Thursday, March 20, 2008

MotoGP: Stoner versus Doohan

Something that people like me keep saying is that Casey Stoner is the next Doohan, or a clone of Mick Doohan, or even Doohan in disguise. Well, they're both Aussies, they're both motorcycle Grand Prix world champions, but what other similarities and differences are there?

Besides both being Australian, the thing that links Stoner and Doohan in most people's minds is their style of winning. Get to the front and disappear, not to be seen again until the chequered flag drops. In the late 1990's, Mick Doohan was celebrated and cursed in equal measure for being a genius who made racing dull because he led from start to finish, seemingly every time out. The same criticisms were levelled at Casey Stoner last year, with devastating victories such as at Laguna Seca where he was literally out of sight of his rivals.

Mick Doohan won his first 500cc GP world championship in 1994. From 14 races, he won 9, finished on the podium in all 14 and had 6 pole positions. A stunning performance, which is eerily similar to Casey Stoner's record in 2007, during which Stoner took 10 wins, 14 podiums and 5 poles from 18 starts.

Doohan's best year was 1997, when he didn't so much tear up the record books as drop a nuke on them. That year consisted of 15 races. Doohan was on pole 12 times, took 12 victories and a pair of 2nd places, and scored 340 points from a possible 375. Holy cow!!!

By the time he was forced to retire due to injury, Mick Doohan had won the 500GP title 5 times in a row, won 54 races, taken 95 podiums, 58 pole positions and 46 fastest laps. Looking at the stats, it's pretty obvious why Doohan is regarded as one of the greatest Grand Prix riders of all time.

While Mick Doohan's championship victory in 1994 had been creeping up on the world for a while (he had finished 3rd, 2nd, 2nd and 4th in the championship in the 4 seasons leading up to '94), Casey Stoner's victory took everybody completely by surprise. In common with Doohan, Stoner spent his first year in the top class repeatedly falling off a Michelin-shod Honda. However, while Mick didn't win the title until his 6th year, Stoner incredibly became champion in just his 2nd year racing against the big boys.

Early in 2007, it was pointed out that the list of riders who have won 3 out of the first 4 races in a season was an interesting one, consisting of Duke, Surtees, Hocking, Hailwood, Agostini, Sheene, Roberts Sr, Spencer, Lawson, Rainey, Doohan, Rossi and Stoner. It's a virtual Who's Who of GP bike racing, and the rest of the young Aussie's season kept him right up there.

One interesting similarity between Stoner and Doohan is with their bikes. In 1997, Doohan switched to Honda's "screamer" engine, which was more powerful but harder to control, in other words it would chuck the rider down the street as soon as look at him. The other HRC riders were scared witless of the screamer and refused to use it, sticking with the more rideable "big bang" engine. Doohan was the only man who could stay on the thing, never mind win on it, which just adds to the incredulity at his 1997 statistics. Casey Stoner's 800cc Ducati is also a screamer, and while many claim that it is easier to ride due to its trick electronics, he is still the only person who can ride it quickly. Last year, Loris Capirossi was way off Stoner's pace on an identical machine. So far this year, Marco Melandri is faring even worse on the Ducati, while Guintoli and Elias have both struggled on the customer version. As Ducati keep trying to tell us, "It's not the bike, it's Casey!"

So there are similarities between these two Australians, but also differences. While Doohan stuck with Honda for his whole career and had the bikes developed specifically for him, Stoner realised that he was never going to be HRC and Michelin's "great white hope" (that being Dani Pedrosa), but he could try switching to Ducati and Bridgestone, who seemed to be more willing to help him out. It turned out to be a master stroke, as Stoner is now Ducati's Doohan, as it were. In fact, Stoner has come further, faster than Doohan did in his early career. The 2007 champion has shown in testing and this year's first GP that he is just as good, if not better than last year. Amazingly, he is just 22 years old. Who would bet against Casey becoming a 5-time world champion? The Stoner versus Doohan debate has years left to run, but I strongly suspect that in a few years another quick young Aussie will appear and be labelled "The next Stoner".


Rob said...

I'm going to have to have a look back at Doohan's early career to see if he was known as a crasher like Casey was.

