Reflections on Casey Stoner’s MotoGP career

We’ve had three weeks to digest Casey Stoner’s retirement and the Australian’s decision to retire from MotoGP is sure to hit the sport hard with the loss of one of its most spectacular champions. It is very rare that a sportsman retires while still in their prime but the season ending Valencia Grand Prix marked such an occasion.

Following the final Grand Prix of his career it was quickly announced that Casey Stoner will become the 20th rider to be honoured as a “MotoGP Legend.” The double world champion brought his career to a close with a hard fought podium finish at Valencia in mixed weather conditions and will now become the third Australian to be honoured in such a way and will join Wayne Gardner and his hero, Mick Doohan.

How will Stoner’s career be remembered? Will it be for winning the MotoGP title for both Ducati and Honda and being the only rider capable of dominating at the Desmocedici? Or will fans hold his lack of a title in the smaller classes on his CV against him?

Having grown up watching motorsport and being enthralled by cars and bikes since a very early age in personally I think that Casey is the most talented rider of his generation. While many will scoff at my viewpoint and immediately point to Valentino Rossi’s nine world titles and over 100 race wins I can’t help but feel were it not for some decisions made earlier in his career and the inability to diagnose his lactose intolerance Stoner would have amassed an even greater amount of success.

In terms of sheer speed and talent on a motorcycle I truly believe that we have just seen the best in the business walk away from the premier class. Rossi’s ability to engineer a team around and be the prime focus of attention for much of his career as well as his incredible consistency and durability will mark him as his eras most successful rider, and the most complete package, but in a one off race my money would be Stoner to come out ahead.

Making his name

Casey made his name in Australian dirt and flat track racing before moving to England when he was 14 to start road racing in the Aprilia challenge cup. He also raced in the Spanish championship at this time as a teammate to Dani Pedrosa under the guidance of Alberto Puig.

Their time as teammates was when both racers were given their number of 26 and 27 and the rivalry between them in the Spanish championship continued throughout the last decade.

It was at this time that one of the defining moments of the early parts of Stoner’s career played out. While Pedrosa stayed under the wing of Puig and raced in the 125cc class in 2001 as a factory Honda rider Stoner went his own way with a couple of wild card rides.

Pedrosa went on to win three smaller capacity world titles while Casey was only able to mount one serious championship challenge; the 2005 250cc season.

Stoner’s pre MotoGP career showed lots of promise but it didn’t really indicate just how dominant he could be in the premier class. There are reasons for this but the split from Puig and Honda could arguably be given as a reason for his results in his early years in the Grand Prix paddock. Whereas Pedrosa was a full factory rider with the backing of HRC Stoner was one of many riders for Aprilia.

2002 was Stoner’s rookie season when he raced for Lucio Cecchinello’s eponymous squad in the 250cc championship. That year was filled with highs and lows but unfortunately for Casey quite a lot of these were high-siders and low-siders with the rookie clearly struggling to match his speed with the limit of the bike.

Even so he showed more than enough, a string of top ten qualifying performances and points finishes, to the paddock that he was one to be kept under close scrutiny and the following season he took a step down and raced in the 125cc championship.

That season saw him remain with LCR and form one of the most exciting lineups with teammate Alex de Angelis. The Australian, showed a lot more consistency even though he missed some races in the second half of the year due to injury. At Mugello Stoner claimed his first pole position and rounded off the season, and his first stint with LCR, with his first career victory at Valencia.

The following season Casey moved to KTM in the Austrian manufacturers second season in Grand Prix racing. KTM were still learning how to develop a road racer having spent all of their existence working in off road endurance and motocross but Stoner’s speed was now really coming to the fore.

He qualified on the front two rows at all but the French Grand Prix. However in race trim the KTM wasn’t able to match the Aprilia armada and Andrea Dovizioso’s Honda and Stoner only just took one win and finished fifth in the championship behind champion Dovizioso and future MotoGP champion Jorge Lorenzo.

Even so the year showed the potential that Stoner had and a return to the 250 class with LCR beckoned for 2005. That year we saw a much more mature and consistent Stoner as he battled hard with Dani Pedrosa for the title. Pedrosa would claim the title but with both riders moving into the MotoGP class the following years their careers would continue to be intertwined.

