MotoGP decision time for Rossi: should he stay or should he go?

MotoGP

Nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi will decide his MotoGP future in the next few weeks. Here he reveals why his results have slumped since 2019

Valentino Rossi goes to race at Mugello in 2021

Rossi goes out to race Mugello last month, possibly for the last time

Petronas SRT

Yesterday afternoon Valentino Rossi ended his 422nd grand prix in 14th place, 22 seconds behind winner Marc Márquez and 1.3 seconds in front of MotoGP rookie and brother Luca Marini. This time next week Rossi will be on his summer holidays, wondering whether he should stay or should he go.

To continue the musical analogy, perhaps we should refer to Jim Morrison of The Doors, one of Rossi’s favourite musicians, who wrote a song called The End.

“This is the end,
Beautiful friend,
This is the end.”

I wonder if Rossi will be listening to this “simple goodbye song, probably to a girl,” (according to Morrison) and wondering whether it’s time to say goodbye to his beautiful friend, motorcycle racing.

Bike racing is a beautiful friend to its exponents and also a nasty enemy because the good times are great and the bad times are horrid. It’s a love/hate relationship and it takes years of mental and physical anguish before most racers can finally walk away. They must suffer physically, through injury, and mentally, through the depression of one grim result after another, time after time after time, before they can admit to themselves that it’s all over.

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That’s why very, very few riders retire when they’re at the top of their game, because life is too good up there.

Twice MotoGP champ Casey Stoner did it, at the end of 2012, and three-times World Superbike champ Troy Bayliss did it in 2008, although not voluntarily. Bayliss had agreed with wife Kim to retire after the 2006 season but kept going for two more years. After that he had to make the decision: stop, or…

Bayliss did quit but spent the next few years gagging to race again.

“I still have heaps of issues about stopping,’ he told me in 2011. “It’s so hard, really hard. If I’d stopped with broken legs or whatever, it would’ve been easy.”

Three years later I interviewed twice World Superbike champion Colin Edwards a few weeks after he had announced his retirement from MotoGP.

“I’m not a believer in retiring at the top,” he told me. “Why the f**k would you want to retire when you’re at the top?! But yeah, year by year it’s been a little bit of a descent.”

Valentino Rossi at the 2021 MotoGP German GP

Battling with rookies Luca Marini and Enea Bastianini at Sachsenring on Sunday

Petronas SRT

Too right. Edwards didn’t have Rossi’s superstar profile, so he wasn’t able to command factory bikes during the twilight of his MotoGP career. Instead the American rode bargain-basement CRT bikes, powered by dog-slow (relatively speaking) superbike engines, which put him 20th, 14th and 22nd overall in his final three seasons.

Rossi ended last year 15th and currently stands 19th in this year’s championship, with one tenth-place finish, an 11th, 12th, 14th, two 16th places and two crashes from the first eight races.

Last year he scored a podium at Jerez and was in the podium fight at Misano and Barcelona. This year he’s struggling just to get inside the top ten and he’s already crashed as many times as he did in the whole of the 2017 season.

“I was strong, fast and competitive in 2018. From 2019, something changed”

What are the reasons for this?

He’s got older, of course. But there’s more to it than that.

Rossi has won five MotoGP championships with Michelin and two with Bridgestone. However, he’s struggled ever since the introduction of Michelin spec tyres, largely because the carcass of the tyres is softer and more squidgy than the Bridgestones.

Comparing Rossi’s last three seasons with Bridgestone spec rubber with his first three with spec Michelins reveals that his average points score dropped by almost 25%.

And it’s got worse since then, specifically since 2019, when Rossi feels something changed in the rear tyre, which was largely redesigned for 2020, with an even softer carcass.

Of course, in spec-tyre racing it’s the job of the rider and engineer to adapt riding technique and bike set-up to get the most out of whatever tyres they’re given, but Rossi hasn’t been able to adapt because he’s unable to reduce the load he puts into the rear tyre.

“I was strong, fast and competitive in 2018,” he said last weekend. “I wasn’t able to win a race but I arrived P3 in the championship, I made five podiums and I felt strong. After that, from 2019, something changed and from that point we had to set the bike in a very different way compared to the past.

Valentino Rossi drives a Ferrari GT3 in the Gulf 12 Hours in 2021

Rossi drives a Ferrari GT3 car in the Gulf 12 Hours race earlier this year

Monster

“All through my career I’ve liked to have a lot of support from the rear tyre and a stiff set-up at the rear, but from 2019 the tyres started to suffer very, very much with this kind of setting, so we need to work with the bike to make the rear a lot softer and ride more smoothly to load the tyre in a better way. Otherwise the tyre gives up.

“But with this kind of tyre and this kind of setting I’m more in trouble and I’m not able to use the benefit of my style. But it’s like this and we need to try to understand the way to improve.”

Remarkably Rossi doesn’t seem to be down in the dumps. He still enjoys riding and the process of looking for answers.

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“We need to work and improve some small details for tomorrow,” he said after German GP qualifying on Saturday, just like any other rider going about his business.

There’s no doubt that Yamaha will not renew Rossi’s current one-year contract for 2022, so if he doesn’t call it quits he will have to give himself a ride aboard a second-hand Ducati Desmosedici in his own VR46 MotoGP team.

I don’t see that happening. I think the nine-times world champion will decide the time has come to hang up his leathers and get his Nomex car-racing overalls out of the wardrobe.

Rossi will most likely race in the GT3 class (for so-called grand tourer cars – Ferraris, Porsches, Bentleys, Maseratis and Aston Martins), mixing car-racing duties with MotoGP team-ownership duties. Last January he drove a Ferrari 488 with brother Luca Marini and great friend Uccio Salucci to third place in the GT3 Pro-Am class in the Gulf 12 Hours at Yas Marina. Top of his four-wheel ambitions is the Le Mans 24 Hours.

If this is indeed the end of Rossi’s two-wheel career, his will be an epic career that may never be bettered: 26 seasons, about 430 grand prix starts, 115 wins and 235 podiums (so far). And it doesn’t matter that it’s ending on a sombre note, it really doesn’t, because usually there’s no other way.