One of them espoused by riders over the generations is that “I prefer to do my talking on the track”. So there is something very reassuring when one of the young generation does exactly that, without feeling the need to articulate the threat.
The 2018 season kicked off with maximum tension between the two major riders. Valentino Rossi is the leader of the old guard: massively popular and successful, seven premier-class titles in his cupboard and amazingly still properly competitive as he knocks on the door of 40, already signed up for another two years.
Marc Marquez, now 25, is the young Turk. His current MotoGP title is his fourth, and while he appears to be at the height of his powers since he is still getting better year on year who knows how much more he can improve? And the two are at loggerheads. Big time.
What had, at least outwardly, been a friendly rivalry went badly sour in 2015. Rossi had been leading on points, but his advantage was being whittled away by Yamaha team-mate Lorenzo. In Australia Marquez defeated Lorenzo (Rossi fourth). Then, inexplicably, Rossi attacked – accusing Marquez of trying to help Lorenzo (Eh? By costing him five points?) Next race in Malaysia Rossi indulged in an extraordinarily petulant display, deliberately slowing Marquez, and eventually pushing (maybe even kicking) him into a crash. A back-of-the-grid penalty at the final round, where this time a thoroughly miffed Marquez definitely did help Lorenzo, by letting him win, meant Rossi lost the title by five points.
It was all clear enough. Valentino was feeling threatened, and after so many years of serial (sometimes brutal) domination, he didn’t like the taste of being deposed. A sore loser. Even so, his vaulting popularity means the vast majority of the fans (already wearing his clothing) took his side. Henceforth, Marquez would be booed on the podium every time he won... which was most of the time.
It all blew up again in Argentina, where Marquez – once again clearly the best rider all weekend – ran into a series of errors triggered when he stalled on the grid, push-started the engine, then rode in reverse direction to regain his start slot. Blazing through after a consequent ride-through penalty, he was batting slower riders out of the way in familiar Marquez the Merciless fashion. Aprilia’s Espargaro was nearly knocked flying, others were close shaved. Then he got to Rossi.
He could have waited for somewhere safer… like the next corner. But that is not his style. He tried at the first opportunity, a tight right, locked the front wheel briefly which pushed him wide and onto a damp patch. That meant he clobbered Rossi, who fell straight off. Cue furore.
Surrounded by an adoring Italian media, giving his by now well-practised “injured innocent” smile, Rossi let off both barrels. Marquez, he said, was deliberately dangerous. He aimed to hit people between the leg and the bike. That way they would fall off, and he wouldn’t. He was scared, he said, to share the track with him. So were all the other riders.
Two weeks later in Texas, Rossi was quite unrepentant. Having watched the replays, he didn’t withdraw a single word. But there was one difference, which may have alarmed him even more. This time, not absolutely everybody took his side without question. Considering his own ruthless reputation, wasn’t he protesting a bit too much?
Rossi has made plenty of hard passes. And he performed an almost identical attack on Casey Stoner in the wet at Jerez, where they both crashed out. In response, the Australian came up with the deathless quote: “What happened? Did you run out of talent?”
Marquez’s riposte was wordless, but even more painful. He did his talking on the track. Superior throughout free practice at the long and complex track outside Austin, he was half a second clear of the rest in qualifying, in spite of falling midway through the 15-minute session. He’d baulked second-fastest Maverick Vinales, however, and was penalised by three grid positions – the first victim of new stronger penalties promised in the wake of the Argentine mish-mash.
This put him alongside Rossi, qualified fourth, and promised fireworks. Marquez had another plan. “I worked all weekend for my race strategy,” he said. “After Argentina, I was not confident to get in a fight.”
In other words, if Valentino is frightened of me, I will help him – by not allowing him to get anywhere near me. Afterwards, he explained: it was not his favoured strategy. “I prefer to follow, then attack at the end. It makes the race shorter,” he said. But the point had been made.