Elder of Grand Prix journalism, Editor of Motocourse and man on the inside of GP racing, ponders the cult of personality and what GPs would be like without it - stand up Michael Scott
And the cult of personality is, of course, driven by people. In this case, mainly by one person... Valentino Rossi.
Rossi has been blessed in many ways, from extraordinarily good luck to an extraordinary degree of racing talent. And with a level of natural personal charm that would carry him a long way in any walk of life. It is rare to find such a combination of good humour and obsessive desire to win in one person.
Rossi drives the cult - a legion of adoring fans grows with a momentum of its own. This has polarised a rival fan base (rather smaller) for Max Biaggi, an enigmatic egoist who did not seem nearly as deep without the dynamic provided by the Rossi contrast.
All things being equal, Rossi is likely to remain in situ for five years or so, before boredom and excess wealth sap his motivation. Without wishing to impugn the talents of his existing rivals, only Biaggi and Capirossi ran him close this year; the former exhibiting curious flaws (three copy-cat crashes), the latter erratic and no longer as young as he was - his first 125 title was in 1990, forsooth. There are some other candidates. We might see Roberts resurgent in the new four-stroke game; Gibernau building on his race win; Jacque is something of a boy, when he's not broken; McCoy has plenty to prove after getting hurt last season...
But we must look harder for those who might actually hunt Rossi down over the long term - and here the cult of personality is under severe threat. Both of my favourites are Japanese - a nation that historically disapproves of having any personality at all, though to be fair this is changing.
My man last season was Shinya Nakano. The Gauloise Yamaha man far outshone compatriot Haga, and also seasoned fellow-rookie Ukawa, on one of the all-conquering Hondas. Nakano, runner up on 250s to Jacque in 2000, is a delicate sort, looking even younger than his 24 years, and even slightly effeminate. I'd thought he might struggle with a mighty meaty 500. Instead, he was both safe and fast - and more importantly showed a diligent application to learning how to ride a 500. By mid-season you could see him pick the bike up on corner exits to steer with wheelspin rather than relying on ever-more-daring lean angles, often the hardest thing for an ex-250 rider to learn (ask Biaggi).
The other Rossi-hunter is 250 champ Daijiro Katoh, the little guy who turned the usually lively quarter-litre class into a dour parade - the best riders in the world stretched to their limits and far apart as they strived to keep Katoh's Honda at least in sight.
There is another dour side to Katoh apart from his racing. His personality is quite deliberately kept completely absent. Extracting any meaningful quotes from him is an all-day job, with no guarantee of success. Even his Japanese colleagues find him frustratingly secretive.
Want to see the cult of personality in action? Rossi and Katoh tested together at Jerez. Rossi was on the new V5 four-stroke, and ran a lap inside his own GP qualifying time from earlier this year. Impressive, and enough to make him decide there and then to commit to the four-stroke future. (As if Honda were really going to give him any choice).
Katoh? He was having his first real outing on the NSR 500 two-stroke. On his second day, he also ran inside Rossi's qualifying pole time from this year's GP.
And (get this) he was also faster than Rossi on the same day! To me, this is hugely significant. In terms of news value, however, it was Rossi who grabbed all the headlines. The message from all this is clear enough - enjoy Rossi and his personality factory while you may. Those following on behind him aren't in the same game, yet alone the same league.
Then again, so what. The press can manufacture personalities out of pretty thin material if they have a mind - or a need - to.
And, in any case, what do you want your world champions to be - charming? Or fast.
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