Valencia MotoGP Test Preview: Rossi, Marquez, Ducati, And The Future
The sense of expectation in the air at Valencia is wound so tight it hums. Tomorrow morning, some time after 10am, some of that expectation will start to dissipate as we get the first glimpses of answers that have preoccupied MotoGP fans for the past few months.
Two things we hope to see: a glimpse of the past and a glimpse of the future. After two long, hard years, the army of Valentino Rossi fans will be hoping to see something they haven't since 2010, or maybe even 2009: a flowing, comfortable, aggressive Valentino Rossi at one with the machine underneath. That was something he never showed while riding the Ducati, the figure in the Rossi replica helmet sitting on the Ducati always looking more like a club racer had sneaked into the back of the Ducati garage to take the bike out for a spin, terrifying himself in the process. Rossi looked stiff, awkward, uncomfortable, his back arched like a cat negotiating a dog-infested yard.
The body language should be enough to judge the success of Rossi's return by. The times may be a little slow on the first day, as he will need to reconfigure his brain again, to learn to trust the front end of the bike, and react more quickly and more smoothly to the things the bike is trying to do. He may have picked up some unhealthy habits in his time at Ducati which take a little while to unlearn and slow him up while he does. But the way he sits on the bike, brakes, attacks corners and walks to his chair after getting off the bike should tell the onlookers enough about whether the Valentino Rossi of old will show up at Qatar.
From the old to the new, and the future of MotoGP will take his first steps on the road which may eventually lead to superstardom tomorrow. Marc Marquez has been groomed, supported and exceedingly well funded on his way to MotoGP, but the teenager's towering talent need not be questioned. He has proven both in 125s and in Moto2 that he learns fast, adapts to new machinery quickly and has the bike control necessary. He also has a merciless aggression, total confidence in his abilities and a hunger, an insatiable thirst for victory. Leaping off a Moto2 with half the horsepower, limited electronic sophistication and rider-friendly Dunlops onto a fire-breathing Honda RC213V and the stone-like Bridgestones will be a shock to the system. But if there is one rider capable of filling the immense void left by Casey Stoner, Marc Marquez promises to be that man.
Marquez has neither fear, nor respect for his peers - at least not while he is on the track - two traits which he may be forced to quickly learn. He will not find the limit of the Honda MotoGP machine immediately, but by the end of the first day he should have at least found his feet. A time to match Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista should be regarded as an excellent debut. A time close to that of Rossi's would be outstanding. A time within a few tenths of Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo would be sensational. With Stoner's old crew chief Cristian Gabarrini overseeing Marquez' entry into the premier class, the boy is in the best possible hands.
At Ducati, the fate of the two Andreas will be fascinating to follow. The two men enter Ducati coming off opposite trajectories, and with completely different backgrounds. In the factory team, Andrea Dovizioso enters with experience of both Honda and Yamaha, experience which may prove to be both a help and a hindrance. The time at Honda exploiting the drive off the corner will help him, as will Dovizioso's strength on the brakes. The confidence gained with the Yamaha's front end will not, however. The front end of the Ducati is a problem to be ridden around, not a strength to be exploited, and Dovizioso will need to recalibrate his brain to cope with that. Fortunately for the likeable Italian, he has just gone through that exact same process with the Tech 3 Yamaha over the past year. He has been told by his friends to prepare for a shock, the question is whether he can cope with the scale of it.
The other Andrea, Iannone, does not require quite so much preparation. The Italian has already spent some seat time with the Ducati at Mugello earlier this year. He comes into the Pramac Ducati junior team without preconceptions of what a MotoGP bike is supposed to feel like, and can just concentrate on trying to ride as hard as possible. Many believe that an open mind is the key to success at Ducati, riding the bike the way it needs to be ridden, rather than hoping to adapt it to fit a preconceived notion. Iannone is an almost entirely instinctive rider, and one who has quickly learned to adapt to the situation at hand. He will need to continue in that vein for the year to come.
A few more hours, and the tension will break, cracked by the roar of 2013-spec MotoGP bikes taking to the track with 2013-spec riders aboard them. The future arrives tomorrow.