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Newsmaker: Casey Stoner

Casey Stoner, the low-key MotoGP star may have announced his retirement but motorsport fans are already missing him.
Casey Stoner. Illustration by Kagan McLeod
Casey Stoner. Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Casey Stoner is not prone to emotion and so it was befitting that he marked his retirement last week at the Circuito Ricardo Tormo on an industrial estate just outside Valencia by simply lifting up his visor, raising his left hand to acknowledge the crowd and waving goodbye.

When the 27-year-old announced in May that he was retiring from motorcyle racing at the end of the season, there were many who didn't believe the two-time world champion would go through with the threat.

But as the dust has settled on the 2012 MotoGP season, Stoner has made it clear that there is no coming back. "I've got no thoughts whatsoever at this time of ever even thinking of coming back," he said. "I'm very established. I'm not changing my mind every couple of minutes."

With years of two-wheel racing left ahead of him, the shockwaves of his decision are still being felt, much as they were in tennis when Björn Borg quit the sport at 26 and world No.1 golfer Lorena Ochoa did the same in 2010 at the modest age of 28.

It is often the way in sport that the very best are not truly appreciated until they are gone, and the same is the case with a figure once nicknamed "Casey Moaner" for his outbursts. World champion Jorge Lorenzo summed it up: "Casey is probably the most talented rider I have ever seen. We will miss him a lot."

On board the Ducati and Honda machinery that defined his top-flight racing career, the MotoGP paddock liked to wax lyrical about his immense throttle control, his ability to get that perfect balance of pushing the bike to the very limit without crossing the line and ending up in the gravel trap.

This he could do with pendulum-like precision, arcing his bike with perfection through all the various twists and turns on the championship calendar. In short, Stoner made bike racing look easy, which, to some extent, explains why it took him so long to be fully appreciated.

It was not uncommon for him to be booed at race weekends. Motorcycle enthusiasts love the characters; in particular, the effervescent Valentino Rossi, whose handling of the bike, not to mention his public persona, are much more emotional than those of his rival.

It was often suggested that it was down to the bike and the tyres that Stoner had been able to shine, in particular en route to his first world title in 2007 at the age of 21 for Ducati. It was only as other great riders, most notably Rossi, tried and failed to wrestle what was a brute of a machine, that the public warmed to his abilities.

In fact, it was not really until Stoner's second title win last year for Honda that his talent was truly appreciated. Here was one of the true greats of the sport, at that point surely destined for multiple world titles until he fell out of love with the very thing he had aspired to do from the age of 18 months. Then, he got his first throttle blisters by riding a bike with dad Colin, a house painter, on the back while mum Bronwyn looked on nervously.

That is not to suggest that he has fallen out of love with bikes - far from it. He still plans to go out on dirt bikes in the outback of his native Australia. But his disillusionment with the sport's politics had risen to such an extent that he felt no longer capable of carrying on.

"I've lost my respect for the championship and I really don't agree with the direction it has taken," he said. "We go where we're told, we do what we're told. There is no passion. When you mean that little to people and when you are putting your life on the line every time you go on the bike, then it's not something I want to be part of."

The beginning of the end came as early as 2009 when a mystery illness turned Stoner from a championship contender to an exhausted also-ran. As he tried to get to the bottom of the problem, he found himself deserted by the sporting authorities, left to fend for himself as he sought an explanation.

The doctors - eight in all - were baffled to explain why he was so exhausted he could not even finish races, leading him to make the decision to step away from MotoGP altogether to get to the bottom of the problem. After seeing a nutritionist, he was diagnosed as lactose intolerant and, with a change of diet, the problem disappeared as quickly as it had arrived.

Looking back at the illness, he recalled: "I remember one time seeing a heart specialist. He did a heart test and that was fine but, after testing me on a walking machine, I was finished. I mean I was worse than an old man. I was finished - it was embarrassing. The relief when we figured it out was massive."

Stoner always seems to have relished fighting against the odds. Clearly an ambitious child, when asked what he wanted to be when older, he would say, "Mick Doohan", the former racer who won five world championships in the 1990s.

From the age of 4 when he first raced competitively in an under-9 field of racers, he already had the Doohan posters adorning his bedroom wall. Back then, it was in a sheapshearer's quarters of a farm in Niangala.

The family moved to a new home 160km from Sydney soon after that to help their son pursue his racing ambitions. The new home was in a small place called Kurri Kurri, which literally translates as "hurry up", perhaps a befitting name for the future he had in store.

And his future was indeed bright; at the age of 12, at one weekend dirt-track meet on the New South Wales Central Coast, Stoner raced in five different categories with a total of 35 races; he won 32 of those and took all five titles.

By the age of 14, he already had 41 dirt-bike national titles to his name but, unable to race under Australian law on tracks until 16, his family made the painful decision to relocate to the UK.

It was far from a dream life. They initially lived in a caravan in Wigan, which did not even have its own shower and reportedly smelled "like a dog's dinner", according to one pundit.

The weight of expectation on his shoulders must have been immense, although his parents never once drummed into him the importance of him succeeding. Despite that, Stoner later said: "It would have been impossible not to have felt pressure. My family had to sell everything for me - our house and land in Australia - to go to England to enable me to start road racing. I hope what I finally achieved with that in my career has made my parents feel proud."

By 16, thanks in part to the backing of Spaniard Alberto Puig, who had nurtured other early careers and in whose back garden near Barcelona the Stoners lived in a caravan for a time, he made his way into the junior categories of MotoGP.

For a short time, the diminutive Stoner earned the nickname "Rolling Stoner" after 39 crashes in three years. But it was his outright pace when staying upright that led Honda to take a chance on him in frontline MotoGP in 2006.

Again, the season was littered with crashes, but he oozed potential, most notably with a podium finish in his first-ever MotoGP start. Ducati stepped in to sign him, a decision that was immediately rewarded with the world title the next season.

Rows inevitably emerged between MotoGP's most established star, Rossi, and the new upstart, and the pair seemed to revel in sparring both on the track and verbally off it.

One of their most career-defining tussles came the following year at Laguna Seca as they went wheel to wheel, chopping and changing the lead as they put their bikes to the limit. The duel, one of many between the pair that was to follow, ended with Stoner in the gravel trap. But he would gain the upper hand over Rossi on other occasions.

Omnipresent at his side throughout his MotoGP career has been his wife Adriana Tuchyna. The couple met in 2003 when she asked him to autograph her stomach. They began dating two years later in 2005, marrying in 2007. Their first child, Alessandra, was born on February 16, 2012 - the same birthday as Rossi.

Stoner bought back the original family farm in Niangala where he hopes to raise more children. He has been tight-lipped about his future, although there are suggestions he will line up in the Australian V8 Supercar series in 2014. But any hopes fans have of him going back to frontline bike racing look highly unlikely, although he will still ride for pleasure.

"From day one, I've loved bikes and I've always been at my happiest when riding a motorcycle," he once said. "It's as much an element of freedom as anybody could really explain."

Having retired, the freedom - helped by freeing himself from the media circus of MotoGP - is likely to appeal to Stoner's outlook on life.

It was not quite the fairytale ending he had hoped for. In one sense, that had already happened by winning the penultimate race in 2012 in front of his home crowd in Australia - the 38th MotoGP victory of his 115 races - still nursing a nasty ankle injury.

The last race of his career last week ended on the podium at Valencia, with Stoner finishing the year third in the championship. And it was a very Stoner-esque ending, quietly understated and, as he tweeted himself, "at least we went out fighting".

Updated: November 16, 2012 04:00 AM



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