MotoGP Valencia finale: Rossi vs Lorenzo — who will be champion?

It’s a story that takes in dueling teammates, one of them the world’s most famous and charismatic sportsmen, the other one of motorsport’s brightest young stars.

Add in a dash of outrageous on-track controversy, the Prime Minister of Italy and the President of Spain, a petition signed by more than 700,000 people, and a scuffle with an Italian TV crew and you have the crazy final race of the 2015 MotoGP season.

The premier class of motorcycle racing climaxes this Sunday, with one of the closest contests in its history concluding at the twisting Valencia circuit in Spain.

Nine time world champion Valentino Rossi leads the championship from his Movistar Yamaha teammate, Jorge Lorenzo, by just seven points. The exuberant 36 year-old Italian is going for his 10th world title, with only the meticulous, metronomic Spaniard between him and success.

But this is just part of a drama that has become a soap opera in its own right over the past fortnight.

As anyone with even a passing interesting in the sport will know, a dramatic clash between Rossi and current world champion Marc Marquez in Malaysia last month has dominated the headlines.

In the build up to the race, Rossi had claimed that Marquez — out of the running for the big prize — was deliberately trying to scupper his title challenge.

The two then dueled ferociously for seven laps around the Sepang International Circuit, before the Yamaha rider seemed to deliberately push his opponent wide, then appeared to aim a kick at the 22 year-old’s Repsol Honda.

Marquez was sent sprawling; Rossi went on to finish third, gaining 16 crucial championship points.

After the race, officials penalized Rossi. An additional three points on his racing license, added to an earlier one he had accrued, meant he will start from the back of the grid in Valencia.

An appeal from Yamaha against the sanction was rejected, while a clearly furious Lorenzo called for an even stiffer penalty for Rossi at the post-race press conference.

But the controversy only built from there. Social media lit up after the race, with #Sepangclash trending on Twitter. Then an online petition calling for the penalty on Rossi to be annulled quickly gathered steam, reaching 720,000 signatures by Thursday of this week.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi took time out of a trip to Peru to call Rossi and express his solidarity. Spain’s President, Mariano Rajoy, tweeted his support for Marquez.

Then, at the weekend, an Italian TV crew turned up at Marquez’s family home in rural Catalonia. The crew allegedly assaulted members of the rider’s family in an ensuing fracas.

Honda and Yamaha exchanged grumpy press statements, and a last gasp appeal from Rossi to the Court of Arbitration for Sport was rejected.

Arriving in Valencia this Thursday, calm was far from fully restored. The usual pre-race press conference was canceled, and all riders were summoned to a special meeting by the governing body of motorcycle sport.

The riot act was read to the assembled paddock. “Over the past days, there have unfortunately been some controversies that have surpassed the limits of a healthy passion and, on occasions, logic itself,” said a statement issued there.

“You have millions of followers all around the world. They watch and admire your achievements on the track. And they also listen closely to what you say. What you do and say, could have consequences that are not in keeping with the noble values of our sport.”

The riders were instructed not to speak about Sepang, and instead focus on this weekend’s race.

Later, an uncharacteristically solemn Marc Marquez spoke in Honda’s hospitality area. “This has been one of the most difficult weeks in my life,” he told reporters.

The young champion was smiling, but the off-track drama had clearly taken its toll.

“Honestly, I try to be in my home, and try to prepare (for) Valencia, but honestly, I’m human, and I hurt,” he admitted. “The comments, sometimes I read something, but you know everybody has his opinion, but in the end I’m just trying to do the best in my work.”

Marquez also revealed that he wanted to speak with both Rossi and Lorenzo. “I hope, sooner or later, to speak with Jorge but also with Valentino,” he said.

Over at Yamaha, Rossi and Lorenzo also — separately — addressed the media.

Rossi reflected on his failed attempt to overturn his penalty. “Starting from the back of the grid makes things very difficult,” he admitted. “Already it was difficult anyway.”

Asked whether he would have done anything differently in Malaysia, he confessed to one regret. “I just regret to go wide, and not follow my normal line,” he said. “But except from that, its better we speak about this weekend.”

The Italian told reporters he wanted a return to normality. “I hope everything can go in the normal way,” he said. “I hope that all remain quiet and we can have great support from the fans around the track without any problems.”

Lorenzo, visibly livid in Sepang, had simmered down. “To be honest I arrived here with the thinking to just focus on the weekend,” he said. “I don’t want to speak about anything else apart from what can happen in the future on the track.”

The Malaga man also conceded that his anger had got the better of him in Malaysia when, on the podium, he gestured with his thumb down as Rossi was given his third place trophy.

“About the past, I just want to say that it was a mistake the gesture I made on the podium,” he said. “I regret that and I want to say sorry to the people who watched this on TV because it’s not a sporting example, especially for young people around the world. Sorry for this gesture.”

Nevertheless, the atmosphere between the two Yamaha men remains frosty at best. The team has even canceled a lavish party for 200 guests, planned to celebrate its 60th anniversary in MotoGP.

With Rossi on the back row, Lorenzo will fancy his chances of a fifth world title, his third in the top class. That said, the Italian is unlikely to encounter much resistance from the grid, so could find himself quickly in contention.

What will happen when Rossi reaches Marquez, not to mention the Spaniard’s resurgent teammate Dani Pedrosa, is anyone’s guess.

110,000 fans will flock to a sold-out Valencia circuit on Sunday, with millions more tuning in around the world on TV. Drama, surely, awaits.

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