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‘If only Valentino Rossi could qualify better’ - If I’ve heard that phrase once this season I’ve heard it a thousand times...
With nineteen years of experience reporting on MotoGP™ for Motorcycle News, Matthew Birt knows the championship inside-out. For the 2015 season he joins the motogp.com team to bring you exclusive news and opinion from inside the paddock.
But it does appear that the weak link in the Italian’s bid for a 10th title is exposed 24 hours before the lights go out on race day.
Rossi has and will always be a pure out-and-out racer rather than a heart-in-the-mouth one-lap qualifying specialist. His 110 wins against 60 pole positions prove that. And his last three wins have all come from eighth on the grid.
But since MotoGP adopted the shortened 15-minute qualifying frenzy in 2013, Rossi’s struggle to throw in a banzai lap in the condensed format has been a persistent frustration for him and race fans.
Take the recent Catalunya round as a prime example. Rossi was up from eighth to second by the end of lap four, but Movistar Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo was already 1.4s clear. Despite matching Lorenzo’s pace for the remainder of the race, Rossi couldn’t bridge the gap, and it is not the first time that’s happened.
Rossi’s qualifying demons are two-fold.
Long gone are the days when a rider had 45 to 50 minutes of an hour-long qualifying to build up a rhythm and get fully accustomed to the track conditions before going gung-ho for a soft tyre time attack in the final minutes.
Now you exit the pits with barely a teaspoon of fuel in the tank before attempting to take your mind, body and machine to a place they’ve never been before for just one or two laps. It’s as close to Russian roulette that you’ll get on a MotoGP bike.
Secondly, the softer tyre concession given to Ducati and Suzuki gives them a clear advantage in the qualifying shootout. Ducati has had seven front row starts so far in 2015 and Suzuki three. That includes two poles for Ducati and one for Suzuki – all while using the softer option tyre.
But the soft tyre benefit can’t be used as an excuse. And to be fair to Rossi, he doesn’t.
Lorenzo has access to the exact same Bridgestone spec tyres as Rossi, as does Marc Marquez, and both have infinitely superior qualifying results.
In fact, since the new Q1 and Q2 format was introduced in 2013, Rossi has found himself on the front row of the grid in just seven of 43 races. Of the other 36, he’s not even qualified on the second row in 17 races.
In the same period, Lorenzo has scored six pole positions but had 21 other front row starts and only missed the first two rows in three races.
And as for Marquez, when he has to lay it all on the line for one mesmerizing fast lap, he is peerless. The Spaniard has had 25 pole positions in his 43 premier class starts, and has only been off the front row in eight races.
Key to Lorenzo’s current career best winning streak of four successive races has been his ability to get to the front on the opening lap and bolt away in such dominant fashion that he’s not been shown a front wheel for the last 103 laps.
How Rossi solves the dilemma is not easy. After all, he’s already had 43 attempts and not solved the riddle.
Some say age has made him more risk averse than his younger rivals. But I don’t buy that theory. Rossi is 36 and faster than ever. And his pace in the race shows the last thing he’s doing is thinking more about the risk than the reward.
But convincing your brain to push for another two or three tenths when you already feel on the absolute limit is a leap of faith that Rossi’s not yet conquered. He must do so quickly before it starts undermining his title challenge because when it comes to qualifying, Lorenzo and Marquez are poles apart.
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