Twelfth place in qualifying (just in front of Colin Edwards on his CRT, and last among the manufacturer bikes) followed by tenth place in the race. All this after a full year of development (a year that, in itself, was full of excuses). Valentino Rossi is out of excuses.
Teammate Nicky Hayden fought hard to finish in sixth place, and was full of optimism after the Qatar race. He had a bad start. The bike will only get better. These were Hayden’s thoughts, and comments.
Rossi is complaining profusely to the Italian media, by contrast. He is quoted as saying his Ducati is unrideable, and his performance at Qatar this year is actually worse than his performance at Qatar last year… his first time on the older Ducati, a bike he had virtually no input on designing.
Sure, things could’ve gone better during the race. At one point, Rossi was essentially pushed off the track, and lost several seconds. His starting position was poor (given his abysmal performance in qualifying), and the machine he is riding is still in the very early stages of its development.
There are at least two massive problems, however. First, Rossi is beginning to consistently lose pace to other Ducati riders, and not just Nicky Hayden. At one point during the race, Rossi was in 12th position, before Karel Abraham retired (on a Ducati), and then Spies drifted backward with handling issues on his Yamaha. In the end, Rossi was beaten not only by Hayden, but by Ducati satellite rider Hector Barbera. Of course, the bikes ridden by Hayden and Barbera have no more development behind them than Rossi’s bike, and Rossi has more support than either of them in terms of staffing and factory attention.
The other major problem is that Rossi appears to be embarking on another season where he will “hope and pray” for a podium, or two. It can be argued quite forcefully that Rossi is the greatest premier class rider in history, and he is undoubtedly being paid a king’s ransom by Ducati and its sponsors. Rossi was not hired to “hope and pray” for a podium, he was hired to win races and win championships. After a full year in which his team (including his legendary crew chief Jeremy Burgess) had every opportunity to direct development of the bike, his performance at the opening race is worse than last year.
Does anybody really think Rossi will be beating Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo, or Dani Pedrosa anytime soon? At this point, it seems unlikely he would beat any of them all year absent some bad luck on their part, and a race win by Ducati seems unfathomable.
The third problem is that Rossi joined a team that already had a bike that was winning races from time to time under Casey Stoner. A bike that didn’t suit Rossi’s style, apparently, but the fact remains that Stoner could win races, and grab pole positions, with the old bike.
It is my opinion that Rossi will never be the dominant rider he once was. Age eventually robs us all of our youthful skills and fortitude, but the death of close friend Marco Simoncelli cannot be discounted as a factor. It would be bad enough that Rossi lost his good friend on the same racetrack, but video indicates Rossi’s bike struck Simoncelli’s body during the accident (along with the bike ridden by Colin Edwards), and although everyone knows it was an unavoidable accident, this could clearly be robbing Rossi of concentration on the track.
So the “marriage made in heaven” between the legendary Italian rider and the legendary Italian motorcycle manufacturer has turned into a bit of a disaster. With the strength shown by both Honda and Yamaha so far this year, prospects don’t look good for Ducati or Rossi in the near term.