There comes a time in every racer's career that they have to ask themselves if it is time to stop. It is a question they invariably spend a long time giving the wrong answer to; the life of an elite athlete means they always travel more in hope than in expectation. But sometimes that hope is justified: they find the speed they were missing. The setback was not their fault, but down to circumstances. But proving the reverse, that circumstances won't ride in on a white horse to save them, takes a very long time to accept.
Last July, Valentino Rossi found himself on the podium at Jerez, after a strong race and a solid weekend. The Italian was never outside the top three after the first lap of the race, and was only outside the top eight in practice twice, in FP4 and the warmup on Sunday morning.
Catching Covid-19, which forced him to miss the two races in Aragon, as well as Friday at the first race in Valencia, stopped his 2020 season in its tracks. The then factory Yamaha rider only finished inside the top ten once in any session of practice or the race throughout the remainder of 2020, an eighth place in FP3, his first session since returning.
2021 has been no kinder. Rossi started off on a reasonable footing at the first race in Qatar, finishing ninth in FP1 and FP2, and qualifying fourth on the grid for the race. But he could manage only a twelfth place finish. It has been downhill since then. He has only been inside the top ten once since that first round, a ninth spot in FP3 at the second round in Qatar. For the most part, Rossi has been around the 15th spot or worse.
Jerez was perhaps the nadir of his season so far. His best position all weekend was fifteenth in FP3. All too often, Rossi was around twentieth place, and a mere shadow of the rider who snagged a podium at the Andalusian circuit in 2020. After four races, Rossi has a total of just 4 points, all of them scored in the first race of the 2021 season.
Much was made of the fact that Rossi was just a tenth slower than his 2020 race time, despite finishing the race in seventeenth spot, behind his rookie half brother Luca Marini. But those making the comparison missed the point. The comparison that should be made is not with 2020, races which were held in the searing heat of an Andalusian summer. A better comparison is with 2019, when the race was held at the same time of year, and with very similar air and track temperatures.
Compare times between 2019 and 2021 and you see just how much trouble Rossi is really in. In 2019, when Valentino Rossi finished the race in a relatively respectable sixth place, behind Marc Márquez, Alex Rins, and Monster Energy Yamaha teammate Maverick Viñales, as well as the two factory Ducatis of Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci, Rossi completed the 25 laps of the Jerez race in a time of 41:16.232. Two years later, the Italian had lost 12 seconds, taking 41:28.333 to cover the same distance.
Only one rider of the ten riding for the same manufacturer in 2019 and 2021 was slower in this year's race than in 2019. That was Alex Rins, and the only reason Rins lost so much time was because he crashed on the third lap and rejoined the race. Marc Márquez, who won the 2019 race, was 7.4 seconds slower in 2021 than in the year he won, but then this is Márquez' second race back after a year off with injury, and the Repsol Honda rider is a long way from full fitness. Takaaki Nakagami was 10 seconds faster in 2021, Aleix Espargaro 13.3 seconds, and Miguel Oliveira nearly 30 seconds quicker this year, a sign of just how far the KTM has come in the intervening period.
|Rider||2019 race time||2021 race time||Difference|
The signs are not good for Rossi. Rossi was the last of the Yamahas – now his habitual position – and finished 4 seconds behind Fabio Quartararo, who rode the second half of the race with arm pump after getting off to a flying start. At no point has Rossi looked truly competitive in 2021. So far, respectable has been the best he can hope for, and those results have been few and far between.
Rossi himself has been the first to admit his predicament. "It has been a difficult start because I am not fast enough," the Petronas Yamaha rider said after the race. "We have a problem with the setting of the bike and I am not able to ride at the maximum. We have to find the technical way to improve this type of problem and for try to be stronger and bring the bike to the limit."
Rossi was at a loss to explain his loss of form, and why he had been competitive last year but not in 2021. "I don’t know, sincerely, because on paper we are very similar. We tried the bike like last year, but it is not exactly like last year though on paper it just has to be a bit better. For some reason I suffer more and I was slower than last year," Rossi told us. He didn't even have the tires to blame. "The tires from last year are also more or less the same, but we are not able to find the same grip."
