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Thursday, February 9, 2023

Colin Fraser: Rossi’s Departure, Stoner’s Return?

Colin Fraser

At the season-ending MotoGP round at Valencia, on November 14, Yamaha’s living legend Valentino Rossi made his much-discussed final start at the top echelon of two-wheeled competition.

The 42-year-old placed tenth, a brilliant effort at a track he doesn’t care for. His best result of 2021 was eighth, in the rain, in Austria.

Rossi’s career in the top categories – including the long-gone former hierarchy of 125cc G.P., 250cc and 500cc G.P. classes – spanned 432 races. He spent 26 years at the top of his craft.

He earned 115 victories across all the categories, 235 podiums and nine World titles. He also won 11 races in one season, a remarkable four times.

The expectant father of a pending daughter, Rossi’s yearly debate regarding the continuation of his career finally wound up this season. Now riding for the satellite Petronas team geared towards developing talent, Rossi was only occasionally able to run competitively.

For a long time, any consideration of a retirement by ‘the Doctor’ would send his legions of fans off the deep end on social media. But things have changed. The new generation of racers have put on quite a show in the past two ‘pandemic years,’ helped by the absence of the next-gen Rossi; Honda’s injured Marc Marquez.

The peak of Rossi’s power, both on and off-track, might have been the winter of 2003-2004, when he left his title-winning Honda team for a big money deal with Yamaha. At the time, Yamaha hadn’t shown well with the new four-stroke era of MotoGP.

When MotoGP switched to four-strokes in 2002, factory Honda rider Valentino Rossi kept on winning with the all-new v-5 RC211V. CREDIT: Honda Racing

That all changed when Rossi, and his taken-from-Honda tuner Jerry Burgess, won the opening round of 2004 for Yamaha, making Rossi the first star to win consecutive races on two different makes of bikes! Rossi went on to score two consecutive premier titles with the YZR-M1.

At the final Spanish race, it was good that Yamaha’s Fabio Quartararo had already clinched the 2021 title, such was the post-race focus of attention on Rossi. A video ran during the cool-off lap of a variety of celebrities, beyond MotoGP (including Keanu Reeves), congratulating Rossi, as well as some of his long-gone rivals.

One comment came from former World Champ Casey Stoner, at the track in a consulting role with former employer Ducati. Beneath a still image of Stoner was the text, “my respect for you has never changed.”

This is either the gentlest of compliments, or some top-level sarcasm.

Rossi was famous for establishing rivalries with other competitors, sometimes before he had ever actually raced wheel-to-wheel with the individual targeted by Rossi’s laser focus. He was out to get Max Biaggi, early in Rossi’s premier class years, and also put a successful curse on then-Honda leader Sete Gibernau.

Maybe his most famous rivalry, other than a failed battle with Marquez in 2015, was with Stoner. I was at Laguna Seca in 2008 when Rossi pulled of one of the most impressive passes of all time in the Corkscrew.

At the time, Rossi was so popular, the move so over the top, that everyone – except for Stoner – went crazy with excitement.

As with Gibernau and Biaggi, Stoner couldn’t understand why no one wanted to hear his side of the story, let alone take his side or consider a punishment or sanction for Rossi.

Most of us have, at some point, learned to accept this sort of situation and learn from it. But this is not the way Stoner views things.

Australian Stoner left MotoGP early, plagued by health issues and a sometimes-mentioned subtext that those closest to him sometimes let Stoner down when he needed help most.

He took the World Championship on a Bridgestone-shod Ducati in 2007, and then for Honda in 2011. He retired at the end of 2012, at just 27 years old, citing a host of issues with the structure and future of the sport.

In 2015, Stoner competed at the prestigious Suzuka Eight Hour Endurance race on a works Honda, but suffered a frightening crash due to a stuck throttle. Stoner suffered serious injuries to his ankle and shoulder and fell out with Honda in the very-public aftermath.

Gradually, Stoner made up with Ducati, after an earlier, very public falling out in 2010. In late 2021, just as Rossi was completing his farewell tour, Stoner reappeared in the MotoGP paddock, helping with factory Lenovo Ducati pilots Pecco Bagnaia and Jack Miller.

Two time MotoGP World Champion Casey Stoner joined the factory Ducati team late in 2021 to coach Pecco Bagnaia and Jack Miller. CREDIT Ducati Media House

“It’s fantastic to have Casey at the last two Grand Prix,” explained Miller in Portugal. “He’s got a family and lives on the other side of the world, so the idea of him working here is hard, logistically.

“But I’d be all for him continuing with us next year, 100%,” continued fellow Aussie Miller. “As Bagnaia explained, it’s really nice having him (Stoner). I’ve worked with spotter on the track and he’s not a normal spotter; let’s just say that!

“It’s Casey Stoner, a legend, one of the best ever. But I think it’s something that we’re missing in Ducati’s program, and I think it’s maybe something we need to introduce. I’m not saying we can get Casey, but I’m more than happy to have him.”

Meanwhile, Stoner seems serious about a return to the MotoGP paddock, coincidentally just as Rossi heads off to race cars – although Rossi’s new Ducati team and army of development riders are still very much a part of MotoGP’s future.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I finished my career – but it’s not as easy as it sounds,” confirmed Stoner at the penultimate World Championship counter. “I feel I have a lot to give, I have a very unique insight, I suppose.

“I know what it takes to be fast, and I also know how and why things happen. If I was given this information when I was earlier in my career it would have saved me a load of time learning it later on.”

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