Motorcycles: April 2018

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Valentino Rossi’s career has played out like a rollercoaster, so what are his most successful and least successful seasons?

Valentino Rossi will commence his 19th season of premier-class Grand Prix racing in Qatar on 18th March. The Italian won his first world championship, the 1997 125cc title, the month before Max Verstappen was born. You probably already know this is a unique achievement across world-class motor sport.

What you probably don’t know is that Rossi rode his most successful Grand Prix season way back in 2003. It hasn’t exactly been downhill ever since, but the Italian’s second year in the new four-stroke MotoGP class was something very special. He won nine of the 16 races and finished second or third in the other seven, the only time he’s completed every race on the podium.

Rossi undoubtedly rides a motorcycle better today than he did 15 years ago, so how come he has never again ridden such a perfect campaign?

The 24-year-old had everything on his side in 2003. Most importantly, Honda’s sublime RC211V. The company’s 990cc V5 was easily the best bike on the grid: very fast and rider-friendly. Honda had played a clever game during the development stages of the four-stroke category, which in 2002 took over from the 500cc two-strokes. When the factories negotiated the rules, Honda suggested that five-cylinder machines compete under the same minimum weight limit as four-cylinder machines. Rights-holders Dorna and the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme naively agreed. Some months later Honda unveiled its RC211V (which translates thus: Racing Cycle, 21st century, model one, vee engine configuration).

A narrow-angled five-cylinder vee design was an inspired choice. A 75.5-degree V4 would produce too much primary vibration, so Honda circumvented this potential problem by adding a suitably timed fifth piston on a central third crankpin. Keeping the vee angle of the block narrow is useful in motorcycle racing because it allows better engine packaging, which helps the chassis engineers do their work with fewer compromises.

Mass centralisation was a key philosophy in the design of the RC211V, which contributed much to the bike’s remarkable handling and steering. Project leader Hejiro Yoshimura wanted his creation to be “easy to manage, like a motocross or trials bike”. I was lucky enough to get a go on Rossi’s RC211V and that’s pretty much what it felt like: a 220-horsepower trials bike.

Rossi and his RC211V dominated the inaugural 2002 MotoGP season, but not quite as much as during the following year, when Honda introduced anti-spin software. “When I tried the traction control for the first time I went back into the pits and I say ‘fuck, noooo’,” he recalls. “I mean, with this system everybody can ride the bike.”

However, good traction control doesn’t make a good racing motorcycle. Rossi made this discovery when he moved to Ducati in 2011, after six years with Yamaha. If his second season on Honda’s RC211V was his best in MotoGP, his first season on Ducati’s Desmosedici was his worst. In 2003 Rossi averaged 22.31 points at each race. In 2011 his average score slumped to 8.17. (MotoGP awards 25 points for a victory, down to one point for a 15th-place finish.)

During that most dismal of campaigns Rossi made it to the podium just once. Even in his rookie 125cc Grand Prix season, when he was 16 years old, he achieved three podium results. In 2011 he was living through the worst days of his career and he knew it. When he finished a lowly sixth in that year’s soaking wet British GP at Silverstone, more than one minute behind the winner, I was one of only two journalists who turned up for his usually packed post-race debrief. “This is the correct number for my result,” he joked, mustering a little black humour from the bottom of his gloomy heart.

Ducati was in a mess back then. The Desmosedici’s Magneti Marelli rider-control software was probably just about as good as Honda’s and Yamaha’s electronics, but even the best electronics in the world cannot fix a poorly configured engine and chassis.

Ducati’s desmodromic-valve engine was the most powerful on the grid but produced its power in such a way that it overstressed the frame, suspension and tyres. The frame didn’t help either.

The most important aspect of race-bike performance is front-end feel. Without a real understanding of what’s happening where the front tyre meets the racetrack a rider cannot attack corners properly. Rossi could never feel the Desmosedici’s front tyre, so not only was he uncompetitive, he also crashed a lot.

As his results plummeted his accident rate skyrocketed, from his usual four or five tumbles per season to a thumping dozen during 2011. In 2003 he crashed only once: that’s the difference between a motorcycle that allows you to go fast safely and another that won’t allow you to be fast or safe.

“We cannot create enough front grip to stop and turn the bike,” Rossi said at the time. “We don’t understand why or where the problem is, so we cannot fix it. We change the setting, we move the weight forward and backwards, up and down, but the problem always remains. Sometimes we go a little bit faster, sometimes we go a little bit slower, but there is no way to fix this problem.”

Many people expected Rossi to quit after his bitter 2011 and 2012 seasons, but he’s still out there, still dedicating his life to the only thing he really desires: a 10th world championship. There’s little doubt that he will ride as well as ever and he has already revealed that he is on the verge of renewing his contract for 2019, when he will celebrate his 40th birthday.

Mat Oxley has covered premier-class motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner