x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Stoner sees no reason to hurry

Time away from the race track with his family could not be more removed from the Australian MotoGP rider's high-pace lifestyle on it.

Age is on the Ducati rider Casey Stoner's side in his bid to achieve even greater success and perhaps emulate his rival Valentino Rossi's multiple world titles.
Age is on the Ducati rider Casey Stoner's side in his bid to achieve even greater success and perhaps emulate his rival Valentino Rossi's multiple world titles.

Nine years ago, Casey Stoner's life could not have been more different. The Australian and his parents had taken a massive gamble and sold the family farm in Kurri Kurri, in the heart of Australia's Hunter Valley wineries, in a bid to pursue their 14-year-old's son ambition of being MotoGP world champion.

The Stoners packed up everything they had in their picturesque home, less than 160km from Sydney, and moved to the north of England to live in a caravan in Wigan that was so basic it did not even have a shower. Stoner himself admits the weight of expectation on his shoulders at the time was immense although his parents never once drummed in the importance of him succeeding to ensure his family's future well being.

Within two years, he was racing in the lower ties of grand prix racing in the 125cc class and, within seven, he rewarded his parents with the ultimate accolade when he was crowned world champion at the meagre age of 21. Looking back, Stoner recalled: "My family had to sell everything for me - our house and land in Australia to go to England and enable me to start road racing. And of course it was a massive upheaval and trip for me but it was a pretty big deal for my parents as well.

"It would have been impossible not to have felt pressure. I was 14 years old when we arrived in England but with a lot of hard work I was in the GPs by the age of 16 and obviously there was the world championship win in 2007. "I hope what I finally achieved with that in my career has made my parents feel proud, particularly as they've been so important to everything I've done." The caravan in Wigan has been replaced by a luxury home in Monaco and a sizeable salary from his employers at Ducati not to mention the endorsements that have turned him into a multi-millionaire. But the early years were undeniably tough. As well as living in Wigan, the Stoners set up camp for nearly two years in the garden of former MotoGP rider Alberto Puig, who has been responsible for bringing through the likes of Dani Pedrosa, Toni Elias and Stoner.

And unsurprisingly the nomadic existence has led Stoner to hanker for a settled life. Whenever his schedule allows, he returns to a newer family farm his parents have back in Australia. Otherwise, he spends his time with his wife Adriana in Monte Carlo. The couple met at Phillip Island, the home of Stoner's home grand prix in 2003, when she asked him to sign her stomach. They started dating two years later and were married within 18 months. At race weekends, they are inseparable and Stoner says he owes his wife a lot. "Since meeting Adriana, I've been a much happier person and to have the stability of marriage behind us means I can focus a lot more on my job," he says. "She's my companion, she's my life ... she's everything to me."

Any suggestion that married life has slowed him are wide off the mark. In his first year as a married man, he won 10 of the season's 18 grands prix to comfortably wrap up the world title. Stoner explained: "If I'm happy off the track, I'm happy on it." The Ducati rider, however, says there are no immediate plans for children. "We both want children, that's for sure," he adds, "but not right now but not too late in the future either."

Their time away from the track could not be more removed from his high-pace lifestyle on it. As couple, it is all about taking it slowly. "You don't get much downtime so, when you do, it's important to relax," says Stoner. "We enjoy cycling and horse riding - basically any sort of outdoor activities." But all of those pursuits are secondary to his passion for motorsport. Stoner describes himself as born into it. He was first put on a bike at the age of two by his father Colin and can only remember loving it. At four, he started competing in dirt-bike races and two years later had wrapped up a first national title. The race wins and championships started coming thick and fast and have continued to materialise at every level.

This season things have not entirely gone to plan. After dominating winter testing - when Stoner was almost a second a lap quicker than most of his rivals - the Australian and his Ducati have been slightly caught. But the laid back Stoner is not unduly worried. "Listen mate, it's a long old season," he says. "Motegi and Jerez for example were demanding races that didn't really suit the bike but they were still rewarding to a certain extent. That was a case of damage limitation while Le Mans was the complete opposite.

"For us, it was a kind of a waste because we could have done better and that's the worst kind of feeling to have as a bike rider. But the first part of this season has gone better than a year ago so we have to be satisfied with that, keep the concentration levels as high as possible and just move on." The last two seasons have been all about Stoner v Valentino Rossi, the pair clinching a title apiece with some epic on-track battles during that time. But Rossi's Fiat Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo has turned 2009 into a three-way battle at the very least, while the likes of Pedrosa, Andrea Dovizioso and Colin Edwards have offered glimmers of promise.

