Last weekend’s MotoGP round at Sepang finally saw the pendulum tip in favour of Jorge Lorenzo as team-mate Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez’s intense rivalry reached boiling point in the searing heat of Malaysia.
Rossi had lit the blue touch paper with a sensational press conference on the Thursday ahead of the race when he accused Marquez of favouring Lorenzo to win the title and suggesting the young Spaniard had deliberately messed with Rossi’s race to help Lorenzo. And he even went so far as to question whether Marquez had been a Rossi fan in his childhood.
If Rossi’s pre-race statement had been meant as a barb to inspire Marquez to prove him wrong and take points off Lorenzo, it backfired. Spectacularly. As Dani Pedrosa and Lorenzo made a break at the front, Marquez and Rossi become embroiled in a close and bitter battle for third place, Marquez seemingly able to pass the Italian at will.
The two riders passed each other nine times on Lap Four in a scintillating display of racecraft, with Marquez leading as they crossed the line to begin Lap Five. The pair continued to trade moves and passed one another five times with Rossi in front as they exited turn thirteen. With Marquez on the outside, Rossi slowed them both down into turn fourteen and then looked at his young heir apparent twice before Marquez lost the front and crashed out.
The camera footage initially seemed to show Rossi had caused the crash by forcing Marquez wide and extending his leg into the Honda, touching the RC213V’s brake lever and causing the Spaniard to crash. However, other camera angles later showed Marquez refusing to change his line as Rossi pushed him wide and the Spaniard learning on the Yamaha, seemingly headbutting Rossi, and Rossi has stuck his leg out only after he’d lost his footing as the bikes came together.
Rossi remained on his bike and went on to finish third, but while Marquez remounted he was unable to finish the race and retired shortly afterwards, parking his bike in the Repsol Honda garage. And then all hell broke loose.
HRC team boss Livio Suppo launched a savage attack on Rossi’s unsporting conduct. He said: “For the Repsol Honda Team what happened today is something we never want to see in racing, as it is unacceptable that a rider would intentionally create a dangerous situation causing the crash of another rider. We love motorsport and we like to see riders competing for victory, but there must be a limit and mutual respect of each other.”
Marquez agreed. He said: “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.”
Unsurprisingly, Rossi saw the incident differently. He 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.
“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.
After the podium ceremony, Rossi and Marquez were called to Race Direction for a hearing. Their decision – after speaking with both riders – was to give three penalty points to Rossi, resulting in him starting the final race of the season from the back of the grid, as he already has one penalty point after an incident in Misano. Yamaha appealed this decision and the FIM had their own hearing with both riders but the appeal was declined and the penalty stands.
Social media broke out in a frenzy with many former riders sharing their views. Former world champion Casey Stoner was quick to point the finger of blame firmly at Rossi’s door, as was Ben Spies, but others, including Michael Laverty and Jeremy McWilliams, pointed out that Marquez’s riding was on the very edge of what was acceptable within the rules of the sport.
And now that the dust has settled the saga continues, with Rossi issuing a statement earlier this evening that he’s considering not racing at the season finale at Valencia. Watch this space…