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The tactics of mind games

The ways of the mind game and the racers that take the mental edge over of their competitors

Five times 500cc world champion Mick Doohan once said that racing was "20 per cent physical and 80 per cent mental." Most top flight riders of today (some of whom remember what it was like to struggle around in Mick's wake) would agree with him. So why waste time and effort sweating it out down the gym when you can achieve that race-winning edge simply by screwing with your rivals' heads - or adjusting your own mindset to believe you simply can't be beaten?

In top level motorcycle racing, the leading riders are so closely matched that the most minute advantage can mean the difference between winning and losing. That advantage can come from the team, the bike or the rider's fitness level, but the biggest gains are to be found in the mind. Racing is all about confidence, and if you can find any way to have more of it and, even better, to ensure your rivals have less, then you have a better chance of winning.

There are so many ways to out-psych fellow competitors in any sport, and bike racing is no exception. From putting your arch-enemy down in the press to misleading your team-mate with false information, anything goes in the quest to gain an advantage.

While teams spend millions on shaving ounces off their bikes and finding fractions more horsepower, their riders are busy doing development work of their own - developing psychological advantages over the men they have to beat, and going to work on undermining their rivals' confidence.

Different riders have different preferences in how they mentally deal with their opponents and many use varying tactics depending on the situation. But most can be categorised into specific types. From the shrewd manipulator of the press to the rider who physically bullies his rivals, here are some prime examples of the psycho warriors we call bike racers.

The Media Manipulator

Top candidates: Valentino Rossi, Barry Sheene, Kenny Roberts

Slagging matches in the press are one of the most common ways to try and upset a rival, and there have been some classic wars of words over the years in bike racing. Sheene and Roberts, Rossi and Biaggi, Foggy and... well, just about everyone he raced.

Post-race press conferences and podium presentations are a good place to see psychological warfare in action and Rossi uses both to great effect. Knowing the world's eyes are on him, he has used these occasions in the past to taunt Max Biaggi and, most recently, Sete Gibernau. When Rossi was penalised after his team cleaned his grid spot at Qatar in 2004, Rossi blamed Gibernau for tipping off the stewards and refused to make eye contact with his rival in the press conference. His body language made it clear that he had found the excuse to, "never speak to Gibernau again."

To undermine Kenny Roberts' abilities as a development rider in the '70s, Sheene told the press that, "Kenny couldn't develop a cold, let alone a motorcycle." Not to be outdone by Sheene, Roberts retaliated, "If I'm so bad and I'm beating him, what does that make him?" Theirs was a classic tit-for-tat battle which ran for years, with each rider being equally well-armed with witty put-downs. Both were too smart to fall for it, so neither gained the psychological upper hand, but it did make for great press.

As did the now infamous incident where Rossi had his revenge on Gibernau. It was the first GP of 2005 in Jerez when he rammed into Gibernau at the last corner to take the win. Rossi's attitude on the podium didn't win him any fans but pictures provide graphic evidence that he had Gibernau psychologically beaten.

Even when both riders crashed out of the same race, such as in Rio in '04, Rossi retained the advantage. In his first year on the unfavoured Yamaha, Rossi swiped at Gibernau by telling the press, "It's easier NOT to make a mistake when you're riding a Honda."

Rossi's feuds with Max Biaggi in the press have been well documented but it's worth noting that they started in 1997, when the two riders weren't even racing in the same class. Even before they were destined to clash on track, Rossi tried to establish psychological dominance over Biaggi. When the Italian press asked him if he wanted to become the Biaggi of the 125 class, he replied, "It's going to be him that dreams of being the Rossi of 250s!"

Rossi's manipulation of the media is so effective and well recognised that one of the reasons cited for Makoto Tamada's win at Rio in 2004 was the fact that he didn't speak Italian or English and so couldn't be demoralised by Rossi's taunts in the press.

Mindless Games

For some people, those carefully considered psychological tactics just don't work

  • Niall Mackenzie and James Whitham tried hating each other as team-mates and title rivals in 1996 but, "just made each other laugh too much" and couldn't pull it off.
  • Carl Fogarty called his pet Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs 'Colin' and 'Aaron' to snub his WSB rivals. How much this helped him to gain a psychological edge over Colin Edwards and Aaron Slight is debatable.
  • Steve Hislop went through a phase in 2001 of taking a faith healer to races to improve his psychological well-being. He soon became a 'non-believer' when his results didn't improve.
  • Former 250GP and WSB World Champ John Kocinski didn't do himself any favours with his odd behaviour. His fixation for cleanliness bordered on obsessive-compulsive disorder. It left his rivals howling in the paddock and Kevin Schwantz for one was convinced that Kocinski would "come apart like a cheap watch" when the pressure was on.

