We would have been enjoying the Shark Helmets French Grand Prix at Le Mans this weekend. On the Thursday afternoon the usual pre-event press conference would be underway. Eight years ago Championship leader Casey Stoner more than brightened up the proceedings at one such conference
Let us be honest those essential pre-event press conferences on a Thursday afternoon were usually bland and boring most of the time. The riders would explain how they liked the circuit and everybody in the team was working so hard preparing for the race. There were some notable exceptions especially when Valentino Rossi was involved. The Gibernau and later Marquez condemnations in Sepang and the announcement that he was sacking Crew Chief Jerry Burgess in Valencia stand out. However, that Thursday afternoon in Le Mans eight years ago when Casey Stoner informed us he was retiring at the peak of his career came right of the blue. It caught everybody and especially Rossi by surprise.
Just 15 minutes before the conference was due to start in that tiny, dusty and dark press conference room at the back of the towering start and finish straight grandstand in Le Mans I was asked to get there early. On arrival in an even smaller room more like a Village Hall and full of stacked chairs behind the stage of the Conference room I met Casey and Repsol Honda Media Manager Rhys Edwards. They told me Casey would like to make an announcement before the start of the press conference. Dorna Communications Manager Ignacio Sagnier agreed, and I thought along with everybody else that Casey was going to announce a renewal of his Honda contract. A bit of real news to brighten up the Thursday proceedings.
The media duly assembled and jammed into the room. The riders sat down in their allocated places and I announced that Casey would like to make a statement. The World Champion did not bat an eyelid and calmly revealed that he’d enough of MotoGP in no uncertain terms and announced he was retiring at the end of the season. There was total silence for around ten seconds. The other riders and Valentino in particular were visibly shocked.
After all this was Casey Stoner. One of the great Australians who had brought Ducati their first premier class title and Honda their first 800 cc crown. Casey who had won 35 premier class grands prix including the last two in Jerez and Estoril. This was Casey who typically told Rossi that his ambition had outweighed his talent when the Italian went down pit lane to apologise after crashing the Ducati, that was once the Australian’s property, into him at turn one in Jerez the previous year. Casey who had made the legendary Phillip Island circuit his very own by winning the Australian Grand Prix for the previous five years. This was Casey who had won over the sceptical Rossi loving British fans with a stunning display of wet weather mastery at a cold wet Silverstone a year earlier.
With the stunned ten second silence coming to end people all around started to rise to their feet clapping. Soon everybody was standing and clapping a very special rider and World Champion.
There were not too many Thursday afternoons like that one before or after that.