Is Valentino Rossi back on the path to his tenth world title?
Having briefly held the MotoGP championship lead for the first time since 2017 during last week's Americas Grand Prix, Valentino Rossi is just three points adrift of series forerunner Andrea Dovizioso. After his strongest start to a campaign in two years, is the veteran Italian now genuinely in the hunt for his tenth world title?
From lap nine through to lap 17 in Austin last week, after inheriting the lead from the crashing Marc Marquez, Rossi did something he had not done since the very same race two seasons prior: the Yamaha rider led the world championship standings. Alex Rins ensured the record books would not be updated, however, after taking his Suzuki to the head of the pack with four to go to secure his maiden MotoGP victory.
Rossi left Texas second in the standings instead, three points behind Ducati's Dovizioso, who was perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Honda man Marquez's tumble.
Back in 2017, Yamaha started the season off strongly. New recruit Maverick Vinales won the opening two rounds, with Rossi on the podium at each. However, as the Iwata marque embarked for the European season, the rot soon to set in. The Spanish Grand Prix laid bare the engine and electronics issues which would continue to plague Yamaha for the next year and a half.
From Jerez through to Valencia last year, Yamaha tallied up just three wins, with Rossi yet to clamber onto the top step of the podium following his Assen 2017 victory.
Yamaha started 2018 in a similarly solid fashion. Rossi was third in Qatar, recovering from eighth on the grid, and was fourth in Austin, while Vinales finished second. Once again, though, Jerez revealed the true picture of Yamaha's form.
This pre-season was promising for Yamaha, Vinales displaying form on the improved 2019 M1 reminiscent of that which served as a precursor to his back-to-back victories at the start of the 2017 campaign. Rossi, on the other hand, was struggling, and was not wholly convinced the new bike had taken much of a step forward from its troubled predecessor. Indeed, he missed Q2 in Qatar and was only 14th on the grid, while Vinales stormed to pole.
But in the race, Rossi recovered to fifth as Vinales slipped back to seventh. In Argentina he denied Dovizioso second, and was just 0.462s away from his first victory in well over a year in Austin. Clearly, Yamaha's efforts in the winter haven't quite been in vain, even if more is still to be done.
“We tried to work on the electronics side for the acceleration, because we always had a problem exiting from the corner, and it's better” said Rossi when asked where the new M1 had been improved upon. “We also found a better balance compared to last year; the bike works better. We tried to work on the engine braking, on the smoothness of the engine, and looks like we need time because we have some areas where we have to improve. But it looks like we start in the right way. We have a good group in the box, and the challenge is difficult for sure, but we've improved.”
Looking over the previous two years, circumstances have allowed Rossi to stay in close proximity to the title battle heading to Europe. In Argentina two years ago, the majority of works riders crashed out – including race leader Marquez - while Rossi secure a hat-trick of podiums from the first rounds. In 2018, back-to-back crashes for Dovizioso in Spain and in France – as well as a consistent run of three rostrums from Mugello to Assen – played into Rossi's favour.
Crashes for Marquez and likely race winner Cal Crutchlow, a poor qualifying for Dovizioso and a jump start for Vinales in Austin this year certainly cleared a path for Rossi to bag a strong result to align the championship lead in his crosshair.
However, comparing his form from the first three rounds of 2019 with the same cluster of races from the previous two seasons, and cause for optimism in the Rossi camp is warranted. In 2017, when he last led the standings, he qualified 10th, seventh and third for the first first three races. Last year, he was eighth, 11th and fifth on the grid. This year, he has qualified 14th, fourth and second. The Qatar outlier aside, his form has been stronger and more consistent.
Typically struggling on Fridays in recent years, in Argentina and Austin this season he was sixth and third on the combined times after day one. This isn't radically different from what he achieved in 2018, but unlike then, he maintained that form into qualifying, which has stopped his Sundays from turning into recovery jobs - as was so often the case last season. This has perhaps been the key difference. Offering another hint at the genuine nature of his form: he never managed two second-place finishes in 2018.
Jerez remains the acid test, and Rossi is all too aware of this. To boot, Rossi highlighted in America how chief rivals Honda and Ducati made big steps forward when they went to Europe in 2017. Throw Suzuki into the mix of competitive manufacturers, and Yamaha's task of keeping up becomes all the more difficult.
“It's [too] early to say,” he responded when asked if he could challenge for the title. “We have some positive things, like for example last year I don't make two second places – just one. So already two [this year]. But on the other side it depends on what happens during the season. Now MotoGP is like Formula 1; I mean everybody is working and everyone is [constantly] improving the bike.
“In 2017 after Austin I was first in the championship, but after we arrive in Europe Honda and Ducati improve, and the second half of the season was a disaster. So we need to take these points, these results, but keep concentrated and push on Yamaha to work to improve the bike. Because usually in the second half of the season everyone make a step. In all three races this year I was competitive. Also in Qatar I was fast. So this is the most important thing to continue like this.”
Jerez, then, will be a pivotal point in Yamaha's 2019 season. And while a strong weekend won't necessarily guarantee a sustained title charge, it will at least create a firmer pad from which to launch one from. And the swathe of changes behind the scenes at Yamaha over the winter, as well as the creation of its Europe-based test team – led by former Tech3 podium finisher Jonas Folger – will also ensure it won't have much of an excuse to drop the ball development-wise this year.
And so long as Yamaha keep on delivering the goods, Rossi, 40 years old and 23 years into his glittering career, has already proven he will be up for the fight for his first world title in a decade.