The Dominator

Top candidates: Mick Doohan, Mike Hailwood

If you've got the talent, this is the most devastating psychological weapon in your arsenal. Mick Doohan certainly had the talent and he was the master at dishing out this demoralising punishment. From the minute pit lane opened for free practice and all through official qualifying, Doohan would try to top the time sheets. It's of no great importance to the coming race to be quickest in the practice sessions when most riders are testing tyres, parts and settings. The only benefit is psychological - in showing your rivals that you cannot be beaten, even when you're just practising. Posting fastest laps time after time leaves your rivals thinking they're racing for second place before the flag even drops.

During practice for the 1963 Isle of Man TT, Mike Hailwood very deliberately put this theory into practice. At a time when 100mph laps were still a sensation, he told his crew that he was going to lap at over 100mph every time during practice. And what's more, he was going to do it as nonchalantly as possible. Pushing off from the start line with no great haste, once Mike was behind the screen, he gave it everything and, true to his word, every lap he posted was over the ton. Come race day, the competition was completely demoralised and had accepted they were racing for second spot.

Clearing off at the front of the field to win by as great a margin as possible was another Doohan dominator trick. When it was put to him that this made racing boring for the fans, he replied, "What do you want me to do - slow down?" Doohan wasn't racing for the fans, he was racing to annihilate his opposition and he was a master at it.

Another favoured trick of the Dominator is to let his rivals know that he's not even trying hard. In WSB pre-season tests in '05, eventual champion Troy Corser claimed he was, "only riding at 80 per cent" despite setting a blistering pace.

Later, after claiming a double victory at Phillip Island, Corser complained that the races were "too easy" - echoing Mick Doohan's classic statement that racing was "boring as shit" in the 1990s because he was beating everyone with apparent ease. Only a select few have the ability to dominate in such a way but it's soul-destroying stuff for the rest of the field when it can be achieved.

The Chameleon

Top candidate: Valentino Rossi

Rossi's mind games are as flexible as his riding style. If you're no threat to him he'll be your best friend, but if you challenge him, prepare to be put down big time.

As Marco Melandri found out during the 2005 season, "Rossi only likes you if you're slow." Although Rossi and Melandri's relationship hasn't deteriorated to the extent of the Rossi/Gibernau feud, Rossi has distanced himself from his younger compatriot and things will only get worse as Melandri's results improve.

Rossi also knows how to turn things around and put 'positive pressure' on rivals such as '06 MotoGP rookie Dani Pedrosa. Before the youngster has even made his race debut in the premier class, Rossi has said in the press that he will be a threat.

While it may appear to be a compliment, the statement actually puts heaps of pressure on Pedrosa to perform in his first season. So if he doesn't win races straight away, he will appear to have failed to live up to Rossi's expectations and, if Rossi's plan comes to fruition, will start to doubt his own ability.

The Nice Guy

Top candidate: Niall Mackenzie

Niall Mackenzie took a different slant to most psycho warriors. He felt that if he got up anyone's nose then they would only try that bit harder to beat him - and that would be handing them an advantage. Consequently, he was pleasant to everyone and hoped that he would catch them off-guard once the visors were down. As the old Sicilian proverb says: "Keep your friends close and keep your enemies even closer."

The Analyst

Top candidate: Jim Moodie

Former British Supersport champion and eight-time TT winner Jim Moodie didn't rely on openly out-psyching his rivals - instead he looked for chinks in their psychological armour and kept a secret book in which he noted every last detail of their behaviour.

Who drank too much and might be a bit rough on Sunday morning? Who was easily rattled in an elbow-to-elbow battle? Who would crack when leading from the front? Who had recently suffered personal problems which could distract them during a race? Moodie had his rivals pinned before a wheel turned in anger.

The Confidence-sapper

Top candidates: Kenny Roberts, Barry Sheene

A particularly smart way to undermine your rival is to plant the seeds which will allow him to destroy his own confidence. Photographer Don Morley remembers seeing Kenny Roberts go to work on Barry Sheene with this technique.

