Six months ago both Casey Stoner, the brash young Australian who is hardly everyone's cup of tea, and Valentino Rossi, the veteran Italian multiple champion and hero of the track, were at a crossroads.
Stoner, after bursting on to the scene and winning the title in 2007 by a massive margin, was struggling due to illness, multiple crashes and a seeming loss of that unshakeable confidence. Rossi, meanwhile, broke his leg on the Yamaha during 2010 as his team-mate, the young Spaniard Jorge Lorenzo, took his world title.
The two riders, who have a history of spicy confrontation, decided on drastic action. The Australian felt the magic had faded with Ducati, with whom he had won the title in 2007, and after finishing fourth in 2010 decided to switch to Honda. In turn Rossi quit the Yamaha factory – which had helped Lorenzo to victory – to try to tame Ducati's whimsical handling and power delivery.
At Silverstone on Sunday at the British MotoGP there may well be further proof that it is Stoner who made the wiser choice – and the British fans won't be happy, such is their dislike of the Australian they regularly boo. He sits second in the standings while the much-loved idol that is Rossi trails in fifth.
"With the Honda I'm finding it a lot better on the exits," Stoner said of his V4 machine. "I'm not having to push the corner so hard to get the bike turning from the exit. It flows from one part to the next and it feels a lot easier to work around."
Stoner, now 25, has won three of the five MotoGP races this year, and holds second place in the points table behind the defending champion Lorenzo. The 32-year-old Rossi, meanwhile, is labouring to turn the 800cc Ducati into a race winner, and has scored only one podium placing in five races.
Ironically, the only time Stoner failed to make the podium this year was when Rossi misjudged an overtaking manoeuvre in Spain and brought both of them down. "I heard Valentino arriving and I wasn't worried about anyone passing me at that point in the race so I gave him plenty of room," Stoner said. "It was a racing incident and there's not much we can do." Gracious, but no doubt through gritted teeth.
When Stoner cleaned up in 2007 he seemed destined to rule for years and knock Rossi permanently off his perch. As the super-confident 21-year-old Stoner, who was twisting a throttle on country dirt tracks when he was only four years old, said of Rossi: "You have to give it right back to him the way he gives it to you." And that he did, taking the title in only his second MotoGP season (with six pole positions and 10 race wins) by 125 points, the equivalent of five race victories.
"Casey is the fastest man on earth," Ducati's team manager Livio Suppo eulogised at the time, of a rider with a natural talent that makes it look like his rivals are feathering the throttle.
After showing his talent in the 125cc and 250cc feeder classes, Stoner qualified on pole in only his second race after graduating to MotoGP, the Formula One of motorcycling, in 2006. He also had several off-pistes, though, leading disbelievers to dismiss him as a wild crasher. But the raw speed was clearly there and, as all in racing know, it is far easier to calm a turbulent genius into a championship winner than it is to coax edge-of-life speed from a steadier performer who never bends the motorcycle.
After his maiden world title, a rosy future seemed assured. But then the wheels came off and suddenly life stopped being a lap of honour. Critics claimed it was the bike that was winning the races rather than Stoner. (In fact, the Ducati is such a capricious beast that while the Australian won a total of 20 races on it, all the other riders who have straddled the V4, including Rossi, have managed only a single victory between them.
Stoner then married an 18-year-old fan, Adriana Tuchyna, which the cynics said would blunt his aggression on the track (in fact, it seemed to soothe Stoner's sometimes turbulent spirit.)
Then Stoner started crashing. Several times he went down in battles for the lead in the 2008 season and he was accused of crumbling under pressure from Rossi, who went on to win the title.
In 2009, Stoner succumbed to a mysterious problem with fatigue during MotoGPs, and eventually quit for several races in order to seek a cure. The critics pounced again, this time accusing him of faking and wilting. But Stoner had a genuine problem – he turned out to be lactose intolerant – and he bounced back to win in Australia and Malaysia later that year.
His good start to this season was marred at Le Mans last month, where he was fined for punching the French rider Randy de Puniet during a warm-up session when he slowed and the Australian had to brake suddenly.
But now that he has got used to life on a Honda, Stoner is back in contention and leaving Rossi behind. And the gap could increase on Sunday, boos or not.Reuse content