An interview with Casey Stoner

With rumours abound that Casey Stoner has been offered big bucks to ride the Suzuki in MotoGP for 2015, we thought now was the time to take a look back at an interview we did with him in 2011. Who wouldn’t want to see him back on the grid?

At Le Mans, Casey Stoner became the latest member of a very exclusive club indeed, becoming one of only three MotoGP riders in the modern era who’ve ever managed to turn a whole crowd against them

Valentino Rossi became the founder member when he punted Sete Gibernau out of the way at the final turn to take the win in the 2006 Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez. As Gibernau gave an Oscar winning performance on the podium steps, seemingly collapsing from the pain of a shoulder injured in the crash, Rossi’s appearance on the rostrum was accompanied by the jeers of the crowd.

Marco Simoncelli, on the other hand, managed to upset the Spanish fans at Catalunya before even arriving at the track for the 2009 250GP. A coming together with Alvaro Bautista in the previous race at Mugello resulted in a €5,000 fine for the Italian, but Spanish fans were incensed that he was allowed to retain his second place in the race, and the all important championship points. Having booed him every time he stuck his shaggy barnet out of the Gilera pit box, Simoncelli’s crash from second place in the race prompted deafening applause and jeers from the delighted Spanish fans.

Casey Stoner earned his place in the club during warm up for this year’s French Grand Prix. On a fast lap aboard the Repsol Honda the Australian had to haul on the anchors to avoid Randy de Puniet, who drifted onto the racing line while dawdling along adjusting his brake lever. A swift punch in the shoulder from Stoner certainly attracted de Puniet’s attention, but it also caught the attention of both race direction and the 80,000 strong crowd who, this being the French Grand Prix, were of mostly Gallic persuasion.

Did I mention that Randy de Puniet is the only Frenchman in MotoGP?

See, he does smile.

See, he does smile.

Summoned to race control to answer for his actions immediately after warm up, Stoner was forced to do the walk of shame down pit lane, in front of grandstands filled to capacity with jeering French fans incensed at his treatment of their compatriot.

Not one to shy away from controversy, or picking a fight when it suits him, Stoner reacted to the a €5,000 fine imposed by race direction by saying; “To see race direction make a judgement on something is quite rare, so I have no problem paying the fine”.

Hardly pouring oil on troubled waters, but then Stoner isn’t know for his diplomacy.

In a world where the riders tend to trot out the homogenised offerings of the PR department, Stoner is unique in the fact that he says what he means and means what he says, regardless of whom he upsets.

HRC hide and seek champion.

HRC hide and seek champion.

By rights this should make him immensely popular with the fans but, surprisingly, that’s not the case. Without a doubt, Stoner is the rider that most MotoGP fans love to hate. Maybe it’s because he’s honest, in a world that pretty much defines the word disingenuous. Or maybe it’s because he has the audacity to criticise Valentino Rossi who, with nine world titles under his belt is, for many fans, above reproach. Even when the Doctor is in the wrong, as he clearly was at Jerez when he crashed and took Stoner out of the race as well.

“I saw that Valentino was really fast in morning warm up at Jerez and you could tell he thought he was on for a win,” explains Stoner, during a one-on-one in the Repsol hospitality unit at Le Mans. “Maybe he was riding harder than he should have been on the day, because he made a mistake and he crashed. It was disappointing that I had to be hooked up with that, because it’s something that will drag on throughout the season.”

Rossi, with the assistance of the marshals, managed to restart the Ducati Desmosedici and rejoin the race, whereas Stoner was left in the gravel with a bike that is almost impossible to start without locking the slipper clutch. Needless to say, he wasn’t a happy bunny…

“It’s difficult to explain exactly what I was feeling; probably pure frustration. We knew the risk we were taking with the clutch – that the bike would be difficult to restart – but we thought that if I crashed and took myself out of the race then that’s my own fault. It doesn’t happen very often that somebody else takes you out of a race, but I happened to be the unlucky one that day. Maybe if the track had been dry and I’d had more people pushing me we’d have got the bike restarted, but the way everything turned out was just frustrating.”

And you couldn’t have had a better illustration as to just how frustrated the crash left Stoner, who waited by the side of the track to give Rossi a slow handclap as he went past on the next lap.

“He was behind everyone else, where I would have been as well, so I thought I’d enjoy it!”

