Think about the major protagonists among riders in MotoGP for the last decade. Many of the same names from about 2008 onward still pop up in discussions of the best riders and rivalries in the sport today.
Valentino Rossi. Jorge Lorenzo. Dani Pedrosa. Andrea Dovizioso. Cal Crutchlow.
A few names have disappeared. Casey Stoner went fishing. Nick Hayden went to World Superbike. Marco Simoncelli went to a better place.
But other than that, how many riders have truly stirred up the established order of the sport since Lorenzo’s premier-class debut in 2008? Only one, for certain: Three-time MotoGP World Champion Marc Marquez.
One could argue Ben Spies and Simoncelli could have upset the proverbial tool box in a similar way, but their careers didn’t last long enough.
That could change this season.
Disruption is all the rage among Silicon Valley companies these days. Upending the normal ways of business is standard operating procedure for tech hotshots such as Facebook, Snapchat and Uber.
Maverick Vinales could be the Uber of MotoGP this season.
Vinales showed growing pains during his rookie season in MotoGP, in 2015 on a Suzuki. But he started to fulfill his promise last season, with four podium finishes on a rapidly improving Suzuki, including his first premier-class victory at Silverstone in a controlled, composed ride that justified his signing by Yamaha’s factory team earlier in the season.
But after the first two preseason tests of 2017, the whispers of Vinales as a title contender and the quickest rider in a Yamaha garage also occupied by Rossi are amplifying into a steady cacophony of expectation.
Vinales was the quickest rider overall at Sepang and Phillip Island, circuits with very different weather and track configurations. This is no fluke, folks.
But perhaps the biggest testament to Vinales’ emergence as a patrón of the paddock is that reigning World Champion Marquez shadowed him during a race simulation on the last day of the Phillip Island test.
Marquez is impish in his imperiousness, much like Rossi. He messes with rivals’ minds simply with his presence. But Marquez didn’t need to chase the rear tire of Vinales’ M1 for five consecutive laps during a clear race sim at the Island unless he either was concerned about Vinales’ pace or saw him as enough of a threat to warrant some head games.
Some aspiring “aliens” might brush off the Marquez shadow, considering it a compliment. But established supernovas, such as Lorenzo, Rossi or even Marquez himself, don’t take kindly to two-wheeled remoras latching on to their blue whale race sims.
And Vinales responded like an established star whose turf was being compromised, not an “aw, shucks” rider who is in his first season with one of the
“I knew it,” Vinales told media about the incident. “The next day I do a long run it will be my turn to bother him.
“I really didn’t understand it, because you are doing your job, your long run, and then being unable to push … I’m not going to carry him.
“It’s hard to keep on pushing when you have him behind, and you know he can study what you do.”
Marquez ended up second overall at the Phillip Island test on his Honda, .294 of a second behind Vinales. Reigning World Champion Marquez was third at Sepang, .138 behind Vinales.
Their close proximity, combined with Vinales’ increasing irritation at Marquez’s head games, could signal a new golden age of rivalry at the top of the sport between the two latest disruptors — who both happen to hail from the same country.
Spaniards Marquez and Lorenzo triggered sparks during Marquez’s rookie season in 2013, when Marquez edged Lorenzo for the title by just four points.
But perhaps the fiercest rivalry among countrymen in the last 20 years came in the early 2000s between Rossi and Max Biaggi.
Bad blood flowed freely and spilled over on the track, especially during Biaggi’s astonishing shove of Rossi that sent The Doctor off track at 150 mph at Suzuka in 2001, with Rossi passing Biaggi a few laps later and flipping him the bird at 100 mph. The two also exchanged shoves and a few blows after Rossi beat Biaggi at Catalunya that season.
One other common thread between the Rossi-Biaggi feud and a potential eruption between Marquez and Vinales: Rossi rode for Honda, Biaggi for Yamaha.
It remains to be seen if a Marquez-Vinales rivalry could or will reach that level of gladiatorial ferocity in 2017.
But damn, wouldn’t it be fun? Wouldn’t it separate MotoGP from nearly every other major form of global racing, in which rivalry based on true distaste bordering on hate has been sanitized out of the sport by sponsors or sanctioning bodies or, worse yet, conducted in lame fashion on Twitter?