20 days ago today, Valentino Rossi fell off an enduro bike at slow speed, breaking his tibia and fibula in the crash. That night, he had pins fitted to fix the bones, and went home the next day to recover. It looked like his championship was over. He would have to miss both Misano and Aragon, and that would put him too far behind to ever catch up.
20 days later, and Rossi has already ridden a motorcycle on track. Twice. On Monday and Tuesday, he rode a Yamaha R1M around a damp Misano. A few laps on Monday, a total of 20 laps on Tuesday. The press release Yamaha issued said that he finished the second day "with an improved feeling and a more positive impression compared to yesterday." Translation? He's going to try to ride at Aragon.
There are a couple of obstacles to be overcome before that happens. Today, Wednesday, he will undergo a medical examination to see how his leg held up. On Thursday, at Aragon, he will face a medical exam by the circuit doctors, who will assess his fitness to ride. He will be made to stand on his broken leg, possibly hop, to show it has some strength in it. Riders are very good at masking pain. I can't imagine he won't pass the test. And so he'll ride on Friday, in FP1, to see if he is actually capable of riding a MotoGP bike at full speed.
Why would he do this? He is 42 points behind in the championship, and can surely only expect to finish closer to tenth than to the podium. At one of Marc Márquez' best tracks, the Repsol Honda rider has a good chance of winning, and opening the gap further. Andrea Dovizioso, in the form of his life, will surely finish well ahead of Rossi, extending his lead over the Yamaha rider. And Maverick Viñales, at Aragon on a Yamaha at last, is a sure fire bet for at least a podium. Rossi can only lose points.
But riding is still the right decision. What, after all, does Rossi have to lose? The worst-case scenario is that he crashes and injures his leg again, making the injury much worse. His season is over, and he can't ride the bike for months. But then again, it is six months before the opening of the 2018 MotoGP season at Qatar, and that is a very long time for a professional athlete to recover.
Even if he dings his leg, bends the titanium pins, and suffers extensive tissue damage putting him out of action for months, he will be fit by the time the bikes line up at Qatar. He will have four months to be fit for the Sepang test. It can be done. What's more, Dainese will have a specially reinforced cast for his leg, and a special boot to give him support. His leg will be better protected than normal.
Why risk a season-ending injury? In effect, his season is already over if he doesn't ride. Missing two races, and coming back with four races left, would make it almost impossible to recover, say a 67 point deficit to Márquez, if the Spaniard wins. If Rossi can finish seventh or eighth, that would leave him 58 points behind. If Rossi can finish fifth, or fourth, then the gap is much smaller.
He would still have 50-odd points to recover in four races, but he would still be in the championship. Yes, his chances of a title would be small, but he has three weeks to recover for Motegi, meaning he would head to the flyaways much fitter.
Above all, though, this has not been an ordinary championship: Marc Márquez leads the title chase despite three DNFs. Anything can happen this year, and you have to be in a position to exploit an opportunity when it comes along. Rossi can't do that from the comfort of his couch in Tavullia.
What this shows is two things: Valentino Rossi is still incredibly driven, motivated enough to try to come back from an injury like this. And what drives Rossi is the belief – with some justification – that he is still competitive enough to win another title. He is in it to win it. That drive is what separates elite athletes from us mere mortals, who would be sitting at home feeling sorry for ourselves.
The absolute worst-case scenario is of course that Rossi crashes and suffers a career-ending injury. Why would he take that risk? Because every rider takes that risk every time they go out on the track. Just ask Ben Spies, who had a massive crash at Sepang, then another a year later at Indianapolis, which damaged his shoulder badly enough that he was forced to retire prematurely.
The risk of a career-ending injury is just part of the job. Yes, the chances of Rossi being forced to end his career early are higher if he rides at Aragon. But not significantly higher than any other weekend.
Realistically, Rossi must also know that he doesn't have too many more chances left at winning a tenth Grand Prix title. He is signed up to race in 2018, and all the signs are he will race in 2019, but beyond that, how much longer can he be competitive? He doesn't have another ten years ahead of him, so even if his career is cut short, the years he would miss would be few. Rossi has much to gain, and little to lose by racing at Aragon.
What of the other riders, though? Sure, Valentino Rossi may be capable of piloting a MotoGP bike around a track at high speed, but does he have sufficient control to do so without causing a danger to his rivals? He will only know that once he gets on the bike. Riders are usually sensible enough to understand the limits. Ben Spies, again, pulled out of Mugello in 2013, when he realized he didn't have enough strength in his shoulder to be able to ride the bike safely. Is Rossi as sensible as Spies? Probably.
So my bet is that Valentino Rossi heads out on Friday morning for FP1 aboard his Yamaha M1. Ten laps on a MotoGP bike should be enough to tell him whether it will be possible to race. And while I would put money on him riding in FP1, after that, all bets are off.
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