A tough rookie season

The fortunes that both riders had up to the 2006 were in stark contrast. Pedrosa, with the continuous backing of HRC, was able to win three titles en route to his MotoGP debut whereas a handful of wins were all Casey had to show his formative years. While Dani has enjoyed a successful career in MotoGP it seems strange to think back six years when he was the man most likely to usurp Rossi as the king of the premier class.

The 2006 season was again one of contrast between Pedrosa and Stoner. Whereas Dani was able to two win races as a rookie Stoner had a difficult year riding a customer Honda for the LCR team.

A host of spectacular crashes throughout the year punctuated Stoner’s season and he could only look on as Pedrosa started his career with a podium on his debut and a win in his fourth race. Casey on the other hand claimed just a solitary podium. It seemed inevitable that Pedrosa, the chosen son of HRC, would go on to win lots of races and titles while providing the biggest challenger to Valentino Rossi while Sete Gibernau’s career started to wane.

But looking back on Stoner’s season, as is often the case with rookies, it was more important to look at the peaks of their season rather than the overall results. In qualifying and practice Stoner would post hugely impressive times but he lacked the consistency to achieve results.

A somewhat surprising move to Ducati in 2007 however changed everything for the Australian. Suddenly the crashes that blighted his rookie were a thing of the past and suddenly his unquestioned speed was mated with superb consistency. A Ducati debut victory in Qatar was followed with nine more victories and four other podium finishes. No-one could match Casey in 2007 and he romped to a dominant title ahead of Pedrosa.

Their rivalry in Spanish national championships, the 125cc and 250cc classes was continued into the premier class and it seemed that a rivalry for the ages was going to captivate MotoGP for the next number of years.

An epic rivalry did ensue but unfortunately for Pedrosa he was not to be Stoner’s nemesis. Instead the main rivalry of Stoner’s MotoGP career has been with Valentino Rossi. The tension between both riders has been obvious throughout the last five seasons and it has been very interesting to study the body language of both Rossi and Stoner.

Whereas Valentino’s outgoing and engaging personality lends itself to gaining legions of fans Stoner’s personality saw him rub fans the wrong way. It was unfair on Stoner but his single minded focus on racing was what drove him. He was almost a throwback to an earlier era where riders were not expected to be salesmen and they could be anonymous when not on the bike.

It is ironic that it is only in the last two seasons that fans have begun to warm to Casey. He is one of the few sportsmen who is a complete straight shooter. A no-bullshit racer who tells it like it is. If he is unhappy with someone or something he vents it. Fans that grew up on the jokes and celebrations of Rossi seemed to demand that his successor would act in the same way. But Stoner just isn’t wired in that way. He marches to his own beat and over the past two years in any of my dealings with him I have found him to be engaging and hugely likeable. It is unfortunate that it was only this year, after his retirement announcement, that fans started to truly appreciate him.

The Rossi rivalry

On the track we have witnessed an era of near unprecedented talent at the front of the Grand Prix grid Stoner, Rossi, Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo have all fought tooth and nail for the last five years. The battles between this quartet has captivated fans all around the world and while the racing in MotoGP has been derided for much of this era there has been little wrong with the racing at the front of the field.

Of most interest to fans was the animosity between Stoner and Rossi. The Italian superstar tried to play mind tricks with his younger rival but Stoner’s mental strength and knowledge of Rossi’s tactics was such that he had little problems with swatting aside Rossi’s barbed comments and focus on the racing.

Whereas in the past the likes of Max Biaggi or Sete Gibernau were clearly out psyched by Rossi to such an extent that they were effectively defeated before the red lights went out this was not the case the last few years. Stoner, and indeed Lorenzo, has consistently been able to draw strength from the fight and repeatedly stare down Rossi.

It was probably a by product of having grown up watching Rossi that both riders were able to understand how the nine times champion operates and it clearly has given them a much better understanding of how to compete with him.

For Stoner’s defence of his MotoGP title in 2008 the sport was given one of the best seasons of the 800cc era. The champion opened the year with what was almost to come as a customary Qatar victory but the following races saw him struggle in qualifying before a purple patch in midseason that saw him drop only 19 points from six races saw Stoner propelled back into title contention.

