Ever since Valentino Rossi joined Ducati, the burning question of just how competitive the Desmosedici GP11 is has been clouded by Rossi's shoulder injury. The weakened shoulder - a result of training accident in which Rossi hyperextended his shoulder, fixed by surgery in November of 2010 - has made it very difficult to judge how fast Rossi could be on the bike if he could ride the Ducati unhampered by his shoulder. As a consequence, debate has raged among fans and pundits over how much or Rossi's deficit to put down to the shoulder, and how much to the bike.
Such shoulder injuries are relatively common in motorcycle racing - at Qatar, the list of riders recovering from post-season shoulder surgery was alarmingly long - as being thrown from a moving motorcycle at speed almost invariably causes some kind of damage to shoulders, arms and hands. Add to this the fact that the shoulder is one of the most complex joints in the body, and certainly the one with the largest range of motion, and you begin to understand just how big an effect a shoulder injury can have.
To gauge the extent to which a shoulder injury can slow a rider up, we spoke to Avintia-STX Moto2 rider Kenny Noyes at Qatar. The American had surgery on his shoulder at the beginning of December 2010. The operation, carried out by Dr Armengol, took a bone graft from Noyes' hip and placed it in the shoulder, to reinforce the ligament connection. The rear labrum ligament was broken, and the rest of the shoulder joint was unstable, and the surgery was aimed at restoring that stability. The injury is broadly similar to, though slightly more severe than the problem suffered by Valentino Rossi, and the repairs carried out are comparable.
Noyes' surgery was a success, but the problem is the period required to recuperate fully. Even for a sportsman such as Noyes, who is in outstanding physical conditions, the recovery will only be 100% complete some six months after surgery. Until then, Noyes has to deal with pain, weakness in the shoulder, and, most difficult of all, the sudden disappearance of strength in the joint once it becomes tired.
"My shoulder's painful, but you just grit your teeth and forget about it," Noyes told MotoMatters.com, "The worst thing's not the pain, though, it's the lack of strength; I can't make the bike change directions. I get to to the point where I want to flick the bike in, and it's like everything happens in slow motion, and I end up missing my apex."
The precise control that is needed to exploit the full potential of a racing motorcycle is just missing, as is the strength to correct mistakes. "It's hardest during qualifying, when you really want to push for an extra couple of tenths," Noyes explained. "You start to push the front, and normally you'd be able to catch it. With this injury, you can't save the front."
But racing, too, offers its own set of problems: "It's not so bad at first, but then the strength just goes in one go," Noyes said. "Qatar was the first time I've done more than 10 laps in a row on my shoulder, and it lets you know all about it."
The cancellation of the Japanese Grand Prix, scheduled for April 24th but now postponed to October 2nd, comes as a blessing in disguise for Noyes. Once the Jerez MotoGP round next weekend is out of the way, another month of recovery, doing stretching and light physical exercise to build up the mobility and strength in the joint, should see the American back to something near full fitness at the subsequent race at Estoril in the first week of May.
Whether a nine-time World Champion like Valentino Rossi or a relative newcomer to the MotoGP paddock like Kenny Noyes, a shoulder injury is not a trivial problem. Recovering fully requires surgical expertise and dedication in physical rehabilitation, but most of all, it requires time. This is not an injury where you step back on the bike and go racing again, now matter how many world titles you have to your name.