The 2013 MotoGp season has been most notable for three things.
Firstly, we have seen the emergence of a new superstar, someone who, potentially, could become the greatest motorcycle road racer of them all.
Secondly we have seen a British rider finally step up to the plate and show some sign of emulating the great British riders of the past, Read, Sheene etc. While many are bleating about Crutchlow “needing” a factory bike, the fact is that, to all intents and purposes, he already has one. TechIII has always had the ear of the factory and there are only fractional differences between their bikes and the factory kit. And that is why, by the way, that the new rule for 2014 allowing FOUR factory bikes is really a nonsense and will make no practical difference to grid sizes. Honda and Yamaha and Ducati are not going to be adding two more bikes to each of their factory squads, they already have them. Ducati has the two Pramac bikes, Yamaha has TechIII and Honda has LCR and Gresini. And Crutchlow isn’t going to get a “factory” ride anyway because Yamaha are never going to dispense with either Lorenzo or Rossi to accommodate him. That is he he has faced the reality and signed with Ducati, a move which may, or may not be, a good thing for his career.
The third notable has been the disappointing return of Rossi to the Yamaha squad after two disastrous years at Ducati. After all the hype and media hoopla, it hasn’t exactly gone well. Yes, he is running 4th in the championship, but so he should be, he is on one of the four official factory bikes. Yes, he won at Assen, but then he has sometimes been 30+ seconds behind the race winner at other tracks. Yes, he has shown some good race pace but his placings have often been the result of a last lap banzai move such as what happened at Indianapolis.
So what has gone wrong for the man called by most the GOAT (Greatest of All Time)?
Well, firstly, he has come back to Yamaha emotionally and psychologically scarred from the Ducati experience. It will take a long time for those scars to heal. I know nothing of Vale’s own mental state but, for an athlete of his calibre to be suddenly thrown into the mess that was Ducati must have been horrible. To his great credit, he toed the party line and was always positive even when things were going appallingly badly. It was only at the very end that he allowed his guard down a little and showed us a little of the frustration that he was feeling about being a tail-ender instead of a winner. A true professional to the end.
Secondly he has had to unlearn bad habits. The Ducati did not respond at all to his finesse. It needed to be manhandled and he learned to do that (not nearly as well as Casey Stoner did, but you get the idea). Now that he is back on a Yamaha, a bike that requires the finesse and delicacy, he struggles to re-learn it. Add to this the fact that, in his absence, the bike has been fine tuned around Lorenzo’s style and he is struggling.
Thirdly, despite the scorn heaped upon the idea by a lot on uninformed “experts”, he his struggling with being the #2 rider in the team. Before he rejoined Yamaha, Lin Jarvis told him that he would be the #2 rider and that he would have to do what was necessary to support Lorenzo’s attempt to win back-to-back titles. This must be a bitter pill for a rider who has always been used to being top dog.
Fourthly, the Yamaha doesn’t appear to be quite as “friendly” as it was when he rode it last. Much is made of their need to fast track the seamless gearbox but it is braking and balance that are the Yamaha’s Achilles heel at the moment. Rossi is used to a bike that you can “think” through the corners and, in his absence, the M1 has become meaner and less user-friendly.
Fifthly, Vale is getting to that stage where his age and enormous experience is starting to become a liability rather than an asset. Apart from Edwards, who doesn’t enter into the equation, Vale is the oldest rider in the paddock, striding through the races with a host of young pups snapping at his heels. Time was when he would brush them off with bravado riding and enormous mental toughness, plus his famed psychological warfare techniques. (witness his psychological destruction of Gibernau and his imperious “get back in your box” pass around the outside of Lorenzo at T1 in Spain a few years ago). But, like predatory fish who smell the blood in the water, the killers are lurking and Vale is starting to show signs of weakness. His qualifying, for example, is diabolical compared to what it used to be. Allow yourself to be buried in the pack at the start and you leave yourself exposed.
It’s all looking pretty bleak and yet Vale himself says that he wants to stay on at Yamaha until the end of 2016! I just can’t see this happening. He needs to re-assess the scene, I think. A champion should always leave on their own terms and they should leave when they are at the top of their game, so that people remember them at their best, like Stoner did. Leave it too long and you become a lone and pitiable figure. I’m not saying that this will happen, but, if he does leave it another two years he will be the wrong side of 37 years old and he may just find a team manager giving him a tap on the shoulder to remind him that he is occupying a factory seat that should now rightfully belong to a younger, up and coming rider.
Much is being made of Rossi’s promotability and the asset that he is to MotoGp and, of course, his value is incalculable. But, nothing lasts forever. The fan base is increasingly being made up of younger people who want to cheer for a rider more their age. The “yellow army” will always be there, but fans are looking for a new hero. What WILL DORNA do if Rossi leaves? Will it create the “hole” that everyone is fearing? Nobody knows, it’s all speculation, but it is going to happen, sooner rather than later and they need to have a game plan in mind for when it does.
Let me make one thing abundantly clear. Rossi IS the GOAT. He has been and will be remembered as the phenomenon of his generation. I saw Hailwood and Agostini race (OK, not in Grands Prix but I did). I saw Doohan and Beattie and Rainey, many of the great names. But Rossi stands supreme above them all. For his achievements ON the track and for what he has done for the sport OFF the track, nobody even comes close to matching his career. The fact that he achieved all this with the humour, charm and skill that he brought to the sport makes his achievements even more meritorious.
Perhaps the time has come to ease out gracefully? I don’t know, but I would hate to be watching racing in two years time as still see one of my heroes circulating in 4th or 5th place 30 seconds off the leader. He is too good, too wonderful, too SPECIAL to be remembered like that.