Mat Oxley

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Teaching an old GOAT new tricks

Valentino Rossi has a new employee this season: a rider coach. It’s entirely reasonable to wonder why the man considered by many to be the greatest motorcycle racer of all time should need any help, but really it’s just a factor of how MotoGP has evolved.

Grand Prix racing is closer than it’s ever been, with the front row of the grid often covered by less than a couple of tenths. Thus riders are literally searching for anything – a hundredth, a thousandth – in each corner.

Hence Rossi’s decision to hire Luca Cadalora, a three-time world champion from way back. Rossi isn’t blazing a trail here; he’s merely learning and adapting, qualities that have been crucial in his longevity and success.

Most of his rivals already had coaches, all of them former racers. Most notably, Jorge Lorenzo uses Wilco Zeelenberg, a GP winner in 1990, while Marc Márquez works with 1999 125cc world champion Emilio Alzamora.

Cadalora won the 125cc title in 1986 and the 250 crown in 1991 and 1992. When Rossi made his GP debut at the 1996 Malaysian Grand Prix, Cadalora won the 500cc race.

Although Cadalora wears a cap emblazoned with the word COACH in baseball-style type, he isn’t really Rossi’s coach. He would be more accurately described as a spotter, while his official job title within the Movistar Yamaha team is rider performance analyst. “It’s my job to try and see things you can’t see on the data,” says the 52-year-old Italian.

Over the past few decades MotoGP riders have become increasingly reliant on data, which they examine for hours each day, seeking better lap times. The fact that most of the top riders now want help from an extra pair of eyes and ears proves they have realised that the so-called ‘department of squiggly lines’ can only help them so much.

During each practice session Cadalora tours the track service road on a scooter, watching both rider and rivals – usually wherever Rossi felt he was losing time during his previous visit.

While noting sector times on his smartphone, Cadalora watches intently, digesting any information he thinks could be useful. He compares cornering lines and body positioning. He also listens for different gearshift patterns, so he can work out if there’s time to be gained by short-shifting through a certain sequence of corners or by using the gears in a different way to get the bike stopped better. Later he takes part in technical debriefs.

“I’m trying to help any way I can,” he adds. “I feel some pressure because to do this well is a bit like being on the bike. I have to use my passion to do the job as I did when I raced.”

Cadalora raced during bike racing’s pre-rider aids era, so can he really be of that much use to Rossi? “Well, the bikes are different, especially with the electronics,” he admits. “But in the end I don’t think they’ve changed so much because they are still bikes that react mostly in the same way.”

Rossi certainly believes Cadalora is useful. After his first win of 2016, at April’s Spanish GP, he praised his coach’s input. “We work very much together and Luca helps me a lot with many small things on the track and with setting up the bike,” said the 37-year-old.

The respect is certainly mutual – how could it be otherwise? “Valentino is really someone special,” adds Cadalora. “I only knew about him from what I’d seen on TV but I’m very impressed. He is still a very generous rider – he puts himself out there even when the bike’s not right.”

Cadalora’s return to the paddock – he had hardly been seen at a race since he retired at the end of 2000 – puts him in the same pit as Zeelenberg, who he used to race in 250 GPs. The Dutchman didn’t enjoy the same success as Cadalora; in fact he only won a single Grand Prix, at the Nürburgring in 1990, after Cadalora had crashed out of the lead!

Yamaha assigned Zeelenberg to Lorenzo in 2010, the Spaniard’s third season in MotoGP and perhaps not coincidentally the year he won his first premier-class title.

“Yamaha knew Valentino is very technical and he remembers stuff, but they could see Jorge needed extra support in these areas,” says Zeelenberg. “Using an ex-rider is the best way to help, because you know exactly what small things to pay attention to, which are usually different at every race: remember this, don’t forget that and so on.”

***

If British success is notably lacking in MotoGP, despite three Britons in the premier class, the situation is very much the opposite in World Superbike, motorcycling’s version of tin-tops. This year’s WSB championship is a three-way race between Northern Irishman Jonathan Rea, Welshman Chaz Davies and Yorkshireman Tom Sykes.

Rea won last year’s title in his first year with Kawasaki and is favourite to retain his crown, but he is being chased hard by team-mate (and 2013 champion) Sykes and Davies, who has finally made Ducati’s Panigale competitive. They make a habit of monopolising WSB podiums; indeed they filled all three steps at seven of this season’s first 12 races.

British domination is nothing new in WSB: before Rea and Sykes, James Toseland, Neil Hodgson and Carl Fogarty all won the title.

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