What next for Valentino? (Part 1)

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After the bitter end to last season, what does the master of reinvention need do to transform himself one last time and rule MotoGP’s new technical era?

alentino Rossi has failed before, but never as agonisingly as last season, when he held a 10th world championship in the palm of his hand, only for it to slip away at the last couple of races.

Many racers aged 36 would have decided to call it a day after such a bitter episode but we already know that Rossi isn’t like most racers. He may have been defeated in the title battle but he is anything but defeated psychologically. As another all-time great King Kenny Roberts once put it: “If it doesn’t kill you it’ll make you stronger”.

Rossi will no doubt turn the burning pain and anger of recent months into a positive, using them to forge a steely challenge for the 2016 MotoGP world championship. Although he will be 37 years old when he roars away from the Losail start line alongside bitter rivals Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Marquez on March 20, there’s no reason he won’t be as strong a contender as he was last year, if not stronger. He still wants it, he is still prepared to work hard and take risks, so he will have everything he needs.

And he will need it all, because racing never gets any easier. Rossi knows that, of course, and he also knows that you never stop learning, so what did he learn from 2015?

First, he knows he must find more speed. Rossi may only have lost the title to Yamaha team-mate Lorenzo by five points, but he won four races to Lorenzo’s seven and usually there’s only one way to win a world championship: by winning more races than everyone else.

Rossi isn’t stupid; he knew he wasn’t fast enough last season, especially in qualifying. “We need to make another step,” he said at Aragon, where Lorenzo out-qualified him for the 12th time in 14 races.

True, Rossi did win two GPs from eighth on the grid, but they were the first and second races of 2015, when Lorenzo was plagued by problems and Marquez was beginning to realise that his new Honda RC213V wasn’t as good as his 2014 RCV. In years gone by Rossi made something of a speciality of winning races from the second or third or fourth rows. However, he didn’t have Lorenzo and Marquez to deal with back then.

MotoGP is very different now. The latest bikes allow the best riders to ride close to lap-record pace for the entire race, so there’s little chance for making heroic charges through the pack.

Comparing Rossi’s speed in qualifying with his speed in races highlights his problem. His average grid position (omitting Valencia, where he had to start from last, as punishment for his Sepang faux pas) was a lowly fifth place. In races he was much better. His best lap time was on average somewhere between second and third fastest. In other words, he still has the speed to win a world title. What he needs is the ability to use that speed throughout the race, rather than waste the first few laps fighting his way towards the front, by which time Lorenzo and Marquez are dots on the horizon.

Rossi’s qualifying problem isn’t so much a bike-setting issue, it’s more a mind-setting issue. He has struggled ever since Dorna introduced the more TV-friendly 15-minute QP session a few years ago, which took away the luxury of working up to a red-hot lap. Rossi needs to gird his loins to do – in his words – that “one fast lap all with your heart, with the eyes shut”.

He can try to perfect that art during pre-season testing by simulating the QP session several times each day. Then he will need to apply that same mentality to the start of races. Lorenzo learned to start each race by tipping into the first corner on the very limit because that’s how Casey Stoner won many of his races. Now Rossi needs to learn that from Lorenzo, because that’s the only way he will be able to beat a rider who won all of his seven victories of 2015 by leading from turn one to the chequered flag. Rossi has spent much of his career easing into races according to that old racing mantra: you only need to lead one lap, the last. But MotoGP doesn’t work like that anymore. He needs to fight with the leaders from the very beginning so he can try to wear them down or mess them up, as he did so often in the past. Again it’s a mind-set thing, enabled by plenty of practice.

Rossi’s biggest strength last season was his adaptability to unexpected circumstances, which allowed him to make the best of tricky conditions when others struggled. Throughout 2015 he was the king of circumstances, capable of – again in his own words – “pulling the rabbit from the hat” – when required. Whenever the weather intervened he was able to extend his points advantage.

That is a vital ability during an 18-race season, but not enough on its own. So what else can he learn from his 20th season of GP racing? Two things, most of all. For the first time in his career his efforts to destabilise a rival with a few carefully chosen words failed to have the desired effect. He tried to psyche-out Marquez between the Australian and Malaysian GPs but this time his mind games backfired. Instead of backing down, Marquez fronted up.

To quote King Kenny again, “head games don’t always work the way you want them to. The other guy’s got a brain too...”

So, lesson number one: Marc Marquez isn’t Sete Gibernau.

Lesson number two: don’t let your emotions get the better of you. Again for the first time, Rossi blew a fuse in 2015. His decision to have a mid-race argument with Marquez at Sepang, instead of dealing with him more subtly as he has done with so many other rivals, probably cost him the title.

In 2016 he must not allow his dislike for Marquez and Lorenzo interfere with his racing brain, he must race again with his old sangfroid. Hopefully he will be able to do this after sitting down and working out that Marquez could have finished first, second or third at Valencia and the title would still have gone to Lorenzo. He needs to understand that there’s no Spanish conspiracy against him, merely two Spanish riders who want to kick his arse.

If he can do all these things, he may just kick theirs.

Words: Mat Oxley Photos: Gold and Goose/2 Snap

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