Despite being the innocent victim of Rossi’s crash, Stoner copped some flack for the trackside handclapping, but it was his retort to Rossi after the race that caused the biggest backlash.

“Your ambition outweighed your talent,” declared Stoner to an apologetic Rossi who, for some reason known only to himself, had decided to keep his helmet on while delivering his slightly less than sincere sounding apology for the crash. The response from the majority of the public and the press was as expected as it was vehement. How dare this upstart with just one world championship to his name question the talent of Valentino Rossi, the Greatest Rider Of All Time and nine times world champion.

Stoner is unrepentant…

“At that moment, at that corner, his ambition did outweigh his talent. Can you imagine if the situation had been reversed and I’d taken him out? I’d have been called all the names under the sun, but he says ‘oh, I just made a mistake’ and gets away with it.”

“To be honest I don’t care anymore. I took a lot of abuse in 2007 and 2008 and it was hard to take. It continued in 2009 when I had the problem with lactose intolerance, but by then I’d got used to taking crap. It was all one sided, nobody ever listened to me; nobody ever took my point of view or even considered it. But now I’m used to it, now I actually enjoy it a little and give as good as I get.”

Now more than ever it seems the battle on track is continued off track in the media, with riders sniping at each other from behind the cover of journalists who are only too happy to do their dirty work for them, as long as it leads to increased circulation figures and a Twitter storm.

“All the talking in the media is just how some people get their kicks. It’s why the press push and point and pinch and do everything to fire riders up and get a reaction. It’s what people want to hear. I’ve learnt to deal with it, but there are better ways to deal with things than how they’re dealt with in the paddock now. Unfortunately some people are a little bit too chicken to face up to things and be a man.”

Talking to Stoner it’s obvious he has a real passion for all aspects of racing, a passion that doesn’t always come across during television interviews or in the heavily staged managed press conferences before and after every race. You also get the distinct impression he’d be far happier not speaking to anyone, but instead focussing only on the racing and doing his talking where it counts, on the track.

As a championship contender in the media driven world of MotoGP it’s simply not possible for Stoner to shut himself away, appearing only to race the bike, but with Repsol Honda, possibly the least media friendly team in the paddock, he may have found a happy medium.

Nobody was really surprised when Stoner announced at the end of 2010 that he was leaving Ducati and heading to Repsol Honda. Livio Suppo, the Ducati team manager when Stoner won the championship in 2007, had already made the switch the previous year and it was widely rumoured at the time that his first job was to secure the Australian’s signature on a Honda contract. Doing so might not have been so easy though, if Stoner hadn’t already had some reservations about remaining with Ducati for a fifth season.

“For me there were a number of factors that influenced the move, but it all started with my health issues, which to this day some people don’t believe was down to lactose intolerance. Basically my body refused to absorb any nutrients and effectively shut down. After I’d taken blood test after blood test, went to every frikkin’ doctor I could think of and then every doctor Ducati could think of, all without success, they started to lose faith in me. They wouldn’t believe me when I told them that I didn’t feel like a tablet was going to fix me. I think they assumed I was losing it and the problem was in my head.”

“This wasn’t the team or the people behind the creation of the Desmosedici who were thinking this way, but rather people in other parts of the company. It was a big factor in my decision to leave.”

“But another part was that to ride for HRC has been a dream of mine from when I was so little; since I can remember anything about racing. So to have the chance to come here, to a great manufacturer, with a good team and a great bike was a fantastic opportunity for me to take a step forward for the future.”

The Honda was definitely the bike to be on at the beginning of the four-stroke era in MotoGP, but Honda’s last world championship title, taken by Nicky Hayden back in 2006, came in the last year of the 990cc bikes and success hasn’t been as easy to come by since the switch to 800cc in the premier class. Just how confident was Stoner, who has won more races on an 800cc MotoGP bike than any other rider, that he could turn Honda’s fortunes around?

“In the past I think other riders, when they rode anything but a Honda, thought ‘oh, it’s impossible, I can’t do it’. When the day wasn’t right for them on that track they gave up and lost more points than they maybe should have.”

“Valentino went to Yamaha and proved that they had a championship-winning bike and, now, that’s the bike everyone wants to be on. We came out at Ducati on a bike that nobody thought could win, on tyres that nobody thought could win and yet we went on and won the championship. So, all of a sudden, ours was the bike people wanted to be on. For me it was clear that Honda was where the most potential was. At the moment our bike is fantastic. I can’t vouch for any of the other bikes, because I haven’t ridden them, but I’m extremely happy with the Honda.”

