What is Valentino Rossi doing back on a race bike just 22 days after breaking both the tibia and fibula in his right leg? The answer is simple enough: racing. How on earth can he be thinking about racing so soon? Quite simply, because his leg is in much, much better shape than he expected it to be.
The last time Rossi broke his leg back in 2010, he was in worse shape after the accident. "I remember in 2010 after the surgery I had five or six days where I was very, very bad," Rossi told the press conference. "This time already the next day I was able to come back at home."
That was also the moment when he started to think he might be able to return to racing quicker than in 2010. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, he immediately focused on Motegi as the target for his return. But that changed quickly. "In the first days I understand that I feel a lot, lot less pain compared to last time. So I think that I can make in a shorter time. The first week was difficult, but after the first 10 days I start to improve a lot, also every day, and started to have good feeling from the leg and ankle. And started to think about Aragon."
Before anyone in the paddock saw Rossi, there were few who thought he would be in any shape to be riding. But when he drove up to the paddock and got out of his car, it was clear he was in much better condition than any of us thought. He hopped out with relative ease, and took off with just a single crutch for support. No cast on his leg, just a support bandage.
Better than expected
That impression was reinforced when Rossi passed the circuit medical test with relative ease. "I was quite positive about the test, because last time in Sachsenring [in 2010] I was in a worse condition. Now I'm able also to walk without a crutch. It's very important the load that you can put on the leg and already mine is quite good. And also the movement of the knee, or the ankle, they test everything. But also the leg is good to look at, it's not swollen, normal color. So it was quite easy."
Once upon a time, there might have been suspicions that a circuit doctor might have been intimidated into passing a rider fit just to help ticket sales, or at the behest of Dorna, a major team, or a big-money sponsor. But the FIM and Dorna have been working to dispel that impression by introducing standardized tests for riders with broken limbs.
For a broken lower limb (leg, ankle, foot), the assessment consists of four tests. Is there at least 50% of the normal range of motion in hip and knee joints? Can the rider stand on each leg alone for at least five seconds? Can they walk at least 20 meters in 15 seconds without any physical aids? And can they climb up and down 10 steps within 20 seconds?
That is the test which Rossi passed. And watching him walk out of the press conference, it looked to my untrained eye that he would have been able to pass that test with ease. Though Rossi's gait was far from his usual elegant stalk, it was much more of a limp than a hobble. He walked without wincing, favoring his right leg. It was obvious he was in no shape to be undertaking a five-mile hike, but he wasn't struggling to move either.
The wonders of modern medicine
Naturally enough, Rossi's injury was the main topic of conversation in the paddock on Thursday. One press officer told us that they had suffered a very similar injury to Rossi's, and that they had also had their tibia pinned. They could stand on the leg the next day, they said, the doctors having told them that the pin basically takes the weight and makes the bone strong enough. The problem came when the doctors stopped the opioid-based pain relief drugs after three days, commonly done to prevent addiction. The leg may have been strong enough, but the pain was significant enough to dispel any thought of standing on the leg.
But press officers, as admirable a breed as they are, are no racers. Pain is a given for a motorcycle racer, and managing pain is just part of the job. Rossi believes that will be doable for him once he gets on the bike. "When I ride the motorcycle I have pain where I have the fracture, so on the tibia that is quite low and the fibula that is quite high. And I suffer a bit in the change of direction. For sure I'm not fast on the bike like at the maximum. Also on the right corners I suffer a bit more because I feel a bit more pain." It is a good job the Motorland Aragon circuit has more lefts than rights, then.
The big question, of course, is why Valentino Rossi would be coming back so early? The obvious answer to that question is that he has not yet completely given up hope of winning the championship. Jorge Lorenzo put into words what many were thinking. "He hasn't lost the championship yet, but it will be very difficult for him to recover all the points, especially after the injury, this is clear," the Ducati rider said. "Of course, in his mind he will not want to lose the last chance to do it, and for sure in his mind he is still playing in the championship, so this for sure will affect him. But I think he thinks, why not try on Friday?"
Not about Aragon, more about the flyaways
Rossi himself denied it had anything to do with the championship. "No, it's not for the championship," he told the press conference. "I think that everything is open, but especially everything is open for the first three. But it's not for that. It's because I want to try to come back in a good shape as soon as possible and I think this is the best way." The aim is to test his fitness, see how well the leg recovers, and especially, see how it reacts to riding and whether it improves or worsens from day to day.
"First of all it's very important to try and improve day-by-day with the feeling on the bike and with the leg," Rossi said, when asked what the objective for the weekend was." Already, to finish the race is a good target and maybe take some points also. But it's very early to say. It's very important not to lose another race, also because after you have three weeks before Motegi and it's also very important for the last part of the season, also for understand what we have to do more precise on the leg to come back at the top." This is not really about racing at Aragon for Rossi, but more about knowing where he stands as MotoGP heads out east for the triple header of the Pacific flyaways. He may have given up on the championship, but he has not given up on the idea of winning another race or two before the season is over.
The Third Man
All of this leaves poor Michael van der Mark out in the cold. The Dutchman had traveled to Aragon in the hope of taking Rossi's place at the race, and getting to ride a MotoGP bike for the first time. But Van der Mark was quite phlegmatic about the situation. "I would have done the same in his situation, so I’m not really disappointed."
