Craig Murto: NASCAR Rivalry Nothing Like MotoGP

Every form of motorsport has its rivalries, but even the Matt Kenseth-Joey Logano NASCAR rivalry has nothing on what happened in MotoGP this season.

Yamaha rider Jorge Lorenzo is the 2015 MotoGP champion, his third title in the premier class. It’s also the third time in the history of the premier class that the championship was wrestled away in the final race, the last time being 2006 when American Nicky Hayden beat Valentino Rossi. It was also the first time since Giacomo Agostini in 1966 that a rider won the title by winning the final race.

Rossi again lost the title in the final race, but his biggest rival wasn’t his Yamaha teammate, but rather Honda factory rider Marc Marquez.

Marquez and Rossi had a few run-ins during the year, making contact on numerous occasions with the sanctioning FIM penalizing neither rider. The 2013-14 World Champion, Marquez has a reputation as a “wreckers or checkers” rider, and has been accused of purposefully running into competitors and even using his helmet to “head butt” a competitor’s leg as the riders leaned into a corner, but stewards have usually looked the other way or found no fault.

In the last few races of the year, it appeared that Marquez was intentionally racing Rossi harder than other riders on the track, perhaps to hold him up and help his fellow Spaniard Lorenzo win the title. To put it mildly, the way he was being raced was plucking Rossi’s last nerve, and in the second-to-last race in Malaysia he’d had enough.
Keep in mind, Lorenzo and Rossi are Yamaha teammates. But it appeared Marquez, on a Honda, was helping his fellow countryman.

Marquez was especially aggressive in Malaysia, racing Rossi so hard they exchanged positions nine times in one lap. Then, as Marquez drifted wide in a failed outside pass attempt, Rossi visibly slowed down and waited for Marquez to catch him. Pushing his wide, it appeared that Rossi kicked Marquez and knocked him off his motorcycle.

Marquez claimed Rossi kicked at him and caught his brake lever, sending him tumbling. Rossi claimed that Marquez hit the bottom of his leg with his helmet, and that the kick was an instinctive reaction. Even viewing the incident in slow motion it appears both happen simultaneously. Though Rossi said he waited on Marquez so he could push him wide and gain an advantage, stewards could not dismiss the fact that Rossi waited on Marquez and knocked him to the ground.

Rossi was allowed to keep his third-place finish in Malaysia, but was forced to start the season-ending race in Valencia, Spain, from the last spot, 26th on the grid, as a penalty for the contact with Marquez. Lorenzo set fast time at Valencia; Rossi had his work cut out for him.

Like the seven-time MotoGP premier division champion he is, Rossi made quick work of the field, slicing his way to fourth before he could go no further.

Lorenzo led the race, Marquez was second. It did not appear that Marquez made many attempts to pass Lorenzo. In fact, when Marquez’ Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa attempted to take second, Marquez rode more aggressively than he had the entire race just to keep his teammate from moving forward.

By protecting Lorenzo’s lead and preventing his fellow Honda rider from advancing, Marquez ensured that Lorenzo won the title. And the general consensus among media who routinely cover the sport is that Marquez embarrassed the sport by protecting Lorenzo’s lead.

Even Mario Andretti tweeted that to be fair Lorenzo and Rossi should be crowned co-champions. But in reality, Lorenzo out-raced Rossi on the season.

Lorenzo won seven races, Rossi, four. Lorenzo led 274 laps, Rossi led 50. Lorenzo scored five poles, Rossi set fast time once. And Lorenzo set the fast lap of the race six times to Rossi’s four. But it’s not Lorenzo that has fans up in arms, it’s Marquez.

This Marquez-Rossi rivalry is strange. No word yet as to whether Marquez is in trouble for not trying to win Valencia, or for blocking his Honda teammate. Or should he be in trouble for helping a Yamaha rider win the title?

There was talk Rossi might retire at the end of the year. If he decides to stick it out and go for another title, the Rossi-Marquez rivalry could be epic. There’s nothing quite like this in NASCAR.

 Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.