On Race Day, we are all experts. We have our favourites, we know the circuit, we know the weather, and we can guess, for all practical purposes, at the winner. What would happen then if amid all the guessing and all the expert talk, came a man – who has been written off time and again, and who has now made it a habit to make us sit up and eat crow?
He is older, wiser and more experienced. He is 36 years old and still races like he is 21; all gut, glory, determination and yes, madness. Definitely madness. There are some riders who adored him as they grew up. Today, they race against him, battling for position, taking corners, sliding around him; some of them on faster bikes. But Valentino Rossi, nine times world champion and hunting for his 10th, is ever the wily fox. He knows his game.
He knows how to attack these young guns, these contenders, pretenders and even the new king. He fights back on the circuit, hunched over, tucked in and one with his machine. The more people write him off, the more he fights back, stunning us with his sheer genius.
There is a reason why the crowds at Mugello sing Vale. There is a reason why there are always seas of yellow just waiting to overpower the reds at circuits all over the world.
And that reason became more and more apparent as we neared the end of the first race of the season and headed towards the final corner of the floodlit Losail Circuit in Qatar. The battle had whittled down to two men – one young, one old. One was a contender on a machine that had suddenly started proving its worth as it powered its way through the straights and smoothly passed the old hand on his Yamaha.
The GP15 Ducati was full of surprises in Qatar. Andrea Dovizioso had stunned us all on Qualifying Saturday, stealing pole position and relegating the reigning king to 3rd place on the grid. His wasn’t the only Ducati high up on the grid. Keeping him company was teammate Andrea Iannone at 4th and Pramac Racing’s Yonny Hernandez and Danilo Petrucci at 5th and 9th.
Despite this, the GP15 was still an unknown quantity. It had seemingly proved its worth during Qualifying. But would it be able to withstand the pressure of the Hondas and Yamahas all waiting to charge up the podium? It was a question everyone asked as we waited for the lights to go off.
Then it happened. The lights went off and the 2015 season kicked off with a dramatic opening race worthy of the history books. The riders took off toward the first corner. Marc Marquez ran off the track, going into turn 1, and had landed himself at the back of the pack. But who was worried? He had done this in the past, and had charged through the back to take podium and sometimes even the win. The first lap seemed a good enough indicator as I settled down to watch the race – Dovizioso, Jorge Lorenzo and Iannone led the pack. Marquez was at 20th and charging. Everyone I am guessing was just waiting for the two-time world champion to wave his magic wand and swoop past the rest. Much to our (the Vale fans) distress, Rossi had slipped down from 8th at the starting to 10th place. He would rise, but it looked like a podium place would be a matter of sheer luck. Oh well.
I was more distracted by the battle up front, one that was being fought by Lorenzo and Dovi. They changed places, again and again as laps went by with Iannone keeping a close watch. The camera swung between the battle at the front and Marquez’s steady rise through the back of the grid. They would come to Rossi though, soon enough.
Vale had taken a little time to get into the swing of things. But by lap 4 he had managed to shrug off the melee and plunged into a battle with Dani Pedrosa. The Honda rider was dispensed with as Vale set sights on the young Colombian Yonny Hernandez and soon took his 4th place.
Meanwhile, a battle had broken out between the two Ducatis and Lorenzo. Vale waited. His moment would come. The tension was intense as the four riders chased a spot on the podium and a chance at glory. By lap 12 though, Vale had made his point very clear. A spot on the podium had his name on it. Nay, the top step had his name on it.
But the battle was not going to be easy. Vale had a powerful Ducati to contend with. So the wily fox played it cool, testing, waiting and striking. He smoothly passed Dovi who struck back. The two exchanged places in a tense battle as the Ducati displayed its sheer power on the start-finish straight.
The game plan was simple. Vale had to stay in the front, at least a couple of bike lengths ahead of Dovi. Otherwise, there would be no top step on the podium. The penultimate lap seemed to be the test, a dress rehearsal for the final lap. The set-up was perfect.
As the final lap started and Vale hunched into his Yamaha once again, fingers were crossed, Twitter was forgotten and a single lap became the sum of a very important moment. Vale zipped past the finish line, too fast to for Dovi, too fast for the GP15, too fast to overtake.
The Doctor had taken his 83rd premier class victory, the 109th of his career. He had clawed his way to the top, fought hard and taken victory with a margin of 0.174s.
And what of the others?
As the Doctor celebrated, did wheelies and kissed his Yamaha, Jorge Lorenzo bore the brunt of the Curse of the Dratted Foam In My Helmet that had robbed him of a podium. He ended his race 4th on the podium. Iannone had taken 3rd place, making it two Ducatis on the podium. Marquez and Pedrosa gave up the fight at 5th and 6th place.
And so as the Vale camp celebrated there were those who said, he will be back… Marquez… that’s who. But who cares?
Because for that moment on Sunday, Vale gave us the one thing every MotoGP fan wants… pure racing. And that is enough.