Is Valentino Rossi slow? The numbers say no. More from the Dutch TT

by Mat Oxley on 3rd July 2019

The numbers that show Valentino Rossi hasn't lost his speed; whether Márquez is making Honda look good & Jorge Lorenzo's injuries: Mat Oxley's second instalment from the 2019 MotoGP Dutch TT

Valentino Rossi in a Yamaha team debrief

Photo: Yamaha

Is Rossi too slow? Not if you look at the numbers

Are things really as bad as they look for Valentino Rossi, currently halfway through his 20th season in the premier class? The only way to fully understand his situation without fear or favour is to crunch the numbers.

His last three races – Mugello, Barcelona and Assen – gave him his first trio of DNFs since 2011, his first year with Ducati. That was his worst season ever, with an average score of 8.17 points from 17 races. So far this year his average is nine points.

Riders crash, that’s part of racing. Sometimes they crash alone, other times they get taken out by rivals and other times they crash and take out others. Already Rossi has been on both ends of that reality this year, which is a prime factor in his low points score.

But what about his speed? Some people suggest the 40-year-old is past it and is only tarnishing his golden legacy. The numbers tell a different story. And numbers do not lie…

At the five first races of the year, Rossi’s average gap to the winner was 4.2 seconds, hardly the pace of someone who’s over the hill. Put that difference into percentage terms and the reality is even more stark: if we consider that the race winner always performs at 100 per cent, then Rossi’s average race deficit at the first five races had him performing at 99.8 per cent. That’s a long, long, long way from being off the pace.

The reality of Rossi’s situation isn’t that he’s slow but that the current technical regulations and tyre character allow everyone to be fast. Just ten years ago the difference between the fastest and the not-quite fastest riders was much bigger. In 2009 Rossi’s current 4.2-second deficit would have had him on the podium at 11 of the 17 races. 

At Catalunya he most likely would’ve had another good result, because he qualified fourth quickest, his best grid position since he qualified second and finished second at COTA.

Valentino Rossi on track at the 2019 MotoGP Dutch TT

Rossi was faster than the leader when he crashed at Mugello Photo: Motorsport Images

The only real blots on his 2019 season have been Mugello and Assen, two of his happiest hunting grounds. Both circuits are fast and quite bumpy, with numerous high-speed corner entries where you need a lot of confidence in the front end to pitch the bike on its side in third or fourth gear.

He didn’t feel that confident on the bike at Mugello, but in the race, his last lap before he fell was faster than the leader’s. At Assen his crew finally found a setting that allowed him to attack on race day. His best lap time in Saturday’s FP4 dummy-race session was 1min 34.6sec. In the race he was already down to 1min 34.0sec when he lost front at Stekkenwal, crashing and taking out Takaki Nakagami.

“We modified something in the bike and in the race I was much faster than in practice,” he said afterwards. “I felt good and I tried to overtake Nakagami at the entry of Turn Eight, but I was little too much off-line and I lost the front. I have to say sorry to Nakagami because it was quite a big crash.

“Three crashes in a row is a big, big shame, because these are three of my favourite tracks. It looks like we’ve found something to be a bit more competitive in Germany, but it’s important to try to find a solution to be faster. Here I was slow in the fast sections because the bike felt heavy and I didn’t feel comfortable. Here we had two Yamahas on the podium, so we have to work to be strong like them.”


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Maverick Viñales finally had the beating of Marc Márquez on Sunday. And who knows, if he hadn’t been taken out on lap two of the previous race, perhaps it would have been his second consecutive podium.

The 24-year-old took his first win in 11 races after running at the front all weekend. Consistency is usually his biggest problem, so has he finally found the right direction with new crew chief Esteban Garcia? Viñales is always looking for more traction and he found it at Catalunya, a very slippery track, and at Assen, a much grippier track.

“After practice at Mugello we thought we had our maximum potential because practice was really good, but the set-up wasn’t the best for the race,” explained Viñales. “We needed to find more traction, which is what our bike needs. We found it at Catalunya and here. And finally we found a way that the race was the same as warm-up for us, so I could ride in the same way and that’s the most important thing.”

Also important was his consistency and progress over the two days of practice and qualifying. “The best feeling is that we did the job from Friday to Saturday,” he added.

This weekend’s German GP will help us better understand better if Viñales has truly found the speed and consistency he’s lacked for more than two seasons.

 

Who’s winning MotoGP: Márquez or Honda?

Marquez celebrates with the Honda team

Photo: Honda

Honda leads the 2019 riders and constructors world championships thanks to Marc Márquez. But is it correct to suggest that Honda would be lost without its MotoGP magician?

Possibly, possibly not. Motorcycle racing is the melding of metal and muscle – the nut that holds the handlebars is important, but so too are the nuts that hold the engine. One cannot win without the other.

Honda’s attitude has always been straightforward: build a motorcycle that can turn the fastest lap time, then sign a rider who can ride it to that lap time. Over the past half century, Honda has signed more riders who can make the difference than any other factory: Mike Hailwood, Freddie Spencer, Wayne Gardner, Eddie Lawson, Mick Doohan, Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner and Márquez.

All these riders won premier-class races and/or titles with Honda, some of them by using the strengths of their machinery, others by riding around its weaknesses.

Crutchlow: “It’s for the other riders to go as fast as him on the same equipment. At the moment I can’t and Jorge [Lorenzo] can’t."

There’s an occasionally popular theory that merely winning races isn’t enough, that factories also need to achieve strength in depth to prove their engineering credentials. But that doesn’t really make sense. Riders and factories go racing to win. No one really remembers who finishes second or third.

