Rossi's last chance
The MotoGP world championship has lacked its most important component over the past two seasons: Valentino Rossi running at the sharp end. No one knows exactly how many MotoGP fans support the Italian, but let's just say his followers on Twitter almost outnumber the rest of the grid combined.
Now, after two agonising seasons at Ducati, Rossi will line up for the season-opening Qatar Grand Prix on April 7 aboard a Yamaha YZR-M1, the latest version of the bike he rode to four world titles between 2004 and 2009.
Still smarting from his inglorious recent past, Rossi has stayed humble during the winter, predicting that this year's World Championship (motorcycle racing's 65th) will be fought out by new/old team-mate Jorge Lorenzo and Honda's Dani Pedrosa. But is that really what he thinks?
Rossi is once again exuding confidence — laughing and joking in the pits, instead of sitting slumped in his chair, overcome with a sense of foreboding. And he is overjoyed to be back on a motorcycle that actually responds to his inputs. "It's like another world... like another sport!"
Yamaha's M1 might not be the fastest bike on the grid, but it is the best tool for winning a World Championship. Honda's RC213V is quicker on its day, but the M1 is a more benign machine that works well at more tracks. So Rossi has no worries about equipment, nor his own capabilities, because test pace proves he hasn't lost his talent, nor the will to use it.
The most fascinating challenge for the nine-time world champ will be his team-mate. So far Rossi and Lorenzo are doing an excellent job of pretending that all is sweetness and light at Yamaha: painting on their best smiles for PR shoots while keeping up a steady flow of compliments and back slaps. It's a comical dialogue, however, considering the world knows full well that they really don't like each other.
Last time they were together at Yamaha, Rossi insisted — rather childishly, it must be said — that the team divide the garage with a wall. The wall was very real — seven feet tall and decorated with the requisite logos — yet it was also a psychological barrier, designed to split the team down the middle. It worked, though not in the way Rossi had intended. During 2010 Yamaha let it be known that they considered Lorenzo to be their main man, so Rossi walked out, unable to face being number two in a team that had once been all his own. He paid a heavy price for allowing his ego to dictate his actions.
Now he's back, as team number two, and with a burning determination to prove he's as fast as he ever was.
The dark climax of Rossi's and Lorenzo's first three years at Yamaha came at Motegi near the end of 2010, when Lorenzo was on the verge of securing his first crown and Rossi was going for his first podium since he broke a leg. The pair had a heated argument over third place, at one point tangling knees and elbows. After the race Yamaha bosses gave Rossi a good talking-to, suggesting he had put their title in jeopardy.
Rossi faked remorse for the benefit of his employers, then told the press: "Yamaha asked me to race with more attention. So, next time I will try to beat him again.., with more attention!".
The 34-year-old knows this is his last chance to win again in MotoGP and exact revenge on the man who stole his team. He won't waste the chance, but bettering Lorenzo's metronomic consistency over a season is a huge challenge.
Rossi is no fool and always knew this time would come. Four years ago he said this about Lorenzo and MotoGP's other rising stars. "They are like sharks circling around me. If I am not strong, I know they will eat me in one bite. They look at me with a little bit of blood flowing and maybe they think, 'OK, now is the time'."