GOAT. The word lacks the appropriate dignity, but Greatest Of All Time comes out as GOAT, and those tagged with it have to live with it.
Those? That there should be more than one seems a classic oxymoron. In the same way that there cannot be degrees of uniqueness (things either are unique or they aren’t), surely there can only be one GOAT?
But it’s not so. One supersedes the other. If only because there are less people with direct knowledge of GOATS of the past, and more people in a current age of superlatives to appreciate the present. Naturally the old are sooner or later bypassed and the new prevail.
But who can really say that John Surtees was greater than Geoff Duke; that Mike Hailwood was greater than either of them; that Valentino Rossi excelled over Mick Doohan; or that Marc Marquez has eclipsed them all? And that’s not even to mention Agostini.
The notable thing is that while the first three are no longer with us, two of the others are not only still alive, but engaging with each other on a regular basis at every grand prix.
Two GOATS for the price of one. Or, to keep the acronyms going, BOGOF.
This double dimension suggests that we are enjoying a particularly golden era of racing.
One not only talent-rich, but where the competition has been tightened by restrictive technical rules – limiting costs, cylinder numbers and bore, and electronics. Lap times keep dropping, but they also get closer. Which shows that although faster, the limit keeps getting easier for more people to reach.
Rossi and Marquez were both fiercely involved in the recent demonstration of this: at a quite extraordinary Dutch TT in Assen on the first of July.
One expects a gang of relatively gutless GP entry-level Moto3 bikes (250cc four-stroke singles) ridden by feckless young maniacs to be crawling all over one another, changing places at every corner and exchanging paint throughout. One sometimes also gets that from Moto2, where contestants are supplied with identical race-tuned 600cc road-going Honda engines… though generally it is midfield, not up front.
But MotoGP is traditionally rather more… not actually sober, but more austere. Battles are fiercely contested, but usually between two or possibly three riders; and they are generally relatively calculated affairs. Compared with the teenage hotheads of Moto3, the riders are more experienced, the potential penalties for errors higher, so the racing tends to be more measured.
Indeed, put a full-contact pass on, for one, Jorge Lorenzo, and he’s likely to call for punishment for dangerous riding.
Assen, however, was a madhouse. In the end, the closest top 15 in bike grand prix history passed the chequered flag in just over 16 seconds, which is impressive enough, but doesn’t tell the whole story.
Rather look at the halfway mark, when the top eight were within 1.57 seconds and shuffling positions constantly; or even at when there were only four laps to go, and there were still seven inside two seconds.
It was at this point that Marquez stamped his authority on the brawl, pulling away to win by a little more than the time gap that had previously accommodated eight riders.
Rossi by contrast was still mired. He blamed Dovizioso for punting him off the track, though looking at it dispassionately it had been as much Rossi’s mistake as Dovi’s. The consequence was fifth place, the veteran GOAT’s only finish off the podium in the past five races.
Thus an illustration of the GOAT principle. Or if you like, the changing of the guard. It wasn’t only at Assen that Marquez has this year demonstrated a measurable superiority over not only Rossi but everyone else as well.
But it’s too soon to call him the greatest of all time. He is still only 25 (to Rossi’s 39), and the pages of the future are beckoning for him to write yet more history upon them.
Better, at this stage, to take a backward glance.
There are still a few of us old-timers who think nobody has eclipsed Mike Hailwood’s achievements. Like others of the past era, including Duke, Surtees and Ago, Hailwood didn’t just excel on specialised closed short-circuits. He was also an all-time star on the road circuits of the Isle of Man and Ulster.
But unlike them, or anyone else, Mike came back after a sojourn racing with some distinction on four wheels to race again at the TT. And for two consecutive years, he won it again, magnificently, the second time aged 39.
Still, it’s been the turn of others to bear the mantle since his time.
And soon enough it will the turn of Marquez. He will be the Greatest of All Time.