"A Face in the Crowd: Unfortunately, Reality Interfered
fan-written column returns ...
by david emmett
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
This column has been floating around the web for about a week. We found that it made several interesting and intriguing points. After an exhaustive (for a rider) search by racer-ex-racer Mark Miller, we finally found the author, David Emmet, a MotoGP scribe in Holland who writes primarily for his own blog. We and received his approval to run this on the beloved 'Soup. Enjoy
In turn six, on the fifth lap of the Portuguese Grand Prix in Estoril, the race, Nicky Hayden's title hopes, and a large part of the world's motorcycling fans exploded.
Seconds after Dani Pedrosa's impetuous passing attempt on Hayden, taking both riders out, even the official MotoGP website's live video feed went into meltdown, depriving thousands of shocked US fans of the aftermath of the resultant crash, and the thrilling end to a literally unbelievable race. A wave of shock went through all who watched, and once incredulous brains had finally come to terms with what had happened, the same question filled millions of heads: How could this have been allowed to happen?
Despite the almost murderous intent assigned to the crash, mostly by American fans, it was not a particularly unusual incident. In fact, it was fairly reminiscent of a crash earlier in the year at the Sachsenring, when Kenny Roberts Jr got into a turn too hot and took Makoto Tamada out, on Tamada's best race of the year so far. The real difference was, of course, that Kenny Jr and Tamada were riders on different teams, fighting for a top five showing around mid-season. Pedrosa took out Hayden, ostensibly the number one rider on his own Repsol Honda team, in the penultimate race of the year, as Hayden was edging ever closer to his first world championship, and the first title for Honda since Valentino Rossi left three years earlier.
If it had happened in race two, there would have been an enormous hullabaloo: If the first rule of racing is that your teammate is the first person you have to beat, the second rule of racing is that you should under no circumstances take him out directly. But to do it with just two races to go, thereby converting your teammate's twelve point lead over the greatest motorcycle racer of all time into an eight point deficit, is beyond explanation, and seems almost beyond belief. So, how was it allowed to happen?
The most obvious answer is a pass made by Pedrosa on Hayden a lap earlier, in the same place. Nicky Hayden, in his effort to stay as close to Valentino Rossi as possible, put a pretty robust move on Pedrosa going into Turn 6, getting up the inside and forcing Pedrosa to stand the bike up and run wide. This seems to have riled the young Spaniard to such a degree that he tried a reckless move, trying to stuff his bike ahead of Hayden's when there was no room, something you might expect from a hot-headed rookie in the 125 class, but not from a three-time world champion, and a rider usually considered mature beyond his tender age.
But that only answers a part of the question. The real question is, what made Pedrosa even consider trying to race against his teammate, endangering both himself and his team mate, as well as his team, his sponsors, and the manufacturer's hope of revenge against Rossi? That is a much longer and more complex story.
Alberto Puig, Pedrosa's Svengali-like mentor and friend, let slip a glimpse of the underlying problems in comments he made after the race, blaming Hayden for causing the crash by braking too hard, and asserting Pedrosa had every right to challenge Hayden for a position as he still had 'a mathematical chance of the title'. Puig is a very powerful figure in the paddock, running teams in the lower classes, as well as the MotoGP Academy, widely acknowledged as the best route into premier class racing for young riders. His influence is hard to exaggerate, and when you add in his forceful personality, known for attempting to silence those who criticize his riders, this makes him a potentially disruptive figure in any team. He is, like so many people involved at the very highest levels of professional sport, utterly driven, and people who are so driven often find it difficult to keep a sense of perspective. Alberto Puig is concerned with only one thing: that the riders he coaches should win. Nothing else matters.
In a sense, this is totally understandable: He is paid to nurture young talent to produce winning riders, and he is remarkably good at his job. But his focus and his drive rubs off on his protegees, and can turn them into single-minded, dour automatons, concerned only with their own performance, and little else.
The problem is, of course, that winning championships in MotoGP needs a team. A single rider simply cannot handle the amount of testing it takes to develop a modern racing prototype into a winning motorcycle, and the sponsors, who pour millions of dollars into funding this development, need two bikes running to ensure that their logo is kept permanently in the public gaze. For the sponsor, running two bikes is a way of hedging their bets, so that if one rider should fall, or fail, then there is still a good chance of the other being in the public eye.
So, the racing paradox is that to reach the very top level of racing, you have to be utterly dedicated to your own success. But to remain at the very top level of racing, you need to be aware that you are a part of a team. Being part of a team means that occasionally, you have to make your own interests subservient to those of your team mate. For anyone dedicated to winning, this is hard, but in doing so, you hope to buy yourself enough credit to get your own shot in the future.
This is a lesson that has been totally lost on HRC since the beginning of the season. When Dani Pedrosa moved up to MotoGP from the 250 class, he was welcomed into HRC's factory Repsol Honda team as the champion elect, the rider who would finally bring to and end Honda's humiliation at the hands of the prodigal Valentino Rossi. He wasn't expected to do this in his first year; 2006 was meant as a learning year, so he could get used to the ferocious power of a big four-stroke, and learn to set these bikes up properly, to be ready for his first serious title attempt in 2007. His team mate, Nicky Hayden, was set to work developing the RC211V, riding what is to all intents and purposes a 990cc version of the 2007 bike with which Pedrosa is meant to win the title.
Unfortunately, reality interfered, and half way through the season, Nicky Hayden found himself with a commanding championship lead, and every chance of taking the title for Honda a year ahead of plan. What's more, Pedrosa, in his apprentice year, had proven to be much faster than anyone had expected, and was sitting comfortably in second place, ready to pick up the ball should Hayden drop it. As Valentino Rossi started to close the gap to Hayden, race by race, questions about team orders were waved away as being entirely theoretical, and not something that needed to be addressed at that point of the season. But Rossi continued to close the gap, averaging well over the nine points he needed to outscore Hayden by each race.
To most observers, the question of team orders had moved from the theoretical into the realm of necessity by Motegi. And with Pedrosa's poor showing in the rain at Phillip Island putting him out of contention for the title in all but the most mathematical sense, it seemed like a no-brainer that Pedrosa would do what he needed to to assist Hayden's title challenge. Team PR
man Chris Herring's denial that no team orders were in place was greeted with much nudging and winking. As the race turned out, Pedrosa was never really in a position to do anything to help Hayden, running wide on the first lap, and having to fight his way through the field. The matter was left unanswered. For the moment."