For the first time in his 16 year career the Italian has been unable to compete at the front of the field and the strain of being in the midfield has been clear throughout his tenure with Ducati. At most races Rossi has looked like an imposter on the track and has lacked his trademark spark in the paddock.
The nine times world champion still routinely makes jokes during his interviews and gives a cheeky smile while waiting on the grid before a race but his inability to perform aboard the Ducati has clearly made him rethink his standing amongst his rivals.
It is amazing to think that the rider who has been called the greatest of all time and who dominated the premier class for the better part of a decade has lost his spark and self confidence. Yet in numerous interviews throughout the season this has clearly been the case.
Speaking this weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway it is clear that Rossi is looking forward to returning to Yamaha and attempting to rekindle the spark of their previous partnership, when they won 46 races and four titles together, he is now unsure of his speed.
His autobiography was famously called “what if I never tried it,” now he must be questioning whether he can still do it.
Two years ago the paddock was thrilled by the thoughts of Italian motorcycling royalty joining forces with Rossi riding the blood red Ducati however their relationship was uneasy from the start with Rossi struggling during the Valencia test the day after finishing on the podium on his Yamaha.
Rossi was plagued by a lack of front end feel from the first time that he sat on the bike and he has done little to hide his disappointment with the bike throughout the year. Speaking this weekend about his experiences with the bike it is clear just how disillusioned he has become with Ducati.
“I was never fast with that bike from the first test to now,” said Rossi. “Unfortunately together with Ducati we were not able to improve the bike and to fix the problem that the bike have.”
The issues have been clear from that first test and while Rossi and his race engineer, Jeremy Burgess, have looked to make changes to the bike Ducati have resolutely stuck to their design philosophies.
Clash of philosphies
The primary philosophy is that the engine is the central element of the bike and that the bike should be built around the powerplant. The traditional approach to a chassis with an engine bolted into it is eschewed and the engine effectively becomes the chassis with the suspensions and forks all connected to the engine rather than to a frame.
Ducati has been unwavering in their desire to maintain this philosophy. The manufacturer has however tried countless ways of solving the front end problems.
When Rossi joined Ducati the team used a carbon-fibre chassis but this has now been dropped in favour of a traditional aluminum frame. The team has manufactured tens of swingarms trying to give a more responsive bike that would allow Rossi to have increased confidence in the front end.
They have tried to change the weight distribution of the bike but nothing has been able to sort out the lack of front end feel that has plagued Rossi, and to an extent Casey Stoner in his final seasons with the team.
Stoner’s speed and success aboard the Ducati has been in marked contrast to Rossi’s time with the team but it should be remembered that following his title success in 2007 he suffered from the same lack of front end feel as Rossi and crashed in numerous races. The Australian was however still able to mount serious title assaults aboard the bike.
For Stoner the plight of his former team, and the accusations leveled upon it, has been difficult to accept.
“I think what we did with Ducati was great, but it wasn’t just me,” commented the double world champion. “It was my team, my teammates, everybody that’s helped and actually put a lot of input in toward that bike. So it’s disappointing to see the results they’re getting at the moment, but I hope to see them bounce back soon.”
Stoner has seen his reputation enhanced considerably by Rossi’s failure to tame the Ducati. The Australian has always been seen as a spectacularly fast rider but in most quarters there was an expectation that Rossi would allow the Bologna manufacturer to finally produce a bike that could be ridden by a broad spectrum of riders.
Rossi never comfortable with Ducati
Speaking in the pre-race weekend press conference Rossi ruefully said that, “I was never able to be fast with the Ducati, and this is a great, great pity, a very bad thing, especially for me and for my team.”
His team of engineers had been hired with the expectation that they could repeat their feats at Yamaha where they won the world title in Rossi’s first year with the manufacturer after joining a team in disarray with a bike that had struggled to match the might of Honda and its all conquering RCV211V.
Rossi and Burgess were able to instantly make the bike competitive but it should be remembered that the Yamaha was not a bad bike to begin with. In its first two years the YZR-M1 had been developed by Max Biaggi and had a relatively good chassis but lagged behind Honda in terms of outright power.
Rossi and Burgess were also fortunate that they joined Yamaha during the era of unlimited testing. This definitely made it considerably easier to cure the ails of the bike with the winter spent dialing out any issues with the handling package while Yamaha, led by Masao Furusawa, redeveloped the engine and finally provided the M1 with the punch that it had been lacking.
