Rossi Fever in Spain

Published: 02 January 2016

Three Spanish racers take on one Italian in front of 110,000 Spaniards… 109,000 of whom want the Italian to win. We soak up the Valencia madness

 

RIDAY PRACTICE

You smell a Spanish MotoGP long before you see it. From miles away its sweet bouquet of incinerated pork fat blends with citrus, pine, race fuel and a hint of seafood simmering gently in the Mediterranean sun. It smells like summer holidays abroad and high performance motorbikes all mixed up together.

This is Circuit Ricardo Tormo, Valencia, where nature scooped a scrubby hillside into half an amphitheatre, and in which man then installed a racetrack. The circuit has a contained, compact layout, slithering back and forth like a ribbon of magnetic tape spooling off a broken reel-to-reel. From almost any point on the surrounding grandstands and hillsides you can see pretty much the entire lap. The race story unfolds before you, live, without gaps.

But being fenced-in by concrete and steel bleachers gives Ricardo Tormo a man-made vibe. There are none of Mugello’s romantic swoops and folds, Silverstone’s wide open plains or the Sachsenring’s heart-stopping dive-bombs. Valencia is a big go-kart track on an industrial estate, where even a road-going litre sportsbike barely gets out of third gear for 90 percent of the lap. It’s not on most riders’ Christmas card list and, as the closest MotoGP to Christmas, it’s also usually mild-to-chilly.

Friday morning, first practice, is different. The sun is belting down hot rods. The heat catches everyone out, including the riders and Bridgestone, in their final MotoGP before passing the buck to Michelin in 2016. But the scramble for asymmetric fronts in the pits is academic to the crowds out in the red grandstand. Rubber nuances are lost in the ear-splitting shriek of the bikes flying sideways around Valencia’s long, arcing, left hand top curve. Trackside, you might miss the detail TV coverage provides, but instead you can actually feel the engine noise resonate through your chest cavity like a sonic X-ray, and fully grasp the physical violence required to corral 260bhp and chase it round a car park.

Still, it looks great fun. Valentino pushes so, so hard from the start; he knows his weakness is being slow out the blocks in practice, so his body language shouts urgency. His bike language does too – as soon as he flicks left out of the chicane and taps the throttle, his Yamaha M1 unloads the rear and he drives past the grandstand with a front wheel pointing towards Zaragosa while the rest of bike is aiming for Madrid. It’s wild stuff, and the crowd – a sea of Rossi yellow and blue punctuated by the odd angry red ant and even less frequently by Spartan helmet logos – applauds, cheers and waves flags at the Italian on every lap. When he puts in a flier early on, their appreciation is warmer than for anyone else.

And that’s odd. It’s striking, out in the stands, that this is Spain. The fans are, by and large, Spaniards, and three of the world’s top four riders are their countrymen. And yet even here, on the outskirts of Spain’s third-largest city, Rossi fans outnumber those of his rivals by something like ten to one. Is there any other sport in which the national hero is a foreigner? Walk round the back of the circuit and every hundred yards is a cluster of clothing stands, most flogging official VR46 gear. Mark Marquez’s stands are always next to Rossi’s (his company handles the merch for Marquez, among others) and always smaller. They’re also less busy. Jorge Lorenzo has only two stands around the entire track; Dani Pedrosa doesn’t appear to have any at all. It’s remarkable to see the Rossi money machine in full flow – Lorenzo might wrap up the title here, but there’s only one winner when it comes to earnings from the event.

Back in the stands, people are happy. Although everyone now knows Rossi will serve his penalty for the Sepang clash with Marquez by starting from the back of the grid on race day, they’re still convinced he can claw back enough places to get in the points. What happens after that is up to Lorenzo, Marquez and Pedrosa. So not only are those three not as popular as Valentino in their own country, they now stand in the way of a tenth world title. Race day will be interesting.

 

SATURDAY QUALIFYING

Another wall-to-wall scorcher, sun bouncing off the white concrete and setting pale Northern European skin ablaze. The queue into the circuit builds from around 9.30am, bodies traipsing across dusty car parks clutching carrier bags of food and drink. Security is unusually tight – there are hundreds of traffic police, but a ring of proper Guardia Civil stand with their backs to the track, surveying the crowd. Bags are searched at the entrance; bottles and cans of booze is denied access. Anything you can throw, basically – hopefully that includes grenades.

