Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Casey Stoner retirement tour. The reigning MotoGP world champion's Thursday bombshell rocked the paddock and sent the silly season into overdrive — enough, indeed, to escalate its status to 'certifiable season'. All that, and we are only in May, four races into the current campaign.
For a man who came into MotoGP at the last minute in 2006 through Lucio Cecchinello's rescue project when Sito Pons' team plans fell through, Stoner has become one of the quickest in making decisions once the season is underway. Since joining Ducati in 2007 he has been in a position to choose between any of the teams on the grid, allowing him to leave contract worries behind and concentrate on racing. Renewing for a season on an improved deal in 2008 and signing for Honda in May of 2010 were two such occasions in the recent past where the Australian has made his mind up early, leaving the rest of the field to work around his plans.
Stoner's reasons for retiring in his prime centre around enjoyment of the sport, something that has been gradually seeping out of him. I remember a chat with him at the Malaysian round of his debut season, in which he said "it's no fun anymore" and expressed a desire to ride a dirtbike at home to regain something of the hobby side of things. Just to make clear, that was certainly not when the seeds for retirement were sown - and it is a sentiment felt by almost every rider at some stage in their career. But it was the first time that I'd heard it said so honestly, and it has stuck with me.
Whether it be in the garages, in the press room or in the workshop, everyone recognises that involvement in MotoGP requires an awful lot of sacrifice alongside what is a mostly fantastic experience. It's a lot of time away, a job in which phoning it in is swiftly found out and the desire to spend some time in one place can be appreciated. People can confuse this with being ungrateful, which is not the case: stresses are present, as they are in any job, and therefore one owes it to oneself to look for solutions when dissatisfaction sets in.
There were some complaints about changes to MotoGP mixed in with the retirement announcement from Stoner, emanating from a fond nostalgia for the 500cc days when Mick Doohan et al reigned supreme. For better or for worse, MotoGP has changed.
Most strikingly, riders are starting younger and the seasons are longer. We now have riders spending the entirety of their youth in the 'worldwide circus' and see records for 'youngest X, Y or Z' on an almost bi-weekly basis. Ben Spies is the exception to the trend against latecomers, although he too travelled far from insignificant distances across the USA whilst a teenager in the AMA.
In 'old school' terms, Stoner's retirement comes no earlier than that of other champions. Kevin Schwantz called it quits after 10 seasons. So did Eddie Lawson. So, most tellingly, did Mick Doohan. In fact, should Stoner ride at every remaining round of 2012, he will have participated in 118 grands prix — just a present-day season off Doohan's 137.
However Doohan won the first of his five titles at the age of 29, while his fellow Australian will be two years younger than that when he rides what will likely be his last ever race.
Of the recent world champions, only Valentino Rossi has hung on for over a decade, driven by the pursuit of Giacomo Agostini's record of victories and the fact that he was winning so many races for so long. His longevity and relative lack of injuries in such a sensational career deserve almost as much recognition as all those memorable wins. And, although the Italian should never, EVER be used as but a mere footnote, how fantastic was he in the wet at Le Mans in one of his best performances ever? Incredible stuff.
Stoner was never going to catch Ago or Rossi with the idea of retiring early always in the back of his mind, having only upped his win percentage from 2007 onwards. What he has done is reach the pinnacle of MotoGP, then repeat the feat on a Repsol Honda to emulate his hero. There is no clear goal to aim for anymore.
He will replace Rossi in one respect though should he continue to be the fastest rider on the planet come the end of 2012: the new asterisk in the MotoGP record books. In 2010, the caveat was that Rossi was injured. In 2011 & 2012, 'The Doctor' was on a Ducati.
From 2013 onwards, the footnote will read *Season contested without the presence of Casey Stoner.