Right now, Márquez isn’t only way ahead of his fellow RC213V riders, he’s also way ahead of everyone else on the grid. His raw talent has been tempered with experience, so he becomes more and more difficult to beat. So far this year he has finished first or second at seven of eight races. He crashed out of the other race while holding a commanding lead when he was caught out by an engine-braking glitch.

Currently, Márquez is the only Honda rider in the top nine of the championship. But sometimes Honda does build everyman Grand Prix bikes. Its legendary RC211V took the first three places in the 2003 MotoGP world championship. The following year the V5 achieved even greater strength in depth, with five RC211V riders in the top six. But first place went to Rossi’s Yamaha YZR-M1. Everyone remembers Rossi’s 2004 title, but no one remembers that Honda had much better strength in depth.

The NS500 and NSR500 were also everyman GP bikes, taking many different riders to GP wins, although the early NSRs were anything but friendly. Spencer, Gardner and Lawson wrestled them to world titles by accentuating their positives and riding around their negatives, much the same as Márquez does with the RC213V.

“The problem is that Marc is leading the championship and he’s won the last God knows how many titles on a bike that is difficult and physical to ride, so what can we say?” says Cal Crutchlow, who’s currently tenth in the standings. “It’s for the other riders to go as fast as him on the same equipment. At the moment I can’t and Jorge [Lorenzo] can’t.

“Honda completely understand the difficulties we face but they also understand the bike’s strong points. And its strongest point is that however Marc is riding the bike it’s working. Honda has done a great job with the engine this year, no doubt. Now we need to work on the other areas.

“Marc says very similar things about the bike as I do, but he’s able to ride it in a certain way. You get people saying how well the Honda turns, but it’s not the bike turning, it’s Marc turning. Look at the lean angle he has to use compared to his competitors. At Mugello he was leaning seven degrees more than the others to make the bike to go around the corners.”

 

New GP19 frame is better but not where it needs to be

Ducati on track

Photo: Ducati

If racing is all about finding the ideal balance between man and machine, where is Ducati right now? During 2017 and 2018 the Desmosedici was the only bike that could take the fight to Honda and Márquez. But racing never stands still. Suzuki has improved step by step, chipping away at those hundredths and thousandths. Yamaha is still a bit all over the place – up one weekend, down the next – but when the M1 and its riders are up it’s got the beating of the GP19.

At Assen, Andrea Dovizioso raced his first frame upgrade of the season. The frame looked identical to its predecessor and most likely had minor tweaks to rigidity around the steering head to improve turn-in. However, the upgrade made no improvement where Dovizioso wants it – later in the corner – and the world number two is getting increasingly impatient for answers to this problem.

“Now the last part of braking is better and when you release the brake the bike enters the corners a bit better, but that doesn’t change the situation,” he said.

On the other hand, Dovizioso may be in a better mood when he returns from the summer break and MotoGP moves to a run of circuits where the Ducati usually works well: Brno, the Red Bull Ring, Silverstone, Misano, Aragon, Buriram, Motegi and so on.

 

Lorenzo’s bitter luck and horror smash

Lorenzo tries out his knee supports

Lorenzo tries his knee supports before FP1 Photo: Honda

Jorge Lorenzo has now been injured for the past ten months. The three-times world champion mangled two toes when he crashed at the first corner of last September’s Aragon GP and he’s not been fully fit since.

When Lorenzo returned to action for the next race in Thailand. a machine fault caused a huge highside that left him with a broken left forearm and a nasty battering which forced him to miss the next three races. He was back again at Valencia, but still far from fully fit.

By January, he was strong enough to start riding again, but almost immediately he fell while riding dirt track, fracturing his left scaphoid, an awkward injury that continued to trouble him at the first races of 2019. To add injury to injury he had another highside during practice for the season-opening Qatar GP, cracking a rib.

Riders are always in the lap of the gods when they barrel roll through the gravel and this time the gods were unkind to Lorenzo

The day after he crashed out of the Catalan GP he had huge off during testing, barrel-rolling through the Turn-Nine gravel trap, hurting his back, elbows and fingers.

Lorenzo’s Assen crash was a horror show. His FP1 accident shouldn’t have hurt him as badly as it did, but this time things went badly wrong in the gravel trap.

Low track temperatures caused four crashes in that session, Lorenzo losing the front at close to 100mph as he attacked the Turn-Seven left-hander. Riders are always in the lap of the gods when they barrel roll through the gravel and this time the gods were unkind to Lorenzo. He was flipped upside down and headbutted the gravel as his body rotated around his neck, causing a stable fracture of his T6 vertebra and a trabecular fracture of the T8 vertebra.

Johann Zarco had the same crash that afternoon, but the gravel trap was kinder to him and he walked away, albeit battered and bruised. Turn Seven has a bad reputation. Moto2 rookie Somkiat Chantra broke his left wrist there on Sunday morning, while Franco Morbidelli broke his left hand there last year.

The real horror of Lorenzo’s tumble – flipped headfirst into the gravel – was that it was very reminiscent of the accidents that ended Wayne Rainey’s career at Misano in 1993 and left Steve Hislop with a broken neck at the Brands Hatch World Superbike round of 2000. Hislop underwent surgery to fix his neck injury – surgeons inserted a titanium plate and rebuilt two damaged vertebrae with bone taken from his pelvis.

Lorenzo is now recuperating at home in Switzerland, wearing a body brace. It’s not known when he will return to action.

At the end of Friday practice at Assen, Jack Miller explained that the Turn Six/Seven section was particularly treacherous. “I’m very careful going into Turn Seven especially because it’s very bumpy there, so I’m very slow to use any lean angle there,” said the Aussie.

 

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