Valentino Rossi had his best race weekend in almost three years at Misano. For the first time since the last few races of 2010 he was on the pace every day, declaring that his YZR-M1 had never felt better.
On Friday afternoon he spent half the session chasing Marc Márquez, matching him pretty much yard for yard, lap after lap. Afterwards he was buzzing from the experience of riding with the youngster and not watching him disappear into the distance. “I enjoyed that a lot,” he beamed. “Marc’s style is very, very funny – a great show!”
Things were looking up. Then on Saturday Rossi made the front row for the first time this year without any of his major rivals absent, having solved one of his biggest problems. “Usually I suffer more in qualifying, but this time I could push a lot with new tyres,” he said.
Yamaha’s new ‘seamless’ gearbox was helping in all kinds of ways. “The bike is more stable in acceleration so it’s less demanding, so you can be more consistent and more precise, with less effort,” he added. “The only difference in set-up is the electronics: you get less wheelie, so you need less wheelie control [which means more horsepower and more acceleration].”
In other words, the new gearbox delivers better handling, better steering, better acceleration and keeps the rider in better shape over race distance.
And yet Rossi still ended up fourth on Sunday. In racing there is no more hated result than fourth – and this was his fourth consecutive fourth place.
Back in the Marlboro Team Roberts days, when King Kenny, Wayne Rainey and the crew were enjoying an alcohol-fuelled victory dinner, the cry would reverberate around the restaurant: “Who got fourth?!” What they meant was: who cares who got fourth? As one of Rossi’s crew muttered on Sunday evening: “Nothing sucks like fourth”.
Rossi has always known that fourth place is a bit of a joke. Nine years ago he finished fourth in back-to-back races, so at the next race he had his helmet painted to make fun of his lowly results. “In Italy we have a joke that if you come fourth you get a wooden medal,” he said at the time. “So we decided to make a wooden-looking helmet design with a four on the front.”
Fourth place sucks because you’re one measly position away from climbing the stairway to heaven, standing tall in front of your fans, spraying champagne in your rivals’ eyes (try it one day, it really hurts) and getting a bit giddy with a few mouthfuls of bubbly.
Instead you return to pitlane, ride past parc fermé, where the top three are getting backslapped by their crews, and ride into your garage where you embark on a gloomy post-mortem with your engineers. What went wrong?
In fact, for all the gloom of another fourth place, things didn’t go that wrong. Rossi’s best race lap at Misano was only 0.137 seconds slower than Márquez’s fastest lap of the race, just 0.052 slower than Lorenzo’s and almost two tenths faster than Dani Pedrosa’s. So he has the speed, he just needs to maintain it over race distance, which is a settings issue as much as anything else.
Rossi’s post-race analysis focused on two main problems: his continuing difficulties getting into the corners and a lack of acceleration, due to his size and weight.
“Our biggest problem is during braking and entering. Compared to Jorge and especially compared to the Honda guys, they are able to brake deeper than me. This is the most important problem to fix – the way we enter the corner.”
In this area the Yamaha has long had a disadvantage to the Honda, which is more of a point-and-squirt machine that can cut tighter lines into and out of corners.
“What we’ve noticed is how much the Honda can close to the apex of the corner,” says Rossi’s crew chief Jeremy Burgess. “They’re getting into the corners in a much better way. The way they measure torque [with their torductor, a kind of on-bike dyno] on the approach to the corner, maybe they have some little tricks over us.”
Yamaha need to get a move on and fit their own torductor, just as they’ve finally followed Honda’s lead with new gearshift technology, two and a half years after Honda first raced their instant-shift ‘box.
Another factor in Rossi’s inability to run his rivals’ pace throughout the race could be his size. “I suffer very much when we are at the limit with fuel [at tracks where Rossi’s M1 needs more than the 21 litres allowed to complete the race at horsepower]. I am heavier than the other guys, so we need to take out a lot of power to finish the race.”
There are two factors at issue here. First, MotoGP’s refusal to introduce a combined minimum weight limit for man and machine, as already exists in Moto2, Moto3 and even Formula 1 cars. Second, the ultra-tight fuel limit: 21 litres, which reduces to 20 litres next year. To give you an idea how little fuel MotoGP bikes get, World Superbikes are allowed 25 per cent more! That doesn’t make sense: souped-up road bikes get to burn more gas than GP bikes.
Burgess thinks it’s ludicrous that MotoGP doesn’t have a combined minimum weight, because when fuel is tight, bigger riders suffer a double whammy: their bikes carry more weight and have less horsepower. The biggest difference is with the Honda riders: Pedrosa and Márquez weigh 16 and eight kilos less.
Of course, there is another factor involved in Rossi’s current inability to race with MotoGP’s Spanish trio. He is 34 years old, has been racing GPs for 18 years and has won nine world titles. He is still fast and hungry, but not as fast and hungry as he used to be. And even he knows that.
“A year or so ago Valentino told me he may not be at the level of Jorge or Casey [Stoner] but he still enjoys what he does very much,” says Burgess. “He just wants to be challenging for the podium and here we felt we’d be closer than we were. There’s not much between Valentino and Dani, the young fella [Márquez] can make mistakes and Jorge is pretty much clinically correct and does everything perfectly. Jorge’s first lap [which was 1.2 seconds faster than anyone else’s] gave him an open racetrack to himself and while we were able to get very close to matching his times, we just weren’t able to do it over race distance. We’ve got to work on that and give him better settings.
Rossi may be drifting into his own twilight zone, but the Italian and his team have far from given up. Most importantly, he is still enjoying racing. Although he will probably only win races when circumstances go in his favour (as they did at Assen), he’s not entirely out of the podium battle. Don’t write him off completely just yet.