Sunday, June 1, 2008

Who is the GOAT? - Mimitig

Sunday morning. I woke, suddenly, uncomfortably, the cold dread hand of fate grasping greedily at my heart. Saturday afternoon had gone too well. With no discernible drama, Valentino Rossi had taken pole position for his home race – the Italian Grand Prix at Mugello and all the commentators seemed sure that he would win the race and make it seven from seven at home.

I didn’t share their confidence. It is many a long race, too many for me to remember the exact number, since Rossi had turned a pole into a win, and not since 2005 had he strung together three consecutive victories. The day, I felt, would be one of bitter disappointment and my feelings of doom seemed mirrored by the unremitting gloom of grey skies and drizzle outside my window.

To pass the time until the main event, I watched, sort of, the 125cc and 250cc races but couldn’t pay attention although it did sink in that Italians won both. A bad omen was all I thought. No way could it be three from three.

As the tension mounted, no-one else seemed to share my concern – least of all Rossi himself who was sporting quite possibly the best and funniest helmet d├ęcor ever seen in motor racing. It featured a picture of Rossi’s own face, mouth wide, eyes wider – apparently his expression as he brakes into San Donato, the first corner after the long fast straight.

Rossi shared the front row with Dani Pedrosa and friend and compatriot Loris Capirossi (kindly towed there yesterday by the pole-sitter). Reigning World Champion Casey Stoner was on the second row and the badly-damaged (still suffering from two broken ankles) but irrepressible Jorge Lorenzo was on the third row alongside Britain’s only MotoGP representative, the talented James Toseland.

Pedrosa got the jump and led off as Stoner stormed through and even with THAT helmet, I couldn’t spot where Rossi was in the melee of third to eighth places. My nerves, already half-way shredded, were disintegrating at a rate of knots. Then things settled, a bit. By the end of lap 2, the Ducati was in the lead (pleasing a good fair proportion of the Italian crowd) and Rossi was vying with Pedrosa for second (pleasing almost everyone else). Rossi didn’t take long to dispatch the Spaniard and then appropriately made the smoothest of moves on Stoner cutting underneath at Casanova Corner – where the stands were entirely yellow with his fans – and took the lead.

Meanwhile in the following group, James Toseland, on his first visit to the circuit, battled for seventh place with Alex de Angelis and at the back poor Marco Melandri’s nightmare season got even worse as he tangled with de Puniet and ended up in the tyre barrier. It’s more than likely that we won’t see Marco on a factory Ducati again.

The carnage continued as John Hopkins crashed out as did poor old Jorge Lorenzo. Quite frankly it’s a miracle that Jorge had made it through the previous two races, and although a DNF doesn’t help his Championship chances, as long as he hasn’t done more damage to his poor old ankles, a truncated race might be the best thing for him.

At the front, Rossi seemed to be serenely pulling out a lead with Stoner, the slowest of the top three, riding a superbly defensive race keeping Pedrosa tucked safely behind him. This could be nothing but good for Valle, then just as my heartbeat was returning to something like normal, the Ducati ran wide and Dani was through. The chase was on – or maybe not. Like a terrier after a rat, Casey harried the Honda, riding as well as I’ve ever seen him, displaying that well-known Aussie attitude of never-say-die, and with 10 laps to go they were side-by-side down the straight. Taking second place back off Pedrosa had nothing to do with superior horse-power – it was sheer bravery and derring-do and seemed to knock the stuffing out of Dani.

By this stage Rossi was two and a half seconds down the road and under normal circumstances, I would have begun to relax. Instead, on this most nerve-wracking and anxiety-ridden of afternoons, I immediately began to worry about tyre-wear. Bridgestone had never won at Mugello, there had hardly been any dry running over the weekend so how could the teams know whether they’d made the right choice? Last year Rossi was on Michelins so could even he, the master, judge whether there was enough left in the rubber to push again if Casey began to close?

I felt sick, sweating, shaking. When Steve Parrish pointed out that there was no place to relax around the Mugello circuit, I shouted “Try being on my sofa!” at the screen.

I needed the race director to focus on the Edwards/Toseland battle for fifth to distract me but no, the Italian director (not unreasonably) kept the cameras relentlessly on first Rossi on the track then on the Yamaha team in the pits.

The last few laps, as Valentino glided round the track, seemed to last forever and it wasn’t until he took the chequered flag, two seconds ahead of Stoner, that I began to breathe normally and believe that The Doctor had done the business.

Even now, several hours later, I find it hard to explain even to myself why this race provoked such anxiety. Perhaps, unlike Valentino who seemed totally relaxed all weekend, I felt the weight of expectation on my shoulders. Rossi was, after all, chasing a seventh victory at Mugello.

Well, he did it and so Charlie Cox was able to end the commentary informing us that no-one else in MotoGP except Valentino Rossi has ever won at Mugello.

So does this answer the question in the title of this piece? Is Rossi the Greatest Of All Time? Colin Edwards, Rossi’s team mate at Yamaha from 2005 to 2007 and the one who coined the phrase, obviously thinks so.

Rossi goes to next week’s race at the Catalunya Circuit in Spain leading by 12 points, on the back of three consecutive victories and a fine chance of taking the Championship for the first time since 2005. Should he do so, there will be no doubt about his place in the pantheon of greats on two wheels.

Today, he has taken a great step towards that position at the very top of the table.

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