Mainstream popular culture, especially if seen from national broadcasters in the UK, likes to link the perceived black-leather-clad world of motorcycling with the black t-shirt-wearing world of rock and heavy metal. How many times “Born To Be Wild” has been used to backdrop a preview of the Weston-Super-Mare Beach Race on local news, for example, cannot easily be counted. So, I may be bowing to a tired old tradition a little here, but there is a more 2019-inspired link between those two worlds that just can’t be ignored by someone with their waders firmly in both swamps.
This is a bike-based blog but I will explain the title line a little first as it will be the most obscure. Anyone knowing of aggressive guitar-based music made since the 1990s will know of a massively-selling but little-known band called Tool. If you don’t, then think maybe Radiohead, or even Pink Floyd, with the guitars heavier and the vocalist a little growlier, and you’re pretty much there. Personally, I think they’re absolutely amazing. And in 2019 fans such as myself have been treated to their first new album for 13 years. It’s called Fear Inoculum, but seriously if they are new to you then find their old stuff first. It’s well worth it.
So, on to the link with the two-wheeled world that is the whole point of this blog. On the new Tool album is a song called Invincible. The opening lines grabbed me immediately on this morning of the Misano MotoGP. The morning after the latest spat between Signor Valentino Rossi and his replacement as the alpha male of the series, Senor Marc Marquez.
“Long in tooth and soul, longing for another win…” Remind you of anyone? “Once Invincible, now the armour’s wearing thin…” Getting even more poignant now. “Warrior… struggling.. to remain… relevant…” Now, this could well be a personal note from the singer of a band whose best work was done nearly twenty years ago, which yet again links it so strongly for me with the man who is by far the most globally famous racing motorcyclist there ever has been. Now the heckles will be rising beneath the bright yellow shirts of his fearsome fanbase so I must soften this by saying I am in awe of this legend of the sport. What he’s done for the sport is incredible. Not just the success, but the personality which has let him enjoy both the success of Michael Schumacher and the popularity of… well there isn’t even a four-wheeled comparison there. Who can compare from anywhere? Muhammad Ali? Well, not even my Grandad liked him!
Picture this if you will. It’s 1997. Dominant champion mighty Mick Doohan has taken his fourth straight 500cc World Crown and is far from finished. 3rd in this series, amongst the supporting factory Hondas of Tady Okada and Alex Criville, and ahead of the older two Aoki brothers, is the legend Kenny Roberts – Senior. His son campaigned the Modenas this year but on the factory Yamaha that made his name, King Kenny gets third in the 1997 series, his 19th year in the championship.
OK, so it was actually Nobuatsu Aoki who got bronze that year. Luca Cadalora was top Yamaha in a lowly 7th. KRSR retired 14 years before this series. However, if Roberts had lasted as long as Rossi has in the top flight, that would have been the story to parallel Rossi’s 2018 bronze medal in MotoGP. Can you imagine?
Giacomo Agostini racing with Eddie Lawson. Barry Sheene racing with Doohan & Schwantz. Wayne Rainey racing with Nicky Hayden & Rossi himself. Ideas reserved for pub discussion and fantasy video games. It’s incredible to witness. Although what we are seeing now is a legend who hasn’t made way for the next generation, as most have before. Roberts’ last year in GPs was a mere six years after his debut, when he was involved in a titanic tussle with the next American great, Fast Freddie Spencer. Kenny very nearly took back his crown even then. It was one of the few times where we have been treated to an overlap of legends, where the cruelness of injury hasn’t intervened and the old invincible did battle with the next top dog. The 80s were brilliant for the battles amongst many of the very best coming all at once, where even an animal like Randy Mamola had to go without a title.
Injury to Doohan meant that we never saw him against Rossi. What a fight that could have been! Can you imagine the stern Aussie’s reaction to the flamboyant cartoon character if the #46 had carved up the Repsol Honda #1 once or twice? Valentino had relatively weak opposition in his early 500 years, partially due to machine superiority but also down to his sheer genius, and was able to establish his sunshine yellow brand with barely a mark on it until he tried to mix it with Ducati red.
The sheer speed of Casey Stoner and the up-yours mentality of Jorge Lorenzo got their world titles, but the circus element of MotoGP contributed towards shortening the #27’s career to a mere 7 years. Somehow people are surprised that 12th-year veteran Lorenzo seems a little shy right now of being thrown skywards by his machinery for the umpteenth time. The incredible talent of Dani Pedrosa was even denied a title in 13 hard years of heartache and pain. This is a very tough sport even now. The riders may not have to contend with hair-trigger two-strokes that shattered bones with depressing regularity, but they do ride 50% more races than 35 years ago, with infinitely more travelling involved thanks to over twice the number of races outside Europe than even 30 years ago.
So the “Warrior” wearing 46 “struggling to stay relevant” has lasted an incredible amount of time, and that has to be applauded as a mark of his sheer ability on a motorcycle. And he could still take a win in this crazy 2019 season. It has to be acknowledged though that his best years have gone. All those highlight reel races against Lorenzo, Stoner, Biaggi and Gibernau are over ten or even fifteen years old. He tried similar tricks with Marquez and it exploded in his face. The end of 2015 permanently scarred his image in this writer’s opinion.
The armour’s wearing thin, time to put the heavy shield down. His continued presence on the grid, and the animosity towards Marquez in particular, could very well be doing more harm than good to the sport. The Spanish sensation is Rossi’s natural heir – pushing the sport forward with his technique and style, showing incredible ability in all circumstances, and doing it with a genuine demeanour, a winning smile, and plenty of charisma to get behind. My wife-to-be started watching MotoGP when we got together in 2015, and she is a genuine fan of the incumbent champ. Yes, he is aggressive and there is arrogance there, but name me a champion without at least a faint streak of all that. To hear boos for this incredible racer is unbelievable in the light of how hard he works and what he can do on a bike. This is how the football-hooligan mentality that Rossi has brought to the sport is becoming a very negative influence.
It is now regular for even Marquez to be the oldest on the podium. Yamaha have kept Rossi on, when in years gone by Johann Zarco would have been brought up to the factory team and moved all of them forward. Instead I believe that Rossi is dragging Vinales, and the M1 itself, back from where they both should be. I hope that this year’s results convince Yamaha to not waste the good fortune of a second fast Frenchman being available from the satellite team, and that Fabio Quartararo gets to join Vinales in a factory team that could surely take on the dominance of the number 93, whose bike really isn’t as good as he is making it look.
As for Rossi, it’s time to say Ciao. His academy and team will definitely continue, and we do need a non-Spanish counterbalance in the paddock. Make way on the track for those who are ready to move the sport on again, and even help them to do so from a strong position on the sidelines.
15th Sep. 2019