After a prolonged absence, Casey Stoner returned to the paddock at Portimão, where he gave an extensive press conference to the media present on site and via zoom. Just as when he was still racing, his observations were well worth listening to, and without the pressure of race weekend and an endless string of media commitments, was even more thoughtful and insightful than usual.
One subject which he was particularly interesting on was the question of competition, why people race, and what drives them, and especially, what drove him. The pursuit of perfection, of wanting to do everything just right to extract the maximum performance from themselves and from the bike is one of the most important motivations for most motorcycle racers, and indeed, most elite athletes.
That pursuit of perfection explains their obsessive attention to detail. The many rituals you see riders go through before they get on the bike and leave the pits is part superstition, but also a way of eliminating errors. By doing everything the same way on each exit, it makes it easier to ensure they haven't forgotten anything: boots, leathers, gloves, helmet are all securely fastened, correctly fitted, and not causing discomfort, and therefore distraction.
The devil is in the detail
This attention to detail can become quite compulsive. Andrea Iannone's nickname "The Maniac" was not given to him for his wild riding, but for the obsessive way he would arrange everything, in his pit box, in his motorhome, in every aspect. At media debriefs on site, Valentino Rossi would carefully arrange the various voice and memo recorders placed in front of him to for a neat configuration, rather than the chaos created by journalists flinging their recorders onto the table at the last moment.
That obsession with perfection was highlighted when Casey Stoner was asked if there were ever any times that he would feel the urge to be on a bike again while watching MotoGP at home. "The only times I’d have it is probably around qualifying," the Australian said, surprising a few people.
Why qualifying rather than the race itself, given that competing is so deeply entrenched in the psyche of every racer? "I quite honestly didn’t ever enjoy race day that much," Stoner told us. "Sometimes it was nice and easy and everything went well, but when you’re on the edge of these things, it’s so easy to make those mistakes. So, I constantly had that."
Perfectionism, a fear of mistakes, and feeling the pressure he put on himself not to let his team and the people who supported him down made race days tough. "Unfortunately, it was just part of my personality that I didn’t want to make mistakes. It’s not that I just wanted to go out there and ride comfortably and naturally. It was like, I don't want to mess up because I’ve got a whole team of people that are expecting something out of me," Stoner said. It was something that got better with age and experience, fortunately. "I learned to deal with that better in my later years and didn’t have to worry about that as much."
One perfect lap
He didn't miss racing, Stoner insisted. "I don’t really get the wish or want to race again, but I did enjoy practice and qualifying especially on the weekends. Certainly not testing. Practice and qualifying was always fun when everything would come together and then you just got to go as hard and as fast as you possibly could for a lap or two."
Stringing together a perfect lap gave a special kind of satisfaction to the Australian, precisely because he could extract everything from the bike in a single lap, rather than having to manage it for 25 laps. "When you got everything right, I got way more of a thrill out of that than I ever did winning a race. In the races, you never went as hard as you could. You always had to manage tires, fuel. You were always managing the situation. You’d look like a fool if you’d try and go as hard as you can and crash. So, there was always an element of holding back, whereas qualifying a lot of the time you got to let loose and that was a lot of fun."
That ability to push hard consistently was what had impressed Casey Stoner about his former rival, Jorge Lorenzo. "I respect someone who can pull out a lap, but for me, one of my toughest competitors that I always had a heck of a lot of respect for was Jorge who could turn out lap after lap after lap," the Australian said.
Crush your enemies
He had enjoyed watching Lorenzo dominate alone at the front of races because of that, even though it ran counter to the usual fan preference for a tight and hard-fought battle. "As much as I used to enjoy myself having to pull a lap out and being able to push everything that you can out of a bike, I also enjoy watching dominance, as much as people don't. They love to see racing and all the rest of it."
But for Stoner, the ability to impose your will on your rivals and show how much faster you are than them was the true mark of superiority. "If somebody goes out, dominance is clearly better than the rest for me. I got a lot more respect for that. I like seeing that a lot more than someone who can just pull a lap time out and then in the race be a little inconsistent. I want to see someone who can go out and week in, week out, session whether it’s qualifying or practice, they’re always there and always turning out laps. I really like to see that."
That desire to dominate, to go out and win, had been his prime motivation when racing, and had been one reason for not returning to racing after he retired. But this was not true for everyone, Stoner acknowledged. He was asked about the fact that Valentino Rossi was still racing nine seasons after the Australian retired. Everyone has their own motivations, Stoner said. "If Valentino was still loving his racing, then there’s no reason not to race."
He was not wired that way, though. "I myself wouldn’t be able to do it because for me, racing was winning. I still accepted the fact that I couldn’t win sometimes, but at the same time, the reason I got up in the morning to go racing was to win. So, I really would struggle to not be running competitively at the front."
Having competed for most of his career against Rossi, and knowing exactly how great a racer the Italian is, he had hoped to see Rossi at the front again. "I’ve missed Valentino at the front. I think the last two or three years I would have loved to have seen him battling it out with the guys. I think racing could have been incredible with that like he was in the season before."
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