Wednesday, May 17, 2006

What's going on with Valentino Rossi?

Last Sunday saw young Dani Pedrosa claim his first MotoGP victory, no doubt with many more to come. In fact, the common opinion amongst MotoGP pundits is that Pedrosa is the next big superstar, and the one who'll take over from Valentino Rossi as THE man to beat. For this to happen, Rossi is going to have to stop dominating the sport. Well guess what? He has. Three of the first four races have gone to someone other than Rossi, and he's certainly not top of the championship. In a strange twist, the guy leading the title race hasn't won a race in 10 months (we're talking about Nicky Hayden of course).

So why this change of fortune for the 7-time champ? Rossi himself is quick to blame the bike. The 2006 Yamaha M1 has proven to be notoriously difficult to set-up, plagued by chatter (a vibration caused by the front wheel "skipping" off the ground at high frequency usually under hard braking). In Yamaha's case the cause of the chatter has been identified as the rear shock. Or the stiff frame. Or the new wider profile Michelin tyres. Or the front forks. As you can see there's many stories, but the most important detail is that Yamaha is bringing back the 2005 frame for the next race at Le Mans. So the safest bet is that the 2006 frame has proven to be too stiff. In the last few years motorcycle manufacturers have started to move away from ultra-stiff frames, noticing that some chassis flex is desirable in making the bike feel more stable, less twitchy and easier to ride. Honda's RC211V MotoGP bike has always had one of the most flexible frames even before it first raced, and is part of the reason that the Hondas have always been at or near the front.

But wait! If the bike is so bad, why was Colin Edwards able to secure third in Shanghai last week, whilst Rossi didn't? Well Rossi retired, and before he did so he was moving through the field at a rapid rate. Colin qualified much better than Valentino and was thus able to keep his head down, avoid too much dogfighting and survive out front, albeit behind the Repsol Honda lads. The bike is really not as bad as all that, it's just not the perfect machine that it has been for the last two years.

Bike development marches on, and if a manufacturer stands still they fall behind. Yamaha had no choice but to develop the M1, and the direction they went was plain wrong, wrong enough that not even the legendary Valentino Rossi was able to ride around the problems.

But the one thing that Vale should be most worried about has nothing to do with his bike. He should be worried about the miniscule Spaniard who won the last two 250cc world titles, Dani Pedrosa. There's no doubt that he is the most talented rider to arrive in MotoGP since Vale himself. Time will tell if he's actually better, and we won't know the truth until Yamaha finally sort out their 2006 M1. Maybe by Monday we'll have a better idea.

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