Win or Lose: Rossi Can Be 2014 MotoGP Champ

Toby Moody’s well written critique of Valentino Rossi asks important questions. Can Valentino Rossi compete for the World championship again? But, Moody left out important questions in his Rossi analysis. Maybe because those questions can only be answered by Rossi to Rossi. A 2014 MotoGP championship would confirm Rossi’s return to the pinnacle of the sport, but it’s not necessary to see him continue. In 2014 and beyond, Rossi can throw down a more important challenge to his young rivals and the sport he loves.

Moody claims journalists surrounded Rossi’s longtime mechanical mentor, Jeremy Burgess, and asked him tough questions about his relationship with Rossi. This would have been Friday at the last 2013 race in Valencia, Spain. If that’s true, why didn’t the journalists report Burgess’ answers? If they did, it didn’t make enough of a ripple in the MotoGP press to show up on a Google search a month after the fact. If you can’t Google it, it didn’t happen.

How to get confirmation that those tough questions were really asked of Burgess? Was Burgess directly questions about his alleged direct criticism of Rossi? Again, if you asked the question — even if the answer was an emphatic denial — that’s still a good story. Do journalists following a racing series become too much part of the scene to ask difficult questions and report unwelcome answers?

Does Moody’s critique of Rossi ignore two elephants in the room? They are unpleasant topics. They are not something MotoGP wants appearing in the press. First, Rossi is only two years out from seeing his spiritual younger brother — Marco Simoncelli — killed at Sepang. Rossi was involved in the accident that killed his close friend. Only else in war does that sort of tragedy occur and the participant is expected to just keep on going. 2012 had to have been a huge test to Rossi’s wherewithal, a test he appears to have survived. But 2012 was a year when Rossi knew he wasn’t going to be competitive on the Ducati.

In questioning Rossi’s current level of motivation, Moody never mentions Simoncelli. Two years later and it still seems odd not to see a gangly rider on #58 trying the impossible. How does Rossi, get back on the bike again and again? Is it  possible to go that little bit over the edge after such an incident? The type of handlebar to handlebar battling that Pedrosa and Marquez are capable of, that saw Pedrosa thrown off his bike at Aragon this season, might simply be impossible for Rossi today.

It might be carrying the military analogy too far, but is Rossi simply unable to push to the front due to a type of undiagnosed PTSD? The fans and the press look at a rider pushing into his mid-thirties and they talk about the physical inability to ride the bike at the limit. Just as important is the mental component. A young rider has a much more limited imagination. And imagination at 180mph on two wheels can be a rider’s biggest enemy.

Consider the change in MotoGP over the past four years that chased a great rider like Casey Stoner from the sport. Again, this is an elephant no one surrounding MotoGP wants mentioned in the press. Young riders are expected to do two things: ride past the limit and fall; and then ride injured with bones held together with titanium, screws, tape and good luck. Stoner did so in his career. But he got sick of the constant criticism he received when suffering from his mystery ailment, that turned out to be due to his lactose intolerance. Stoner grew sick of the pressureconstantly pushing riders to get back riding, when few have any idea of the physical demands of the sport.

Stoner never mentioned — as a reason for retiring — that he was just expected to get on the bike and ride immediately after his high side at Indy. But, he was. Stoner used words like passion and happiness and family, but all of that can be taken away by one accident. Bike riders have always been as replaceable as light bulbs, but today they are expected to crack up on Friday, qualify Saturday morning, have surgery Saturday evening and race on Sunday. But, perhaps because of his long term ailment, Stoner more than any other current rider grew tired of the constant pressure from teams, factories, journalists and fans to just get on the bike and ride. Casey saw through the bull shit.

Where is the limit in MotoGP when there is no limit? If a rider can break ribs, collar bones, arms, fingers, feet, legs and still be expected to get back on the bike, then where is the limit? Valentino Rossi was the only top four rider in 2013 who did not seriously overstep the limits and end up injured. Not surprisingly, that left him in fourth place in the championship. But should it? As an elder statesman, Rossi can start to put pressure on the sport to change and show more respect for the athletes the fans follow, the stars who have brought MotoGP a massive worldwide following.

These two factors, the loss of a close friend and the pushing of the limits beyond the limits, might not enter into a pro like Rossi’s thinking at all. What does, and what explains his separation with Jerry Burgess is simple: over every riders career bikes change. Kevin Cameron wrote an excellent article in Cycle World about the evolution of a top riders career. He compares Rossi’s search for answers to the only top level racer who can compare to the doctor, the great Giacomo Agostini. Just like Rossi today, Agostini changed things late in his career to attempt to find new solutions.

Motorcycles evolve. A riding style that might have worked perfectly from 2001 – 2009, may not work on today’s top class bikes. More importantly, Rossi was the master of the wild and hairy 990’s. Stoner incorrectly criticizes Rossi, claiming the Doctor was a champion of traction control and used it to win. In point of fact,  Rossi dominated the sport when the bikes were more difficult to control than today. Yes, it was an era when engine mapping and other traction control tricks became more predominant, but since engine rule changes in 2007-2009 and 2012, stepping up to the top class has become much simpler. Lorenzo was able to come up to speed with his Yamaha teammate, only due to the shift to the tamer multi-race engines. Rossi, remember, was the last world champion on a true 500cc twin. Earlier in his career, Rossi’s superior feel for the bike gave him a larger advantage. That advantage has been taken away by engine regulations, improved traction control, and a younger generation pushed to ride beyond the limit to keep up with one rider: Valentino Rossi.

Rossi is probably the person most aware of his own shortcomings. Whether the data registers, he can be shown where Lorenzo changes direction more quickly, where Marquez is stretching the bike more. After two years of chaos at Ducati, Rossi might have anticipated a difficult return to Yamaha. The question now is whether he can evolve his riding style and mentality to fit a bike more attuned to Lorenzo’s riding style, or to the recklessness of a rookie like Marquez.

Rossi says he will know after the first third of the season 2014, if he will continue into 2015. The bikes will be changing and it’s hard to predict who will benefit from the 2014 rule changes. Only Rossi knows what he considers an acceptable level of performance. It might not necessarily relate to his performance on the track. Perhaps Rossi sees himself now as an important mentor for this younger generation of riders.

It’s telling that the new generation of superstars keep falling off of their bikes to stay ahead of the Doctor. Rossi could do a service to this next generation by putting together another solid season of good results, staying within his limits and staying on the bike. He has had injuries from accidents through out his career. He has pushed the limits — his own and those of his rivals — with questionable moves like his pass of Stoner at the Corkscrew, Laguna Seca. Marquez paid that move back, in an almost identical homage, in overtaking Rossi there last season. Rossi spent the first years of his career embarrassing past front runners like Max Biaggi and especially Loris Capirossi.

No rider today embarrasses Rossi. There’s dubious honor in out crashing someone to a championship. In the final analysis, that might be the most important reason for Rossi to stay in the sport or hang up his boots: can he get his message of just riding better, rather than riding out of control passed onto a rider of the next generation. If he manages that nearly impossible feat, win or lose, Rossi goes out a champion. It is an awful tall task.


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