The final race of this sequence was the American Grand Prix at Laguna Seca in a race that will be remembered for the fight for victory. Rossi and Stoner dominated the race and opened a commanding lead. Both took turns leading the race before Valentino attempted a daring overtaking move into the corkscrew. Rossi barged down the inside of Stoner through the right hander at the exit of the famous downhill chicane. The Yamaha rider was outside the white lines and therefore outside the boundaries of the race track. It was a trademark move of a champion who knew that he needed to take the lead there and then or risk defeat. In poke parlance Rossi was “all in” and for Stoner the manoeuvre was one that would never be forgotten.

With Rossi back in front Stoner ran wide at the final corner later in the race and crashed in the deep gravel trap. He was able to remount his Ducati and finish a credible second but this race is one of the more significant in Stoner’s career. The following races saw him crash out of the lead at both Brno and Misano while leading both races. The three crashes at Laguna Seca, Brno and Misano were at the time attributed to Stoner feeling the pressure of Rossi’s legendary mind games…however with the benefit of hindsight it is clear that there was far more to it.

At the time we were conditioned to thinking that Rossi was unbeatable. His dominance of the sport is such that he will be rightfully regarded as one of the very best riders of all time, and for many the greatest ever. Having seen him domination of numerous rivals we all instinctively thought that he was one again in his rivals head and that Stoner wasn’t able to compete with Rossi in the critical mental aspects that separate the great from the good of top level sportsmen.

Illness and fatigue strike

The 2009 season saw Stoner able to fight for race wins but as the season progressed it was clear that Casey was suffering greatly. At the end of each race we saw Casey deteriorate more and more. The Catalan Grand Prix, run in stifling conditions, saw Stoner finish third but after the race in Parc Ferme he was exhausted and it was clearly a matter far more than the poor conditioning which some claimed.

After the midsummer break Stoner made a decision to take some time away from the sport and find out what was causing his problems. Casey missed three races as he tried to determine the cause of his fatigue and illness. Eventually lactose intolerance was diagnosed as the complaint and when Stoner returned at Estoril he finished second behind Lorenzo.

Many within the paddock felt that the issue was “much ado about nothing” and in everyday walk of life the effects of allergies are greatly misunderstood. While many consider an allergy to be something along the lines of hay-fever and maybe somewhat distracting but easily managed with a simple antihistamine a food allergy can be much more destructive.

Over time the human body changes. Whether it is that you suddenly develop a love for spicy food or that something which had caused little problem in the past suddenly cause you to feel discomfort the body has changed. For Stoner it was lactose intolerance that caused his problems.

When it was diagnosed and he returned to racing it was clear that many within the paddock did not believe it possible that Stoner’s problems were related to a simple allergy. The history of Rossi’s mental domination of rivals was regarded as a much more plausible reason for Stoner’s crashes over the last two seasons. Even within his Ducati team this seemed to be a prevalent line of thought.

His comeback was highlighted by a return to winning ways at Philip Island saw Casey return for third consecutive home victory at a circuit that was to become his private playground during his career. The next week he dominated in Malaysia to win again before heading to Valencia. It seemed that Stoner was rejuvenated and ready to be the principal challenger to Rossi again in 2010. At the season ending race he was fastest throughout the weekend before a cold tyre crash on the warm-up lap left him only able to watch on as Pedrosa won. Unfairly again the thoughts that Stoner lacked a certain level of mental strength came to the fore.

The 2010 season saw Stoner’s relationship with Ducati begin to deteriorate. A crash while comfortably leading at Qatar was followed by a further four races before Stoner finally stood on the rostrum for the first time. His championship hopes were effectively over by this point and it took until Aragon for Stoner to finally win a race. From the outside looking in it was clear that the tension within Ducati was huge and that Stoner was looking elsewhere for the 2011 season. This tension has been attributed by many to Casey’s decision to skip races in 2009 and he left the team for Honda at the end of the season.

Realising a dream with Repsol Honda

Having grown up as Mick Doohan fan it was clear that Casey relished the opportunity to race for his hero’s team. Throughout his career Stoner has never been an emotional man. He always comes across as rational and one who makes his decisions with his head rather than his heart. Even so the joy that he felt to race for the factory Honda squad was clear to see. The team also reciprocated this and Stoner clearly felt at ease with them instantly.

His new mount, the RCV212V, saw Casey able to return to his best and claim a second dominant world title. Stoner would ultimately finish on the podium at all but the Spanish Grand Prix, where he was taken out by a crashing Rossi in wet conditions. This race was where Rossi went to the Honda garage to apologise while still wearing his helmet and Stoner famously said “maybe your ambition outweighed your talent.”

