What are Valentino Rossi's 2018 MotoGP title chances?
How should one celebrate a 39th birthday? Few would do so as Rossi did who, on February 16, zipped up his leathers in blazing heat and rode his 260bhp Yamaha M-1, trying to match the lap time of the new young lions of MotoGP.
It was the first of three days of testing in Thailand, and the time sheets show that Valentino has lost little of the vigour that illuminated his youth, after winning the first of 115 GPs on a 125 in 1996. Although placed a (for him) disappointing eighth, he was only 0.392 of a second off Honda rider Cal Crutchlow’s fastest time. Rossi was the fastest of four Yamahas, and barely a tenth slower round the 4.554-mile Buriram track than defending quadruple champion, and 2018 season favourite, Marc Marquez (Honda). And as usual, the birthday boy snatched all the headlines, with intensifying speculation about whether this will be his last year.
Ordinarily, even in the extraordinary world of bike grand prix racing, the Italian should by now have retired, or at least slipped out of contention for race wins and top factory rides.
Instead, the pre-season talk has been about him extending his contract with Yamaha for 2019, and perhaps for 2020 as well. By when he will have been world championship racing for 26 years. Confirmation was expected after the first two or three races, but might come earlier.
Well, Rossi is amazing; and that he is still a potential race winner (he needs eight more to equal Giacomo Agostini’s 122) underlines not only his talent but more importantly, his continuation of total commitment and determination.
After World War Two, older riders were relatively commonplace, often having lost a chunk of their 20s or 30s to the fighting. Decorated RAF bomber pilot Les Graham was one such, turning 38 in 1949, when he took the inaugural World Championship. He was killed on the Isle of Man the following June. Giacomo Agostini, a 15-time champion, had faded from prominence when he retired aged 35 in 1977.
But in recent years a cult of youth means starting racing aged ten or even younger, leading to a younger average age, younger champions, and earlier retirement.
The trend, however, doesn’t make it any easier for Rossi to know when to stop. Only two champions have managed to walk away while still at the top, taking a clear and logical decision. Legendary American triple champion Kenny Roberts was 31 when he quit, right after losing the 1984 World Championship to 21-year-old Freddie Spencer. Double champion Casey Stoner also quit abruptly, aged only 27.
A few other champions simply faded away. but most had their careers forcibly terminated, either by a major injury, like Wayne Rainey and Mick Doohan, or by an accumulation of them, like Wayne Gardner and Kevin Schwantz.
It is these cases as much as the admirable persistence of Rossi that illustrate how difficult it is to quit. It is equally difficult for Yamaha to decide whether to continue to support the sponsor-friendly and wildly popular Italian. Rossi says it will depend on how competitive he feels in the early races.
So what does he face in 2018, as he chases Ago’s all-time record? At early tests, he and Yamaha team-mate Maverick Vinales were troubled by a continuation of sundry issues that blighted 2017, while last year’s rookie revelation Johann Zarco was irritatingly fast on a 2016 Yamaha.
Last year Ducati’s Dovizioso disputed the title to the end, winning six races to Rossi’s one. This year’s Desmosedici GP18 has smoothed over some of the weak points. The question, also for second-year factory teamster Lorenzo, concerns race-long consistency.
With the most bikes (eight out of 24) Ducati has strength in depth, with the satellite Pramac team also showing well: Danilo Petrucci on a GP18, and marque newcomer Jack Miller on a GP17.
Suzuki’s sophomore Spaniard Alex Rins has surprised at the test, and the smallest Japanese squad has reverted to ‘concession’ status after an unsuccessful 2017, allowing them extra testing and free engine development. The same status applies to Aprilia (riders Aleix Espargaro and Scott Redding) and KTM (Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith).
But the real force belongs to Honda, after three years of falling hostage to design errors compounded by the engine freeze, but with super-talent Marquez winning the last two anyway. Honda emerged from the early tests looking mighty strong. Marquez, team-mate Pedrosa and factory-backed independent Crutchlow appear to have no mechanical hurdles to leap this time.
Rossi is going to need every scrap of experience and race craft to prove to himself he can seriously compete. And a man-size portion of good luck to add significantly to his total of wins.