Motor sport and the importance of ‘natural succession’

Depending on where you were in the world during MotoGP’s season opening Grand Prix of Qatar, you were either a little bleary-eyed or super fresh. Either way, you would have caught Valentino Rossi’s storming return to the Yamaha factory team after two miserable seasons at Ducati.

During his stint with the Italian team in 2011 and 2012, Rossi scored as many podiums in 36 races as he did in his first three races of the 2010 season for Yamaha. Prior, of course, to a horrid crash at Mugello that put him out of action from four rounds and took him out of championship contention against the ‘intruder’ at Yamaha; Jorge Lorenzo.

Not only did those ‘character building’ (isn’t that what a bad experience is supposed to do to us?) years at Ducati somewhat bust the theory of a rider’s contribution to a race result being as much as 80 percent, but they also hit the popularity of the world’s premier motorcycle racing category.

It wasn’t as if MotoGP was full of only Rossi fanatics. Fans of the championship had been used to the arrival, domination and departure of numerous riding legends.

From the time I recall the sport taking off in India, Mick Doohan drew as ardent fans as Rossi has until his time in MotoGP came to a natural conclusion and the torch was ‘handed over’ to Rossi.

It’s a fine metaphor; handing over the torch. Few people actually do it with a smile on their face in any walk of life. Especially not sportspersons.

Pete Sampras suffered a brief dip in form before leaving the tennis world for the likes of Roger Federer to take control of. Michael Schumacher fought tooth and nail to deny Fernando Alonso taking over his mantle of the most complete Formula 1 driver.

Both eventually faded and their respective audiences accepted the theory of ‘natural succession’ at work because there was someone to fill the void they left.

In the case of F1, it was filled and then some by an entire generation of hungry young chargers. To the point that Schumacher’s problematic comeback did little to distract from the fight for supremacy between the likes of Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.

MotoGP fans were, however, denied a similar natural succession when Rossi left the Yamaha team he had become synonymous with. As far as they were concerned, the most successful and charismatic rider had taken himself out of the game in his attempt to find his ‘own team’ after Lorenzo’s arrival at Yamaha.

It mattered little to them that Rossi was regularly being beaten by the rider he famously overcame at Laguna Seca’s iconic Corkscrew in 2008 (Casey Stoner). Or that Lorenzo won his second title in the premier MotoGP class last year.

Rossi’s 2010 campaign had been compromised severely by his crash and the Ducati was no match for the Honda and Yamaha machines in ’11 and ’12.

A natural succession had not occurred and so MotoGP with Rossi struggling to finish sixth or seventh was not worth their time. Apparently not worth ’07 and ’11 champion Stoner’s either who retired at the end of last year! On a serious note, that’s an entirely different story.

But Rossi back on a Yamaha and slicing his way past Cal Crutchlow, Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez with only Lorenzo to beat? Now that’s more like it.

If Rossi hasn’t lost any of his speed and skill, then he deserves to be back at the head of the field dominating the proceedings or truly getting beaten by a rider on equal (or close to it) machinery.

Should ‘The Doctor’ decide to hang up his stethoscope while being as competitive as he possibly can, fans will accept the void that needs to be filled rather than a hastily filled up pothole.

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About Vinayak Pande

Journalist at autoX magazine.
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