There’s No GOAT Like An Old GOAT
Trees are tall. But they do not touch the sky. I offer this cod philosophy to help keep things in proportion as we head into the new year. When you are up too close to something, it is easy to over-inflate its importance.
We have had a few weeks now to look back on the MotoGP season, and it still inspires awe. But what is the true measure of achievement? Have we now seen the passing of the baton from one GOAT to the next?
There can only ever be one Greatest of All Time—that much is implicit. And for many years, certainly for my generation and for many of the next, it was easy. Mike Hailwood forever. I saw him race with nonchalant superiority back in his heyday, and then again when he returned to win on the Isle of Man, after 11 years away. Unforgettable.
Agostini won more races and more titles, and was likewise a giant. Angel Nieto, also. But Mike The Bike twice won three classes at the same GP: 250, 350 and 500 in East Germany in 1963 and Czechoslovakia in 1966. More than all this, it was his style of winning and his casual enjoyment that tipped the scales, even before his doubly victorious TT comeback in the late 1970s.
It was much to do with sportsmanship. Hailwood was not averse to some outwardly good-natured psychological warfare, and he enjoyed winning. Obviously. But seemingly not in the same way as one of the later racing all-timers, Barry Sheene.
Sheene was wildly popular, a prototype Rossi with the common touch, who single-handedly brought bike racing to a wider public at large. He was as quick-witted as he was fast on a bike. But his enjoyment of victory was less that he had come first, but that all the others hadn’t. It wasn’t the winning, it was the beating of his rivals. This is one mark of a champion, but it is also why, when he started losing, he took it badly.
Other big guys came and went. Kenny Roberts did for Sheene, and he was a real eye-opener, with a ferocious combination of intelligently focused talent and frightening determination.
Freddie Spencer was his undoing, and while the then youngest-ever’s time at the top was brief, his was a genuinely dazzling talent.
Serially dominant Mick Doohan stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries in a five-year reign cut unfairly short by injury. By then, Eddie Lawson had become the first to win back-to-back titles on different machines, and Rainey and Schwantz had brought a rivalry that illuminated racing.
Then Rossi turned up, and to those for whom Hailwood is a shadowy figure of the distant past, he definitely became Greatest Of All Time.
There are good arguments to support this view. Results, of course, but also that Rossi was better enough than his current rivals that he could make the races entertaining for the fans, and still win more or less at will. In the process, he radiated sheer enjoyment in much the same way as Hailwood; and by and large—now he is getting beaten—he still manages to do so. This is just one of many things that make him so amazing. But spiteful spats over the years, with Biaggi, Gibernau and now Marquez, take some of the gloss off. Or is that just me?
Rossi’s era has been longer, especially in terms of continuity, than Hailwood’s. But all good things come to an end, and while his longevity remains astonishing and his competitive spirit breath-taking, the wins have become now-and-then, with 2018 the first season in any class (apart from his two Ducati years) without a single victory.
Marquez now quite outclasses Rossi, on a weekend-by-weekend and indeed year-by-year basis. And not only Rossi. His performance in 2018 excelled even his own previous best-yet/youngest-yet standards. Quite apart from taking the lion’s share of wins, nine of 18, he added another four seconds and one third to make 14 podiums. Dovizioso was next-best on nine; Rossi and Vinales had five each. And this in a time of the closest-ever racing, rightly dubbed a new Golden Age.
But it’s still too soon to appoint Marquez as GOAT. It seems certain that his time will come, but until that happens—well, he needs to carry on for a while.
And while it is probably too much to expect him to win on the Isle of Man, would he not race in more than one class?
Well, maybe not. Times are different, techniques more specialized. Even switching to a different brand of tires requires a period of adaptation.
All the same, GOATs come and GOATs go. It’s important for them and us all to remember that tall trees eventually fall over.
Happy New Year to one and all.CN