At every press conference, in every interview, in fact just about any time Valentino Rossi answers questions in public, the same question comes up again and again: "Why do you stick your leg out when you're braking for a corner?" And every time, Rossi shrugs and explains that he doesn't really know; "it just feels natural to do" is the answer he usually gives.
The move - taking his foot of the footpeg, dangling it as if almost preparing to slide it on the ground dirt-track style, before finally picking it up and putting it back on the footpeg, ready to help tip the bike into the corner - has become Rossi's trademark, but he is no longer alone in his leg waving. One by one, the rest of the grid have taken on the move, and it has spread to riders in every class, from MotoGP to 125s to World Supersport. First Marco Melandri and Loris Capirossi followed Rossi's example, then Max Biaggi, then the current generation of Dani Pedrosa, Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo. Now, just about everyone is doing it, all the way down to club racers.
With no explanation forthcoming from the originator of that distinctive dangle - usually dubbed "the Rossi Leg Wave" - observers have turned to a mixture of speculation and the other riders for an answer to the puzzle. Other proponents of the leg wave such as Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa claim that it helps them balance the bike as they approach the corner on the brakes, and armchair pundits follow a similar line, offering a range of theories grounded only very vaguely in physics concerning balance, leverage and weight transfer. It is clear that the debate over the subject has entered that most dangerous phase, the point where speculation based on science ends and darker, more occult attribution begins.
As entertaining as the speculation is, it still leaves us none the wiser as to why riders waste valuable fractions of seconds and costly energy to take their inside foot off the peg, poise it carefully over the ground, before jamming it back onto the footpeg. Surely they must do it because they gain some advantage from it?
Here's the surprise: When asked - as usual - at the pre-race press conference at the Sachsenring why he takes his foot off the peg - Rossi gave his standard answer, that he didn't know, but that it felt a natural thing to do, and it felt like it helped him brake. But he also revealed a fascinating detail: When he and Jeremy Burgess look at the data, and compare the corners where he does his signature leg wave with the same corner when he leaves his foot on the peg, there is no difference at all. The data shows exactly the same braking time and force, the same weight distribution, no difference whatsoever.
So why do it? There must be some reason for such unusual behavior, something which would explain why riders perform an almost ritualized act so deliberately? Somewhere, there must be an underlying cause to explain why so many riders all go through the same motions?
As so often, there are lessons from history, and a student of American racing history drew a fascinating parallel with dirt track, which illustrates how these things come into being. With his permission, I have reproduced his story in his own words below:
For several decades, American dirt trackers all looked behind the same way: They would leave their left hand on the bar and tuck their head under their left armpit to check on who was back there. Over time, all sorts of theories were produced, most of them having to do with improved aerodynamics from keeping your head down. But people kept asking why they did it, and eventually a pattern developed:
Chris Carr: "I saw Scotty Parker ride that way"...
...Scott Parker: "I learned it from Springer"...
...then Springer [Jay Springsteen] admitted: "Mert Lawill showed me that"...
...at which point Mert admitted "I got that from Bart Markel"
..eventually Black Bart said he learned it from Carroll Resweber, who said he learned it from another Texas Racer, who -when they finally tracked him down - revealed The Secret:
"Hell, boy, I was blind in my left eye... that was the only way I could see behind me!"
To answer the question of how the leg wave started, and find out the underlying reason, we need to go back in history to find its first appearance. A quick survey of paddock opinion says that the first time that anyone - including long-time veterans - remembers seeing that now legendary leg wave was at Jerez in 2005, in the last-gasp, last-corner move in which Rossi jammed his Yamaha M1 up the inside of Sete Gibernau's Gresini Honda, barely in control, and Gibernau tried to close the door too late. That move ended up defining the 2005 World Championship, and put Rossi at a psychological advantage over title rival Gibernau which saw him clinch the title with relative ease by the end of the season.
The move at that time was born out of a combination of desperation, determination and a feeling that he had nothing left to lose. It worked - both the pass and the leg wave - and Rossi associated that waving of the leg with the success of that pass. Like all things that Rossi associates with success - the color yellow, the ritual of supplication he performs before getting on the bike, the frankly unsightly picking at his leathers as he rides out of pit lane - he has elaborated on the leg wave and further incorporated it into his routine, seeing it as another weapon in his arsenal of luck, helping to sway the odds in his favor.
Over the years, the leg waving has become more prominent, almost theatrical, Rossi's leg describing circles before he places it back on the footpeg. And that increase in theatricality betrays the way that Rossi views the leg wave: It is becoming less and less a physical act and more and more something entirely psychological, almost religious. It has become a totem, a symbol of his intentions and a petition to the gods of overtaking to help him get past the upstart who has been foolish enough to get ahead of him. It has become part of Rossi's mojo.
This is not to dismiss the leg wave as a meaningless ritual and a complete waste of time. The data shows that Rossi neither gains nor loses ground by the move, so it certainly does no harm. The leg wave works because Rossi believes it works, and like a lucky T-shirt, a holy medallion or putting one boot on before the other, as long as he keeps winning there will be no arguing about its success.
Perhaps even more important than the success that Rossi believes he has with the leg wave is the effect it has had on others. At first, it was just Rossi taking his foot of the peg, but one by one, the rest of the field have adopted the practice, and now just about everyone can be seen doing the leg wave at some point in the race. By the most subtle of means, Rossi has insinuated himself into the psyche of every rider on the grid, and the leg wave is now regarded as a necessary part of riding a MotoGP bike. Everyone is doing the Rossi Leg Wave, but everyone is still calling it the Rossi Leg Wave.
That insidious mental domination of the paddock - a domination Rossi is most surely aware of - offers an opportunity to the young upstarts challenging the veteran Champion for his title. If the riders were to look at their data and see that the leg wave offered no advantage while racing, then choosing demonstrably NOT to dangle a leg while braking might help turn the tables on The Doctor. If they could beat Rossi in a straight fight while keeping their feet firmly on the pegs, then maybe the spell would be broken, and cracks might appear in Rossi's dominance of the mind game. If the data shows no difference, then what do they have to lose?