Ciao Vale! But why the downfall?


Valentino Rossi went into the 2021 MotoGP season determined to keep racing bikes into 2022, but his results dropped off a cliff, so what went wrong?


Rossi prepares to start from the back row of the grid at COTA, where he finished 15th

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“If I can be competitive, then I can continue for another year, this is my idea,” said Valentino Rossi at this year’s season-opening Qatar GP.

So what went wrong? Why did Rossi’s dream of racing into 2022 – his 27th season of grand prix racing – go awry?

Firstly, there’s no simple answer to any question in motorcycle racing, including this one. As always, it’s a combination of factors, both human and mechanical.

During his last few seasons Rossi’s post-race comments were like a broken record, just as they were during his two years at Ducati. But different.

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When he rode the Desmosedici he always complained of a lack of front-end feel, which at best made him slow and at worst put him on the ground.

“The problem is the same as always – I don’t have enough feeling at the front,” he told journalists at Misano in 2011. “Maybe we can save time and you can publish what I said at the last race or the race before that!”

When Rossi rode Yamaha’s YZR-M1 with Magneti Marelli’s spec electronics and Michelin’s spec tyres he always complained of a lack of rear-tyre life

“In the race I struggled very much because after some laps I had problems with the rear tyre,” he said after this year’s Qatar GP, just like he had said after most races during the preceding few seasons.

Therefore Rossi’s irreversible decline began when MotoGP ditched tailor-made factory software and Bridgestone tyres at the end of 2015.

The effect on his speed and results is indisputable: from four victories in 2015 he slumped to two in 2016, one in 2017 and that was that – no more victories. And from an average of 18 points per race in 2015, to 14 in 2016, 11.5 in 2017, 11 in 2018 and nine in 2019.

Should we therefore blame Michelin for Rossi’s fall from grace? Well, he did win more world titles and races with the French tyres than with any other tyre brand.


Rossi and Petrucci. “We were both quite good until the end of 2019, then we were fighting for 16th…”

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The real blame lays at the door of Yamaha’s engineering department that struggled for years to adapt the M1 to MotoGP’s new tyres and spec software. Yamaha went from dominating the final year of Bridgestone tyres and free software, with 11 victories and a championship one-two, to failing to win the title again until 2021.

Thus Rossi’s final seasons were inextricably linked to Yamaha’s undoing.

“I think the Yamaha was the bike that lost the most performance when MotoGP went to the unique Magneti Marelli ECU in 2015,” Rossi told me a couple of weeks ago. “With the Yamaha electronics the M1 was very balanced and very good, and the Yamaha engineers were able to work in a very good way with their electronics to fix any problems we had.

“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

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“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

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“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.

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At Losail last March he was three seconds slower than his previous best at the track in 2018, which isn’t much of a difference, but the race was ten seconds faster. At Mugello in May he was six seconds slower than his previous best there in 2017, while the race was 16 seconds faster. At Aragon in September he was five seconds slower than he’d been in 2018, while the race was ten seconds faster. And so on. That’s why he crossed the line an average of 23 seconds behind the winner during 2021.

Quite simply, Rossi had lost a lot of fight, perhaps realising his technical situation was hopeless.

Valencia, of course, was different. He reignited his fighting spirit for his final GP, so he had his best race of the year, finishing 13 seconds behind the winner, and rode his fastest race at Valencia since 2016.

So he still had the spirit within but perhaps not the energy to unleash it every weekend.

As one engineer – who worked with Rossi for many years – told me at Valencia: “Valentino woke up!”.

Thus his downfall was a bit of everything. On the one side, his motorcycle, electronics and tyres. On the other, his mind, body and soul.

But Rossi isn’t stupid, even though he wanted to keep racing into 2022 he always knew Father Time would get him in the end.

“This season has been tough for me,” he said after finishing 23 seconds behind the winner at Portimao earlier this month. “But I’m OK, I’m relaxed.”