There are some races that are recorded for posterity and go down in history for all the right reasons – for cheeky overtaking maneuvers or for hard-fought and well won battles. And then there are races that become history for all the wrong reasons.
The 2015 Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang was supposed to be the former, just like the one at Phillip Island. It was supposed to have all the ingredients of a perfect championship battle between the two Yamahas, with the Hondas playing spoke-in-the-wheel as they have done so often in the past few races, much to our delight.
But the lead-up to the race was all wrong. Valentino Rossi accused Marc Marquez of deliberately slowing him down at Phillip Island so that Jorge Lorenzo could get away. Marquez denied the allegations and Lorenzo shrugged it off. And so the battle shifted from the paddock to the track.
Rossi’s qualifying saw him placed at 3rd on the grid after Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez, with his teammate following up on 4th place. With the lights going off, there was the usual mad rush to get ahead and stay ahead. Pedrosa took off, expertly taking the lead and keeping it – as he did for the rest of the race. It was a true masterclass in perfect racing, one that was mostly ignored because of what unfolded later on.
Behind him, Marquez tried to keep up, while staying ahead of a charging Rossi. Lorenzo was caught behind two speedy Ducatis who stayed ahead, but not for long. With 19 laps to go, Lorenzo passed Rossi. The Italian tried to retaliate, but couldn’t and the Spaniard soon laid siege on Marquez. The reigning world champion went wide and Lorenzo passed him to take second place. Marquez didn’t really put up much of a battle… until Rossi caught up and tried to pass him.
We weren’t really expecting it to be an easy pass. After all, Rossi had said a lot of things about Marquez.
What followed was perhaps one of the most brutal battles MotoGP has ever seen. Marquez and Rossi were on the limit, swapping places and pushing each other in ways that felt almost impossible. It was like being at the edge of a tornado, at the brink, waiting for one of the riders to be swept up into the eye.
A mistake was bound to happen. We could feel it in the sheer aggressive moves. We could see it in Rossi’s irritable hand gesture as he passed Marquez yet again. We could see it in each plunge Marquez took, pushing the Italian to the brink. They nearly scraped paint off each other’s fairings. They fought hard. You could see there was no love lost.
This went on for four breathless, pulse-racing laps. It’s perhaps best described in an astute race report by MotoGP journalist David Emmett, according to which there were 15 passes in two laps ending with 9 passes in the 4thlap. Things came to a head. We had been waiting, and then, the penny dropped. But in the most unexpecting, most devastating way. Rossi succumbed to the pressure. Perhaps succumbed is too harsh a word to describe the sheer frustration he may have felt.
He went wide, in an attempt to slow down Marquez. What followed is still up for debate: Did he kick Marquez? Did Marquez touch Rossi first? What really happened? Even those television angles are under scrutiny – a matter of violent debate between fans.
It doesn’t matter how many times you see the replay. It doesn’t matter how slow you play it, or which angle you see. The intention was clear: To slow down Marquez.
It didn’t just slow him down, though. Marquez crashed and was out of the race.
Everyone knew there would be repercussions, the kind that would affect the championship.
Later, in a Yamaha team press release, Valentino Rossi said:
“Marquez knows it wasn‘t red mist that caused the incident. It‘s very clear from the helicopter footage that I didn‘t want to make him crash, I just wanted to make him lose time, go outside of the line and slow down, because he was playing his dirty game, even worse than in Australia. When I went wide and slowed down to nearly a stop, I looked at him as if to say ‘what are you doing?’. After that we touched. He touched with his right underarm on my leg and my foot slipped off the foot peg. If you look at the image from the helicopter it‘s clear that when my foot slipped of the foot peg, Marquez had already crashed. I didn‘t want to kick him, especially because, if you give a kick to a MotoGP bike, it won‘t crash, it‘s very heavy.”
Race Direction, however, didn’t see it that way. They awarded Rossi a 3-point penalty that combined with the one penalty he incurred in Misano, will now see him start from the back of the grid at Valencia. For all intents and purposes, unless there is a miracle, the championship battle is more or less over.
Rossi said of the Race Direction-ruling:
“For me the sanction is not fair, because Marquez won his fight. His program is OK because he is making me lose the championship. The sanction is not good, especially for me, because I didn‘t purposefully want to make him crash, I just reacted to his behaviour, but I didn‘t kick him. You can‘t say anything in the press conference, maybe it changes something, but to me this was not fair, because I just want to fight for the championship with Jorge and let the better man win, but like this that‘s not happening. Like I said, I didn‘t want to make Marquez crash, but I had to do something because at that moment Jorge was already gone. The championship is not over yet, but this sanction cut me off by the legs and made Marquez win.”
Race Director Mike Webb explained the rationale behind the sanctions in an interview to MotoGP.com. He told the website that the decision was imposed for “irresponsible riding, that is, deliberately causing contact.Deliberately running wide in a corner in order to try and force another rider offline.”
He further said in response to another question that after listening to both the riders:
“…our opinion was that there was some fault on both sides, but as far as the rulebook goes Marquez did not make any contact, did not break any rules as such, but we feel that his behavior was causing problems to Rossi who reacted. Unfortunately, he reacted in a way that is against the rules.”
Read the entire interview here.
The decision, however, did not go down well with everyone. Lorenzo felt, and did say openly that his teammate got away lightly, and that there should be harsher penalties.
The Repsol Honda team and Marquez said that Rossi had indeed touched, nay ‘kicked’ the Spaniard. According to a team press release, Marquez is quoted as saying:
“We were having a good race up until the incident. At the beginning I made a mistake, but then I regained confidence. Valentino overtook me, I followed him for half a lap, and I saw that I could go faster than him, so I tried overtake him back. We started a fight between us and I always passed without making any contact with him. At Turn 14 he passed me on the inside, I sat the bike up, he kept going straight ahead and I saw him looking at me. I didn’t know what to do. Then he kicked out at me, knocking my brake lever, and I crashed. I will leave the sanction in the hands of Race Direction. All I know is that I scored zero points and ended up in the gravel, but thankfully I’m fine. Both what Valentino said to Race Direction and what he did on the track has made me disappointed. I’ve never seen anything like it: a rider kicking another rider. It might be down to nerves, but I want to try to forget about all this and the important thing is that I’m fine physically. I hope, for the sake of the sport that this ends here.”
Even though the incident happened early in the race, I must confess, I stopped watching. The television played in the background, the two Suzukis battled and Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso fought for position (Dovi crashed out of the race).
There have been debates galore – some vindicate Rossi, call for Race Direction to take back the penalties. Some point out that Marquez should have stayed out of a battle that was not his to fight. Others vilify Rossi, drawing on the past to paint him in different colours.
Me? I feel cheated and disheartened. I had wanted a battle, the kind that would decide the 2015 world champion. Someone else decided that battle.
Instead, all I got was controversy, the kind we will always remember, the kind you want to forget.
Instead, all I got was Rossi slipping off the pedestal and making a terrible, terrible mistake. And the price he has to pay for this mistake, could very well cost him the championship, one he has fought for throughout the year.
Two weeks from now, we will be in Valencia for the final battle that will bring to a close what has been an amazing season. Until now.
This was not how I wanted the 2015 season to end. I don’t think any of us wanted it to end on such a note.