This is not to downplay the role that Rossi and Burgess played in making Yamaha the force that they have become over the last eight years but it should also be remembered that the M1 was a much more rounded motorcycle than the Ducati and as a result the ability to cure its woes was much easier.
Rossi’s strength is his technical feedback and his relationship with Burgess was crucial in giving the correct feedback to Yamaha to find the final percentages and turn the M1 from a solid package into a world beater.
The Ducati’s problems have centered on the team having a bike with which the engine has too much power relative to the chassis’ ability to translate it. With so much power we have consistently heard Valentino complain of understeer and a bike that wants to constantly push towards the outside of the circuit.
Rossi has said throughout his time with Ducati that his primary problem is not the initial braking for a corner. His problem has been that once he tries to turn into the corner he suffers from understeer and has to brake harder to scrub off more speed before he can take and hold an apex. This has meant that mid-corner Rossi is losing lots of time. As a result of being slower through the apex of the corner and a slower exit speed Rossi has been forced to brake later into the corner as he tries to regain some of the lost time. He is, in effect, having the same problem as a gambler at the craps table. Having lost his money on his first roll he is forced to bet again and again in an attempt to win back his initial bet. However the house always wins in betting and similarly Rossi he simply cannot make enough time back to get competitive. Each corner he is losing time and being forced to ride harder and more aggressively as he sees his rivals speed away from him with ease.
Rossi’s strength is lost by handling problems
Whereas in the past the Italian’s strength has been his late braking, just think of how rarely we saw overtake another rider and slide wide of the apex and allow his rival back past, but with the Ducati this trend has been reversed. When Rossi has gone toe to toe with other riders we have seen him brake late and outmuscle his opponent only to slide wide of the apex and lose the position again.
Without the ability to brake late with confidence and turn into the corner Rossi has seen his key talents wasted. The only respite has been in wet weather.
In the rain the Ducati is transformed and the natural state of affairs is resumed with Rossi challenging at the front. It is not co-incidental that his two podiums for Ducati have come in wet conditions.
“We tried to understand why in real rain we had a bike that was fast,” said Hayden. “We used to think with the carbon chassis that in the dry we were too stiff and our theory was that the stiffness actually helps to heat the tyre more, because in the rain you don’t always want something real soft.
“Even with suspension you think you need to soften it up, but when you do that the wet tyres don’t push into the ground and they don’t push through the puddles and you don’t generate the heat and work the tyres.”
Self doubt affecting Rossi
For Rossi the last two years have seen him begin to question his ability for the first time. He is unsure of himself and the confidence that marks any great champion has been lost. His return to Yamaha marks a turn around in his fortunes where Valentino needs to find out if he still has the speed and ability to race at the front.
Speaking about his two year deal with the Japanese manufacturer it is clear that he cannot assume that he will be fast once he rides the M1 again:
“I want to remain more than two seasons in MotoGP but depends how much I’m strong and if I’m fast with the M1,” said Rossi. I hope to be faster, to be competitive, to enjoy and remain in MotoGP more than two seasons.”
Over the course of the last two years while Rossi has seen his reputation as “the doctor” ruined by his failure to adapt to the Ducati while his rival Stoner has been able to prove to everyone just how talented he is.
Casey remains the only rider to have successfully ridden the Ducati and is the only man to have won a dry weather race riding for the team since the beginning of 2007.
Many riders have tried in vein to get competitive results for the team and with Rossi having been hired to cure the handling problems and make the bike an attractive satellite machine he has clearly failed.
Karol Abraham has confirmed that his team will use a CRT bike rather than remain with Ducati next season and Pramac’s poor financial standing means that it is also unlikely to lease a prototype next season.
Rossi’s failure with the team has cost them in many ways. His retainer was said to be in the region of €17 million and with the satellite bike no longer an attractive option Ducati are set to lose €5 million from both Abraham and Pramac. The factory has also seen World Superbike riders refuse to ride the Panigale because it shares the same DNA as the MotoGP bike.
The loss of standing over the course of the last two years has been immense and it remains to be seen whether the team can recover. Their recent statements that they will no longer provide satellite bikes but rather a Ducati Junior team is definitely a positive step but the problems that have afflicted the team during the last five years will not be eradicated so quickly.
No-one has been able to ride the Ducati competitively with Nicky Hayden and Hector Barbera regularly quicker than Rossi but still considering a top five finish being a successful outing.
