A year ago, reigning world champion, Valentino Rossi, faced a similar question. The young Italian had not won a race in over two months since he won the Italian GP at Mugello. Though he finished first at the British GP, he was penalized 10 seconds...
A year ago, reigning world champion, Valentino Rossi, faced a similar question. The young Italian had not won a race in over two months since he won the Italian GP at Mugello. Though he finished first at the British GP, he was penalized 10 seconds for overtaking Loris Capirossi under a yellow flag, which relegated him to third. Rossi led the championship by 29 points, but had been beaten by Sete Gibernau four times, and most recently at the Sachsenring after making a mistake on the last turn that led to the start-finish line, which only added fire to the doubters. And doubters there were. The Italian press had a field day with Rossi, wondering if he had lost his "Midas" touch. But we already know what happened in 2003, Rossi answered the critics with a win at Brno, Estoril, Brazil, Malaysia, Australia and Valencia.
Brno, I remember clearly (and have re-played multiple times), was one of the most exciting races of the year. From the first lap it was a scrap until the end. Troy Bayliss led from the first lap, but his lead did not last long, as Gibernau and Rossi took their turn at it. The other co-stars were Capirossi and the "King of Brno", Max Biaggi. Biaggi crashed out of the race, and Capirossi retired with a mechanical with only a few laps to go. Brno is full of mid-size chicanes and very wide, which translates to lots of overtaking opportunities.
Before we attempt to answer our question, let's recap the 2004 season. At the end of 2003 (December 31st to be exact) Rossi left the mighty HRC tent and moved himself and his crew to the tuning-fork garage. To the untrained eye, Rossi's challenge began at South Africa, but the rest of us know it began at the end of January in Malaysia, when he rode Yamaha's M1 for the first time. Right of the bat, Rossi proved he was worth the reported $9 million per year Yamaha lured him with by lapping the Sepang circuit faster than any other Yamaha rider ever had. The Honda boys did not sit idle; Biaggi made the first move and looked to be the man to beat during the early stages of the pre-season. Rossi continued to gain speed, but his consistency was a mystery all the way until race day at South Africa. On April 18th, the Italian wrote history by becoming the first-ever premier-class rider to win back-to-back races on different machinery. But even Rossi admitted he rode like a man possessed and doubted he would be able to ride the Yamaha in that fashion week-in and week-out. So far the score was Rossi 1, HRC 0.
Two weeks later at Jerez, the weather would pull Rossi down to earth. Rossi took pole position for the race after rain washed away Saturday's qualifying. Race day was no different and the Yamaha's peaky-attitude showed its ugly face as it attempted to send Rossi to the moon while the Italian was under pressure from his HRC replacement, Alex Barros. Rossi soldiered off to a fourth place finish and Gibernau stamped his rain-mastery by taking the win, but now the world was well aware that Rossi was no God and the season would be difficult for the Italian superstar. Rossi 1, HRC 1.
Le Mans was the third race of the year. Both South Africa and Jerez were considered to be neutral tracks, but Le Mans was a Yamaha track, or so we thought. Confident after winning his sixth MotoGP of his career, Gibernau took pole position and Rossi qualified fourth, out of the first row. Unlike past French GPs, the weather was perfect. Yamaha's Achilles' ankle, rain, had held off. However, rain was not the only problem with the Yamaha; they also had braking-stability problems. Sunday was a disaster for Rossi, though the M1, on the hands of Carlos Checa, faired well. All Rossi could get was another fourth place finish, behind his archrival, Biaggi. Gibernau won his seventh MotoGP race and Checa finished second. Rossi 1, HRC 2.
By now, Rossi's early expectations of the 2004 season being a "learning year" became more and more valid. However, the next race would give Rossi's fans hope, Mugello. Mugello, with its long straight was considered a Honda track. Next to South Africa, Mugello was one of the best races we had the privilege to witness in 2004. The lead was exchanged too many times to keep count and a new challenger appeared, Makoto Tamada. Rossi won the two-race, rain-split, Italian GP, but again, by pure madness. Rossi 2, HRC 2.
Gibernau knew he would have another go at the Italian at the next GP, the Catalan GP. Much like Mugello, Catalunya has a very long front straight which suits the extra horse-power of the Honda. But again, Rossi spoiled the party and beat Gibernau and the extra power of the Honda to take his third GP of the season. Rossi 3, HRC 2
The cathedral of motorcycles, the oldest of the current GP venues, the Assen TT. Assen was built for motorcycles. It is twisty and very fast. There are no straights and agility and handling are key. Rossi may have taken pole position, but Gibernau led all but the most important lap on Sunday, the last one. Rossi patiently waited for Gibernau to do all work and made his move on the last half of the last lap. The Italian held off Gibernau to the line, but the Spaniard was less than happy with the move and the public got to see a different side to the Rossi-Gibernau relationship. Rossi's win gave him the championship lead (Rossi and Gibernau had equal points, 126, but Rossi had more wins than Gibernau). Rossi 4, HRC 2
Fourth of July, U.S. Independence day, was nothing to celebrate about for the joint-championship leaders. Brazil is a slippery track and requires a perfect balance of power and handling. Gibernau had proven to have the pace to win on Sunday throughout qualifying, but the pressure of leading the championship (joint-leader) was getting to the Spaniard. Gibernau volunteered as the first faller of the race, Rossi followed soon thereafter. With no points to be gained, Biaggi took advantage and finished second, closing the points gap to the championship leaders to only 13 points. Makoto Tamada took his first-ever MotoGP win, and Nicky Hayden took his first podium of the season. Rossi 4, HRC 3.
