The vast amount of work I have had to do to over the past five days to upgrade the software MotoMatters.com runs on has left me desperately short of time to write a proper preview for the Argentina round of MotoGP. This is a shame, as the Termas de Rio Hondo track is utterly magnificent, and deserves all the praise it can get.
So instead of a full preview, here are my notes on this weekend. What to watch out for, and what is likely to be important. For a fuller review, listen to the latest episode of the Paddock Pass Podcast, where Steve English and I look forward to the weekend ahead.
Though Qatar was the first race of the season, it was hardly a leap into the unknown. It may have been the first race with new tires and new electronics, but the teams and riders were hardly unprepared. Just two weeks previously, they spent three days testing at the Losail circuit, giving them time to figure out a lot of the intricacies of the technical changes.
Argentina is different. Everyone arrives with no experience of the track with Michelins, nor with the common software. It is difficult even for Michelin, who have had only very limited testing at the track. Termas de Rio Hondo is the second fastest track on the calendar, behind only Phillip Island, and this will place a unique stress on the tires. However, at Qatar, both the hard and soft Michelins held up well, so Argentina could be another race where there is a real choice of tires, rather than having to choose the right tire from the start of the weekend.
Then there's the weather. This weekend looks like being very unsettled. Rain has been forecast for both Saturday and Sunday, though the timing and intensity varies with each weather update, meaning it is anyone's guess what happens. What looks certain is that the intermediates will get a run out at Argentina. Whether they will be raced, on the other hand?
What kind of track is Argentina? Fast and flowing, with some technical sections and a few tighter corners. Similar in character to Phillip Island, if a little more varied in terms of corners. Like Phillip Island, it is a rider's track, which is why the riders all love it so dearly. It is consistently rated among their favorites, right up there with Mugello, Assen and Phillip Island.
Which bike does it favor? To be frank, it is more about the rider than the bike. Courage and character count for more than sheer horsepower, or pure handling. In a year of leveled playing fields, this levels it even more.
Who to watch out for? Valentino Rossi won here last year, after a brilliant strategic gamble on Friday, to concentrate on getting the hard tire to work. He suffered in qualifying, but shone in the race. Pulling on a Maradona shirt for the podium ceremony only cemented his legendary status in Argentina.
Jorge Lorenzo wants to make up for two poor years, first while still struggling with fitness in 2014, then in gambling on the wrong, softer tire in 2015. Fresh off a dominant victory at Qatar, he is in a winning mood. The Yamaha is outstanding, and Lorenzo has adapted best to the Michelins. A win here would put him in very good shape for the championship.
Marc Márquez was fast at Phillip Island, which should give him a head start in Argentina. The Repsol Honda rider made a mistake last year in trying to fight Rossi for victory, instead of settling for 20 points. He admitted he made a mistake during the press conference, a far cry from his response at the end of the race last year. A sign he is maturing.
The Ducatis are the dark horses, with both Andreas being fast in 2015. Dovizioso finished on the podium, Iannone was pipped to the line by Cal Crutchlow. The 2016 bike is better, and both riders were strong in Qatar. They have a legitimate shot at the win this weekend, with Argentina and Austin being their best hope for early success. The bike is capable, now its up to the riders.
The Pramac Ducatis could be a real wildcard. Scott Redding is a known quantity, fast enough to succeed, though he did not manage that at Qatar. Michele Pirro, in for the injured Danilo Petrucci, is one to watch, the Italian having spent more time on the Michelins than anyone else, as Ducati's official test rider. Pirro may not be quite at the level of the four Aliens, but he is fast enough, and he may have enough of an advantage to be up there at the pointy end.
Maverick Viñales had a strong weekend at Qatar, though he was held up by Dani Pedrosa and could not get by the Repsol Honda. The Suzuki should be closer in Argentina, and if the rumors of a deal between Lorenzo and Ducati are true, then he could well be in line for the seat at the Movistar Yamaha team. He will be out to prove his worth this weekend.
Twenty years a legend
This weekend marks the twentieth anniversary of Valentino Rossi's debut in Grand Prix racing. On 31st March 1996, he lined up on the grid for his first 125cc race in Shah Alam, in Malaysia. He finished sixth that day, behind Stefano Perugini, Haruchika Aoki, Peter Oettl, Masaki Tokudome and Emilio Alzamora. They are all now middle-aged men with spreading waistlines, while Rossi remains waif-like and fit, his hunger for success still vastly outweighing his hunger for comfort.
Finishing sixth in your first race in Grand Prix is a remarkable achievement, and worthy of mention. It was clear from the start that Rossi was something special, going on to win his first race at Brno later that year, and his first championship the next. From that point on, he followed the same pattern: a year to learn, then a title, first in 125s, then 250s, then 500s. He won five titles in a row in MotoGP, winning his first race after switching from Honda to Yamaha – then a much riskier move than it is now – as well as the championship at his first attempt. He lost two years in a row, then came back to win two more, in 2008 and 2009.
A dark period followed, first with injury – in 2010, his shoulder was always much more of a problem than the leg he broke at Mugello – and then with the Ducati. He thought that he could win on the Ducati, and vastly underestimated the raw talent of Casey Stoner. Humbled, he returned to Yamaha.
There, he embarked upon what is surely the most remarkable chapter of his career. He took a big risk in firing long-time crew chief Jeremy Burgess and hiring relative unknown Silvano Galbusera, but it paid off. How that was handled was ugly, but that was not entirely Rossi's fault, more an issue with someone inside his inner circle. Rossi has since had his revenge on the journalist that broke the story, feeding him an entirely fabricated story about Jack Miller and Jerry Burgess.
The risk paid off. Rossi went from also-ran to serious competitor, to being in the running for a championship. At the age of 36, Rossi did not quite have the pace of his teammate, but he did have the experience and the talent to exploit any advantage he got. As the season came towards its ugly climax, Rossi looked to be in with a shout at a genuine miracle, winning a title six years after his previous championship.
The events of Sepang, what preceded them and what followed are not worth rehashing for the millionth time, and frankly, are irrelevant in the light of a single achievement. To be capable of winning, to start the 2016 as a viable championship candidate, to sign a two-year deal for 2017 and 2018 with the belief that he has a shot at wins and possibly even a title, is astonishing. It gives meaning to that most overused of words, awesome: we are left in awe of Rossi's achievements, his talent, his dedication, and his ambition. After nearly twenty years in the paddock, Loris Capirossi was washed up. After nearly twenty years, Valentino Rossi is arguably a better racer than he ever was at any point in his career.
What is a GOAT?
The word GOAT, or phrase Greatest of all Time is not particularly useful. It is impossible to compare different eras: the bikes were different, the level of competition was different, the tracks were very different, the approach to danger was very different. The skill set a rider needed was massively different, changing from decade to decade. Comparison is not so much difficult, as meaningless.
Despite that, Valentino Rossi stands head and shoulders above almost every other rider in history. Yes, he has been beaten fairly and squarely by four other recent riders. Jorge Lorenzo, Casey Stoner and Marc Márquez beat him to titles, Dani Pedrosa regularly bested him in races. But they grew up aiming at the target on Rossi's back, knowing they had to beat him. He made them the riders they are, by setting the bar for success.
Is Valentino Rossi the GOAT? It's hard to even say what that means. But the fact that he has won on 125cc, 250cc and 500cc two strokes, on 990cc and 800cc four strokes, and came within a handful of points of winning on a 1000cc four stroke, over a time span of 19 years, is truly remarkable. If there is such a thing as the Greatest of all Time, and you were forced to make a list, then Valentino Rossi deserves to be at the top of it.
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