Round 4 of the 2012 MotoGP season, Thursday morning and the customary riders press conference starts the weekend off. These events, scheduled prior to every race weekend, usually serve to provide broadcasters with a few minutes for their respective sports sections, while promoting that the small boys with the big balls are back in town. While the talking point to any Grand Prix weekend usually comes on Sunday, rarely is it achieved before a bike hits the track. As it was in France however, the announcement from Casey Stoner that he would retire from the sport at the end of the 2012 season would be hard to beat. In an era of motor racing punctuated by the increased longevity of drivers and riders alike, the announcement has stunned the world of motor sport. So what has caused the 26 year-old Australian double world champion to give the sport away and how does Stoner’s decision reflect on the current and future state of the MotoGP championship?
The announcement from Stoner was not completely out of the blue, only two weeks previously, Stoner had dismissed claims that he was contemplating retirement from the sport. While dismissing the claims, Stoner made it very clear that he did not intend to continue his career beyond his 30s. It is with this comment ever-present in the minds of the media that made Stoner’s announcement so surprising.
The press conference revealed three things about Stoner’s decision. Firstly, this was not a decision arising from the danger in the sport or the recent death of Marco Simoncelli, secondly it was not a decision made as a result of his marriage and the birth of his daughter in February this year, and finally Stoner had given the decision some serious consideration.
It was the blunt honesty with which Stoner addressed the media that made his retirement resemble that of a protest rather than a statement. In a very telling part of his brief speech, Stoner lashed out at the recent decisions made by series promoter Dorna in introducing ‘Claiming Rule Teams’ or ‘CRT’ which has permitted non-prototype bikes to race against the factory and non-factory prototypes in an effort to ensure full grids and to reduce costs for the teams in the sport. As early as November last year Stoner had stated that the new rules would “be disappointing for me and I don’t know if I want to be a part of it.”
When you look at the current state of the current championship it’s not hard to see that MotoGP appears to have found itself in another state of transition. Just as in 2002 with the gradual introduction of the 4 stroke 990cc engine, the field is currently divided into two distinct categories; those with prototype machines and those who wish they has prototype machines. Such is the understanding of the inferiority of the CRT bikes that at the conclusion of a race, the lead CRT bike is positioned alongside the top 3 finishers in parc ferme. MotoGP Is not the only motor sport to have it’s grid divided by technical discrepancy. In 1987 the infamous Jim Clark Trophy was awarded in Formula 1 to the highest scoring normally aspirated car on the grid. Unsurprisingly, neither the teams or the drivers competing for the cup shared very little in common with the Scottish double world champion for whom it was named after, the cars would break down like Clark’s but were certainly not in positions of dominance at the time. However, the division of Formula 1 during the late 80s went largely unknown due to the quality of the racing at the front of the field and the relatively small number of under-powered cars.
Being of a similar age to Casey Stoner, it’s not hard to think of the kind of racing that attracted the Kurri Kurri kid to the sport. The mid to late 80s would see heroes like Gardner, Mamola, Spencer, Lawson, Rainey, Schwantz and Doohan competing in a manner that opitimised the thrill and excitement that simply was “the 500s”. This era could be said to have peaked with the win by Wayne Gardner at the 1990 Australian Grand Prix and come to an abrupt end when Wayne Rainey was left paralysed from the waist down following an innocuous crash while leading at the Italian Grand Prix in Misano. It is somewhat difficult to pinpoint the change that has occurred in the appearance and appeal of modern day Grand Prix motorcycle racing but if I were to pinpoint one thing it is that the bikes do not appear to move around on the track as much as they used to. Whether this is as a result of improved engineering particularly in the electronics, simply better riders or a combination of both is hard to tell.
In defence of Dorna and it’s boss Carmelo Ezpeleta, the unwillingness of motorcycle manufacturers to compete in MotoGP due to the global financial crisis, is something that is completely out of their control. However, the decision to introduce CRT bikes will have a long-lasting impact on the make-up of MotoGP in the years ahead. It is somewhat surprising that neither Yamaha nor Honda is able or willing to provide more prototype bikes to independent teams as it is not as though there is a lack of interest in the championship. In both Moto2 and Moto3, the feeder categories to MotoGP, the grids are enormous with a large majority of the bikes emblazoned with a range of sponsorship from all parts of the world. It would appear that greater attention should be given to reducing the cost of the sport rather than the quality of the machinery competing.
Conversely, in the channel ten coverage of the Spanish Grand Prix, former 500cc runner-up Darryl Beattie, on the issue of the CRT bikes competing in MotoGP, indicated that even with a full grid of prototype bikes as was the case in 2004 when Suzuki, Kawasaki and Aprillia all had factory teams in the premier class, you would still have the same three of four riders dictating terms at the front of the field. Despite this however, it would appear that for Stoner, the notion that a large majority of the field simply have no chance of competing for the top places in MotoGP due to their inferior machinery is totally inappropriate. In an interview to channel ten he expressed his disappointment that riders of the quality of Randy De Puniet were placed in such a position. Equally, such rules make the discovery of emerging talent in the premier category much more difficult.
In the same interview, given prior to the French Grand Prix, Stoner elaborated on his decision and further enforced the fact that “The decisions they’ve [Dorna] made and direction they’ve taken this class is not to my liking and of the opinions of himself [Ezpeleta] and everything I’m not agreeing with at all”. In addition to the CRT rule, Stoner elaborated on further decisions by Dorna including the rookie rule, which prevents new riders to MotoGP from debuting in factory manufacturer teams, together with the decision preventing motor homes for riders in Moto2 and Moto3 from being allowed in the circuit paddock area.
The final point, and that which appears to have made Stoner question the values of the sport and his willingness to continue racing, was the response to his mysterious illness in 2009, later to be diagnosed as lactose intolerance, which forced him to be sidelined from the sport for three rounds. While the details are unknown, it appears that Ducati’s tolerance of the Australian’s illness was surprisingly short, verging on the sceptical, an atrocious response considering that the Australian has really been the only rider to show consistency on a Ducati since the manufacturer returned to the top-flight category in 2002. Of enormous embarrassment to the management at Ducati is the comments from Stoner that he had always intended staying with Ducati for his entire career.
The era that gave rise to the passion for which has now been blunted, serves today as a constant reminder of the cost that can come from staying around too long. You need only see Wayne Rainey in a wheelchair, the permanent limp of Mick Doohan and the missing toes of Darryl Beattie to be reminded that to walk away intact is a prize in itself. For Stoner, with nothing left to prove in competition and the fire to ride at risk, it is an admirable and highly justifiable decision that has attained the respect of the paddock and fans alike. And for those who don’t feel the same, Stoner’s comments provide an underlying message, “Dorna and Ducati are to blame”.