But ask Stoner to predict the season's outcome and you get short shrift: "Honestly, I'm getting a bit tired with this question. If you had asked the same thing to any rider at the beginning of the 2007 season how many would have answered Casey Stoner? "This season is going to be quite competitive and tough and of course we are going to play our cards as well but people should stop making predictions, or asking for them, because every race weekend is a different story and this year more than usual."

Despite Stoner's frosty predictions for 2009, the perception is that, come the final race weekends, it will once again be Stoner against the vastly experienced Rossi. Stoner downplays the pair's rivalry but is a self-confessed Rossi fan, having grown up watching the Italian win MotoGP titles when he was still in the lower tiers. "I don't think people care if it's a battle between me and him," he says.

"I think the fans that really love the sport will just enjoy watching the races every weekend. And I don't really care who I have the battle with - whether it's against this or that rider. I just like to win the races, that's all." Stoner, though, has clearly held up Rossi on a pedestal but, when asked for his opinion on his arch-rival, his is a measured response. He says: "I have met many very tough opponents in my career and Valentino Rossi is for sure one of them and I respect him a lot for what he has done in the past and what he's still doing in the sport. But there are many strong riders and I'm not going to make a list of who's the toughest of them."

Having said that, there is one rider that stands head and shoulders past and previous in Stoner's eyes. His father tells the story of his then young son regularly being asked what he wanted to be when he grew up and the answer was always the same: Mick Doohan. Stoner has met him a few times since and admits to being starstruck every time. He says: "Mick Doohan was no question the one sportsman who inspired me when I was young. I had posters and books of him growing up and so it was odd to finally meet him. I've had a few chances to meet him and speak to him. He's a great guy."

From day one, the young Australian aspired to be the next Doohan - something he has achieved. And Stoner admits that his sentimentality for two-wheel machinery still brings out the child in him. "From day one, I've loved bikes and I've always been at my happiest when riding a motorcycle," he admits. "I could be on a track with just two corners and keep going around and round and round and round. I've always enjoyed something as simple as that.

"I also like going trial-bike riding and things like that but if I'm on a track with two corners I'll enjoy it all day, trying to get the best out of myself and pushing myself harder every lap. Every tenth, every hundredth that I get out of a corner, that's what keeps me going. It's something you're born with I guess although I don't really know as I've never known any different." There has been no shortage of success while pounding around the world's best tracks. To date, he already has 18 Moto GP victories under his belt. But intriguingly, it is not the victories that provide his overriding passion in motorsport.

"Winning is magic of course," he adds. "It's what you aim to achieve as a rider but it's the racing itself, the competition, that I love. It is a hectic lifestyle but, as soon as I get out on the track, I don't have anybody telling me what to do. "I suppose it's as much an element of freedom as anybody could really explain and the adrenaline rush it gives you. The biggest part of it is the fear when you're going into turns and you don't know if you're going to make it or not. You try to stay within the limits but sometimes you need to push beyond them and that's when it becomes a big adrenaline rush."

Age, though, is certainly on Stoner's side in his bid to achieve even greater success and perhaps emulate Rossi's multiple world titles. But he is not about to set himself any targets, instead being massively unambitious - at least publicly - in his targets. "As long as I enjoy racing I'll go on with it but my target in life rather than winning world titles is to set up my family with my wife and our children and to live a quiet normal life," he says.

A quiet life looks unlikely for the child protege from Kurri Kurri, which perhaps aptly translates as "hurry up", if the results keep on coming. But Stoner is very much a "what you see is what you get" character. Unlike Rossi who, for all his cheeky-chap front, is the ultimate when it comes to mind games, Stoner says it as he sees it. When asked if psychology played a part in his racing or whether he was keen to get into the mind games a la Rossi, he shrugs it off by with: "No, it's not something I think to do."

In fact, Stoner is not one to stir up a hornet's nest. He insists he has a good relationship with his fellow MotoGP riders although tellingly adds "for the most part" without giving anything else away. And as for the changing face of MotoGP, which has seen Friday practice abolished and a one-tyre rule introduced to help cut costs, he is not about to cause controversy. His assessment of it all is simple: "I may or may not agree with it but, if it can help our sport, I'm fine with the changes."

That may yet change in his next nine years in a sport which look set to be even more of a roller coaster than the first nine. mmajendie@thenational.ae