Rossi: should I stay or should I go?

by Mat Oxley on 1st August 2012

I like to think that Valentino Rossi is currently in the midst of a US road trip, driving some big ol’ gas guzzler the 2000-odd miles from California to Indiana, venue for the next MotoGP race.

As he’s driving through Albuquerque, New Mexico, he’s got his arm on the windowsill and he’s singing along – with feeling – to the Clash’s ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’. And not only to celebrate what would’ve been Joe Strummer’s 60th birthday later this month.

Rossi is using all those hours and days on the road for some clear-headed thinking time: stay at Ducati or go to Yamaha?

Whatever his head is thinking, I’m pretty sure I know what his body is thinking. It is still pulsing sore from those two big smashes at Laguna Seca, both caused by the same old front-end blues that have given Ducati riders nightmares for the past half decade or so.

How could his body want anything else than to hobble through the exit door at Ducati? During his last three seasons at Yamaha – 2008, 2009 and 2010 – Rossi crashed a total of 13 times. Last year he crashed the GP11 on 12 occasions. In other words, a ride with Ducati means roughly three times as much pain as a ride with Yamaha.

I suspect that Rossi’s scary tumble during the Laguna Seca race may have been the very moment that his mind decided to follow his body. As he skidded past the top of the Corkscrew at over 100mph, he surely must’ve asked himself: why am I doing this to myself?

A quick look at his mangled GP12 would have confirmed his feelings – while the bike was very second-hand its front tyre looked brand new. So the tyre wasn’t getting up to temperature and wasn’t working, which is why Rossi was bumbling around in the lower reaches of the top ten and yet still teetering on the very edge of control. Going slow and still in the danger zone – not good.

Only two weeks earlier at Mugello Rossi had been delighted that his crew appeared to have made a crucial advance with the GP12’s front end, so that for the first time he could really charge into corners with confidence.

Laguna revealed that this progress had in fact been nothing more than the usual one step forward, two steps back. The problem is the Desmosedici’s maddening inconsistency, not just from one corner to the next, but also from one racetrack to the next. The bike has been like this for years – even when Casey Stoner was winning on the thing.

“The Ducati would be different every week, so it needed to be ridden in a different way almost every weekend,” Stoner told me recently. “With the Ducati you could never say, ‘I want it like we had it last week’, because it just wouldn’t work like that at the next track, so we had to set it up in a completely different way.”

And also ride it in a different way, which once again underlines Stoner’s genius.

More than anything, consistency is what you need from a racing motorcycle – unless you happen to be Stoner. You need consistency so that you can become familiar with the way it reacts to inputs and situations, so that you know exactly what the bike is going to do even before it does it. That’s the only way you can survive riding on the absolute limit, because if the bike does what you’re not expecting, then you’ll be on your arse before you can save it.

Rossi knows all this, so the temptation to return to the relative comfort of a Yamaha M1 must be overpowering. There is probably only one thought that may be preventing him from making his mind up, if he hasn’t already made it up.

Rossi has never failed at anything before. He failed to fail on 125, 250 and 500cc two-strokes and he failed to fail on 990 and 800cc four-strokes. He won on Aprilias, on Hondas and on Yamahas. He even won at the Suzuka Eight Hours on a superbike.

But if he quits Ducati and returns to Yamaha then he will have failed. He will have failed to turn around Ducati’s troubled MotoGP project and he will have failed to even get close to Stoner’s achievements on the fickle Desmosedici.

I’m not sure that Rossi cares much about what the outside world thinks about this, but I do believe he will be bothered on a personal basis, simply because he takes pride in his ability and in his determination to succeed. He is not a quitter. Not thus far, anyway.

Undoubtedly, Ducati’s new owners will be trying very hard to sweet-talk Rossi into staying, not going. Audi can offer him a great deal: a huge pay packet, but more importantly technical possibilities far beyond anything Ducati currently possess, which may just help the Desmosedici turn the corner, both literally and metaphorically. It must be very tempting, because if Rossi was able to win on the Ducati, his legend will be fully restored and polished to a golden gleam.

But I suspect that right now Rossi has his mobile switched off and hidden in the glove compartment while he seeks inspiration from the open road and from The Clash’s Mick Jones..

“If I go there will be trouble, an’ if I stay it will be double”

 

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