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The Cult: Casey Stoner

Despite winning two MotoGP titles and 38 grands prix, Casey Stoner never truly received the praise he deserved during his career. In retirement, however, the Australian rider's legend status – not to mention his place in The Cult – is assured.
Illustration by Dan Evans

Despite winning two MotoGP titles and 38 grands prix, Casey Stoner never truly received the praise he deserved during his career. In retirement, however, the Australian rider's legend status – not to mention his place in The Cult – is assured. You can read previous entries here.

Cult Grade: Gone Fishing

The psychological makeup of the men and women who win world championships and gold medals is such that giving up rarely enters their mind. On the contrary, they often don't know when to stop, sometimes extending their career well past its sell-by date. When you are so hard-wired to compete, stopping altogether is often the most difficult thing to do.

There are, of course, exceptions – people who cut short their careers while at the very top. Eric Cantona walked away from football while still at his peak; tennis star Bjorn Borg retired at 26; and just a few months ago, Nico Rosberg quit Formula 1 within a week of becoming world champion.


Casey Stoner belongs in this category, too. The Australian won a brace of world championship at the pinnacle of motorcycle racing, then called it quits at the age of 27. That was four years ago and, while he's frequently climbed back on to a top-level bike for testing work, a competitive comeback looks increasingly unlikely. Chances are, one of the greatest talents of a generation will never race at the highest level again.

This was not down to a lack of commitment. If anything, it reflected how committed he had been to his goal that, by his mid twenties, Stoner felt the need to step back from the sport. As a kid he cleaned up in off-road racing in his native Australia, and at 14 he and his family relocated to England, where age restrictions on road racing are lower. By this stage, Stoner was a professional in all but name.

At the age of 16 he was part of the grand prix circuit, and by 20 he had arrived in the top-tier MotoGP championship. So, by the time he walked away in 2012, Stoner had already completed 11 full seasons on a world tour of podiums, press and planes. He'd also suffered the inevitable injuries and battled a debilitating mystery illness (which turned out to be lactose intolerance). He'd seen rival riders suffer injuries, even a few fatalities. It's hardly a surprise, then, that he was ready for a break.

Stoner during 2007, his first world title year // PA Images

Again, this is not to question Stoner's commitment. When you see photos of him hobbling across the garage on crutches and then climbing gingerly on to the bike, which he will proceed to ride at terrifying speeds, you can begin to understand the kind of commitment required to be successful in this sport. You can't do things by half and hope that the rest of the team picks up the slack. That's going to leave you sliding across the circuit on your arse.


Stoner was worn down too by what he perceived as a lack of respect among some fans. A MotoGP event can be as partisan as any football match. The difference is that while Stoner got one home event per season, other riders went to several races where they were considerably more popular. In particular, seven-time premier class champion Valentino Rossi enjoys near fanatic support at many grands prix, and a section of his fans can be extremely hostile to the Italian's rivals. Stoner may have raced in England as a kid, but he was booed on the podium when he won at Donington Park, and even had his motorhome attacked. But those boos were telling: Rossi's fans knew that Stoner was among the very small group of riders who could rise to the great Italian's level and, on occasion, beat him.

READ MORE: The Cult – Alex Zanardi

His perceived personality flaws did not help either. Stoner can seem chippy, curt and standoffish. Yet there is also the sense that this was a deeply private man with more than a hint of shyness about him, someone who hated the attention that came with being a top-line motorcycle racer. Introversion and arrogance are often confused.

In retirement, Stoner has spent time with his wife and daughter, indulged in fishing – a surprising passion for a man whose day job risked life and limb – and dabbled in touring cars. He's been back on a bike for testing work; he contested an endurance race in 2015 and ended up with broken bones for his trouble. Rumours have rumbled about a comeback, but it becomes less likely with each passing year. Stoner left the sport in fitting fashion: at the top of his game, yet strangely unloved and with a lingering question of "what if?"


Point of Entry: Turn 3 at Phillip Island

In 2006, Stoner contested his first year in MotoGP, riding for customer Honda squad LCR. Results were good. The following season he joined Italian manufacturer Ducati on their factory bike. Results were spectacular.

A little context: since returning to the top of the sport in 2003, Ducati have won a total of 32 grands prix. 23 of those came courtesy of Stoner. After he left the team at the end of the 2010 season, they didn't win again for six years.

Stoner dominated the world championship in 2007, taking 10 wins along the way and putting the title beyond doubt with three races to spare; he was still 21 at the time.