"Kenny was a master at out-psyching his rivals," he says. "I remember once at a riders' meeting when Barry thought he was on for a sure-fire win at whatever track they were at and Kenny started on about a slippery patch of new Tarmac at a particular corner. I saw just a flicker of doubt in Barry's eyes as he pretended he had noted it too. But it was just Kenny trying to unsettle his rivals."

Sheene reputedly went one stage further in trying to mislead his Suzuki team-mate Pat Hennen by leaving false bike settings lying around their shared garage, hoping Hennen would try them. Sheene was also not beyond staring warily at other riders' tyres on the gird in an attempt to plant seeds of doubt in their minds about whether they had made the right tyre choice.

Although not aimed at anyone in particular, Mick Doohan often delivered general put-downs in the press to gnaw away at his rivals' psyches. Of riders who depend on nutritionists and training gurus to make them endless energy drinks, Doohan once quipped "I can make my own milk shakes." And he repeatedly refused technical improvements Honda offered him, knowing that this would make his rivals even more in awe of his superior riding skills.

The Über-competitor

Top candidate: Wayne Rainey

Wayne Rainey had to beat his team-mates at tennis, swimming, pinball or anything else. He had to show he was superior even away from the track. Many riders are driven by an almost pathological fear of defeat; in Rainey's case, it earned him three world titles but cost him his mobility. He was paralysed in a crash while defending his title against bitter rival Kevin Schwantz. With the need to win removed, the two are now friends. For Schwantz and Rainey at least, the psychological war is over.

The Aggressor

Top candidate: Carl Fogarty

Foggy personifies this attitude. Hate your rivals with such intensity that the very thought of being defeated by them is too humiliating to bear. By the time Foggy and Steve Hislop were Honda team-mates at the 1991 TT, they had been friends for over five years. But suddenly Hizzy found

Foggy refusing to speak to him. "Knowing that I was the man to beat," Hislop said, "Carl refused to speak to me all through the TT fortnight, even though we were team-mates and based in the same garage. But Carl has to do things like that to win. He has to hate his rivals in order to beat them and he's always trying to out-psyche them in any way he can."

The Bully

Top candidate: Max Biaggi

When Niall Mackenzie moved from 500cc to the 250cc grand prix class, he immediately found himself on the receiving end of Max Biaggi's bully-boy tactics. "He came past me in practice for the first race of the year and deliberately brake-checked me. I suppose he just wanted me to know that he was the boss in the 250 class." Rossi tells similar tales of Biaggi whipping past him dangerously close and at high speed on slowing-down laps. But, since Rossi got the upper hand in the end, it shows that bullying tactics alone aren't enough to guarantee victory.

The Fitness Freak

Top candidates: James Toseland, Neil Hodgson, Mick Doohan, Niall Mackenzie

Being fit is important for a motorcycle racer. Controlling 250bhp machines for 45-minute stints in sub-tropical temperatures with total humidity is gruelling on the body. That's why riders like James Toseland and Neil Hodgson train like Olympic athletes. That's why, they believe, they have both been World Superbike champions. Yet Steve Hislop once said of Hodgson, "Neil trains like an athlete but I can't see how it's going to make him go round a corner on a bike any faster."

Hislop himself was no great believer in training, yet he could ride a 180bhp machine round the punishing Isle of Man TT course for hours at a time at record-breaking speeds. Carl Fogarty was the same. He delighted in eating pies and chips in front of his salad-eating rivals then smoking them out on track after they had trained so hard.

So who's got it right? The super-fit Toseland who has won one WSB crown or the pie-munching Foggy who took four titles in his career? Well, they're both right. 

Despite Doohan saying that racing is more mental than physical, he was himself a fitness fanatic. But this isn't a contradiction because mental and physical health are inter-related. For Doohan, simply knowing he was fitter than any other rider gave him the psychological advantage he needed.Triple British Superbike champion Niall Mackenzie was the man who got Doohan turned onto training in the first place and he, naturally, holds similar views to the former GP star.

"I needed to feel that I'd put the effort in and deserved my place on the grid," he says. "I looked at other riders and knew they'd done a lot less - and that made me think I was more prepared for the job ahead than they were."