MotoGP 2015: Casey Stoner, Shadowboxing

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Right now, there is someone somewhere out there with wrists of God who walks among us. Maybe he’s sharing a favorite father-daughter moment. Maybe he’s napping on a boat or out hunting quail or quietly flexing to himself in a bedroom mirror or playing the absolute worst golf of his life. Maybe he’s thinking about a dragon tattoo or the implications of that new Kendrick Lamar record. Maybe he’s snorkeling.

The 2015 MotoGP season gets underway this coming Sunday. Persian Gulf winds will blow sands across the straights. The sun will bleach out the day before giving way to the pitch black of night. Powered by more than 450 million lumens, Losail International Circuit will come alive with the power of enough energy to light a city street from Doha to Moscow. Maybe a few hundred participants, hangers-on, questionable expats, and natives with the money will see it happen in person because that’s how motorsports works in the Middle East. And it’ll be enormously entertaining because, even sitting in an uncomfortable thatched chair at home, grand prix bike racing’s circus is a blast to watch. There’s no feeling in sports quite the equal of anticipation’s release.

And yet, it won’t feel complete. Casey Stoner may be doing a lot of things right now. You know what he isn’t doing? He’s not riding a motorcycle competitively. He may not be riding one at all. He may not even be thinking about it. And it’s our fault.

– – – – –

It’s sometimes tough to find the right words in the presence of greatness; in this case, it’s tougher to find them in its absence. We’re entering our third season without Stoner behind the windscreen of a MotoGP bike in a racing situation, and there is very little reason to believe this is the year that will change.

His family quite literally bet the mortgage to get him from the bush league of Australian domestic races to the hypercompetitive European undercards of the early 2000s. His rise through the 125cc and 250cc trenches was turbulent and erratic, but his talent was increasingly undeniable. His first year in MotoGP in 2006 was marked by the obvious speed he showed in scoring pole in just his second race (Qatar) and nearly winning in Turkey.

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It was also marked by accidents. The most memorable came early in the penultimate round at Portugal – Stoner was riding beyond the capabilities of his bike and took out Ducati’s Sete Gibernau in a careless move. Gibernau, struggling amid a bad season after years as Valentino Rossi’s main rival, went down with a broken bone in his right hand and damage to a re-plated collarbone; Stoner was uninjured. The next day, Ducati announced he had taken Gibernau’s place for 2007. The Spaniard was never again the same.

As it turns out, neither was Casey. Climbing aboard Ducati’s brand new GP7 800cc bike, Stoner opened a dire era by winning 10 of 18 races and the championship by a margin of five race wins. It was the most comprehensively authoritative result of those years and should have been heralded as the astonishing achievement it was.

Instead, he was admonished for the Ducati’s unfair superiority. He was chided for getting Bridgestone’s tires to work for him. He was lampooned for his bristling youth. He was booed for not being Valentino Rossi.

Like Rossi’s previous antagonists Gibernau and Max Biaggi, he was not a man of the people and he paid for it in the court of public opinion for three years. Then a funny thing happened.

– – – – –

The rider contract situation at Fiat Yamaha in 2010 was precarious. Valentino Rossi was feeling the pressure of Jorge Lorenzo, arguably the only competitive teammate he’d ever had at the top level, and gradually losing the upper hand. As the season played out, he gave his employer an ultimatum: Either he goes or I do.

Yamaha responded in kind – Lorenzo was the future and they were sticking with him. The allure of an all-Italian effort at Ducati, meanwhile, had gained enough steam that Rossi finally announced the jump to replace Casey Stoner on a bike that was fast but crashed often. At last, the best rider on a bike that deserved him. Stoner went to Honda as a third rider alongside Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso.

The 800cc Ducati was awful. You could have asked Loris Capirossi, who was the only rider other than Stoner to win on it (once); you could have asked Marco Melandri, whose 2008 season was so awful that Ducati sent him to a psychologist thinking it was the rider; you could have asked Nicky Hayden, who left Honda thinking he’d have it better.

You could have asked anyone but Ducati, in other words, but Rossi looked past all the flaws for a lucrative two-year contract and the unique opportunity to win titles on three different bikes. Reasonable fans could have expected a modest 2011 with a shot at the title in 2012; unreasonable fans demanded a repeat of his 2004 success when Rossi switched successfully from Honda to Yamaha.

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What they got instead was a farce – Valentino scored three podiums in two years and finished sixth and fourth, the two worst results since his world championship debut in 1996. He left as confused as he arrived; Ducati is still struggling.

Casey, meanwhile, won 10 of 17 races and the championship in 2011. He won five races, missed three due to injury, and still finished third overall in 2012. Even before he announced his retirement at an otherwise unassuming Friday press conference at the French Grand Prix in May that year, you could sense the vindication. Returning to competition that fall, he scored his final victory in convincing fashion at home in Australia before finishing the season, and his career, to spend more time with his family.

Well, sort of. Despite Marc Marquez’s arrival in 2013 and Dani Pedrosa’s consistency resembling the comfort of an old blanket, Honda kept Casey on the payroll. Every now and again, they’ll have him test parts or a new bike in private. Photos leak. Lap times are debated. The question lingers: Could this be the run that changes his mind? Is this the horse being led back to water? What if he returned?

– – – – –

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You can lead me to the water
but you cannot make me drink
and you will not be avoided
’cause your ghost is haunting me
–Yowler, “Yowler”

It’s funny to see how uniformly repulsive Internet comments are. Even in something as innocuous as racing, if you get a bunch of morons with keyboards and an ax to grind long enough, you’ll cook up some pretty special opinions. One thing is for sure: In the 800 era, none of them were weak-willed when it came to Casey Stoner. You either loved him (for being Australian or supremely gifted) or you really, really hated him (for being “a whiner” or not Valentino Rossi).

For appreciating the simple life so much, it’s strange to think that Stoner may be MotoGP’s most complex, human figure. He didn’t like the abuse he suffered at the hands of less respectful fans and he didn’t like the armchair engineers critiquing his performances and he didn’t like playing the foil and he didn’t like the exasperating spectacle, the politics, the show. So he did what any reasonable person in his position well might: He severed the feedback loop, took his future into his own hands, and fucked off back home to his wife and kid.

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Can you blame him? Of course you can. That’s exactly why we’re here and he’s out somewhere doing something other than riding a motorcycle or thinking about riding a motorcycle. Stoner couldn’t control our opinion of who he was, but he could control whether or not we got to see arguably the most spectacular motorcycle racing talent in Rossi’s wake. We got mad when he was spoiling the show; now we’re mad that he’s not. Regret’s a bitter taste.

He left because his life’s work wasn’t fun for him anymore. Motorcycle racing is fun – great fun when it’s going well, really – but even your life’s work, the thing you were put on this earth to do, is not your life when it’s just work. That he is enjoying his life most at a time when he may seem most dead to us as fans is just one of his many great ironies.

So: Casey Stoner will set times in private at or near what the world’s best are doing before our very eyes every other week. He will not be tied down by our schedule. He will ride when he wants, or not. He will let you wonder what Marc Marquez thinks. He will leave you wanting for the rest of what could have been a richly rewarding career. He may go snorkeling.

But Casey Stoner will not come back. It’s our burden to remember why.

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