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An awful lot has happened in the year since the now infamous tussle of Termas de Rio Hondo between Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez…
With 21 years of experience reporting on MotoGP™, Matthew Birt knows the championship inside-out. For the 2016 season he remains with the motogp.com team to bring you exclusive news and opinion from inside the paddock.
I’m not going to dwell on their collision that was the trigger to turning their convivial relationship into a toxic one consumed by malice, resentment and loathing.
I’m more interested in the present and the challenge these two face to put the animosity behind them to find a way to stop Jorge Lorenzo from successfully defending the MotoGP™ title for the first time in his career.
It can’t be said that both men arrive in South America at the top of their game. Rossi hasn’t won in any of the last seven races and perhaps slightly more worrying is it is just over nine months since his last dry race win in Assen.
Of the last seven races, Rossi has missed the podium in four. Granted, one of those near misses was the result of his back of the grid penalty in Valencia. But the stats are a slight cause for concern when you look back to the start of 2015 when he went on a stunning run of 12 successive podium finishes.
Rossi won in brilliant fashion in Qatar last year but that race has already been and gone without a podium finish. And while it is still very early in a very long World Championship, missing the podium in Argentina, where he won in 2015, will start to raise questions about his title credentials.
Now please don’t think this is me already writing Rossi off before we’ve even embarked on the pivotal European phase of the Championship.
He is without doubt still one of the fastest riders out there and it is hard to put into words my admiration for what he has done in the past and what he is still doing in the present. And having already committed himself to Yamaha for 2017 and 2018 to race not far shy of his 40th birthday, that’s a level of commitment, desire and motivation that mere mortals like me simply can’t relate to.
But ponder for a second a similar result to Qatar occurring this weekend. That would mean Lorenzo being 24-points clear of Rossi after two races. After two races last year, Rossi was 15 clear of Lorenzo and it took the Spaniard right down to the last lap of the season to overturn the deficit and capture his third premier class title.
My point is that Rossi will need to up his recent podium average pretty quickly to not get cut adrift too soon.
And what of Marquez? One win in the last six is hardly a major crisis but it is another stat that the Spaniard knows will need rectifying quickly.
Key to his hopes will be Honda’s work on getting its aggressive RC213V motor to work in unison with the new unified software.
During the recent Qatar pre-season test Marquez said the bike was a disaster.
It took Honda six days on track in Qatar to find a solution and Marquez salvaged third spot.
But he didn’t get close to laying a glove on Lorenzo and this weekend in Argentina there is no luxury of so much advanced track time to iron out the bugs and fine-tune a set-up.
Old data is almost worthless with variables like new Michelin tyres and the unified software sending the paddock on something of a journey into the unknown in Argentina.
It’s not only about how fast you are on track, but how fast you can find that all-important confidence-inspiring set-up with your crew that will be essential this weekend.
I saw Marc’s crew chief Santi Hernandez in the immigration queue back at Heathrow Airport after the flight home from Doha and he said that third felt like a win.
At the test they’d contemplated the unthinkable of not even being in the top six when the serious business started. The relief was palpable but tempered with the admission that more difficult days lie ahead. And the next big question mark is posed by Termas’s fast and technical layout.
Hopefully Andrea Iannone is back in the hunt. Four non-finishes in the last five have stalled his impressive progress since becoming a factory Ducati rider. While the jubilation at Andrea Dovizioso’s second behind Lorenzo in Qatar was tinged with some disappointment that a first victory in the Gigi Dall’Igna era is still eluding the Bologna factory. Team boss Davide Tardozzi was heard after the Qatar race saying ‘we must win’. His frustration at not winning seemed to overtake the emotion of yet another close second.
Casey Stoner’s last Ducati win at Phillip Island back in 2010 is hanging over Dall’Igna and the entire factory like a millstone.
You can almost smell the pressure to win after missing out on that target of winning at least one race during 2015.
I still believe it will take the signing of Lorenzo or Marquez, or the sensational return of Stoner, for Ducati to win on a regular basis and battle for the Championship.
One thing for sure is the Termas de Rio Hondo track has thrown up some unpredictable and dramatic racing since MotoGP™’s first visit in 2014.
In the last two races, six different riders have finished on the podium.
So come on Maverick Vinales, Aleix Espargaro, Bradley Smith, Scott Redding and Pol Espargaro, let’s try and keep that record going,
Sorry, no pressure guys!
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