The Australian certainly didn’t have any problems adapting from the Ducati to the Honda, as he proved with consistently fast times throughout pre-season testing. In fact, so fast were his lap times in testing that he was already been touted as a racing certainty for this year’s title before he’d even turned a wheel in anger. But was the transition to the Honda really as easy as it looked, or did the lap times come only after big changes to a bike developed in Stoner’s absence by Dani Pedrosa?

“At the first test in Sepang we were just testing different parts on the bike, so we didn’t change the setting very much at all. On the first exit the bike felt like it was a little high in the rear, so we dropped it down. On the second exit it felt a little too low in the rear, so we moved it back up halfway between the two settings. That was it; we literally didn’t change one click for the rest of the test and I ended up, I think, second fastest. That was just unbelievable!”

“At the second test we started to play around with the bike a little bit, but it feels like once you get more or less a balance with this bike then it’s pretty much tiny settings here and there. You really don’t want to be changing anything too big, because it works just about everywhere. Basically you just need to get your spring rate right for how much heavy braking you’re doing compared to acceleration and you’re pretty much done.”

Viewed by many as the 2011 champion elect he may be, but the season, just four races old when we went to press, hasn’t got off to the best of starts for Stoner. A dominant win in the opening race at Qatar was like a rerun of his win at the same circuit back in 2007 at the start of his championship-winning season. Then came the crash with Rossi at Jerez, followed by Estoril, where the Repsol Honda rider had no answer for his teammate, Dani Pedrosa, and Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo and could only manage third place in the race. Le Mans saw the title challenge back on track and, while there’s still a long way to go, Stoner is far from worried.

“The year I won the championship I finished third at Estoril, although it was later in the year, but I didn’t have a great race at Jerez, whereas this year I was much more competitive than I’ve ever been before there. For me, this year I think I’m a lot stronger that I’ve been in any season before, including 2007 when I won the championship.”

Just what the straight talking Stoner’s rivals didn’t want to hear…

Aggressive Riding

We’re here to race strong and it’s okay to be aggressive, but you shouldn’t be dirty. The saying ‘rubbing is racing’ isn’t true at this level. You can tough, you can even rub a little, but you can’t hit. There’s a big difference.

Unfortunately some riders don’t know where to draw the line and seem to cross it regularly. Push comes to shove and… Something quite bad could happen in the future if people don’t pull themselves into line and realise we’re all out there together taking risks. We’ve got to ride side-by-side, so why can’t we show respect for each other and ride clean; ride fair and, when you do make a pass, make it hard but clean?

Stoner on: Race Direction

In my opinion there’s an issue with inconsistency and favouritism. Marco Simoncelli criticised Jorge Lorenzo because he was disqualified from a race for aggressive riding, but then you look back at Marco’s move on Hector Barbera in the 250 race at Mugello in 2009 when nothing was done.

Or another example, James Toseland was given a ride through penalty at Phillip Island for jumping the start, except he didn’t actually jump the start. What do they do, they say ‘oh, sorry’. They’ve just ruined his race, taken away any chance of points and all they can say is sorry? Come on, I mean, what the heck is that. They need to check they’re right before they pull anyone off track.

One year Anthony West pulled up on the wrong grid slot in Motegi aboard the Kawasaki and gets a ride through penalty for it. Then, I think it was at Le Mans a year later, Jorge Lorenzo did the same, lining up in the wrong place on the grid. Only this time they held everyone on the grid while they told him where to go and waited for him to do it.  So we have the same situation, but two different outcomes.

Then there’s Motegi. One year John Hopkins crashes in turn one, takes some riders down and the next year Loris Capirossi does the same thing, but who got the penalty? Only John. So many times you see the European riders get away with a lot more than the English or Anglo Saxon riders do and I think things like that need to be looked at.

Stoner on: Retirement

In some ways I’d like to just disappear once I stop racing, but with this being such a big part of my life, I think it will be hard to say goodbye and just walk away. If I stay in racing then I think it will be to support a young rider coming through the ranks, but only if things change. I want to continue my involvement in the sport only if it’s correct and only if it’s going to be run fairly.

The interview was carried out by former SuperBike editor Kenny Pryde.