In the fourth part of our series looking back at 2013, we take a look at Valentino Rossi's season. To catch up with previous instalments, you can read part 1 on Marc Marquez, part 2 on Jorge Lorenzo, and part 3 on Dani Pedrosa.
|Valentino Rossi||Yamaha Factory Racing|
Valentino Rossi left Ducati at the end of 2012 with a palpable sense of relief. At last he would be back on a bike with a front end he could trust, and could get back to being competitive. The goal was to test himself, to see if he could still run at the front with the Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, he repeatedly told reporters in the preseason.
Testing looked promising. Rossi was a little way behind the Hondas, but so was his teammate Jorge Lorenzo, and that was the man he had to measure himself against. At the first race, Rossi was straight onto the podium, dishing out a lesson in racecraft to Marc Marquez along the way. It looked like he was finally back in business.
Qatar turned out to be something of a false dawn. Rossi struggled in Austin, and could only manage a distant fourth at Jerez. That was an omen of things to come, Rossi racking up a grand total of 8 fourth places during the season, only getting on to the podium when one or other of the top three were injured or otherwise struggling. Despite the difficulty, the wily veteran still managed to bag himself a win at Assen, his first in nearly three years. It was a moment of release for the Italian, but even during the press conference, he conceded that his win was in no small part due to his teammate's injured collarbone. Rossi cemented his place in the MotoGP hierarchy: the fourth best rider in the world.
Was the problem age, talent, or equipment? That question is still unanswered. Age must surely play a part, but Rossi's biggest problem was an inability to get the bike to brake as he wanted. The new, less stiff front Bridgestone introduced during 2012 was causing Rossi problems, the bike lacking stability as he tried to slam on the brakes as late as possible. It was, he admitted, in part his own fault: when Bridgestone had brought the front tire in 2012, he had seen its weakness then. But given the miserable time he was having getting the Ducati to turn, a softer front tire might actually help, but slowing down the others. 'We were already in the sh*t,' Rossi commented, 'so it made no difference'.
In 2013, he wished he had held out against the softer front. While Jorge Lorenzo could use his strong point, braking earlier, less abruptly, and carrying more corner speed, Rossi and his crew turned his bike upside down in the pursuit of better braking. At a test in June at Aragon, the Italian thought he had found something, but though it was an improvement, the problem remained. It would never go away entirely, and Rossi was never able to change his style enough to compensate.
At the end of the year, Rossi took a radical step, sacking his crew chief Jeremy Burgess, the man who has guided him throughout his entire career in the premier class. That move was widely seen as an act of desperation, thrashing about trying anything in the hope of improvement. Sacrificing Burgess leave only one variable left to blame. By the end of 2014, we will know whether the problems lay with Burgess or Rossi.
It had been a long, long time, and the relief was palpable. Rossi celebrated victory at Assen with fervor, it having been over two-and-a-half years since his last win. Rossi's 80th premier class win (and his 106th in all classes) was huge. True, it had been taken while his teammate was injured, and Dani Pedrosa had struggled with tires, but a win is a win, and Rossi celebrated it as such. It also came after a successful test at Aragon, giving his confidence a much needed boost. The euphoria did not last long, but Rossi proved that he still had it in him, at least when the stars aligned.
Rossi's 2013 MotoGP campaign reached its nadir at Mugello. Finally back at the track he loves so dearly on a bike that at least allows him to ride, the Italian had high hopes of success. A poor qualifying session - something Rossi struggled with all year, only really getting his head around the new, 15-minute session towards the end of the season - left him down on the third row of the grid. His race lasted just three corners, before Rossi ended in the gravel alongside Alvaro Bautista. The two men had taken wildly different lines out of Luco, and those lines intersected on the entrance to Poggio Secco. Blame was hard to apportion, though Rossi made no secret of his belief the fault lay with Bautista. Rossi now has his hopes pinned on Mugello in 2014, perhaps more of his hopes than he cares to admit.