The moment that MotoGP fans have been waiting for since June last year, when the rumors of his switch to Ducati first emerged, has finally arrived. Valentino Rossi today appeared before the press at the annual Ducati Wrooom! event, held in the Italian skiing resort of Madonna di Campiglio, free at last to talk about his move to Ducati.
The move itself was barely discussed, though. The two big topics Rossi talked about to the press on Tuesday were the state of his shoulder and his experience riding the Ducati Desmosedici. On both subjects, the news was rather mixed, Rossi expressing both his concern about both the bike and his shoulder, as well as his hope that both would improve.
Perhaps the most worrying news was Rossi's revelation that his shoulder is taking longer to heal than expected. Rossi had hoped to be fully fit by the start of testing, on February 1st at Sepang, but the recovery from the surgery he underwent to fix the problem appears to be a more lengthy process. Speaking to the Italian press, Rossi stated that he did not expect to be back at 100% until early May, despite working constantly with his physiotherapist and in the swimming pool on his physical rehab. "When the surgeons who operated on me opened up the shoulder, they saw that it was worse than expected," Rossi said, meaning the repairs needed were more extensive, requiring a longer recovery period.
Rossi also explained why he had decided against having surgery on his shoulder after he broke his leg at Mugello. "I would have been stuck in bed, and unable to walk using crutches," Rossi told the press conference. The prospect of not riding for three months while the season was underway was not one that Rossi could face, and so he elected to defer surgery until the end of the year. The next opportunity would have been after the Australian Grand Prix in October, but that would have meant missing the last two races of the 2010 season, as well as getting his first taste of the Ducati after the Valencia GP.
That first contact with the Desmosedici had been a difficult and intimidating experience. The bike required a completely different style to the Hondas and Yamahas which Rossi had spent the last ten season on. It needed a more "dirty" style, Rossi said, "it needs to be ridding with your fingernails, your claws," a huge contrast to the more rideable Hondas and Yamahas Rossi rode previously.
And making the Desmosedici more rideable was the first priority that Ducati will be focusing on. Rossi said he wanted to make the bike feel better, to allow him to trust the bike more, without sacrificing the advantage the Desmosedici already had. The Ducati was "brutally fast" Rossi said, but it also felt "risky" to ride. The aim was to change the bike to make to make it more pliable and consistent, making it feel the same from beginning to end. Part of that change had to come from his own riding, Rossi acknowledged. "I'm also going to have to trust the bike and change also my riding style so that I can exploit to the maximum this bike," Rossi said.
Part of those changes revolve around making the front end of the bike more flexible. Ohlins are already working on new forks for the bike, Ducati team manager Vito Guareschi told Autosport.com writer and Eurosport commentator Toby Moody. The forks are a "halfway house" between the forks used by Ducati in 2008 and 2010, with a 42 mm diameter, adding a little bit of flex into the bike. But the new Ohlins were not alone; the forks are part of a revised "flex package" being worked on by Ducati Corse Director Filippo Preziosi, which included new triple clamps, and a front subframe/airbox (the Ducati Desmosedici not using a traditional frame, but rather a combined airbox/subframe unit connecting the front forks to the engine, which is a load-bearing part of the bike). More flex in the front end should provide more feedback to the riders, allowing them to feel when the front end is losing grip, and making the bike easier to turn. 2010 saw especially Casey Stoner, but other Ducati riders as well, suffer a number of seemingly inexplicable front end crashes, and a more compliant front end should reduce this problem to more manageable proportions.
Reading between the lines of what the various protagonists have said so far, it seems that Ducati is already pulling out all the stops on transforming the Desmosedici into a different bike, contrary to what Ducati CEO Gabriele del Torchio told the press back in Brno, when he announced that Rossi would be joining Ducati. Jerry Burgess is already spending a lot of time at the Bologna factory, bringing his experience with the Japanese factories to bear to the relatively tiny Italian manufacturer. The abundance of new sponsors' stickers (including Italian insurer Generali, Mercedes' performance brand AMG, and Italian clothing brand Diesel) adorning the Ducati bear witness to the selling power that Rossi brings to the factory. But that money demands success, and Ducati will have to dig deep to provide Rossi with the tool he needs to win.
For the full interviews with Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden, head on over to Autosport.com's MotoGP section. To hear Rossi speak in Italian, check out GPOne.com, or watch the Youtube video (featured below) also made by GPOne.com.