For the next part of our review of the 2014 season, we continue our count down of the top 10 finishers in MotoGP. After yesterday's look at Marc Marquez, today we turn our attention to the runner up in the 2014 MotoGP championship, Valentino Rossi:
2nd - 295 points - Valentino Rossi
Six races. That was the deadline Valentino Rossi had given himself. After the first six races, he would make a decision on whether he was still fast enough, or it was time to hang up his leathers. The goal was to be fighting for podiums and wins. If he could not do that, he felt he did not want to be racing. The fact that the sixth race of the season was at Mugello was ominous. If you had to choose a place for Valentino Rossi to announce his retirement, that would be it.
The season started off well, with a second place at Qatar, but with Marc Márquez just back from a broken leg, Jorge Lorenzo crashing out, and Dani Pedrosa struggling for grip, that didn't quite feel like a true measure of his ability. Texas was a disaster, with severe tire wear, then at Argentina, Rossi came home in fourth, just as he had done so often last year. His string of fourth places in 2013 were what had prompted Rossi's doubts about carrying on, so many journalists and fans feared his mind was made up.
They were right about that, but they had totally misjudged his decision. In reality, Rossi had felt at the Sepang tests that there was real improvement, and was optimistic he was fast enough to run at the front again. From Jerez, he proved it to the rest of the world, getting onto the podium for the next four races. By Mugello, there was no more talk of retirement, he was already well on his way to signing a new two-year deal with Yamaha.
From there, Rossi just kept getting stronger. Podiums were now the rule, rather than the exception, Rossi only missing out when the weather complicated things at Assen and the Sachsenring. He was back on the podium after the summer break, and arrived at Misano with that look about him. He had come to win, that much was clear in the way he moved, the way he held himself. This was the Valentino Rossi of the glory years, and he would brook no opposition. Marc Márquez tried, and crashed out in the attempt, Rossi going on to take what was his first clear and overwhelming victory since 2010. He may have won at Assen last year, but his triumph at Misano had no asterisks, no question marks, no riders injured or otherwise rendered uncompetitive.
It would not be his only win: Rossi went on to take victory at Phillip Island as well, though he benefited there from the severe drop in temperature which caught out the men on the new asymmetric front tire, handing him the lead as they crashed out. But he would not finish off the podium again this year, his only error a big crash in the rain at Aragon. It was good enough to secure second spot in the championship, comfortably holding off the challenge from his teammate, and staking his claim for 2015.
Where did his improvement come from? Was firing Jeremy Burgess the key to his success? Was it Burgess who had been holding him back? A little bit of this, perhaps, but the biggest change was probably in Rossi's mind. Replacing Burgess with Silvano Galbusera had seen some changes made to the way the team worked, with a slightly greater emphasis on data, alongside Rossi's feedback.
But the most important factor was the way Rossi rose to the challenge. Sacking Burgess had been his last throw of the dice: if it had failed to improve his performance, the only variable left was Rossi himself, and he would have been a lot closer to retiring. That gamble had forced Rossi to take more risk, push himself harder, work harder at changing his style. That change was visible, his body position different on the bike, head and body hanging much further off the bike on corner exit, more like the styles of Marc Márquez and Casey Stoner. It was a style he had been perfecting at his dirt track ranch, the practice paying off.
Rossi was helped by a better Yamaha M1, the Japanese engineers working hard to build a better bike. The chassis was already a match for the Honda at the start of the season, the M1 much better on the brakes than the 2013 model, its greatest weakness largely eliminated. Yamaha struggled with the reduced fuel limit, but by the middle of the season, a new exhaust and many revisions of the ECU software had solved those issues. The bike was more or less on a par with the Honda RC213V, the only real disadvantage the seamless downshift, which makes the Honda much smoother into corners. A rejuvenated Rossi on a revamped Yamaha YZR-M1 was a formidable adversary once again.
All throughout 2013, journalists – myself among them – had been queuing up to write Valentino Rossi off. That proved to be a mistake, just as it always has been in the past. Rossi reached inside himself and found what he needed to transform himself into a race winner and a championship contender once again. There are many things which are remarkable about Valentino Rossi, but his motivation, the ambition and drive needed to do what it takes to remain at the pinnacle of motorcycle racing is perhaps what marks him out as truly exceptional.
Valentino Rossi has made his intentions for 2015 perfectly clear. "He wants to finish better than he did this year," Silvano Galbusera told me at Valencia. "He is second now, so that leaves only one position..." Next year, Valentino Rossi will be 36, and will be embarking on his twentieth season of Grand Prix racing. Winning a title at that age, and after that much time in racing would be virtually impossible for anyone else. But you can never write Valentino Rossi off...
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