CAN VALENTINO ROSSI BE MOTOGP CHAMPION AGAIN?
|Yamaha rider Valentino Rossi celebrates his win in Argentina last|
weekend. (C) Autosport.com
Yet those fans have not seen Rossi become a MotoGP World Champion since 2009 (his 6th MotoGP title, 7th premier class title and 9th Grand Prix title), when he narrowly defeated team-mate Jorge Lorenzo in the Yamaha. Since then, a broken leg in 2010; two barren years at Ducati (an all-Italian dream team which sadly for both parties turned to a nightmare) in 2011 & 2012; and old Father Time (compared to a set of youngsters - like Lorenzo & Marquez in particular - who learnt from watching and/or competing with The Doctor) appeared to have caught up with him. Yes, upon his return to Yamaha in 2013, Rossi was again winning the odd race and was by now more competitive. Yes, he even confounded the odds by beating team-mate Lorenzo in 2014, despite parting company with long-time crew chief Jeremy Burgess at the end of 2013. But I felt that surely, with Marquez proving himself as the new Rossi (dominating in 2014 and also winning in 2013, his maiden MotoGP season at age 20!), and Lorenzo keen to shake off his 2014 annus horribilis, another MotoGP title was still beyond him.
|Marc Marquez looks set to embark on an era of Rossi-like|
domination...but may have his hands full with the original
one in 2015. (C) EPA
To be sure, it is a long season ahead and Rossi is no longer a master qualifier over one lap. However, his speed and racecraft in and cut-and-thrust of race day, if anything, appear to be the strongest that they have been for years (and they have never been weak!). Looking at motorcycle racing's legion of greats, not many have won world titles whilst well into their 30s in the premier class of GP racing: Brits Geoff Duke, John Surtees & Mike Hailwood were all in their 20s; Americans Eddie Lawson & Wayne Rainey in their early 30s; and both Mick Doohan and even Giacomo Agostini (whose all-time race wins record Rossi is now approaching) won their last titles at the age of 33. Rossi turned 36 in February and, rationally speaking, another title would have seemed impossible. Yet, after his start to 2015, this most incredible feat suddenly seems far more attainable. And, as commentator Julian Ryder said in commentary at Argentina, if Rossi was to achieve it, it may well settle the "Greatest of All Time" debate for at least a generation.
DUCATI BACK TO (THE) FRONT
|The smiles of the Ducati riders, and General Manager |
Gigi Dall'Igna, have been justified with the GP15 so far
This season, the team has benefited from the current (complex) set of MotoGP rules, in which teams are either categorised as Factory or Open. A concession in the rules enables uncompetitive Factory teams to compete with some of the benefits of Open teams, at least until results start coming; in a nutshell, Open teams have to use a standardised system to control the bike's electronics (the ECU) while Factory teams can develop their own. In return for this, Open teams get, for example, more freedom to develop their engines and are given a greater fuel limit (for Factory teams using the Open concession, these freedoms are reduced as results improve).
By using this Open clause, Ducati have been able to develop their bike holistically to catch up to the likes of Honda and Yamaha. Moreover, the hiring of former Aprilia World Superbike team technical director Luigi Dall'Igna as General Manager of the racing team, with effect from November 2013, has bought fresh ideas to a team which, despite the unstinting efforts and the Stoner-era success of former General Manager Filippo Preziosi and his team, had started to look like it had run out of them. To be sure, a title in 2015 will be difficult, as the team loses its Open concessions. Additionally, while I am a "Dovi" fan, most MotoGP followers do not quite see him as being in the same class as Rossi, Lorenzo or Marquez (though he remains very consistent and may benefit from the flagging form of both Lorenzo and the arm-pump-affected Dani Pedrosa). However, in 2015 Ducati's progress has almost been as irrepressible as Dall'Igna's chin (and, indeed, his success at Aprilia, which included two Superbike titles), and this may even bring a first win since Stoner's departure at the end of 2010.
THE RETURN OF SUZUKI
|Suzuki's mission: to recreate moments like this one, from|
their last win, in Le Mans in 2007. Photo: Crash.net
 - Admittedly, in other series, titles have been won by older riders. Angel Nieto won his last title in Grand Prix motorcycling at the age of 37. However, due to his height, he mainly contested smaller-capacity GP categories than the premier class (e.g. 80cc, 125cc and 250cc rather than 500cc, which became MotoGP - currently 1000cc! - in 2002). Max Biaggi won the 2010 & 2012 World Superbike titles at the ages of 39 & 41 under Luigi Dall'Igna's Aprilia team. However, this was a Superbike series, not a GP series. More on his 2012 win, and on the difference between Superbikes and GP (in the footnotes), can be found here.
 - The elephant in the room here could well be Marquez who, by the time he gets to his mid-30s (around 15 years from now), may have broken many of Rossi's records and achievements. However, we obviously have no way of knowing this right now in 2015. Regarding the verification of rider ages (e.g. Giacomo Agostini) for when they last won their titles, by the way, I resorted to simple Wikipedia searches!