The German GP at the Sachsenring was considered to be another Yamaha track, where handling would win over the horsepower of the Honda. Confident after his second place finish at Brazil, Biaggi took pole position for the race. Rossi challenged for the lead on Sunday, but the Yamaha ate up its tires faster than the Hondas, leaving Rossi to lick his wounds and take another fourth place. However, fortune was not so kind at the Telefonica-MovieStar tent, Gibernau crashing out for the second time in succession. Biaggi took his first win in 2004, Barros finished second and Hayden third. HRC's dominance began to show. Rossi 4, HRC 4.
All of this brings us to the most recent GP, the British GP at Donnington Park. The British GP was not as exciting as the Italian GP, but there were enough surprises for even the most cynics of MotoGP. Perhaps for Americans, it was 2-time WSBK champion, Colin Edwards, finishing second; his first-ever MotoGP podium since graduating to the premier-class in 2003. Hayden finished fourth and Gibernau came back to "podium-finishing-ways" taking third. But the biggest surprise was how Rossi won.
Donnington's win was not Rossi's first at this track, nor was it his first this season. Rossi's result was not the surprise, but the manner in which he accomplished it. For the first time in 2004, Rossi won by more than a few tenths of a second. Rossi quickly dealt with lead challenges from Capirossi, Gibernau, and to a certain extent, Edwards. Once he got the front he never looked back, and made sure he maintained and increased his one second gap to Edwards. At the British GP, Rossi won by more than two full seconds, an eternity in motorcycle racing. It was the Rossi of 2002-2003, patient, methodical and lethal. If this is a sign of how far Rossi has developed the Yamaha, HRC should be worried. Rossi 5, HRC 4
Not long ago, I read an article by Dennis Noyes. In it, he described the possibility of HRC allowing Rossi-Yamaha to take the title. He described it as good for the sport (in Honda's eyes).
At this moment, HRC lacks the development rider needed to further develop the V5; at least at the pace needed to beat Rossi. Honda has very, very, fast riders, but is this enough? Out of the current crop of Honda riders, Edwards is perhaps the most capable of developing the RC211V. However, Edwards is not part of the "works" team and as much as he or we may want him to develop the bike, contractual obligations will not allow it. The same applies to Gibernau, although, Hayden recently mentioned that Gibernau has been getting HRC-bits even before him (odd, since Hayden is an HRC-factory rider). Biaggi was rumored to have a contract with Repsol, which in theory would have allowed HRC to provide him with HRC-bits, but since it was announced, a few months back, nothing has materialized. Tamada is not an option since he's the only Honda rider on Bridgestone tires, so developing a bike for the rest of the Michelin-shod Honda riders would be a mistake. This leaves the two official factory riders, Barros and Hayden. Barros is the old fox and he was expected to carry the development flag for Honda. However, the Brazilian has failed to come through on the development, or championship points end of the deal. Hayden is much too young and inexperienced to be expected to develop a MotoGP machine, which leaves us with no one at Honda to carry the development flag.
In my opinion, HRC will take the defeat and smile. It is far too late to give development priority to the satellite teams (Camel or MovieStar) and they are probably more interested in developing the rumored triple, which will replace the V5 for 2005.
So what will happen at Brno? As already discussed, Brno is full of chicanes and is very wide, so passing opportunities are abundant. Ducati did well there in 2003 and if their performance at Donnington Park, a month ago, is a sign of things to come, they should not be discounted.
My money is on consistency and so far Rossi has been the man (less his crash at Brazil, but then again, he had not crashed out of a race since Mugello 2001; so a bit of slack should be given). Brno may have been Biaggi's track, but after his performance last year, I don't believe this holds true now. Besides, in a recent interview he stated how much his performance, or lack thereof, at Donnington Park affected him. Biaggi is not a rider known for his focus and if he's not able to get into it at Brno, he will not be riding up front. Gibernau is very fast, but after crashing out of two races trying to extent his point-lead I doubt he'll be pushing too hard this weekend. This leaves the wild-cards who have nothing to lose; Edwards, Hayden, Bayliss and Capirossi. All four will be in contention for the lead and they may very well surprise everyone by taking their first win-ever in MotoGP (second win for Capirossi), however, I would still place my money on the lanky Italian. How about you?