Lorenzo the Spartan of speed

The rising star of MotoGP bears the scars of a roller-coaster rookie season. Gary James hears how a warrior race inspires the rider in his personal battles
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The Independent Online

As Jorge Lorenzo enjoys a one-month holiday from the MotoGP championship, he will carry within his 21-year-old Spanish heart the ethos of the Spartans, the ancient Greeks renowned for displaying courage in the face of pain, danger and adversity.

Lorenzo uses the movie 300, (below) released in 2006 and based on the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BC – when a small number of Spartans held a pass against a vastly superior Persian army until all the defenders were killed – as inspiration for his racing exploits.

It is an inspiration that he has needed in a troubled debut year in motorcycle racing's premier category. After winning two 250cc world championships, Lorenzo became MotoGP's poster boy after qualifying on pole in his first three races this year, winning in Portugal and, briefly, leading the points table. But he fell in practice in China and fractured both ankles and since then the crashes have continued: the latest was in the US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca last Sunday. He is now wearing a cast on his left foot in order to allow three fractured bones to heal.

"I was born in Majorca, but I think my soul comes from Sparta," Lorenzo says in his recently published biography, which is currently available only in Spanish. "Since I came into the world I was raised for a cause, to reach the highest level in motorcycle racing. We fight back to back to win battles, and like them [the Spartans] we don't like to be beaten."

In China and in the following round in France, Lorenzo was pushed around the pits in a wheelchair, but climbed on to his 800cc Fiat Yamaha to race. The scene at Le Mans was almost as painful for spectators to watch as it was for the shattered rider to endure. Lacking the strength in his legs needed to control his 200mph bike fully, he crashed heavily on each day of practice.

Each time he was carried away on a stretcher, and there were many who thought that someone – a doctor, the race director, or a member of his Yamaha team – should have said, firmly: "Jorge, clear off to a beach and rest. Don't come back until you're strong again."

"I felt scared, very scared," Lorenzo said. "I thought I'd hurt myself more. Physically, I was in a bad state, destroyed, but after the storm comes the calm."

Sure enough, in the race the following day on the Le Mans circuit he axed through the field to finish second, behind Valentino Rossi, defying the pain to earn his fourth rostrum position of the year.

"We have to accept that we're in a sport where sometimes you're going to fall and hurt yourself," he said.

Lorenzo subsequently crashed in Italy, Spain, Germany and the United States, so it is remarkable that he still holds fourth place in the championship and could yet bounce back to record more wins before the 18-round MotoGP season finishes in Valencia in October.

But the Lorenzo phenomenon is about much more than a rock-hard rider who can dismiss pain. He has survived a difficult rift with his mentor and father, Chicho, and has completely remodelled his once surly personality to open himself up to his fans.

Chicho Lorenzo spotted his son's ability on two wheels when the child was only three and immediately started grooming him for greatness. He removed the brakes from Jorge's bike to force him to learn to stop it by skidding sideways, won him a place with Dani Amatriain, one of Spain's top team managers, and later withdrew him from school early so that the boy could focus on racing.

But a split developed between Chicho and Amatriain in 2006, when the latter wanted to fire a sports psychologist favoured by the former. Beset by conflicting advice, Lorenzo stopped winning races in the 250cc world championship and began to crash frequently.

He had to choose sides – and went with Amatriain. His father demanded money in return for what he had invested in his son, and Lorenzo asked him to keep away from grand prix tracks. The rift continues, although in a subdued form.

"I will be grateful to my father all my life, because he gave me the opportunity to do my job at this level," Lorenzo says. "But we got to a point where we didn't have confidence in each other, and I preferred that he didn't come to the races."

Chicho now, presumably, follows his son's career by watching MotoGP races on television in Majorca, where he runs a training school for young riders. "I speak to him once a week," Lorenzo says. "I love my father. He will never be a poor person, but at that moment I thought that he shouldn't ask for money from his son."

In his sealed-off, all-racing environment, Jorge had grown into the ultimate spoilt sports brat. On a bad day he would chuck his bike on the ground and his helmet around the pit box. He never thanked his mechanics and earned a reputation among fans for arrogance and mouthing off.

So he took classes from a communications coach and underwent hypnosis in order to end his slump in confidence. In this journey into himself he released the artist that had always lurked within the boy who left school without qualifications.

"I'm creative: I like to paint, read and write, and I think a lot," he says. "It's important to feel that, as well as being quick on the track, your behaviour has evolved. I still carry the fury within me, but it's not like it was three years ago."

Lorenzo won his first MotoGP race in Portugal in April, when he was still only 20.

The world of MotoGP has wondered for some seasons about how it will survive when Rossi, now 29 and the greatest rider of his era, who sways fans with the eyes of a cherub and the track-craft of a leopard, eventually retires. The extraordinary Jorge Lorenzo could just provide the answer.

Crash course: Lorenzo's fractured campaign

*Qatar Pole, 2nd in race

*Spain Pole, 3rd in race

*Portugal Pole, 1st in race

*China Two fractured ankles in practice crash, 4th on grid, 4th in race

*France Two crashes, 5th on grid, 2nd in race

*Italy 7th on grid, crashed in race

*Catalunya Crashed in practice, head and hand injuries, did not race

*Great Britain 17th on grid, 6th in race

*Netherlands 7th on grid, 6th in race

*Germany 5th on grid, crashed in race *US 4th on grid, crashed in race, three fractured bones in left foot

*MotoGP Championship 1 Valentino Rossi (Fiat Yamaha) 212pts; 2 Casey Stoner (Marlboro Ducati) 187; 3 Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda) 171; 4 Jorge Lorenzo (Fiat Yamaha) 114 *Next round Czech Republic, 17 August