnawed on the necks of pop bottles, trying to stay calm. Many fist-fights were reported in the public urinals.”

From around 3.11pm local time, we all saw the result of Rossi’s attack on Márquez. If the Spaniard hadn’t been a grim enemy before Sepang, he certainly was now.

On Thursday Rossi had accused Márquez of racing against him and for Lorenzo at Phillip Island. Maybe, but there’s no rule against riders helping each other, it’s just something that racers sometimes have to deal with. Top racers also have big egos, so if you ask them to stop doing something, they will do the opposite.

Later, Rossi wondered aloud whether Márquez had ever been his fan. But who can forget the grin of the awed 15-year-old when he met Rossi at Catalunya in 2008? Márquez had begged a Spanish journalist and photographer to make the introduction, so he could present Rossi with a Scalextric racing car. At Sepang in February I asked the 22-year-old if he was still a fan. Yes, he said, and he told me he still visited his local newsagent every now and then to buy the latest Rossi motorcycle miniature. We asked him again at Motegi, the weekend before Phillip Island, and he insisted he was still a fan.

I think that last comment was diplomacy more than anything and I’m sure his local newsagent sells less Rossi miniatures than before. Rossi’s Sepang outburst (which he later admitted was a mistake) didn’t dismantle Márquez, it rubbed salt into an open wound that had been festering since their clashes in Argentina and at Assen. Both racing incidents, in my opinion, but all racers think they are right all of the time.

Thus what happened on Sunday was just the latest event of a chain that goes back to Rio Hondo in April. And even before then both men knew they would not remain fan’s hero and hero’s fan forever. Their first duel at Qatar 2013 may have appeared joyous, but if it was a dream come true for Márquez, it was an emerging nightmare for Rossi. Just another young upstart to deal with, or as Marco Melandri once put it: Valentino is your friend until you start beating him. Fair enough, how could it be otherwise?


Rossi and Melandri at Mugello, 2005

The Sepang race told us that Rossi’s Thursday onslaught had enraged his young rival. Then Rossi got mad because Márquez wasn’t obeying the unwritten racers’ rule that says you don’t interfere with someone fighting for a championship when you have no part in it. But in Márquez’s mind, Rossi had already torn up that unwritten contract. After all, Argentina had been the beginning of the end of his quest for a historic MotoGP title hat trick.

And anyway, Márquez is paid by HRC to win races, and if he can’t win then his job is to achieve the best possible finish. If he had surrendered to Rossi the race would have ended with two Yamahas and one Honda on the podium, not two Hondas and one Yamaha – a significant difference, if you’re Honda.

From the archive: Mat Oxley ponders whether Rossi's truly the greatest (2010)

Márquez fought for position like a man fighting for his life, like he always does. And Rossi fought back, like he always does. It was edge-of-the-sofa stuff; the kind of battle we’ve enjoyed on many occasions, in a scary sort of a way. But no rules were broken.

Until lap seven. Rossi believed Márquez was antagonising him. He was probably correct. Then he maddened the youngster even more when he gesticulated at him, like a man waving away an annoying insect.

Unsurprisingly, none of this had the desired effect. Then Rossi did what he’s never done before: he lost the plot. Many people believe his actions were justified because of Márquez’s onslaught, just as many believe Zinedine Zidane was justified in head-butting an opponent in the 2006 World Cup Final, or that David Beckham was justified in kicking another player in the 1998 World Cup. But you can’t do that.

Well, you can, but you’re not going to get away with it. There are hundreds of millions of people watching, some of them with a big, fat rulebook in their hands. You’ve got to deal with it. You’ve got to suck it up and find your revenge later: quietly, subtly, cleverly.

What happened when they collided is largely irrelevant, at least until Márquez fell. Rossi didn’t kick Márquez any more than Márquez head-butted Rossi, as the only camera angle that offers worthwhile evidence (the heli-cam) bears witness.

But slowing down and looking at Márquez while riding ever closer to the edge of the track was way too blatant, whatever the provocation. Rossi was no longer racing, he had slowed down for a wee chat.

MotoGP’s race direction usually forgives a rider who makes an over-optimistic lunge on a rival and hurtles into the corner too fast, making contact, because rubbing is racing. But this wasn’t rubbing. It wasn’t even racing.

So, Rossi reaped the whirlwind he had sown on Thursday. And the punishment wasn’t so heavy: three penalty points that made a total of four (the other for an earlier indiscretion) which means he must start Valencia from the back row of the grid.

To put it in context, when Jorge Lorenzo knocked down Alex de Angelis at Motegi in 2005 he had to sit out the next race (a story he never tires of telling us). When Marco Simoncelli took out Dani Pedrosa at Le Mans in 2011 he was given a ride-through penalty that dropped him to fifth. And both those actions were very nearly normal racing incidents. What happened on Sunday was anything but.

Valencia permutations

Where Rossi needs to finish in relation to Lorenzo to win the championship:

Lorenzo 1st/Rossi 2nd
Lorenzo 2nd/Rossi 3rd
Lorenzo 3rd/Rossi 6th
Lorenzo 4th/Rossi 9th
Lorenzo 5th/Rossi 11th
Lorenzo 6th/Rossi 12th
Lorenzo 7th/Rossi 13th
Lorenzo 8th/Rossi 14th
Lorenzo 9th/Rossi 15th 

Sadly, Hunter S Thompson won’t be at Valencia. I think he would enjoy it. The championship is still open, but not as open for Rossi as it would’ve been if he had maintained control on Sunday. Once again, much will depend on the Hondas. There’s no doubt HRC will tell Márquez it wants a 1-2 at the last race, because they don’t want to get any more involved in this palaver. And Márquez needs to beat both Yamahas for his own reputation.

However, Lorenzo will be hard to beat. He knows he really needs to do better than third, because then Rossi will take the title if he finishes sixth, a not impossible target from the back row, even though Valencia is far from his favourite track. Lorenzo’s starts are astonishingly good and no one can match his speed on still-cool tyres, which will be even more important (and riskier) at cooler Valencia. If he does have a perfect first lap or two, then the title will surely be his. It’s hard to imagine the crowd reaction…

None of what happened at Sepang changes the fact that Rossi is almost certainly the greatest bike racer of all time. But at around 3.16pm at Sepang he made a major error of judgement. He did the crime and next week he will do the time. Now we should all move on.

From the archive: May Oxley on just what makes Márquez so special (2014)

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