It’s all part of a World Championship battle especially if it goes down to the wire, the last round. Throw a few mind games into the pot, stir them around and see what emerges. The weekend fight for the 2023 title between Pecco Bagnaia and Jorge Martin was never going to be an exception.
When you are 21 points behind with a maximum of 37 at stake you have to try and take every trick in the book. Martin never let Bagnaia out of his sight in Practice and the current World Champion and Champion elect appeared a little rattled. He steadied the ship on Saturday and the rest is history. Martin is certainly not the first or last to try and unsettle a great rival. There are some notable names in the mind games club
Those club members employed different tactics to match the situation and the opponent. On the track, on the grid, through the media, in a press conference and testing the loyalty of a team-mate have all been used to achieve that ultimate goal, the world title. Some have been successful, others have not.
Double 500cc World Champion Barry Sheene was a past master of the art. At the big British meetings, he would arrive on the grid smoking a cigarette already wearing his helmet. He had a hole drilled through the front of the helmet to fit a cigarette. He would walk along the front row of the grid and then shake his head while checking his opponent’s tyre and rear sprocket choice. Barry also had the media eating out of his hand and would give his main rivals a tough time in print. One man who was not affected and found the anti-headlines so amusing was Kenny Roberts. The American stole Barry’s world title and went on to win two more.
On the track, Kenny tried every trick in the book to regain that World title in a 1983 showdown with Freddie Spencer at Imola. At the Italian circuit, where Kenny made his European debut nine years earlier, he had to win to prevent Spencer from becoming the youngest-ever 500cc World Champion. Second place behind Kenny would give Freddie the title. They swapped the lead, with Kenny constantly upping and slowing the pace, hoping Freddie may crash or Eddie Lawson on the second Yamaha may catch them and relegate Freddie to third. It didn’t happen, and Freddie’s second place brought him the title and Kenny retired.
Being a teammate to Phil Read didn’t mean an exemption from mind games, as Bill Ivy discovered in 1968. The Yamaha teammates made an agreement that Read would win the 125cc World title and Ivy the 250. Ivy kept his part of the bargain with Read crowned 125cc World Champion, but he reneged on the 250cc agreement. They arrived at the final round in Monza and Read won the race from Ivy. Ivy was devastated and retired only to be killed a year later in a comeback ride. Read went on to win more World titles and upset teammates.
Valentino Rossi didn’t win those nine world titles without joining the club. He certainly got the better of his bitter rival Max Biaggi, both on and off the track, with great riding coupled with clever mind games. The Italian did the same to Sete Gibernau after an altercation in 2004 in Qatar. In the press conference a week later in Malaysia, Rossi told Gibernau and the world’s media that the Spaniard would never win another Grand Prix. And he didn’t.
It didn’t work out the same way 11 years later at the same Press Conference room in Sepang. Rossi launched a scathing attack on Marc Marquez regarding the race at Phillip Island a week earlier. Marquez stood firm and the fight ended up on the track and not in Rossi’s favour. His on-track clash with Marquez, plus another earlier penalty, meant he had to start the final round in Valencia from the back row. He eventually finished fourth but lost the title to teammate Jorge Lorenzo.
Mind games may not always work but they happen, and always will.