6 September 2011
Whatever the Italians at Ducati are doing to Valentino Rossi's motorcycle, it's certainly not working.
His performances this Moto GP season have shown nothing but rare hints of the talent that's made him the greatest ever on two wheels.
For many years he's been the maestro, the cold, clinical racer made insatiable by a penchant for mischief and his trademark assault of neon.
But after another year to forget in the sport's top class, it's time “The Doctor” had a check-up.
Last round at Missano, only Rossi's devilish maneuvering on the opening three turns saw him bound into a competitive position alongside his bright eyed countrymen Marco Simoncelli and Andrea Dovizioso.
The desire, the ruthless body language of a fighter was there - sadly his bike wasn't throwing any punches. Clearly, the Ducati needs more than just some cosmetic surgery.
At Indianapolis Rossi was sluggish and spent most of the Grand Prix on an anguished solo mission in the distant dust stream of his rivals, before his lust for racing brought him through the pack.
Earlier, after a crash in qualifying, his despair was blatant as that omnipresent smile was buried as he hung his head. Perhaps he wondered if his worst nightmare had come true.
Slowly, it is. After 16 seasons on the international circuit, there is a sense that the sun - wickedly grinning as it is - may be beginning to set . For a man who's defied reason throughout his career by leaving winning bikes to embark on new challenges with rival manufacturers, the jump to the final frontier at Ducati might be more than his taxed body can take.
No-one wants to believe, let alone speak it. Rossi is a very special athlete - one who has defined the motorcycle racing for a generation. It's his class, a permanent quality of sport's very best, that has won him headlines for years. But in this sport, a rider's ability is only half the story.
The Desmosedici has been struggling for several seasons (no-one but Casey Stoner in 2007, has truly and consistently been able to harness its power), yet by all reckoning if one rider could ever bring the Italian manufacturer glory it would be the country's very best. Rossi could ride a broomstick to victory.
Sadly, magic might be all that saves the red machines from the rot.
It is a poor, telling reflection on Ducati that even with two world champion's in its garage there is no sign of combativeness, no hint of a win around the corner.
Valentino has scored just one podium this season, a third place earned at Le Mans after a dogfight with former teammate Jorge Lorenzo, but gifted after Simoncelli's moment of madness that took out both he and Dani Pedrosa. If Rossi fails to shake the champagne as victor in one of the five remaining races, it will be the first time he's had a winless season in his entire career.
There is some kind of systemic problem lingering in the Ducati garage. For it's not only Rossi fading out of the winner's circle. His teammate Nicky Hayden is a shadow of the swaggering kid who stunned Rossi for the crown in 2006 when they were riding for Honda and Yamaha respectively.
Hayden, on his home track no less - made the wrong tyre choice and limped around in despondency at Indy. The gamble reeked of desperation and frustration with an unwieldy machine. While, at San Marino, he was put out of his misery early, crashing into the sand from no-man's land on the circuit.
The team heads to Aragon next, the last meet for a while in Europe before Japan, Malaysia and Australia. The time for redemption has not past, momentum is important and a few quality rides might be all it takes to convince the big bosses at Bologna to persist with the racing enterprise, and to quell any retirement demons circulating in Rossi's head.
Indeed, next year could be his last, with the call to the rally scene surely louder with every mediocre meet.
Much to the disappointment of many motor racing fans, the chance for a stint in an F1 Ferrari has now passed him by. Rumours that Rossi will try to hire a Honda for next season are, equally, just as unlikely.
A couple of late podiums won't redeem his year, but it will be a welcome shift in the right direction, for the sake of the entire sport. Moto GP without The Doctor flying...well it's just not healthy.
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