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Rossi conquers qualifying demons

Rossi conquers qualifying demons

Valentino Rossi shows just how much winning still means to him by successfully changing his whole approach to qualifying at the Dutch GP.

Valentino Rossi is known as the “greatest of all time” (GOAT) in motorcycle racing, and his record speaks for itself. He has nine World Championship titles to his name, 110 career GP victories, 92 fastest laps, and 203 podiums. Yet if anyone needed proof that the 36 year old still has just as strong a desire to win as he did when he made his World Championship debut 19 years ago, you just had to look at his performance over the last two days at the Motul TT Assen.

Rossi’s famous dislike for the two-tiered shorter qualifying sessions that were introduced in 2013 is well documented.  His struggle to head out and immediately be up to full speed in the 15 minute Q2 session has led to the Italian having to fight his way through the field on race day to have any chance of winning. At the start of the season, this was not so much of an issue, as his teammate Jorge Lorenzo was off the pace, and Marc Marquez was struggling with the 2015 version of his RC213V.  Rossi could focus on his race set-up during practice, knowing that he could make up any lost time in Qualifying during the race, highlighted by the fact his two victories this season have come from 8th on the grid.

It all changed though when Lorenzo experienced a resurgence in form to take the last four race wins in dominant fashion, leading from start to finish. Suddenly, Rossi could not afford to let his teammate have a head start, and this meant that Rossi needed to go back to the drawing board if he was going to find a way to improve his qualifying fortunes, or he would just have to get used to finishing behind his Spanish teammate. Rossi is no fool, and he admitted just how much this pole position meant to him: “It’s so important because during this season I’m competitive in the race but I struggle so much in practice, too much! It’s not just the pole, but I’m never on the first row. When you start behind sometimes you can make a good result anyway, but it’s more difficult and in the last races with Jorge starting at the front he was impossible to catch, even if like in Barcelona my pace was good.”

At the age of 36 it is no easy feat to change the way you approach a Grand Prix weekend, especially if your method has essentially remained the same throughout your whole career, but Rossi knew he had to do something: “In Barcelona we worked with some more settings and tried the new chassis in Aragon. I like it a lot and my speed has been very good since then. You can arrive in the Qualifying stronger when you start strong. My target was the front row but for sure pole is a special feeling.”

Psychologically, Rossi dealt a huge blow to his title rivals by showing the desire, even at this stage in his career, to completely re-evaluate his whole approach. The tables have now been turned on Lorenzo, who will ironically start Saturday’s race from eighth, knowing that he can't let Rossi get away at the front if he wants to usurp his teammate in the championship standings.

Another rider who has shown incredible psychological strength to bounce back from a poor run of form that sees him trail Rossi by 69 points in the standings after just seven races, is Marc Marquez. The Repsol Honda rider has crashed out of the last two races to leave his title defence hopes in tatters, and leading many to criticise his “win it or bin it” approach. Surely even the Spaniard must have started to have some doubts?

Marquez though, has shown he also has the mental strength to mount a comeback, going 'back to the future' with his RC213V and using last years frame with his 2015 engine, swingarm and electronics package. His improved feel with this hybrid bike led the reigning MotoGP™ Champion to declare that he had returned to form: “It’s nice to be back! This circuit we’ve always struggled and we thought we’d be really far behind Yamaha, maybe we’re a bit closer than usual and in the last races. The rhythm is good and I’m happy we’ve been able to work towards the race with a different set up and different electronics.”

Using FP4 as an indicator, Marquez does indeed have the most impressive race pace of all of the riders who will line up on the MotoGP™ grid tomorrow. He recorded eight laps in the 1’33’s during the session, which riders generally use to focus on their race set-ups. Lorenzo was the only other rider to get anywhere near this feat as he also recorded eight laps in the 1’33’s, but his starting position on the grid will be a huge handicap at a circuit that can be notoriously difficult to overtake at.

Rossi himself, who set the fastest ever time by a motorbike around the legendary TT Circuit Assen in Qualifying, could only manage two laps in the 1’33s during FP4, which had some people wondering if 'The Doctor' had sacrificed his race pace to focus on qualifying. This bodes well for Marquez who will start from third for Saturdays race, although as we all know, Rossi has a habit of upping his game on race day.

The surprise package could come in the form of Aleix Espargaro, who starts the race from the middle of the front row after just missing out on his second consecutive pole of the season. The Spaniard might have an extra advantage at the start of the race too if he can utilise the soft tyre available to his team, but only if the weather conditions are right: “Today I was able to do 20 laps with the soft. If tomorrow isn’t sunny we can think to race with the soft, in the right side it’s a little softer so maybe we’re one or two tenths faster in the start.”

The Team Suzuki Ecstar rider knows though, that with less than half a second separating the top 11 riders in qualifying, he cannot afford to slip-up if he wants to claim his first MotoGP podium: “The level is very high, you can’t make a mistake in any session. For example I’m P2 now but I was not able to be in the top ten in the morning. Everything is really tight.”

Of course, all this conjecture could be meaningless if the race is affected by the weather as it so often is at the legendary Dutch circuit, but even if the rain does arrive we should be in for one hell of a 26-lap race come 2pm on Saturday.

Check out the MotoGP™ qualifying report, and the full results.

MotoGP, 2015, MOTUL TT ASSEN, Q2, Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi, Aleix Espargaro, Movistar Yamaha MotoGP, Repsol Honda Team, Team SUZUKI ECSTAR

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