Which is an outside possibility, given hostilities in the run up to the race. The ins and outs of who said what to whom, who ran who who wide and who caused Marquez to fall off in Sepang has occupied minds high and low for a fortnight. In an effort to calm tension inside the paddock, Dorna and the FIM (MotoGP’s highest authority; well, second only to Rossi himself) have told the teams and riders to put a lid on it and just race. The worry probably isn’t so much what happens on track, as off it. With a full attendance expected, a feeling has grown among commentators and journalists that crowd trouble is possible. Unheard of, at a Grand Prix. ºgreat clouds of weed fumes billowing up from all corners of the stands. And why not? It’s a nice day, there’s some racing, go sit in the stands and relax. Marquez fans sit next to Rossi fans next to Pedrosa fans... even the odd Lorenzo fan, sometimes embroidered with wisdom such as: “Constant like hammer”.

Out on the track, Moto3 qualifying sees John McPhee grab pole and nearly-but-not-quite-yet champ Danny Kent labour to 18th on the grid. Greg and Sarah, from Birmingham, aren’t surprised: “He’s British. It was never going to be easy. But he’ll do it. We have faith in the lad.” Both of them are, like almost everyone else, decked out in Rossi paraphernalia. Maybe next year for the Danny Kent uniform, eh? “Ooo, I don’t know about that,” coos Sarah.

The crowd is 60/40 male/female, with a good mix of families, kids and pregnant mums. This being Spain, dark skin, black hair and sun-bronzed limbs are a speciality. And that’s just the guys. The girls are even lovelier.

With the Moto2 title decided way back, the crowd thins between Moto3 and MotoGP qualifying as people nick off for beer, water and hot dogs. Rabat gets a cheer for putting it on pole. A lone Frenchman waves and hollers at world champ Zarco, as if he’ll catch his attention through ear plugs, a helmet, the screaming of a CBR600 motor and 70ft of gravel trap.

MotoGP’s free practice sees everyone shout for Rossi again but when he slides off into the gravel an “Oooooooh!” ripples round the stadium and suddenly it’s a bit less fun. Watching Rossi walk dejectedly away from the crash, head hung low, he’s got ‘Aw, fack it,’ writ all over him but when his scooter lift back to the pits runs beneath the crowd, they go nuts with the loudest cheer of the day. Rossi waves back. Meanwhile, Lorenzo’s epic pole position lap – the greatest of his career – barely warrants a respectful handclap.

 

SUNDAY, RACE DAY

With the entire population of Spain trying to squeeze into the circuit, early is good. At 7.30 the stands are dotted with keen race fans, and it’s filling rapidly. A bank of fog rolls down off the hills and drapes itself across the venue, delaying warm up by 10 minutes. The most ardent supporters are already chanting ‘Rossi, Rossi, Rossi...’ into the misty air. There are wigs, balloons, flags, painted faces, even tattoos. Brits Mark and Theresa hang a Saltire and Union Jack across some railings. They’ve made the trip from Bangor in Northern Ireland; it’s cheaper for them to come to Valencia than it is to go to Silverstone.

At 8:41am the circuit PA bursts into life, a throaty gargle of Spanish phonetics at a slightly uncomfortable volume. Then they play the Scorpions’ Wind Of Change. It’s a relief when the commentators start yabbering again.

At 9.00am the Moto3 riders are out for warm-up. The fog has cleared but wetted the track. It looks slippery. Danny Kent goes third fastest. Mark and Theresa look relieved, but have to move their flag because a circuit security guard – of whom there are many – has pointed out it could block someone’s view. Doesn’t he know we have 38 years of hurt?

Moto2 warm-up comes and goes with Luthi from Rabat (big cheer, they like him) from Rins (another cheer) and then Sam Lowes, fresh from a big one yesterday. The crowd appreciate his efforts, and he gets a chorus. But he doesn’t wave back. Maybe his shoulder hurts.

Then the big boys come out. By now the stands are 80 percent full and the cheer for Rossi is deafening. Marquez gets a smaller cheer, Pedrosa is applauded politely, and Lorenzo is ignored. Two lads, decked out in Rossi kit, and who possibly aren’t Spanish, boo Jorge to his face. That’s out of order (as happened in the pits on Friday). But trackside, it’s kinda funny.

With every to and fro on the giant TV screen, the crowd react appropriately with oos and ahhs and cheers and jeers. Their passion is infectious, but it’s no wild mob. These are fans and they know what they’re seeing; you can sense their appreciation and respect – except with Lorenzo.

Why is Jorge so unpopular? Spanish not being a strong point, Cara from Dorset fills me in: “I think it’s because when he was beating Valentino a few years ago at Yamaha, he did all that Lorenzo Land stuff, like he was trying to copy Valentino but wasn’t. I think people just thought he was always trying too hard to be like Rossi, when maybe he should’ve just been himself.”

One day, books will be written about the complexities of Jorge Lorenzo. From the grandstands, you can see his style is completely different. The others are sideways on the throttle through the top turn, but Lorenzo is neat, tidy, and going forward.