I do think that Stoner's success in 2007 was in no small part down to Casey having significantly more power than his opposition. The cries of "it's Casey, not the bike" are of course to an extent true, backed up by your reference to Capirossi's performances. However, think back to Qatar 2007 and Stoner going past Rossi without even needing to slipstream, just using the awesome Ducati power.

This is not meant to diminish Casey's ability. Without a doubt he rode a brilliant, consistent, almost mistake-free season. But it has so far been just a season (plus one race).

When he's got his third championship chequer in the MotoGP trophy, then I'll be more inclined to compare him with Doohan. Until then, he's just a very talented rider, like most of them out there.

Jimmy said...

Well, Doohan missed several races in his first year after hurting himself by crashing. He also raced injured after crashes. Maybe not the same kind of crasher as Stoner was, but he still hopped off the thing quite a lot.

Bear in mind that last year at Jerez, Stoner was off the podium but actually doing incredible lap times on a twisty track where power doesn't matter much. And in Barcelona he went toe to toe with Rossi, he didn't just power past on the straights.

There are a lot of very talented riders on Ducatis, but Stoner has made them all look like idiots. He's more than very talented.

Anyway, of course I'm going to compare him to Doohan!

Rob said...

Come back to me after two years of Stoner domination and we'll talk :)

Jimmy said...

OK, it's a deal! :-)

Kropotkin said...

Interesting comparison, and extremely valid. The way in which Doohan and Stoner are most alike is that neither of them are particularly interested in racing, they are only really interested in winning.

The other thing to consider with Doohan is that his record is a little bit inflated because he faced so little competition, especially towards the end of his career. He won his first title in '94, Schwantz' final full year, when he was already more or less decided on quitting.

In the following years, he mostly faced Cadalora, Criville, Beattie, Aoki, Puig, Abe. All of whom were fine riders, but not great.

Having said that, Doohan's comeback in '92 was one of the greatest moments in racing ever, and he did it against Schwantz and Rainey at their peak. And before that he held his own against Rainey, Schwantz, Lawson and Wayne Gardner.

As for Casey Stoner, there is no doubt that he was helped by the top speed of the bike in the early part of the season, and on occasion, by the fact the Bridgestones worked so well. But he also won at tracks where he wasn't supposed to, places like Laguna Seca (way too twisty for the Ducati) and Donington Park, the very places where Valentino Rossi had said he'd start to reel the points back in.

More impressively, he won at these tracks despite being on a Ducati, something which Loris Capirossi, Sete Gibernau, Carlos Checa and Troy Bayliss before him had been unable to do. What's more, even when he didn't win, he wasn't far off the pace.

The difference between a good rider and a great rider is that where a good rider will win at his favorite tracks, and try not to lose too many points elsewhere, a great rider can win at any track. By winning and placing everywhere, Casey Stoner proved that he is definitely a great rider.

He won't have it as easy in 2008, but you know he is going to be very tough to beat. And unlike Doohan, he is facing probably the strongest field in MotoGP since the late 80s. Rossi, Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Stoner are all potential multiple world champions. How lucky we are to be treated to such a spectacle!

Jimmy said...

Certainly seems like it's all about the winning for Stoner, he doesn't play with his prey like Rossi. It reminds me of Carl Fogarty, who ended up hating the racing and only kept doing it because he loved winning. (And mouthing off about it afterwards!)

I agree that it looks like a golden era, especially with the way Lorenzo has adapted to MotoGP. Fantastic.

Rudi said...

Well, let me see did Stoner won the championship riding a 500cc 2 stroke widow maker? No, was he using the Marelli ecu than can tell in which turn you are and can adjust the power curve accordingly? Yes, was Bridgestone the dominating tire last year? Yes. Stoner is a natural racer and he'll win more championships and he'll deserve his place in history but pleas don't start the match against Doohan just yet , you sound a little too much like the English with Hamilton.

Come back by his third championship, I'll buy the beers and we can seat and talk about this again, that time rightly so.

Jimmy said...

Well, you can't really compare people in different eras of racing, but it's fun to do it anyway.

The bikes Agostini rode weren't like the early 1990's widow-makers either, but you don't get many people saying Ago was inferior to Doohan.

I still maintain that Casey is a bit special, since there have been a lot of riders on the 800cc Ducati and the only one who got near him was Alex Barros, once.