The last two years saw Stoner do much to enhance his reputation as the fastest rider on the grid and also showed his other aspects of his talent.

His feel for what the bike is doing is second to none and it is this factor that I believe that plays a key role in why I think that he is the most talented rider of his generation. This skill has however been both a positive and a negative for Stoner. His ability to immediately feel what the bike and tyres are doing has allowed him to consistently only do a handful of laps in practice to find the “limit.”

This has meant that Casey was able to qualify well but his failure to string together a long sequence of laps in practice meant that at times he has not completed race simulations in practice and as a result has struggled as the tyres lost their edge. Whereas a rider like Lorenzo shows tremendous consistency in practice and regularly finishes races with little deviation in lap time Stoner has at times struggled to match the consistently of his rivals. This was particularly the case during his time with Ducati and one of the main criticisms levelled at Stoner.

Of course with the benefit of hindsight it is clear that the Ducati was an exceptionally difficult bike to ride and it’s questionable as to whether or not it would have made a difference for Stoner to have increased his practice mileage.

The instinctive feel that Stoner has is also the reason that Stoner can have different views on track surfaces and tyres. At the last race of his career in Valencia the track was resurfaced in the leadup to the race and the entire grid were asked for their thoughts on the new tarmac. Whereas the rest of the field all spoke positively of the job done Stoner was the lone rider who said that it “sucked.”

What made Stoner successful on the Ducati?

His heightened feel for the track and his bike was such that he felt different sensations to the rest of the field. This key difference between Stoner and the rest of the field could be compared to hearing. Whereas some frequencies are dulled out for certain period Stoner could hear those frequencies.

His range of ability to “hear” those frequencies was greater than other riders and it meant that he is able to get more information from the track and the bike than his rivals. This “feel” is arguably the most important skill in Stoner’s arsenal. It means that he is able to immediately find the limit at any given time and was the foundation of Stoner’s ability to win in MotoGP.

It is strange to look back to the Valencia test of 2010 when Rossi first rode the Ducati and remember the sense of expectation, and indeed inevitability, that he would win races and titles for the Bologna squad. Rossi’s, and Jeremy Burgees’, reputation as the best development team in the paddock was such that the pair was hugely confident that they could solve the problematic Ducati in a couple of weeks and allow any racer to win on it.

Obviously the Rossi era at Ducati will only be remembered for the unmitigated disaster that ensued and the fact that Stoner remains the only title winner for Ducati. Much has been written about what made Stoner so special on the Ducati. Most have said his aggressive style was what the bike needed and that Andrea Iannone will be a great rider to hire given his riding style.

However having seen Stoner on the Honda it is clear that there is far more to his speed on the Ducati than aggression. I’m convinced that his heightened sense of awareness and feel for what the bike is doing underneath him was what was key to his success on the bike.

His ability to download more data than other riders as to what the bike and track are doing at any given time was crucial in allowing him to understand just how the Ducati needed to be ridden.

Little middle ground for fans opinions on Casey

Of course this heightened sense of feel led to Stoner making comments that were contrary to his rivals and gave him the reputation as always being the contrarian on the grid. This meant that some fans would disregard what Stoner was saying and it is impossible to write on Stoner’s career without commenting on this love/hate relationship that most fans seem to have with the former champion.

Stoner’s prickly nature with the media and his intense rivalry with Valentino Rossi meant that for many fans there is no middle ground between which to judge Stoner.

It’s sad that in the last few years we have seen huge number of spectators and fans who are simply “Rossi fans.” Viewing numbers declined in 2010 when Rossi was injured and for many there was little reason to watch the races when their hero wasn’t on the grid. It’s natural that there would be some fans that are drawn to the sport by one rider, whether it is by dint of nationality or the charismatic nature of the person, but it has been sad to see just how reliant on Rossi the sport has become.

This has also meant that on twitter, facebook and internet forums we have seen so many people insult Rossi’s rivals and denigrate their successes. The culmination in this was the Day of Champions at Donington Park in 2008.

This day of fundraising for Riders for Health is a highlight of the year for most fans and riders but 2008 will be remembered for one thing-a chorus of boos directed at Stoner. To see grown men insult a 22 year old world champion for the simple reason that he wasn’t Rossi was disgusting and it must have taken a toll on Casey.