This had always been the deal for the Pata Yamaha rider. "To be honest I knew Valentino would try just before the weekend," Van der Mark admitted. "I always kept in mind that there was an opportunity that he was going to race. I didn’t really focus only on riding tomorrow morning. I always thought, ‘Just wait and see.’" It was incredible that Rossi had managed to get himself into shape to even try to ride the bike, the Dutchman said.
Should Rossi try to ride on Friday, but find it to be impossible, then that would leave Van der Mark with even less time to get to grips with a MotoGP bike for the first time. But the Dutchman was not overly concerned. "Well, who doesn’t want to ride a MotoGP bike? Of course, it’s not ideal but it wasn’t ideal already because I haven’t tested a GP bike anyway. It depends. If I go out, I’ll go out and make the best of it and enjoy this amazing opportunity."
In a way, it would mean even less pressure for Van der Mark were he to jump on the bike on Saturday morning instead of Friday. Expectations would be gone. And if Van der Mark doesn't get a chance to ride the bike this weekend, then Yamaha may feel they owe him another chance. "If Michael can't race this weekend, we might organize a test for him in the future to allow him to try the bike," Lin Jarvis told GPOne's Paolo Scalera.
Van der Mark had been surprised when he had been asked to ride the bike. After his Pata Yamaha teammate Alex Lowes had substituted for Bradley Smith at Tech 3 last year, Van der Mark had expected Lowes would get the call. "When I saw that Valentino broke his leg my first thought was that they would take Alex. He has the experience. Then they took me." Van der Mark had already spoken to Lowes about the bike after last year. "With Alex I already spoke a long time before and he told me how good the bike is. After that he just said, ‘Just enjoy the bike. It’s going to be amazing. I cannot tell you anymore about the bike because you have to discover it yourself.’"
Though Alex Lowes has more experience, Van der Mark is an easier swap with Valentino Rossi. The Dutchman has the same tall, lanky build as Rossi, and when he sat on the bike, he fit without too much adjustment.
There is also an aura of mystique about it being Rossi's bike Van der Mark would get to ride. Cal Crutchlow admitted that when he first came to the Tech 3 team in 2011, and learned that the bikes the team would be getting would be rolled out of the factory garage at the end of the 2010 season, he had asked specifically to have Rossi's bike. It had not made any difference, he ruefully admitted. The bike felt pretty much the same to the machine he was given the following year, which Rossi had never even touched.
With all this talk of Valentino Rossi, it was natural that the other riders would face comparisons with their own experiences. As the most famous example of a rider racing after an impossibly short recovery period, Jorge Lorenzo faced a barrage of questions on the subject, especially focusing around the collarbone he broke at Assen in 2013. He flew back to Barcelona to have surgery on the collarbone, flew bike a night later, and raced 32 hours after breaking his collarbone.
If he found himself in Valentino Rossi's position, would he have raced, Lorenzo was asked? The factory Ducati riders answer was refreshingly frank. "I don't know," he said." Also, normally I wouldn't have raced in Assen in 2013, but I raced. And normally I might say I wouldn't do it again, but maybe if it happened again, I would do it. You never know."
Did he regret racing at Assen, given the enormous strain it placed on him? Not at all. "I wanted to do it, I imagined doing it, so they allowed me to do it and I did it. It was very risky, if I crashed again." He didn't crash at Assen, but two weeks later, at the top of the Sachsenring's notorious Waterfall, the Spaniard crashed and bent the plate which had been inserted into his collarbone just two weeks before. "That was what happened two weeks later in Sachsenring, and I broke again the same collarbone. It was risky. I didn't crash in Assen, but I crashed in Sachsenring. So was it the right decision? If everything finished in the right way! But I didn't lose the championship because of Assen, but because of Sachsenring."
Favorites and dark horses
Though all eyes are on Valentino Rossi, there is racing to be done at Aragon. The Motorland Aragon circuit is a big favorite with most of the riders, because of the variation it has. Fast corners, slow corners, elevation changes, and plenty of challenges around the circuit mean that no one has a bad word to say against it. Marc Márquez is strong at the track, as it runs anti clockwise, the same as the dirt track he practices so much.
But he isn't the only rider to watch. Maverick Viñales was strong the Suzuki last year, and the Yamaha is a quantatively better machine than the GSX-RR. The dark horse is surely Jorge Lorenzo, who has been strong on the Ducati at every track he enjoys. "Aragon and Motegi could be good tracks for us, especially Motegi. But I believe that Aragon can be good," Lorenzo said.
Since Casey Stoner won in 2010, joined on the podium by his then teammate Nicky Hayden, Ducati have struggled at the circuit. But Lorenzo feels he has turned a corner on the bike, especially after what happened in Misano. "We are seeing that we are getting better and better, and we are getting closer and closer to the goal, which is to win with this bike. We are close, and in Misano, I could maybe even make it happen, but I crashed. So we have already had chances to win in the rain, but also I believe in the dry we can also fight for it in some races. Hopefully here also."
But the weekend will start damp, as rain is falling here in the early hours of Friday morning. The weather should improve in the afternoon, with showers around lunchtime petering out as the day progresses. Not an ideal return for Valentino Rossi, nor for anyone with pretensions of victory at Aragon. But MotoGP is an outdoor sport, and you don't get to pick and choose what happens. You just have to get on with it, broken leg, severed tendon in your finger, or whatever. Racing happens, whether you are ready or not.
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