Enea Bastianini, Having Fun for the Rest of Us

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Lately I’ve been looking around at my coworkers, my friends, relatives, even strangers I just kind of pretend to know, and I’ve noticed there’s a certain subdued lethargy afoot. Away from the blazing hate fires of the modern timeline in which anarchy reigns in spite (and occasionally because) of autocracy, the people I’ve come into contact with deeper and deeper into this pandemic all kind of have the same dazed look of someone who’s just been relieved from a sleeper hold: shrugs as sentences, resplendent beards, eyes drained of life, ambition robbed. It’s hard to muster energy for much of anything in such summer heat when there’s not much to look forward to because we can only plan so far ahead, can only legally go so many places, can only do so much without risk, within reason. Maybe all of that energy is going into protests and marches or podcast production or marathon training or learning to play piano, but I don’t think so.

I feel the same. I’d already written off May and June at the start of the year thanks to some big work projects, so I never made plans for early summer the way most might have. As love in the time of coronarvirus settled in, I was thinking ahead to how we’d collectively have to skip the summer to stay safe. It’s July now and I’ve already been pondering for a month on the reality of forgoing Christmas; it’s not even flying on the planes that bothers me, it’s the airports. Woe be to he who pines for a private jet.

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I gave up looking for updates on a vaccine after a month or two. I stopped checking numbers and statistics, stopped debating the efficacy of mask protection weeks ago. I turn down the few offers I get to hit up bars and restaurants no matter how sparsely populated they are because patio seating is even more precious than usual in this climate so the place will probably be packed anyway and I don’t have the heart to dine indoors, don’t want to be the face a server recognizes when this is over as the guy that kept coming in here when no one wanted to be here. I’ve never been shy about admitting I’m not in this for my health — God knows all this Table, Donkey & Stick ‘nduja pizza I’ve eaten since March is a testament to my commitment to the form — but in the interest of trying to foster a more empathetic society, I don’t have the heart to rub my death wish in someone else’s face. I just don’t want to go out.

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No one does. No one knows where anyone else really stands or how much we should wear masks and how close we can come and these differing standards of existence have devolved into an awkward social energy best redirected to showering more than once a week and occasionally cooking something beautiful to add to a content stream more full of charged calls to action than empty sunset sloganeering these days. Don’t forget to vote October 20th. Call your councilperson. Say the names. Revolt, relax, recharge, repeat.

– – – – –

I’ve been calling my parents weekly basically since the second semester of my freshman year of college. (A fun way to find out why that wasn’t the case my first semester is to get my mother and me in a room and then just say the phrase “potato gun.”) And every week, there’s been something to talk about for about 20-40 minutes. Some weeks it was classes, others it was trips, others it was what beer I was brewing or what changes there were at the radio station or where I was moving or, when all else failed, work and the weather.

But when you’re more than four months deep into a pandemic that’s also on some level a quarantine, the standards for what qualify as excitement drop. So when my mother asks every week, “Are you having any fun?”, my answer has dropped off to one word: No.

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Except that’s not exactly true. I like reading books (though I can certainly get sick of them; ask me about my Ducks, Newburyport experience!), which bring me the little pleasures and sadnesses of someone else’s life elsewhere, far away from all of this. I like listening to music on my own time and try not to let the curse of keeping up afflict me anymore. I like drinking beer, though I don’t find much joy in doing it alone at home (unless it’s with a book). And perhaps more than all of these things combined, I have fun waking up in the middle of the night on Sundays to watch motorcycle racing.

I’m not getting any younger and I am getting more tired — of everything, like any sane person — so it’s getting harder and harder for me to maintain my years-long private ritual. But when the pillows are all wrong and the window A/C isn’t cutting it and the conversations you’ve been replaying in your head night after night for years just to desperately fix history in your own head and will it telepathically into someone else’s and then maybe into more than just dreams won’t fucking leave you alone, well, what’s the point in trying to stay asleep then? Why not start the day where a pre-pandemic version of myself would’ve been ending it?

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Occasionally, dragging the old bones out of bed in these small hours has its merits. I’ve been bad about waking up at 3:30 or 4am for MotoE and Moto3 so far this year, but I’ve managed to catch all of the Moto2 action since the restart and I’ve found it rewarding. In particular, the 2020 (first ever (even though it was held at the same track as the previous week’s Spanish Grand Prix)!) Andalusian Grand Prix had a real surprise in store from 22-year-old Enea Bastianini, one of those ostensibly boring races where he put a foot wrong maybe once over the course of 23 laps despite persistent pressure from championship contender and noted Valentino Rossi half-brother Luca Marini.

