Cue the Jaws theme tune, because Jorge Lorenzo is coming to get Valentino Rossi. The Spaniard took a nine-point chunk out of Rossi’s championship lead at Aragon, at which rate he will lead the championship at Phillip Island, with all to play for in the final two races at Sepang and Valencia.
Rossi always knew this moment was coming; indeed he’s been there before. Way back in June 2009 he likened Lorenzo and Casey Stoner to sharks, circling around him in the water, ready for the kill.
“They look at me with some blood flowing and they think, ‘Okay, now is the time’,” he said. “If I am not strong, they will eat me in one bite.”
Six and a bit seasons later he is in exactly the same position. So what will it take to repulse Lorenzo’s latest attack?
Rossi is the master of reinvention and the king of circumstances, so all is not lost. His efforts to find those few tenths a lap he needs are never-ending.
“Now we arrive at the important moment of the championship,” he said at the weekend. “I am always working on my riding style, my position on the bike, the way I use the brakes and everything – all this is in a great state of evolution in MotoGP at the moment. Jorge and Marc [Márquez] always raise the level, so it’s important to stay at that level and to not fall behind, otherwise it’s difficult to recover.”
Following Márquez’s early exit from Sunday’s race, Rossi is now focused entirely on Lorenzo, and he doesn’t like what he sees. “In the last races Jorge has made another step. The change in his riding skills is not a lot; it’s his motivation and his concentration that is different – he has arrived at a level of concentration that is close to 100 per cent, so he’s always strong and fast.
Rossi: The greatest ever?
“It’s also the work he does on his settings, so he can stay close to the top in practice and qualifying. Now I need to work on my speed and on my settings to be strong in every practice so I can start from the front, then after that we will see what happens in the races. It’s going to be very hard… We are worried, for sure.”
So what has Lorenzo changed in the last few races? He said: “I now understood [sic] some things to go faster that I didn’t understand in the past and now I do know.”
What are those things? I asked, disingenuously.
“Good question! But I don’t want to respond.”
And why would he? Lorenzo spends a lot of time training with his dad Chico. Father and son work on making tiny adjustments to his riding position while he sits on a static bike and, more importantly, tiny adjustments to his mental makeup. It’s top-secret stuff.
Rossi admits that Lorenzo is faster, how could he not? Thus he must hope for some unusual circumstances in the last few races: most likely rain (like Silverstone and Misano), or a Repsol Honda or two, or any other kind of random chaos; in fact anything that might disrupt Lorenzo’s devastating speed on an empty racetrack. What Rossi needs to seal a tenth world title is for ‘stuff’ to happen.
In the absence of weird, serendipitous events playing a part, the duel will continue, most likely with Lorenzo out front, like a ballet dancer pirouetting on a precipice, while Rossi slugs it out behind, searching for those extra tenths that might close the gap.
Next stop is Motegi, where in 2010 the pair had the most thrilling duel of their seven years of rivalry. Lorenzo was on the cusp of his first MotoGP title, so he had everything to lose, while Rossi was out of the title hunt, after breaking a leg at Mugello, so he had nothing to lose. They bumped and barged their way around Honda’s home track, Rossi finally gaining the upper hand with a block pass that left Lorenzo unable to exploit his superior corner speed.
Rossi vs Lorenzo
2016 so far:
Wins Rossi 4/Lorenzo 6
Podiums Rossi 13/Lorenzo 8
Fastest laps Rossi 4/Lorenzo 3
Poles Rossi 1/Lorenzo 3
Points Rossi 263/Lorenzo 249
Lorenzo was so enraged by Rossi’s riding that Yamaha management gave their five-time champion a right telling off. “Yamaha asked me to race with more attention,” Rossi said afterwards. “So, I will try to beat him again… with more attention!”
Perhaps Rossi and his crew will “pull the rabbit out of the hat”, so he can once again fight elbow-to-elbow with Lorenzo. Maybe Silvano Galbusera will stumble upon a balance adjustment that tips things in VR’s favour; perhaps data-man Matteo Flamigni will find a clever new way through some algorithm, or maybe VR’s Öhlins technician Mike Norton will magic a click here or a click there.
Rossi vs Lorenzo in 2010
But if the Japanese Grand Prix weekend stays dry and passes without incident then Rossi’s chances seem slim, not least because Motegi’s stop-and-go layout produces the highest fuel consumption of the season. Rossi is taller and heavier than Lorenzo, plus he uses the throttle more aggressively, so his fuel consumption is heavier, which means Yamaha may have to lean off the fuel, losing horsepower and compromising mid-corner throttle response.
If this year was next year, Rossi wouldn’t have to worry about that problem, because riders will race with 24 litres of fuel, instead of the ridiculously miserly 20 litres they currently get. An extra four litres right now would mean the world to Rossi.
The likelihood of Márquez or Dani Pedrosa helping Rossi by spoiling Lorenzo’s ultra-smooth cornering lines are smaller than they once were, because Yamaha have negated the Honda’s old advantages. The M1 now starts faster because its wheelie control is more effective than the RCV’s, which is why Lorenzo has led from the first corner to the last in each of his six 2015 wins. The M1 also stops quicker because it has better rear-tyre contact on the brakes, which is why Márquez so often overloads his RCV’s front tyre, trying to stay with the Yamaha.
However, if Rossi can somehow, anyhow, get stuck in with his team-mate then he really will stand a chance of reopening the points gap, because his riding technique and his stiffer suspension set-up work better in a brawl than Lorenzo’s glass-smooth technique and softer set-up.
But what Rossi really needs is a minor miracle, like a small typhoon blowing over Motegi or some other curved ball, of which he can take advantage. The Motegi statistics certainly stand in Lorenzo’s favour – in their five visits to the track on equal machinery (when Rossi wasn’t on a Ducati), Lorenzo came out on top three times, Rossi twice.
But the 2014 statistics for the final three races offer a different perspective of what might happen: Lorenzo may have beaten Rossi at Motegi last October, but Rossi bettered his team-mate at Phillip Island, Sepang and Valencia.