Thursday, September 04, 2008

MotoGP: Is Sete Gibernau Out Of His Tree?

The return of Sete Gibernau to MotoGP is one of the strongest rumours in the current silly season, with claims that there will be a 5th Ducati run for him. Has Sete gone mad? Why would he want to leap back into the MotoGP cauldron?

For those of you with short memories, Sete Gibernau is one of the best riders never to win a world championship in the top GP class, up there with the likes of Biaggi and Mamola. For two years, 2003 and 2004, Sete was the only person to give Valentino Rossi a run for his money. In 2003, the pair were on essentially identical Honda bikes and Michelin tyres, with Rossi in the factory HRC team and Gibernau in the factory-supported Gresini garage. Sete had been a journeyman rider, with one 500cc win to his name, but when his young team mate Daijiro Kato was killed in the opening round at Suzuka, something changed inside Sete. With Kato's number 74 on his leathers as a tribute, he decided to win.

And he did win, and he kept winning; 4 races that year. He battled with Rossi all through the season, scoring 277 points, which is the highest losing score ever (Nicky Hayden won the title with just 252 points). It was an incredible change for Sete, who was nicknamed "Hollywood" due to his love of the limelight, and the fact that he was as temperamental and prone to histrionics as the average Hollywood star. Now he was a contender.

In 2004, Valentino Rossi switched to Yamaha for the seemingly impossible task of winning on the ill-handling and dog-slow Yamaha M1. It was Sete's big chance on the sweet handling, high-powered V5 Honda. The Catalan won another 4 races, but Rossi achieved the impossible and won the title. During the course of the year was the incident that would destroy Sete Gibernau's championship hopes. At Qatar, Rossi's mechanics sneaked onto the grid the night before the race and performed burnouts on his grid spot with a scooter to improve the grip. Rossi was demoted to the back of the grid, and crashed in the race while trying too hard to recover the deficit. Apoplectic with rage, and convinced that it was Gibernau's team who ratted him out, Valentino Rossi cast a gypsy curse on Gibernau, saying that he would never win another race.

Now, people argue as to whether Italian motorcycle racers have the ability to cast gypsy curses, even if they are multiple world champions, but sure enough, Gibernau never won another race.

In 2006, Sete switched to Ducati to ride their red-painted 990cc missile. It was a disaster. Sete had a mechanical failure while leading a race, and it all went downhill from there. At his home race of Barcelona, Gibernau clipped his team mate Loris Capirossi's bike with his brake lever. He looped the Ducati forwards, causing a terrifying pile up that caused nasty injuries to himself, Capirossi, and Marco Melandri. To top that, on the way out of the circuit his ambulance crashed into a bus. Later in the year Ducati announced that Sete was being dumped for the much cheaper Casey Stoner (an unexpectedly brilliant move, in hindsight). At the second-last race of the year, Stoner crashed, Sete hit his bike and mangled his collarbone for about the 439th time.

Sete cried enough. His collarbone was held together with duct tape and bailer twine, and none of the rides on offer were very tempting. He retired from MotoGP. A strange GP career, but an illustrious one. Nobody else was anywhere near Rossi during those two years. Nobody else was important enough to warrant a gypsy curse from The Doctor. Nobody else has scored 277 points and gone home empty handed.

So why on earth would he return to MotoGP? What is there to gain? Sure, he's probably still very quick, but he'll never win the title on a privateer Ducati. The only way is down for him. He doesn't need the money. He's rich, and comes from a rich family. Is it because he misses the glamour? Old Hollywood Gibernau just can't stand the anonymity? Or has he just gone stark raving mad? The stress, the pressure, the injuries. Maybe Sete has just gone out of his tree.

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