Obviously it’s grossly unfair to paint all Rossi fans with this brush. The vast majority are motorcycle racing fans first and foremost and are able to judge riders objectively and admire all the competitors and not just their favourite rider. It was only after Le Mans this year that many fans started to really appreciate Stoner for the rider that he is. On the bike is flamboyant and spectacular. His speed was second to none in the premier class and his retirement is a huge loss for MotoGP. However Casey is also the epitome of the star that shines twice as bright, burns half as long.

Changes in the sport led to his retirement

Stoner is rightly a “MotoGP Legend” and his place amongst the greats of the sport is guaranteed. While I’d be very surprised if we see him on a MotoGP bike again it would be equally surprising if we don’t see him racing again.

His decision to retire took many by surprise at Le Mans but as the season progressed it was clear just how unhappy Casey was with racing in MotoGP. In the summer Casey spoke of how the paddock had changed from a family into something different.

The fact that Moto2 and Moto3 riders no longer were able to park their motorhomes in the paddock alongside the premier class riders clearly irked the Aussie. That these riders paddock space was given to huge hospitality units for some teams was another annoyance to Casey. The “dumbing down” of the sport with CRT bikes has been discussed at length elsewhere and for Stoner only a return to 500cc two-strokes would be enough to tempt him back to the series.

Another factor, largely overlooked, is that for the first time in his life Casey will be in control of his destiny. Like many sportsmen there was only one goal for Stoner; be the world champion. This is an all consuming goal and ever since his dirt-tracking days in Australia he has been single minded on achieving that goal. Moving to England at 14 has meant that he has lived in Europe for almost half his life. Even though he and Adrianna have built a life in Europe with their young daughter this has to have played a role in his decision.

Becoming a father can change any man’s outlook and what once seemed important is no longer the number one priority. His much rumoured move to V8 Supercars is likely to happen in 2014 and it should not be discounted just how important it will be for Casey to be able to race in a series where his travelling will be much more limited than in MotoGP.

Even though there are 18 rounds in MotoGP it is a year long season. For flyaway races, which make up half the calendar, riders can be away from home for multiple weeks and might only spend one or two nights at home before flying to the next race. The grind of travelling is huge and while the move to V8s will also involve travelling it would be much more manageable.

If the Stoner’s move from Switzerland and return to Australia the travelling would be much more manageable in comparison to MotoGP and instead of having lots of long haul flights he would be only hours from his destination and able to get home by the Sunday night.

Suddenly a race weekend would be only four days rather than five or six. With fewer races on the calendar it would mean much more time spent with his family. It’s easy to overlook this factor because we see how single-minded elite sportsmen are all the time but it has to have also played a role in Stoner’s decision.

What does the future hold?

There is such a sense of inevitability to Casey’s move to V8s that you can almost rest assured that he will partner Jamie Whincup at Triple 8 so now the question has to be what the motorcycle racer can achieve in the tin-top series.

Having tested the car earlier this year there is no doubt that Casey will have the speed to compete in car racing but the cut-throat nature of touring car racing will take some getting used to for Stoner. It was amazing to see that in his testing outings he was able to match the times set by series regulars but as many racers have said in the past if you are fast in a car or a bike you can be fast in anything. The balance and feel that you need for each is quite similar it’s simply training your body to react to a new environment.

If Stoner can train his body for racing in cars there is no limit to what he can achieve. It’s ironic but Stoner will make the move that Rossi wasn’t brave enough to make. He’ll leave the familiarity of bikes to try his hand at racing cars.

In numerous testing outings for Ferrari in a Formula 1 car, racing sportscars or rallying in various categories Rossi was able to show a similar turn of speed to what we have seen in MotoGP but he never took the plunge to make the move to racing a car full time. You can rest assured that if he had decided to make the move he would have been able to get a drive in any series that he wished, including F1, but he decided to stay in bike racing because he felt he was probably too old to make the move and race in F1 and that bikes were his true passion before rallying when he retires.

For Stoner however he is still young enough to make the move adapt to racing a car. It’s highly unlikely that we’d ever see him emulate John Surtees and win a Formula 1 title but racing in V8s will open the door to racing sportscars and other series. Whether he would have the determination or get the enjoyment needed for a lasting career in car racing remains to be seen but he’ll certainly have lots of options open to him in the future.

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