He then finished as runner-up to Rossi in 2008, winning six times while his new teammate – former world champ Nicky Hayden – didn't manage one. 2009 was spoiled by a mystery illness that forced him to sit out three races, though he won four times. In 2010, with a less competitive bike, he still took three wins before leaving for Honda. Rossi replaced him and endured two dreadful seasons, the worst of Vale's illustrious career.

READ MORE: The Cult – Guy Martin

This is not intended to put down Rossi, or Hayden, or any of the riders who couldn't tame the Ducati; it is merely to point out that Stoner's connection with the bike was unique, that for reasons still not fully understood he and he alone knew the secret to making it go very bloody quick. Naysayers have pointed to a straight-line speed advantage, though this ignores the fact that Stoner absolutely slaughtered some very talented teammates at Ducati.


While Rossi was struggling to make the Desmosedici GP11 work in 2011, Stoner had decamped to Honda. With the best bike underneath him Casey stormed to the title, winning nine times and standing on the podium at 16 consecutive races.

But the cracks were already beginning to appear and the creeping words of doubt growing more persuasive. He began 2012 strongly – third at the opener, followed by a brace of wins – yet more important to this story was the birth of Stoner's daughter in February of that year. At the next round in France, he announced his decision to retire. He was still just 26, leading the world championship, and riding for a powerhouse team. His form was second to none and his health problems seem to be behind him. It was a difficult decision to fathom; to some extent, it still is.

An uneasy truce, but a truce nonetheless // PA Images

The season began to unravel from there, at least by the standards Stoner had set. Third in France cost him the championship lead; fourth at the next round at Circuit de Catalunya was his first time off the rostrum in more than a year. There were two more wins from the next five grands prix, but his season was effectively ended by a crash in qualifying for the Indianapolis race. It was one of those shunts where the bike appears to have had enough of the bloke sat on the back of it, and so sits bolt upright mid-corner to chuck him off. Stoner briefly resembled a rag doll, though the impact and subsequent slide through the gravel appeared fairly tame.


But, while not visually terrifying, it had been enough to leave Stoner with torn ankle ligaments. He raced the next day, finishing fourth, but opted for surgery soon after and missed the next three rounds. His title bid was over. After four more races to end the season, so too was his career.

READ MORE: The Cult – Gerhard Berger

It is worth wondering what we missed out on by not getting to see Casey and his wunderkind replacement, Marc Marquez, go head-to-head on equal equipment. With all due respect to Honda's long-suffering Dani Pedrosa, you know that this would have been a line-up for the ages. Did Stoner care about his legacy? Probably not. Had he decided to stick with Honda for 2013, he'd likely have won a third title and certainly a shed more races. Marquez's arrival on the factory bike would have been delayed by a year, and from 2014 we'd have seen an incredible duel between the two. We can't draw any further conclusions, except to say that he'd have pushed Marquez very bloody hard.

But he wasn't up for another go around the globe. The truth is that he was tired of the "bullshit". His words. He was tired of being unloved in the paddock while being kept away from those who did care about him. He was physically tired, too, battered and bruised, though that's part of the territory in bike racing.

You could argue that his demeanour made it easy enough to root against Stoner. He is not a Rossi or a Marquez, in that regard. But Stoner was a fast, brave and intelligent rider, not to mention a fiercely independent bloke. Now, his absence from the track reminds us of the fact that, in sport as in life, you don't know what you have until it's gone.


The Moment: The Final Win – 2012 Australian Grand Prix

Stoner won his first Australian Grand Prix in 2007. He would remain undefeated at Phillip Island for the reminder of his grand prix career, securing six wins on the spin; the 2011 victory, which came on his 26th birthday, secured him his second world title.

Stoner at Stoner Corner, an experience you'd image he loathed // PA Images

But there was something about the final win, in 2012, with his apathy-induced retirement long since confirmed and a mid-season injury sewing seeds of doubt. In his honour, turn 3 at the Phillip Island track became Stoner Corner ahead of the race. It felt like a setup for a fall. If ever Stoner was to be beaten on home turf, now was the time.

Red herrings the lot. Stoner took pole and won by almost 10 seconds. At his final race two weeks later, the back of his leathers bore a final message: Gone Fishing.

Closing Statements

"I've got no thoughts whatsoever at this time of ever even thinking of coming back." Stoner after his final Australian Grand Prix win. A man of his word, then.

Words: @Jim_Weeks // Illustration: @Dan_Draws