Rivers of ink have flowed in the Italian press since Ducati announced its two-year deal with MotoGP darling Valentino Rossi. One newspaper went so far as to suggest that the Pope might consider changing Sunday’s order of service at the Vatican to avoid clashing with the racing.
It’s the dream team, but there’s no doubt Rossi is taking a huge gamble. Not that he’s averse to a bit of high-octane risk taking. In 2003, when he was on his way to a third elite-class world title with Honda, he announced he was defecting to Yamaha. At that time Yamaha’s YZR-M1 was an embarrassment. The bike didn’t win a race in ’03, while Honda’s RC211V V5 won 16 of 17. And he barely got a pay rise; no wonder he admitted “maybe I’m a little crazy”.
Honda was so livid at losing Rossi that it refused to grant him early release from his contract, robbing him of valuable testing time with Yamaha. That didn’t stop him from winning the ﬁrst race of 2004. Rossi is the only MotoGP rider in history to have won back-to-back races on different brands of motorcycles, and he went on to seal the ’04 title, making him only the second man to win back-to-back crowns with different brands.
By moving to Ducati, Rossi chases more history – to become the ﬁrst rider to win world titles with three manufacturers. That’s only happened once in Formula 1, with Juan Manuel Fangio (in three consecutive years, no less), which gives you some idea of the challenge facing Rossi.
Obviously, there are good reasons why this kind of thing doesn’t happen very often in motor sport. Melding man and machine takes time, unless you are a genius. Some would argue this task is even more complicated in bikes, because, as renowned former MotoGP engineer Warren Willing once put it, “dynamically, a bike is more like a ﬁghter plane than a car”.
Rossi certainly has a lot of work ahead of him, especially because Ducati’s Desmosedici is renowned for its evil ways. Over the past few years only one man has been able to win on the 800cc V4 – Aussie ﬁrebrand Casey Stoner. Everyone else has been chewed up and spat out.
While Stoner has dazzled with devastating speed, every other Desmosedici rider has complained of difﬁculties. They say the engine is too aggressive, it’s tricky getting heat into the tyres, the bike performs inconsistently from one lap to the next and the rear suspension pumps violently during acceleration. They also can’t ﬁnd the ‘feel’ they need in order to know how hard they can push.
“Every time I feel good, I crash,” said Rossi’s 2011 team-mate Nicky Hayden last year. “You’re feeling good and you think ‘wow, I can go faster’ and then you’re down with no warning.” That’s a scary place for a rider to be.
Feel is always the big deal in motorcycle racing. To perform on the ragged edge, the rider needs to be able to feel that he’s tiptoeing on the limit; he needs some warning of impending disaster, so he can pull back a fraction and then keep on tiptoeing.
Ducati has managed to temper some of the Desmosedici’s worst characteristics, but in doing so it appears to have neutered its performance. During the past three seasons Stoner revelled in the bike’s wilder side to win 20 races; this year the machine is more rider-friendly but has yet to win a race. The other current problem is traction balance – last year the Duke didn’t have enough rear grip, this year it doesn’t have enough front grip.
If anyone can ﬁx the Ducati, Rossi can. His ability to translate his feelings to engineers is legendary. While others ‘um and ah’ about settings, Rossi knows what he wants. “Valentino is black and white, very clinical,” says Mike Norton, his Öhlins suspension technician.
The joining of these two Italian icons is a risky marriage, but with that risk comes the possibility of the biggest prize of them all – a title with a third manufacturer, which would conﬁrm beyond doubt that Rossi is the greatest bike racer of all time.