“People have been saying for years one rider’s style is similar to another rider’s style and suit the Ducati,” said the double champion. “I think it’s nothing to do with style. It’s pride, personally. However you think a bike should be ridden, you basically have to ride it how it wants to be ridden. You know, you can go to other manufacturers and say that’s how I did it here and it worked, and why isn’t it working there? But I think it’s just about pride, and you need to give that up and ride it the way it needs to be.”
When Rossi signed with Ducati there was an expectation, fuelled by Burgess, that the problems that had beset Stoner, and that would affect Rossi, could be fixed in just a couple of laps. As it has transpired Ducati hasn’t been able to improve its fortunes and Stoner has been able to prove just how talented he is.
Winning the most important thing for Vale
Admitting failure in his attempts to solve the conundrum that is the Ducati handling problems was clearly a difficult decision for Valentino but getting onto a competitive bike for the next two years motivated him to make the move and return to Yamaha.
At 33 years of age Rossi knows that his time is coming to an end at the pinnacle of the sport and while winning on the Ducati and proving he could win on another bike would have been the icing on a great career Rossi has admitted that winning races and battling at the front is more important to him than adding to his legacy.
“I tried to choose the best bike for me for the next two seasons,” commented Rossi when asked for his reasons moving to Ducati. “I know that I can be stronger with the M1. I need a bike for enjoy. At this moment of my career I have to enjoy, I have to try to fight and to arrive happy at the racetrack.”
Finding that enjoyment is crucial for Rossi’s ability to succeed in the future but the challenge of returning to Yamaha is one that is fraught with challenges. There will be an expectation that Rossi will immediately be battling for wins and the title.
However the challenge of returning to Yamaha after two years, when Lorenzo has cemented his position within the team, will be massive. Some of the best riders in history-Agostini and Lawson- have tried and failed to win titles again when returning to their former teams. Can Rossi once again be the exception?
After his struggles at Ducati nothing can be taken for granted but his speed in the rain has also allowed us to see that his speed and ability has not diminished. He has simply been unable to perform to the level of expectation over the last two years.
Yamaha battle will be fascinating
The intra team battle with Lorenzo at Yamaha previously was a major headache for the team with Rossi refusing to allow his Spanish teammate access to his data and a wall famously having been placed between both sides of the garage. This time around it seems that Yamaha will have a much better working relationship between both riders with Lorenzo having been keen to point out that he had been involved in the discussions on whether to hire Rossi but that he welcomes the Italian to the team.
“I never cared about my teammate,” said Lorenzo. “For me it is a pleasure to be again with Valentino, two more years with the same bike. So for me, everything is positive.”
Being to keep everything positive will be the biggest challenge for Yamaha for while Rossi is saying all the right things about his future teammate, “in the last seasons, Jorge has become stronger than when I was with him in Yamaha. And he rides the M1 at an incredible level without [making] any mistakes.”
One of the sticking points for Rossi’s negotiations with Yamaha was whether he would have the opportunity to bring his entourage with him. When he left Ducati he brought with him somewhere in region of 15 people ranging from engineers to hospitality staff. For his return to Yamaha it has been widely reported that Rossi will be limited to just his team of engineers.
“I think my crew comes with me,” said Rossi. “More or less the same guys that come with me from Yamaha to Ducati. But is still not decided 100 percent. I think we have to fix some of the ties.”
Rossi will be clearly the number two rider at Yamaha with Lorenzo clearly the focus of the team’s attention. Yamaha has however admitted that while Jorge is their primary rider they will offer equal equipment to both riders. In effect they will only employ team orders if they feel that they are in danger of losing the championship due to both riders taking points off one another.
That however is an issue for another day with Rossi already looking forward to rekindling his relationship with the YZR-M1.
“I know that Yamaha will give to me the right bike, the right material,” said Rossi. “You know, being with Jorge at this moment when he rides very strong and fantastic way, the M1 is difficult. But, you know, I have to try the bike at the end of the season, try to understand the growing up and try to understand if I can be fast like in the past”
The countdown is already beginning for Rossi with the final race of the season in Valencia marking the end of his nightmare at Ducati and the beginning of his new era with Yamaha.
It had been said that winning on the Ducati would be the biggest challenge of Rossi’s career but climbing back to the top of the mountain with Yamaha is also a challenge fraught with risk.