In an announcement during the pre-race press conference at Le Mans that had the assembled journalist press corps slack-jawed, Casey Stoner announced that he would be retiring from MotoGP effective at the close of the 2012 season. In a sport that usually sees most successful riders retiring well into their 30s, that the two-time world champion would choose to leave at the age of 26 and at the seeming peak of his career — he’d already put his second title in the bag and could well be on his way to a third — immediately set the now-instant world of media into complete overdrive.
Stoner cited the recent changes in MotoGP (what he termed the “dumbing down” of the category, i.e., the CRT bikes/teams) and a building lack of enjoyment with the sport as his primary reasons for leaving. Part of that disenchantment has been with the media; the Australian decried not only the continuing critical coverage of himself — he specifically mentioned that some European journalists continue to cling to his missing several months of the 2009 season as a “mystery illness” despite the official diagnosis as being severe lactose intolerance — but also the media’s unfavorable editorial on the series itself.
The constant media microscope that stars of any sport live under can be a burden that will eventually sap the enjoyment out of an athlete. Stoner is one of those riders who would much rather just be racing than anything else; dealing with all the other promotional and media obligations are more of an annoyance to the task of winning races and championships (although as something of a counterpoint to that observation, Stoner was unfailingly polite, articulate, and very frank and thorough in his answers during my one experience interviewing him at Indy last year).
There’s also the fact that Stoner’s first child was born in February of this year. Becoming a father can suddenly change any person’s outlook on life. When I asked if the birth of his daughter Alessandra would have any effect on his racing however, Stoner replied, “In my racing, I doubt it’ll have any effect whatsoever; there’s a time for thinking about things like that, and a time not to. In my racing I’ve always been good at separating my racing from my personal life.” Nonetheless, he also pointed out that, “In the rest of my life, it’s definitely had a big effect. I finally feel like I’ve got an important role in my life, that I have a direction, a real purpose beyond just racing.”
All that said, it’s useless to go into some sort of psychoanalysis mode here and ponder the reasons for Stoner’s retirement. The undeniable fact of the matter is that the sport is losing one of the most gifted riders of a generation.
When Stoner won the 2007 MotoGP championship in his first year on the Ducati Desmosedici GP07, the prevailing opinion was that he was a master of the sophisticated Marelli engine management electronics, and that it was the bike and Bridgestone tires (this was before the spec tire rule) doing most of the work. Yet no one else — including Rossi, who endured one his worst seasons ever in racing last year after signing with the Italian brand — has been able to ride the Ducati anywhere near the same level of performance as Stoner.
When the Australian signed with Honda for the 2011-2012 season, the reaction from Colin Edwards when he heard the news was somewhat prophetic. “Aw man, that is just what we didn’t need. I mean, at least [when he was] on the Ducati, you knew you had a good chance at certain tracks where that bike didn’t go so well. Casey…on a bike like the Honda, that he can get to do what he wants it to do? We might be in for a long season next year.”
True to that prediction, Stoner basically made mincemeat out of the MotoGP field in 2011, dominating the series in a manner not seen since a certain other Australian named Mick Doohan back in the ‘90s. Stoner clinched the championship with two rounds still remaining over a very strong Jorge Lorenzo/Yamaha team. Stoner won 10 out of the 17 races over the season, and was only off the podium once.
Smart money this year wouldn’t be betting against Stoner either. At press time, he’s already won two out of four races in the beginning of the 1000cc era.
Better check out a MotoGP race this year if you can, as it will be your last chance to see one of the sport’s great riders in action before he hangs up his leathers. SR