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GP Week : Issue 155
C asey Stoner’s shock retirement is entirely in keeping with the character that took him to the top. As independent as a free radical – that’s “an uncharged molecule”, as if you didn’t know. And, as it turns out, he shares another characteristic with these valency-challenged particles. Like them, he is “typically highly reactive and short-lived”. Not chronologically so, one hopes, but as a motorcycle grand prix racer. Stopping at just 26 baffled almost everyone – at the height of his powers; with five or more potentially dominant years still to go. Stoner is notoriously impatient with anyone who gets in his way (or tags on to follow) on the race-track. He has been equally impatient in his own approach to racing. Too young to race in Australia at 14 (in his early years he would hint at some sort of Antipodean conspiracy aimed against him) he and his family upped sticks for Europe. The risk taken by father Colin and mother Bronwyn was considerable, the financial hardship likewise, as they abandoned home comforts for an itinerant life in Europe and Spain. Stoner’s first great good fortune was for his talent to be recognised by Pedrosa’s Svengali Alberto Puig. He joined the select and mainly Spanish tide of talented teenagers being shepherded to the big time. Here he met up with Pedrosa for the first time; in Britain he teamed up with fellow rookie Chaz Davies, now 600 Supersport champion, to form a close friendship. Stoner walked the British Aprilia Cup in 2000. As a road-racing rookie (he’d been confined to dirt tracks in Australia, winning 41 national titles – five classes a day, 37 races a weekend), his exceptional talent was plain. In the deeper waters of international racing it would be tested more severely, and Casey, by now dubbed “teenage sensation” , earned a reputation as a blindingly fast crasher. Australian rules meant that not yet 16 he was still too young for national events, but GP rules prevailed, and the 125 class was then open to 15-year-olds. He made his GP debut at home as a wildcard in 2001, a Puig nominee in the same MoviStar colours as Pedrosa and Toni Elias. A stunning start: he finished 12th, losing out on the top 10 by less than two-tenths in a tight pack of classy riders. Stoner’s GP career began in earnest on a 250 in 2002, riding for Lucio Cecchinello’s LCR team. His best result was fifth. The next year he stayed with LCR but dropped to 125s, again on an Aprilia. His first win came at the end of a dramatic up-and-down season. He was living up to his “sensation” reputation. Now aged 18 and with a reputation for forthright comment, he was taken up by KTM, the Austrian manufacturer gaining ground in its second year. Crash-prone Casey added one more win, and moved straight back to LCR and 250s for 2005. Now he started to rack up the wins. Five of them. In the same year Pedrosa claimed eight. Stoner was second overall, his best yet. But he wasn’t long for the smaller classes, and by happy coincidence Cecchinello was about to move into MotoGP with a satellite Honda. Pausing only for surgery to fix a shoulder injury (it meant he missed most of the testing) Casey turned up for his first MotoGP race late and streaming with ‘flu. And qualified on pole. During that year, he told me why he was a big-bike natural: “The 125 and 250s I actually found a lot more difficult to ride. I suppose that is from my background, growing up in dirt track, it’s a bit easier for me to slide and move the bike around, and get a little bit more feedback. So for me (MotoGP is) a little more easy to control. It’s more about rider ability than just sheer balls and craziness.” Casey took a rostrum that first year, second in Turkey; but a record 17 falls served to underscore his crash-happy reputation. His response to criticism from former Australian champion Wayne Gardner elicited a typically spiky response: “It doesn’t bother me. I just think people should keep their mouths shut if they don’t know what they’re talking about. I’ve been criticised for being a crasher, merely because I’m trying to ride my arse off on a bike that isn’t capable of winning races.” Given this, perhaps it’s not so surprising he was only fourth choice to partner Loris Capirossi on the factory Ducati: Hopkins, Melandri and 34 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: MOTOGP >>> FEATURE