Bastianini’s name might ring a bell. Not only did I bring him up in that dream sequence above from 2014, I also brought him up as my favorite for the Moto3 title in 2016 (he finished second) and again for 2017 in an early elegy for Romano Fenati’s career. Personally, I think he stayed a year too long in Moto3, only making the jump up to Moto2 for 2019 following two merely whelming seasons with frontrunning teams. The thing about Enea wasn’t what made him special, it was what made him stereotypical for his age and upbringing: Blindingly fast at times (his two Moto3 wins came ahead of now-MotoGP riders Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira, one of them from pole at his home event in Misano), the Italian was also prone to lethargic races where he looked lost or anonymously midfield. The step to Moto2 didn’t really change that; though there was a podium and he only DNF’d twice, that podium was a bottom-step third and he ended the year with a lackluster 14th place in Valencia, barely in the points, and 10th overall.

It’s increasingly difficult to remember that there was actual racing at Qatar in March, but the junior Moto3 and Moto2 classes that had already been testing there did manage to get their races off before quarantine confinement took hold. There were a lot of surprising storylines from each to the point that I wouldn’t have considered the one they call The Beast’s third worthy of much discussion. It’s the first race of the season after a long winter. Everyone’s a little rusty. The desert’s liable to throw up some surprises.

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The two Jerez races since the restart, however, offer much food for thought. If you’d asked me at the start of the season who this year’s Moto2 favorites were, I’d have said some mix of Marini, Thomas Lüthi, Lorenzo Baldassari, Jorge Martin, maybe Sam Lowes or Fabio Di Giannantonio, and Lorenzo Dalla Porta if I was feeling especially mischievous. Tetsuta Nagashima’s shock Qatar win and Marini’s pitch-perfect Jerez run in searing heat for the Spanish GP last weekend suggested they would be the men to beat for the Andalusian GP and, perhaps, the season.

You know who wasn’t suggesting a challenge to that? Take a look at Bastianini’s results from each session for Jerez last weekend:

Free Practice 1: 13
FP2: 8
FP3 : 8
Qualifying 1: N/A
Q2: 11
Warmup: 13
Race: 9, +19.505 (winning time: 39:23.297)

Now look at them a week later at, and I can’t stress this enough, the same track in virtually identical conditions:

FP1: 17
FP2: 8
FP3 : 16
Qualifying 1: 1
Q2: 3
Warmup: 4
Race: 1, +2.153 (39:23.922)

Enea didn’t mention after the race what he’d found to go third in qualifying, but part of me thinks Italtrans is coaching him the same way Petronas Yamaha has changed Fabio Quartararo’s mentality: Don’t worry about being fastest every session, just focus on a good grid position and your race pace. Whatever it was, the truth bore out amid brutal Spanish summer heat, where Bastianini got a flawless launch at the start, led every lap and was never headed, eventually finishing only seven tenths of a second off Marini’s race pace from the week before — while still beating Luca by more than two (that photo up top is the most exciting I could find, such was his textbook form). In effect, Enea found 21 seconds somewhere in the intervening seven days. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought to look this up before, but Enea is the Italian version of the Greek Aeneas, which is derived from the word “praise.” He earned all of it in a race that, if you’d asked at the start of the weekend, maybe only he really believed he could pull off. The perpetual Italian pasta party of the lower classes has, once again, found an extra noodle worth noticing.

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So, what was I saying four years ago? Ah yes, here it is: He’s an Italian, 22 years old, racing motorcycles at the sharp end of MotoGP’s intermediate class. It means the same thing in perpetuity: He remains a frustrating mystery we’re all collectively trying to solve in real time, an erratic enigma in the storied tradition of the riders who came before him, a riddle whose chosen number’s digits reversed mean the same, a tautology of 21st century sport. It ends as it started, a man aglow in the promise of what could be.

The mystery, the enigma, the riddle, the promise. In 2020, it bears the same name: Enea Bastianini. Will it last? Who knows. Will it be fun? Well, mom, we take the victories where we can — even if they’re trivial, even if they only keep us from feeling half-dead in the middle of the night, even when no one we know is looking.

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