Valentino Rossi has an incredible record in MotoGP. The Italian legend has 230 consecutive race starts, and has never missed a Grand Prix in his career. He has crashed many times, yet never broken a major bone in his body. His worst injury coming at Assen in 2006, where he fractured a wrist.
His luck had to run out some time, and Saturday morning at Mugello turned out to be that time. So how did it happen? How did a rider of Rossi's extraordinary experience, indisputable talent and seemingly endless luck manage to crash so heavily, and hurt himself so badly? Below is an outline of what we know, assembled from information from various sources inside the paddock at Mugello.
The sequence of events is fairly well known: After two fast runs early in the second session of free practice, held during the morning, Valentino Rossi went out for a third time. He had just fitted a brand new tire, the harder of the two compounds Bridgestone brought to Mugello. He went out for his out lap, and crossed the line to start his first full lap.
In the first two sectors, Rossi was as fast as on other laps. As he ran through Arrabbiata 1, he found Hector Barbera following him, and so he slowed right down, to prevent Barbera from following. According to one team manager who witnessed the entire incident from trackside, Rossi was slow for almost a kilometer, creating enough space ahead of him to get back on the gas. He was just under 9 seconds slower through the entire third sector than normal, taking 44.5 seconds, instead of between 35.7 and 36.2, which is normal for a fast lap.
As Rossi entered Correntaio, the downhill long hairpin, the Fiat Yamaha rider got back hard on the gas. He was pushing very hard out of Correntaio and entered the left-right flick of Biondetti 1 and Biondetti 2 at full speed. After Rossi flicked the bike left and got on the gas, the rear wheel of his YZR-M1 started coming round on him, before catching and flicking him off high into the air. Rossi landed very badly, breaking his tibia and ending his weekend, and any hope of racing for the foreseeable future.
So what caused Rossi's highside? It seems to have been a combination. The data showed that Rossi went into the corner with just a little bit more lean angle and a little bit more throttle than he might normally use. The crash occurred as Rossi got on the gas, the tire breaking traction. Rossi did not apply an excessive amount of throttle, just probably fractionally more than he might have otherwise.
The problem was probably a combination of three causes. Firstly, because he was on his first hot lap out of the pits, the tire was a little colder than it should have been. The Bridgestones offer excellent grip once warm, but they can take a lap or two to get fully up to temperature. By the time Rossi started his hot lap, the tires were just about up to temperature, but by backing off through the third sector, his tires dropped in temperature. Making things worse, the point where Rossi backed off was three right handers and one left hander. In similar situations, tires have been lost to drop in temperature by as much as 20 degrees centigrade, enough to take them just outside their optimum operating range.
Secondly - and thirdly, as the two are related - Rossi was riding very aggressively. The Italian had come to Mugello with a point to prove, after being beaten by his teammate for the last two races in a row. Rossi's shoulder injury had hampered his title defense, preventing him from riding the way that he would like to, but both at Jerez and Le Mans, Lorenzo had got to the grid with a near-perfect setup, while Rossi had struggled for rear grip. The Italian had found some solutions on Friday, and was pushing hard to gain a clear advantage throughout the weekend. Rossi was taking more risk than usual, one ex-rider commented to me, and this is what happened during the crash: A little more speed, a little more throttle, a little more risk. And Rossi paid the price.
It was a very high price indeed. Rossi could be out for up to 6 months, if reports from Italy are to be believed. The best case scenario is that the Italian will miss 40 days, the worst case scenario is that Rossi is out for the season.
Either way, Yamaha will have to find someone to replace him. But - as Rossi's communications manager William Favero pointed out to GPOne.com - Rossi is irreplaceable. For the next two races, his bikes will sit unused in the garage, to allow Yamaha to mull over the situation it finds itself in, but also as a mark of respect for a great champion. After that, one of Yamaha's Japanese test riders is likely to take Rossi's place, as they can gather the data that Yamaha requires to develop the M1, without detracting attention from Jorge Lorenzo, who is now the firm favorite for the title.
That may suit Yamaha's R&D plans, but no doubt their marketing department will be screaming blue murder. Having lost their biggest sales asset, the value of having a relatively anonymous rider in Rossi's seat will be close to zero for Yamaha marketing. They may adesire someone eye-catching to take Rossi's place, and that list of candidates is very short indeed.