“When we went to Magneti Marelli software it was a big step down for us and the bike became very difficult to ride. Not only the traction control but also engine character, so everything was less in balance. Over the next years the Yamaha engineers had a lot of problems working with the Magneti Marelli ECU and I think this is still a problem!”
Yamaha also struggled to adapt the M1 to the spec Michelins. And this was a bigger problem for bigger riders like Rossi, especially when the French company introduced its latest rear slick for his last two seasons in MotoGP, when his average score per race dropped to five points in 2020 and 2.5 in 2021.
The tyre’s softer construction deflected (squished) more to provide a fatter contact patch and therefore more grip, for faster race times. But, like all tyres, this one worked better for some than for others.
“Me and Valentino often talk about this,” Danilo Petrucci revealed recently. “We were both quite good until the end of 2019, fighting for the podium, then from 2020 the rear tyre changed and we were fighting for 16th…
“You cannot be really aggressive with the new rear tyre because you put yourself in more difficulty. Now your riding style must not be about braking and acceleration, it must be about corner speed and momentum – you mustn’t put too much load on the tyre, which is difficult if you are heavier, like me or Valentino.”
Of course, if a soft construction tyre is worse for bigger riders, it will most likely be better for smaller riders. Like Dani Pedrosa.
Rossi on the grid in his pre-race into-the-zone mode at Red Bull Ring in August
“It’s difficult for people who aren’t really passionate about MotoGP or don’t know how a bike works to understand this,” continued Petrucci. “But for example, Dani really struggled to heat the rear tyre in 2017 and 2018, so he was complaining a lot and finally he quit racing at the end of 2018. But now the situation is the opposite. When Dani started using the softer-construction rear tyre in testing [from 2020] he was incredibly fast – when KTM went testing at Red Bull Ring he was faster than all of us!”
There are always winners and losers in every change of tyre design, even before spec tyres. For example, when Rossi won his first MotoGP title with Yamaha the success wasn’t all him and the bike. Michelin’s new-for-2004 rear slick worked perfectly with the M1, while it cursed Honda’s RC211V with chatter.
“My weight is quite – not fantastic for the Michelin, but this is the game…” Valentino Rossi
So just as Michelin’s new-for-2020 rear slick helped Pedrosa and others it was a disaster for Petrucci and Rossi, whose gradual decline became a precipitous descent.
“The tyres have made a big change in the last years,” said Rossi on the eve of his final race at Valencia. “I’ve always needed a hard [construction] rear tyre which gives good support. For this reason I was very strong with the Bridgestone rear and I started to suffer more with the Michelin rear, because the tyre is a lot softer.
“But especially the last two years [2020 and 2021] Michelin made another step softer. You gained more grip but the tyre is very soft, so we needed to change another time the bike settings and my riding style.
“Also, me and Danilo are the tallest and, although I’m quite thin, my weight is quite high compared to the median of the grid and this is not fantastic for the Michelin tyre. But this is the game…
Rossi was very nearly as fast as ever in 2021 but the others were faster
“It’s also difficult because I arrived at a certain age where it wasn’t easy to once again change my riding style and the way I use the gas, so it wasn’t easy.”
“A certain age,” indeed…
Rossi may have been the Peter Pan of MotoGP but Father Time waits for no one, not even Peter. That’s why the average age of British fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain was 20, because our reaction times degrade with time itself. If 40-year-old pilots were better than 20-year-olds at flying and fighting at 200mph you can be sure they would’ve been doing it instead.
Biochemistry also plays an important part in this degradation, because we are all slaves to the chemicals inside our bodies. For example, there’s the enzyme monoamine oxidase which increases its activity in the brain with age, reducing our willingness to undertake risky activities.
Thus the writing was always on the wall for Rossi. It’s not for nothing that he had his strongest seasons in MotoGP in 2002, 2003 and 2005, when he was a young man.
During his last season his competitiveness dropped off a cliff.