Rossi felt he had taken a step backward, he explained. "Also for us it is a question mark, but it is true that in MotoGP everything changes very quickly and from one year to the other. A lot of performance changes and everybody tries to make things better but sometimes it is not possible." Although they remain polite on the record, off the record, the other riders are starting to wonder whether Rossi can turn things around. "What is this guy doing here?" is a commonly heard question.
Does all this point to it being time for Valentino Rossi to change his answer to the question of whether to continue? The Italian is not quite ready to give up yet. "We have to be optimistic and keep the motivation high and do everything possible to be stronger."
Rossi put in the work at the test on the Monday after the race at Jerez. He clocked up a total of 73 laps during the test; only four riders did more. Though the result was not exactly to write home about – Rossi finished as twelfth fastest, 0.821 off the fastest man Maverick Viñales, on the same bike as the Italian – he felt some small progress had been made.
"It's a positive day for me, because we worked a lot, we did a lot of laps," Rossi told us on Monday evening. "We have a desperate need to improve the pace, the feeling with the bike, because we are struggling very much during the weekend. And the feeling is not so bad. We finished the day with a good feeling, especially because I feel better on the bike and I am able to ride in a better way and I improved my pace a lot."
The main benefits from the test were on braking and corner entry. "We worked well with the team, mainly on the setting to improve the braking and entering the corner. Also Yamaha brought some new stuff that was working well. All gives a small help to improve the feeling and to improve the speed. At the end, it's quite good. So it was good test."
He had been open about where the problem lies. "The problem is my speed," Rossi told us. "I need to improve the speed and I need to improve the feeling with the bike. This weekend was very difficult and we know that it's difficult to fight for the victory, but we need to be stronger and we want to be stronger than this, for sure. But we have to work, especially with me and the M1. So I need to go faster."
Throughout the past few years, Rossi has admitted he has struggled to get the best out of the latest generation of Michelin rear tires. But the Italian was adamant he didn't want to lay the blame for his performance on the tire, but rather on his failure to adapt to it. "I don't want to speak about the tire, I don't want to say that the tire is too soft for me, because at the end, the tire is the same for everybody, so the others are able to go with this. And if we want to race in MotoGP, we have to manage this and we have to try," he told us.
The problem was he didn't trust the rear tire, and so was having to wait before getting on the throttle, Rossi explained. "I don't feel comfortable with the bike, with my drive I am a bit in delay, and this also creates a problem in acceleration," the Italian said. "Because a lot of time I have a problem with rear grip in acceleration, I am not able to exit from the corner fast enough."
The test had been fruitful, Rossi said, because he felt they had found something which made a genuine difference. "We worked a lot on the setting with David [Muñoz, crew chief], front fork setting, also the weight distribution for braking and entry in a faster way, to brake deeper and enter in the corner with more speed. This is the target, and we improved."
It was not a revolution, but at least a minor evolution in the right direction, Rossi told us. "Everything I tried today was a small step. And also Yamaha brought something that maybe is not very big, but anyway is a help for me, and I'm happy, because after the weekend we were quite down, because we were struggling. So we'll see, but today the feeling is a lot better. Sincerely, I'm happy about today because I feel better with the bike, and I was able to ride in a better way, more precise, faster in the fast parts, and we found something interesting."
Could this be the turning point that Rossi needs to get his season, and the continuation of his career back on track? The Italian remained cautious. "To answer your question, we need to wait for next week, and we will see," he said.
For us, on the outside looking in, it is hard to judge whether Rossi really did find at least some of the speed he is missing, or whether it is merely a false dawn. We will know a little more after Le Mans, and much more after the following two races at Mugello and Barcelona. It has long been said that the most dangerous thing a MotoGP journalist or fan can do is to underestimate Valentino Rossi. That will be true right up until the point it no longer is. But you can't help but feel that that point is nearer than ever.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, supporting us on Patreon, by making a donation, or contributing via our GoFundMe page. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.