“Arriba! Arriba! Arriba!” bellows the circuit commentator, issuing the standard command to start a Mexican wave. The ripple of humans flinging their arms in the air duly kicks off at the near end of the stand, makes it about halfway down the circuit and peters out. The top half of the crowd start jeering and whistling at the other half. The commentators try again: “Arriba! Arriba! Arriba?”. The same thing happens. Everyone is laughing. Trouble? The nearest to a fight here is people worrying over who’s got the right seats.

The hour between the end of MotoGP warm-up and the Moto3 race is barely enough time to fight through the queues and stock up on liquids. So a large number of the crowd miss the start of the Moto3 race. It passes in a fraction of the time it takes on the TV. At first the bikes are like a massive millipede gliding round the track, then they break up into small groups. Oliveira, Danny Kent’s sole rival for the title, has to win with Kent lower than 14th. In a lovely irony, Olivera is challenged by Kent’s teammate Vasquez, who Kent has criticised this season for not helping him. If Kent falls or has a mechanical, he’d need Vasquez to beat Oliveira.

It doesn’t come to that. Kent nudges up to 9th so even Oliveira winning doesn’t prevent the inexorable becoming the inevitable. The crowd cheer. Three Portuguese gents sing along heartily with Oliveira’s national anthem.

Moto2 is fun, with home fave Rabat holding off Alex Rins for the win. Rabat runs across the gravel and throws a glove into the crowd, but it doesn’t clear the wire fencing. He takes a bigger run up for his second glove, but that too falls short. The crowd laugh, and the marshals get a couple of mementos.

And then it’s the main event, and an electric current of excitement that has been building through the last few hours suddenly explodes through the stadium with a jolt. This is, really, why we’re here. Can Valentino pull off a miracle again? Can he come from the back of the grid, like Marquez did in Moto2 a few years ago, and win? Will the Hondas beat Lorenzo into third? The suspense is palpable; men wipe their brows, girls chew nails. Rossi, ever the showman, rides round dead last, slowly, deliberately. What on earth does he think, when he hears the roars, for just turning up?

The race starts. Lorenzo goes to the front. Marquez and Pedrosa follow him. Rossi battles through the field. The crowd go nuts, at first, with every overtake – and there are plenty. But as Jorge’s lead pulls out, lap after lap, the place goes silent. Rossi somehow claws his way up to fourth, but it’s not enough and everyone knows it. They urge Marquez and Pedrosa to catch and pass Lorenzo, shouting, screaming, waving their hands. But as it becomes clear they can’t get past, frustration sets in. Arms are waved dismissively, and they start blaming the two Honda riders for not trying hard enough. To me, it looks like Marquez is saving himself for a last-lap pounce. He’s only quicker in one part of the track, so he could pass there and hold Lorenzo up for the win. But everyone else is too partisan to notice.

The last few laps are unbearable, as Pedrosa slides under Marquez and spoils his challenge, then Marquez immediately comes back at him – leaving Lorenzo clear to take the title.

Resignation sets in. Lorenzo, the champ, rides past and is ignored by most, booed by a few. “Ayyyeee Vale!” howls a Rossifosi, teary brown eyes popping from a Desperate Dan face. He has the full VR46 costume; yellow cap, T-shirt, Doctor flag round the waist; and he’s momentarily out of his mind as a day, a week, a season – who knows, maybe a lifetime – of dreams gambled on the talent of one man are distilled into a singularity of pent-up emotion.

Around him, the crowd erupts into a deafening wall of lung-busting noise. Below them, on track, Rossi glides past on his Yamaha M1, pulls onto the grass under the giant TV screen, and is mobbed by his fan club. Then he waves to the massed ranks of the grandstand who, almost to a man, woman and child, start chanting his name. It’s impossible not to be sucked headlong into this swirling chaos of mass hysteria. It’s almost as if he’s won the bloody thing.

And then it’s over. On the far side of the circuit a stage-managed track invasion takes place for the podium ceremony; fireworks go off and Lorenzo is booed again. Rossi is cheered.

Back at the bottlenecked exits, it’s a scrum to get out. People are subdued, feel cheated, but there’s no weeping and gnashing of teeth. The wrong man won today, even though the one who did is world champ, and Spanish. It’s just that the ones who could have changed that outcome are also Spanish. Being a Spanish Rossi fan is particularly confusing at the moment.

But then you think of the adoration, devotion, and delirium Rossi generates, and how his fans are legion, in every country, swatting aside national heroes like... well, like ants. And then think about the mountain – literal, not metaphorical – of merchandising his stands have flogged this weekend (not to mention the cut he takes from everyone else’s). Lorenzo, love him or hate him, has won the race and the 2015 MotoGP title, but there’s only one winner this weekend. Even when it turns out he’s not very good at coming second.

Words Simon Hargreaves Photos Gold and Goose, Simon Hargreaves