IN THE run up to the start of the season, Race Torque predicted that Valentino Rossi could well challenge for race wins, and even the 2013 championship. After Mugello, there was nothing to suggest that Rossi could achieve genuine top-three finishes let alone victories. Did those two horrible years at Bologna really take that much gloss of the Rossi magic? Or by turning 34 in his 17th year of grand prix racing, is the Italian legend simply past his best?
I suspect it’s a bit of both. The Ducati disaster would’ve been devastating for his confidence not only to get the bike around the track but also his and the team’s inability to come up with any solutions in two years. In the meantime, Jorge Lorenzo and Ramon Forcada were working away at developing the Yamaha M1 into a race-weapon best suited to the Majorcan, and now Rossi and co have had to play catch up. Rossi insisted that if not for his collision with Alvaro Bautista at Mugello, he would’ve been challenging for a top-three position. Perhaps.
Thus far, Rossi’s lack of race pace is matched by his relatively poor qualifying performances that see him battling past the likes of Bautista in the early going, a risky proposition that an impatient rider like Rossi can ill afford. While it is a bit early to write off a rider like Valentino, unless he begins a march towards the front by the middle of the season, the great man will be asking questions of his competitiveness and ability to ever win again.
Forbes reported that Rossi made $US22 million in his last year with Ducati. Now that he will earn far less than that in 2013, he needs to ask himself; what will motivate me to front up again in 2014, money or pride? Rossi signed a two-year contract with Yamaha, and just what he ends up doing next year will have a big impact on the fortunes of Cal Crutchlow. Tech 3 Yamaha star Crutchlow is out-performing Rossi, but there have been reports linking him to Suzuki, which has put him on the outs with Yamaha.
Crutchlow, who was bidding for a works Ducati ride in 2012, is desperate to get on a factory bike but he should be careful for what he wishes for. In turn, he has re-stated his desire to stay with Yamaha and will be out to ensure that he stays ahead of Rossi and perhaps forge his way into the official team alongside Lorenzo in 2014 if Rossi does pull the pin.
While Crutchlow’s future is assured, the same can’t be said for his rookie team-mate Bradley Smith. His signing to the Tech 3 a few years ago raised more than a few eyebrows, and team boss Herve Poncharal did all he could last year do get the lad to see the error of Herve’s ways and spend another year or two in Moto2. Daryl Beattie reported just a few races into the season that in his email exchanges with the Tech3 team, Smith would not be around next year. Although his results place him at the tail of the MotoGP freight train and the head of the CRT cattle class, there is no doubting Smith is giving MotoGP a helluva shake with some very spirited and fearless riding. Indeed, if Smith added some smoothness to his aggression he would give himself a better chance of improving his overall pace – and his prospects of staying in MotoGP.
Other Moto2 riders who have ascended to MotoGP are simply not aggressive enough, and never truly explore theirs or the bike’s limits. Not so Smith. Someone who has managed to rein in his aggression is Marc Marquez. But he proved that when you overstep the mark just a fraction, things can go pear-shaped very quickly. Maybe it was bad luck, a cross-wind or whatever, but Marquez’s high-speed excursion at Mugello in practice was a quick reminder of just how precise you need to be to stay on top of these things.
Not that it stopped him having a real go in the race. He was left puzzled by his crash since he was travelling at the same speed as previous laps, at the same spot and about the same lean angle. What it did was open the way for Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa to make a slight break at the top of the overall standings, with the Honda rider in his best position to finally break through for his first MotoGP title.
Kevin Schwantz spoke out a few months ago about Dani Pedrosa not ever winning the title, at least with helicopter manager Alberto Puig in his corner. Puig fired back that Kevin’s parents – Jim and Shirley – were his constant support in the paddock, but Schwantz had this to say in a recent chat I had with him. “My folks were never paddock parents,” he said. “They always stayed in the background . When you have someone who attends every tyre de-brief, every session de-brief, that’s very different,” he said in reference to Puig.
Not only does the pair have a history on the track, Schwantz played a pivotal role in denying Puig joining him at Lucky Strike Suzuki in 1995. Team boss Garry Taylor was keen to sign the Spaniard, but Schwantz was adamant that Daryl Beattie was the man for the job. It’s history that Beattie did sign alongside Kevin, and was 25 points ahead of Mick Doohan when an innocuous highside during practice for the Dutch TT broke his collarbone and put him out of the championship race.
That proved how fast things can change. Pedrosa emerged from Mugello with a 12-point lead, and while there are question marks about the Honda’s compatibility with the Bridgestone tyres at certain tracks, the title is his for the taking. I’m sure Kevin would be happy to congratulate him if he did.