The Long Goodbye

How exactly do you think it all ends? Fireworks spelling out your name and number? A parade lap in your honour? Waves from the podium as the crowd chants your name? Most riders would accept leaving the circuit in anything other than an ambulance and with their achievements recognised. Better still if they are acclaimed.

But in the case of Andrea Iannone, it was a 674-word press release that confirmed his exit. There was no fanfare or cheer to be found within. Iannone’s appeal against the ruling of the FIM International Disciplinary Court, we learned yesterday, was thrown out by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) got its way, extending Iannone’s “ineligibility” from the sport from 18 months to four years.

The implications of the verdict were as swift as they were obvious. Aprilia, which stoically stood by its man for ten months, took just a matter of hours to respond. “We must now look to the future, and it is our duty to quickly find a high-level solution that embraces the project we began with Andrea and that allows us to continue our growth,” read a statement from Aprilia Racing CEO Massimo Rivola. In other words: a shame, chapter closed, onto the next one.

What is there to say? No one can take any joy out of this ruling. It’s been disastrous for Aprilia. And cataclysmic for Iannone, whose career lies in tatters. Team-mate Aleix Espargaro had spoken of the “difficult moment” he was living when the CAS convened on 15th October. “For sure he’s suffering a lot.” And Iannone’s statement yesterday was in no way restrained. “They have ripped my heart apart from my greatest love,” he wrote.

The CAS’ statement didn’t paint Iannone’s defence in a positive light. The 31-year old asserted the cause of banned anabolic steroid Drostanolone showing up in his urine sample from 3rd November last year was meat contamination. Yet the statement read Iannone’s team was unable to establish what the exact meat was, or where it was eaten. Puzzling such crucial details which were the backbone of his defence couldn’t be determined. Not least as Rivola spoke of “all the scientific demonstrations we did,” when the case was discussed at 15th October. “Spending so much time on the case and the scientists that defended Iannone, they did so only after looking at the numbers,” he told Simon Crafar in Aragon.

Aprilia’s reaction will have come as a surprise precisely to no one, least of all Iannone. The Noale factory had made it clear it would stand by its man. But only to a point. For months the Italian’s case had hung over the squad, its plans for 2021, and the development of its RS-GP. Test rider Bradley Smith had to balance his job as a full-time test rider with replacement racer while results for the factory fell below expectations.

“It plays on the team’s mind,” Smith said of Iannone’s case back in Aragon. “Knowing what’s going to happen going forward, it’s what the project needs to have that stability and that focus in terms of knowing what 2021 could look like. Conversations are always ‘if’ this or ‘if’ that. ‘Ifs’ and ‘maybes’ in elite sport is a nightmare.”

But there is no going back from here. Iannone has no right of appeal to this ruling. He’ll be 35 by the time he is eligible to compete once more. And just like that, a 15-year career in grand prix draws to a close. A truly sad end then for one of the sport’s true characters. Iannone wasn’t always the easiest to get on with. At times the stories from his personal life and his willingness to allow his relationships to play out like a tacky soap opera in Italy’s glossy magazines took precedence over his performances on track.

Iannone could be difficult, rude and spikey. On more than one occasion I observed an Italian colleague throw up his hands and walk away from Iannone’s debrief, head shaking, after a snide response. Through the first nine months of his Suzuki career he looked down at us with the kind of disdain one reserves for a cockroach climbing from under your bed (we are journalists, so…). He once confronted me, staring me down, for having the temerity to ask three questions in his debrief. Well, there were only two of us there…

Yes, you could poke fun at him for the facial reconstruction, the videos of him smashing the windows of his car with a golf club, the aftershave brand, the fad of posting Nietzsche quotes on social media, and even a variety of his comments (Iannone once told journalist Michael Scott he did just two things away from the track: “I train. And I f**k.”)

But deep down, I always liked him. Sure, he could be an arse. Hoping to get a useful quote from him was like hoping for a 50 Euro note to land on your doorstep. But he was different. Sport needs characters like him. In some ways he didn’t care what anyone thought of him. He happily embraced the villain role when necessary. He was puzzling, frustrating, bizarre and unique (he had the tattoos and remodelled chin to prove it). And that’s even before we get to his ability on a bike.

A member of Alex Rins’ crew once commented Iannone was among the grid’s top three riders in terms of raw ability. How he feathered the throttle while braking all the way into the corner was a clear indicator of that. Cal Crutchlow often said it truly came to light when running his eyes over his data.  “I know how he rides,” said the Englishman. “When I was in Ducati, he was the best Ducati rider at the time. He can overlay the throttle and the brake at the same time. He does some fantastic things.”

Recently, YouTube reminded me of his battle against Marc Marquez at Le Mans in 2015, what was his best ever year. It was only five minutes long but it showcased the very best of Iannone on a bike. Precocious, aggressive, up for a fight. And all days after dislocating his shoulder in a testing crash. Only a select few can say they looked Marquez straight in the face… and blinked last.

Sadly, those performances only came sporadically across his seven years in MotoGP. A serious intellect and unrelenting focus are needed for premier class championships. That was never quite evident here. And once again it seems like Iannone’s focus on the little details that are so crucial in achieving outright success at this level were found wanting here.  

By Neil Morrison @NeilMorrison87

Photos by CormacGP @cormacgp

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