There are very few global superstars in sport and fewer still in motorsport. But in Valentino Rossi, Moto GP has one of the most recognisable names and faces in the world. I hate the use of the word brand with regard to sportsmen and celebrities, but ‘The Doctor’ has become just that. For proof, I guarantee that you’ll see someone with a replica #46 lid riding along on a road near you within a day or so of reading this.
Rossi’s enormous following has helped make Moto GP a huge success in digital media. It has way more followers on social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram than any other series, including NASCAR, and especially F1, which has only just started to embrace these channels.
Of course, this also means there’s an active and vocal following and over the past few weeks these have been sent into a tailspin by the events that have been taking place on and off track. This came to a head (although not a crescendo as you sense this will run for some time yet!) last weekend at the season finale in Valencia.
With Rossi starting at the back, and title rival and Yamaha team-mate Jorge Lorenzo at the front, the Italian superstar already needed a miracle if he was to win the title. In short, if Lorenzo won, only second place would be good enough.
Given the gulf in pace between the factory bikes and those in the Open Class category, he made short work of getting into the top eight, as Lorenzo led the way with the Hondas of Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez in pursuit.
It took Rossi a crucial handful of laps to pass the Ducatis and customer bikes and get into fourth, by which time the leading trio were out of reach. By this time, Marquez had also worked his way into second place and was sitting on Lorenzo’s rear wheel.
I’m not a bike riding expert, but I’ve seen enough races to know when someone’s backing off and when someone is on a charge, and it became clear that Marquez had no intention of passing Lorenzo. With Rossi in fourth, second place would still have been enough for Lorenzo to win the title, but third wouldn’t.
After what happened in the previous race in Malaysia, where Rossi and Marquez clashed, resulting in Marquez falling off and a bitter war of words, how motivated would Marquez be? With this in the background and with Marquez having no stake in the championship, was he going to risk going wheel-to-wheel with his countryman and potentially hand the title to his bitter rival? Of course he wasn’t.
It may be an affront to some, but there are times when riders/drivers try harder than others, and this was one of those cases. Was it a conspiracy? Well, no. It was as clear as day. For it to be a conspiracy, surely it needs to be concealed?
We saw how hard Marquez fought Pedrosa to regain second place how hard he could ride, that he didn’t want to pass Lorenzo was obvious. Foul play! The millions of Rossi fans cried. And from a purely sporting perspective they are quite right. But that isn’t the way the world goes around.
When Rossi and Marquez clashed in Malaysia, following the pre-race spat in the media, the Italian made his own bed. In Marquez he has created a powerful enemy and this came back to bite him.
Whether the penalty that Rossi picked up was fair is certainly debateable. Rossi fans definitely have a point in that the administration of penalties in Moto GP appear to be inconsistent. And if the fans believe that there is some sort of Spanish mafia at play, this could be very dangerous for the sport in the future.
At 36, Rossi may only have one or two more seasons in the top flight ahead of him. When he inevitably decides to call it a day, it’s hard to conceive the size of the hole he will leave behind. While both Lorenzo and Marquez are amazingly talented riders, outside of Spain their support is limited, and a quick glance at the social media reaction in light of what happened on the weekend shows that pantomime villain status has now been conferred on both of them.
In the short term, this extra coverage will only raise awareness and will probably mean that Moto GP is an even greater draw when the series resumes in 2016, but in casting its two leading players in such a dim light, it will be fascinating to see how many of the ‘fans’ follow Rossi out of the sport when he finally decides to call it a day.
Notes to editors:
Andrew van de Burgt has been a motor racing journalist for over 15 years. He started working for the Jaguar Racing team on its website in 2000, before moving to AUTOSPORT in 2002. From 2005 to 2014 he was the Editor and then Editor-in-chief of the most prestigious motorsport weekly and online publication in the world. He has covered everything from NASCAR in the States to V8 Superscars in Australia and pretty much everything in between.
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