Valentino Rossi will be a different man in 2013 – for the first time in his glittering career he has failed to achieve what he set out to achieve.
His two seasons with Ducati produced but three podium finishes, two of them in the rain, and not a single victory. Now reconciled with his former employer Yamaha, Rossi has been man enough to admit that “we lost the bet”. But why did his Ducati gamble fail?
Ducati must take most of the blame, even though Rossi declared at the outset of the relationship that bike and rider had to change if they were to succeed. After all, Casey Stoner had already won a world title on the factory’s Desmosedici.
“Ducati have to make a bike that is not only fast, but also easier to ride,” said Rossi in February 2011. “For my part I’m going to change my riding style so I can exploit it to the maximum.”
Famous for Stoner’s success, the Desmosedici was already infamous for bringing several immensely talented riders to their knees. Men like former 250 World Champion Marco Melandri, who never did better than fifth on the bike. Ducati tried to snuff out that particular PR fire by suggesting the problems were all in Melandri’s mind and that he should see a shrink. They couldn’t get away with that kind of nonsense when Rossi arrived, so Ducati worked hard to fix the bike, but in two whole seasons they achieved little. However Rossi adapted his riding technique he was tormented by lack of front-end feel, understeer and furious power delivery.
Front-end feel is vital in bike racing. If you can’t feel what the front tyre is doing in a corner you will be slow, or if you dare to push on, face dire consequences. “I don’t understand the feeling of the front… so I crash,” said Rossi, whose accident rate increased three-fold aboard the Ducati. Even last season the front-end problem still caught Rossi unawares on several occasions, while the other difficulties proved entirely insurmountable.
The understeer pushed Rossi wide through corners, so he couldn’t get on the throttle hard enough and early enough. Ducati’s fiery engine “we have a lion under the fairing” exacerbated the understeer because when he did get on the throttle the bike became unstable. Perhaps Ducati relies too heavily on electronics to tame its very rewy V4.
It seems remarkable that a company like Ducati always steeped in racing has failed to fix the Desmosedici, despite some radical changes. For 2012 the company renounced its unique carbonfibre monocoque chassis in favour of a conventional aluminium unit. However experiments with different chassis stiffness, geometry and centre of mass gained little advantage, so at the end of the two years Rossi was no closer to winning and sometimes even further away than he had been at the beginning. He finished his first race on the Ducati 16 seconds behind the winner and suffered the ignominy of gaffing lapped in his last race on the bike.
“We more or less have the same problems we had when I first tested at the end of 2010,” said Rossi. “Sometimes you have the feeling you’ve wasted your time.”
The changes Ducati made were too little, too late; possibly due to pride, though some accuse factory engineers of arrogance. Then again, there’s no doubt that Rossi did ease off at times, though who can blame him for surrendering to the front-end fear?
“After two or three moments with the front, I didn’t want to crash again, so I just cruised,” he said after another miserable race.
Rossi says he returned to Yamaha because he wants a competitive ‘bike for what will be his last few seasons in MotoGP. But I’m sure there’s another reason he hasn’t mentioned he was fed up with gaffing flung to the ground and battered about.
Bloodied and slightly bowed by the last two years, MotoGP’s Italian darling is already back up to speed on Yamaha’s superbly rider-friendly YZR-Ml . He will surely win more races in 2013 and 2014. Another title, however, is another matter.