MADONNA DI CAMPIGLIO, ITALY, JAN 10 – Ducati Marlboro’s Valentino Rossi is much healthier than when he arrived here for his first Wrooom a year ago. Last year, his first with Ducati, the nine-time world champion was still in the early stages of recovery from off-season shoulder surgery, surgery that prevented him from properly testing the Ducati and which lingered almost halfway into the season.
“We have to say that it is a bit different, because last year I arrived in worse physical condition, so also my mood was a bit down,” he said of his second combined Ducati/Ferrari team intro in the Italian Alps. “But today I have to say I am in shape physically and we still have two, three weeks ahead of me, but I am ready for the first test. And…it is nice to work with Ducati, even if, unfortunately, the results have been under our expectations. But the atmosphere is very nice and we all believe in what we are doing.”
What they are doing is trying to create a brand new race bike from the ashes of the 2011 season. The struggles of Rossi, teammate Nicky Hayden, and the Ducati Marlboro team were played out over 18 long weekends last year. Rossi and Hayden each got one podium, a disastrous outcome considering the resources spent in time, manpower, and budget. Ducati’s 2011 race effort was surely it’s most expensive by some margin, and least productive. The last time they finished with a pair of thirds was in 2004, when Loris Capirossi and Troy Bayliss each scored a podium.
Rossi is forthright in his assessment of his chances of returning Ducati to the glory days, while being clear to assign equal weight to his part and Ducati’s.
“For sure to say now that we are ready for win the championship next year is difficult, because the gap in 2011 was quite big,” he said. “Our target is to fix the problems and try to come closer to Yamaha and Honda and from that moment start to fix all the details to be competitive to fight for the victory.”
Asked a follow-up question about his outlook, Rossi said, “I do not want to say from the start that I cannot fight for the championship, but, of course, I have to be realistic. And at the end it was 1.5 seconds [a common gap in lap time to the race winner] that we had to recover. I just mentioned our target is indeed to get close to the others and to be able to race with them and fight with them. This is our goal.”
The heart of that goal is making sure the new Ducati GP12 can get the most out of the control Bridgestone tires, something that didn’t happen in 2011. Most riders had difficulty getting heat in the tires, especially the rear. And Rossi was never comfortable with the feel of the carbon fiber Ducati front end, which was remade in aluminum during the season. He described it as that “f—ing vibration.”
Rossi said that Bridgestone has “to change a little bit and they know how they can help the riders. And it’s not going to be a problem, because I do hope that we’re both going to be working in the same direction. To receive also an aid from Bridgestone of, course, will make us lose less time if they were to change the design a little bit.”
The revamped tires will be put to the test in Malaysia on January 31/February 1-2 when the MotoGP riders roll out onto the Sepang Circuit for the first test of 2012. Not only will the test be important for Bridgestone, but also Ducati, which will see how they measure up against the competition.
“Yes, I think that for sure the first test will be important,” Rossi said. “For sure the bike will be different compared to last year, so it’s impossible to be competitive from the first test, but I think we will have some good information for work and be ready for the first race.”
Rossi threw a little cold water on the hoped-for notion that the 1000s would resemble the tail-sliding, tire-smoking 990s that ran from the birth of MotoGP through 2006, when they were replaced by the electronically controlled 800s.
Rossi agreed with teammate Nicky Hayden that, “unfortunately it is going to be more similar to the 800s of last year as against the old 1000s that we all remember and this especially because we have more electronic aids and the tires are different. However, the bike is fast and the 1000cc engine is fun and a bit easier to ride and you can slide a bit more, so it is a step forward.”
Who took the biggest step of the off-season will affect the outcome of the test and the season. Rossi is as determined as ever to win, but acknowledges that it isn’t as easy at it once was, despite his continued enthusiasm for racing.
“My hunger is same as in the previous year,” he said. “My hunger is the same.” He still believes he has the speed to win. What’s changed is his age. Rossi will turn 33 between the first and second Sepang tests. “I’m from a previous generation and so the new riders are very strong. As far as I’m concerned I still have the drive, I still think I can be extremely competitive. Of course, I have to be in the right conditions to be competitive and will have to find these conditions next season.”
The last time he had the conditions to be competitive was in 2009, the year he won the most recent of his nine world championships, his seventh MotoGP title. Rossi won six races and added seven podiums that year. Three times in his premier class career, he’s won 11 races. The first time was in 2002, the final year of the two-stroke when he won 11 races on the Nastro Azzurro NSR500 Honda to become the final rider to win the 500cc World Championship. He followed that with 11 wins in 2003, becoming the first MotoGP world champion aboard the Repsol Honda RC211V. And he did it again in 2005 when he won 11 races on the Gauloises Yamaha YZR-M1. Could he do it again?
“Yes,” he answered emphatically. “Why not? If we can fix our problems we can be more competitive everywhere.” Rossi began to underline the point before changing course mid-sentence and recognizing the level of competition, while absolving Ducati of some of the responsibility. “So, in the past I was able to win also 11 races in one season, but now the situation is very different. It’s not a problem or Ducati’s problem or me also, because the rivals are very strong and are younger and stronger than in the past. So now it’s difficult for me to make the difference for win 10 races in one season. For sure is now more difficult, but it’s not a problem of the Ducati.”