F Features

Mind Games

Bitter Rivalry Between Rossi and Stoner Brewing

In the minutes, hours and days following the conclusion of the United States MotoGP at Laguna Seca, the debate continued unabated: Was Valentino Rossi’s on-track treatment of Casey Stoner completely above board? Those who saw the race will know why this has become an issue.

Stoner_optAll the way through practice and qualifying at Laguna, Stoner seemed absolutely untouchable — the Ducati rider led every single session. Meanwhile, Rossi was pushing his team hard to reduce the disadvantage; Stoner came to America on the strength of three straight wins and the prospect of a fourth consecutive loss would’ve dealt Yamaha’s championship aspirations a tough blow.

Keenly aware of the situation, Rossi gritted his teeth and gave Stoner everything he could handle in the race — and more.

Stoner led from the start, but his rival stole back the lead with a slick pass at the Corkscrew. From there, the battle was on — the Australian using the superior power of the Ducati to pass in the short straights, the Italian fighting back with a series of tough block passes.

Zanardi Would Be Proud

Then came lap three at the Corkscrew. With Stoner ahead, Rossi passed into the notorious elevated turn, ran wide on the exit, skated across the gravel and came back onto the tarmac. This, in turn, forced Stoner to sit up when he was, no doubt, expecting to rocket past the recovering Rossi. No such luck – Rossi maintained the lead and Stoner followed, frustration building.

The move was reminiscent of Alex Zanardi’s pass of Bryan Herta at the same turn on the last lap of the Champ Car race in 1996. The Zanardi tactic —Pass_opt which has since become known simply as “The Pass” — was completely audacious and borderline dangerous.

There was every chance that Zanardi would’ve spun out on the gravel or spun out in front of Herta and taken them both off. But he didn’t. He returned to the track in front of Herta and went on to take the win. It’s worth noting that, from this point on in their respective careers, Zanardi absolutely owned Herta.

While only time will tell how Stoner will bounce back from the incident over the long term, his immediate responses revealed cracks in the armor.

After the Corkscrew pass, Rossi stuck to the only race strategy that could possibly work—– hold back a faster rider by staying on the racing line, going as fast as possible and retaking the lead immediately after losing it.

Meanwhile, the Aussie piled on the pressure before eventually succumbing to it himself. At Turn 11 with eight laps left to run, Stoner went wide, hit the gravel and crashed at low speed. He picked up the Ducati again, but any thoughts of victory had sailed out the window.

After the race, Stoner refused to shake hands with Rossi and later complained about the nature of the Italian’s racing: “I enjoyed a lot of the race, but I felt that some of the passes were a bit too much for me. I’ve been racing for a lot of years and have come through a lot of different ranks, and for me just a couple of passes were a little too much.”

The comments were, perhaps, justified — but in that they came from the second-place finisher, they seemed like sour grapes. In the wake of Stoner’s response, both Rossi and his team boss, Jerry Burgess, threw further psychological punches, making the Ducati rider seem like a whining baby, to put it very mildly.

Thrilled with the on-track result, Rossi brushed aside suggestions that his riding was dirty: “The Corkscrew was a great overtaking move! Sometimes it’s possible to make a mistake there, but the gravel had good grip!”

The joking served to completely reduce Stoner’s protestations and to remind everyone of how brutally tough Rossi can be when the mood strikes him.

The Doctor is Operating

When he first entered the MotoGP ranks, Rossi quickly usurped long-time rival Max Biaggi as the top Italian rider in the series. Rossi’s superior mental toughness induced Biaggi to make numerous mistakes when the Roman was leading or in a position to win a given race. With Rossi going on to Opening_optdominate year after year, Biaggi began to blame his teams for inferior equipment, something that eventually saw him booted out of the series and into World Superbike.

It was a similar story with another former rival, Sete Gibernau. He and Rossi were good-natured rivals until the Qatar Grand Prix in 2004, when the Italian’s qualifying times were disallowed after Gibernau’s team informed race officials that some grid spot tampering had taken place.

Rossi was furious at the suggestion that he needed to cheat to gain an advantage over another rider. The Italian went on to win the race and then later famously declared that Gibernau would never win again. Incredibly, despite riding for competitive teams from then until his retirement in 2006, Gibernau never did win another race, a number of his losses coming at the hands of Rossi, including a few late-race passes.

If anyone knows the importance of gaining a psychological edge over the competition, it’s Valentino Rossi. The Italian has proven to be
a master at this very thing during his career… we just haven’t seen this quality over the past two seasons. It’s no coincidence that, during this same period, rumours about Rossi’s future in MotoGP began to surface. Would he leave MotoGP for some form of car racing? Had he lost his burning desire to race after so much success?

At last, in the wake of the US GP, with a bitter rivalry between Rossi and Stoner brewing, the answers to these questions have emerged: the Doctor is still in.

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