Most people tend to think of a teammate as one who works alongside someone else to help achieve a mutual goal. If ever there was an example of how far removed that ideal is from the mindset of professional motorcycle racers, it came at the Motegi racetrack in Japan during the 14th round of the MotoGP calendar.
In the final laps of the Premiere class race Fiat Yamaha Team riders Valentino Rossi and championship leader (and most likely heir to the title for 2010) Jorge Lorenzo, put on a display of aggression, fighting over the final podium position, that was tantamount to a high stakes bout of cage fighting.
It all started in the first turn when Lorenzo boldly went around Rossi on the outside and slipped into third position behind Dovizioso and eventual race winner Casey Stoner. Rossi tucked in behind Lorenzo and shadowed every move in his traditional pattern of trying to force a mistake.
Lorenzo didn’t flinch, remaining calm and smooth. As the race wore on the Lorenzo/Rossi pairing on the track, pretty much an isolated race between the teammates, stole the majority of screen time.
In the closing stages Rossi got past and the two exchanged the lead several times, banging fairings and taking enormous chances. It was quite obvious that if there were any team orders to favor Lorenzo’s championship lead Rossi was having none of it.
It came down to the last lap and a hair-raising, thoroughly enjoyable duel between two of the most gifted riders on the planet. In the end, Rossi ran it up the inside of Lorenzo in a move more reflective of American flat track, a block pass that put him on the podium.
There was a lot more going on between these two men than sheer racing instinct. This was a psychological mind play unfolding. As much as none of us can even begin to think of Rossi, at 31, as one of the older riders on the circuit, it’s a fact. Lorenzo, at 23, represents the new wave.
A wave Rossi is determined-as witnessed Sunday-to not allow to crest and break just yet. The racing Sunday was fueled as much by the frustration over how his season has gone thus far (complete with a double fracture that he rebounded from in shockingly record time) to his imminent departure from Yamaha.
Rossi was setting the stage for 2011, serving notice to his competitors, his soon to be ex-employer, and his future team (Ducati) that he’s in no way done.
The checkered flag didn’t end things. Rossi kept the mind games alive and well (as he does so beautifully) in the post race press conference.
Valentino Rossi says: “What a great race! Of course I would have preferred to be battling for the win but anyway it was a great feeling, a real show and I want to congratulate Jorge because he was very strong and didn’t give up!”
Rossi continued: “Unfortunately I lost time at the start when he passed me so Stoner and Dovizioso got away, and by the time I passed him again they were too far ahead. At the end I was tired and my tire was sliding a lot, it was a bit softer than I would have liked, so I knew I was going to be in trouble but I wanted the podium so much. Jorge came back at me and we had a great battle, proper racing – I think everyone watching enjoyed it.”
Read that statement again and see how Rossi’s game works; “At the end my tire was sliding a lot” (i.e. I was riding with a deficit).
Jorge Lorenzo says: “This was a big battle between Valentino and I, two warriors with the killer instinct. I have to say that at some points I do not think he was completely fair, we were both on the limit but some of his moves were maybe a bit too much and he touched me and pushed me wide when I don’t think it was right.”
“We are teammates, I am fighting for the Riders’ Championship but we are both fighting for the Teams’ and Manufacturers’ Championship as well and we have to remember this.”
So, the stage is set not only for the remaining races of the 2010 season, but the 2011 MotoGP season as well, when Rossi dons Ducati red.