MotoGP’s season finale at Valencia was a better nail-biting cliffhanger than Game of Thrones, albeit not quite as erotic. The he-said-he-said soap opera of 2015 ended when the season-long heroics from the sport’s golden boy (pictured above) came to no avail when the come-from-behind win failed to materialize. The 2015 championship is now in the record books, but the underlying drama of accusations, mistrust and treachery continue percolating below the surface, waiting to rear in 2016 given the opportunity.
In one week’s time, we’ll get our first taste of the 2016 MotoGP season when pre-season testing commences at Sepang. While the riders have been dormant, unallowed to test during the mandatory winter break, team engineers have been working feverishly. Were any of them able to solve some of the issues of the new Michelin tires and standardized ECUs? During the final test at Valencia in November, all the fast guys reported essentially the same thing: the Michelin fronts lack grip and feedback, while the new electronics belong to a 2008 time capsule.
I’m thinking Rossi may have an advantage when it comes to being more proficiently adaptable to the Michelin tires and standardized electronics. Whatever shortcomings or change in riding style the new rubber or ECUs demand, Rossi possesses the experience and skillset to overcome the challenges.
He’s the only man in the paddock to have ridden for three different premier class teams (Ducati, Honda, Yamaha), in each engine displacement category (990cc, 800cc, 1000cc) on both Michelin and Bridgestone tires, and, let’s not forget, his first two seasons were aboard two-stroke machinery. Huh? A two-stroke grand prix bike, you say? Please explain.
Ah, yes, 2016 marks the 15th year since motorcycle grand prix racing doubled its strokes from two to four. For any johnny-come-lately MotoGP fans, you’ve known only the four-stroke experience. In only his second premier-class season in 2001, Rossi managed to secure the last two-stroke premier-class world championship title aboard the Honda NSR500. The NSR was as trick as a grand prix motorcycle could be at that time, but nothing like the two-wheel supercomputers the kids are riding these days. Back then, traction control was a measure of how fast the computer between your ears could process and send a message to your right wrist before a rear-wheel slide became a high-side. Rossi was good at this, he was real good.
Some quick math reveals that Rossi’s been a competitive force within the premier-class ranks for what will be his 17th year. Doesn’t that make him old? Vale turns 37 prior to the 2016 MotoGP season getting underway, while his Spanish nemeses Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Marquez will be 30, 28 and 23, respectively. Kobe Bryant is retiring at age 37, Jordan did at 36, and all those two did was play basketball – a tiresome sport with a lot of running – but nothing close to piloting a two-wheel missile around a racetrack.
Rossi’s biggest self-imposed hurdle is grid position. Seven times last year he started a race from the third row of the grid. Twice he won the race from the third row, the other five times he did not. He has the consistency – finishing all but three races on the podium – but he needs more wins (four last year) to take home the championship. Lorenzo started on the front row every race except for three and won seven times.
If last year provided any insight into 2016’s MotoGP championship, it’s that for Marquez to be successful with his knife’s edge riding style, the bike needs to suit him, not the other way around. If Honda is unable to adapt the RSV to Marquez’s riding style, might he have a harder time keeping a front Michelin from washing out than Rossi? Marquez was fastest at the November test, but he also crashed. If Marquez didn’t learn in 2015 that 2nd or 3rd place points are better than no points, it could be Groundhog Day for MotoGP’s youngest-ever champion.
A lot will be revealed when the teams converge at Sepang for the first of three tests prior to start of the season (Sepang Feb. 1-3, Phillip Island Feb. 17-19, Losail March 2-4). Circumstances might change between now and the first race, but it’ll at least be interesting to see if riders or entire teams are struggling to come to terms with the new tires or computers.
If last year isn’t a recent enough reminder, I’ll reiterate here that when it comes to racing, anything can happen. Another top-three finish for Rossi is a bet I wouldn’t hesitate to make. To win it all will require every ounce of skill and determination he had in 2015 as well as the same amount of luck, times two.