Rossi’s tactical retreat

by Mat Oxley on 15th August 2012

As a world-class cynic who fled his hometown for the duration of the London Olympics, I have to admit that even I enjoyed the Games.

Team GB’s performance proved that if you invest the correct amount of time, money and brains, anything is possible. Even in Britain. Hopefully the country will learn something from the past two weeks, so that the Olympics will be remembered as something more than the icing on a rather mouldy cake.

Apart from watching Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis and Bradley Wiggins, I most enjoyed seeing Usain Bolt do his thing, which was rather like watching Valentino Rossi at the height of his powers. Bolt is one of those very rare athletes who manages to combine total dedication to his task with an ability to look like he’s treating the whole thing as a bit of a laugh. The way he joked with officials and fans before and after his races reminded me very much of Rossi.

Olympic sprinting legend and BBC commentator Michael Johnson realises that Bolt has something very special about him. “Usain can switch on and off,” said Johnson, marvelling at the Jamaican’s way with the fans. “I could never do that.”

Rossi’s ability to do the same – switch back and forth between race mode and joke mode – hasn’t been of much use during the past year and a half. But now we know he’s going back to Yamaha, the question arises of what kind of celebration might he be planning for his first win on the 2013 YZR-M1?

If he manages to win a race, that is. Rossi will be trying harder than ever to remind people that he’s fast and I believe that he will win races once more, but I’d be very surprised if he were to beat team-mate Jorge Lorenzo to the World Championship. Lorenzo and the Yamaha are as one, the rider’s glass-smooth riding style and the motorcycle’s friendly character perfectly matched. Even back in 2010 the Spaniard and his crew chief Ramon Forcada were getting more out of the M1 than Rossi and Jeremy Burgess. Now Lorenzo has had an extra two years with the bike, while Rossi has struggled to find his confidence with a motorcycle that has defeated him at every turn.

We will see a new Rossi next year: someone who’s fully failed for the first time in his life. It will be fascinating to witness him going back on the attack, having made a major tactical retreat.

Not that it’s a tactic that’s met with much success in premier-class GP racing. In 1983 Barry Sheene went back to Suzuki after a few years with Yamaha and never won a GP; likewise Eddie Lawson who returned to long-time employers Yamaha after winning the 1989 title with Honda. Giacomo Agostini did slightly better, returning to MV Agusta after two seasons with Yamaha and winning one more victory with MV in 1976.

When Rossi walks back into the Yamaha pit early next year the dynamics of his relationship with Lorenzo will be pretty much the exact opposite of how they were in 2008, when Lorenzo joined Rossi as understudy.

The two men have never got on, which is why Rossi left Yamaha in the first place, so their battle for supremacy within the team will be a bitter struggle. Yamaha have some experience of this kind of rivalry. In the late 1960s they had Britons Phil Read and Bill Ivy in their factory 125/250 team. In 1968 Yamaha wanted Read to be 125 champion and Ivy 250 champion, but Read defied team orders to win the double.

Just hours after wrapping up the 125 championship at Brno, he told Ivy that he wouldn’t be following team orders for the remainder of the 250 championship.

“As we lined up for the 250s, I said to Bill, ‘Okay, if you think you can beat me when we’re riding to orders, well, now you’re going have to race me for it’. He said ‘ah, f**kin’ ‘ell, Phil’. So we raced, I won and he was second.”

Ivy was mentally destroyed by Read’s double-crossing and made a desperate attempt to hang onto the 250 title by protesting that his team-mate’s number plates didn’t comply with regulations. Distraught at losing the crown, Ivy quit bikes and switched to cars. A few months later he accepted an offer to race Jawa’s 350 V4 and was fatally injured when the bike seized and hurled him to the ground at the Sachsenring in July 1969.

The Rossi/Lorenzo rivalry probably won’t get as nasty as the Read/Ivy feud, but will surely make for some thrilling grudge matches, like Catalunya 2009 and Motegi 2010. Rossi won both those encounters and already he must be stiffening his sinews for what will be his final shot at the big one. It’s a contest that will be worth watching.

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