For the legions of Valentino Rossi (Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP) fans, it has been a worrying start to 2019. Not since the dark years at Ducati has the illustrious Italian struggled through the first nine races of a premier class campaign, with his comments in Germany expressing confusion.
It was from the French Grand Prix in 2018 when the Italian started regularly outclassing factory stablemates Maverick Viñales and Johann Zarco. From there he picked up four podiums and cemented his second place in the title race.
This year the contrast has been profound. After his usual low-key preseason, Rossi sprang into life at Round 1, finishing 0.5s off race winner Dovizioso in Qatar and taking back-to-back second places in Argentina and Austin.
But from there he’s been far from his best. Race performances at Jerez and Le Mans were undermined by poor qualifying performances. Mugello and Assen – so often happy hunting grounds in the past, producing a combined total of 19 Rossi wins – were unmitigated disasters, with the nine-time World Champion unable to find comfort aboard Yamaha’s ’19 M1, especially in those tracks’ fast, flowing sections.
Only Barcelona offered up some light. Yet even there his race lasted less than two laps thanks to Jorge Lorenzo’s (Repsol Honda Team) Turn 10 crash.
What’s more perplexing was the speed of team-mate Viñales and rookie sensation Fabio Quartararo from the Italian Grand Prix. The former racked up Yamaha’s first win at Assen before adding a convincing second place in Germany. Meanwhile the latter has been a constant threat in free practice, amassing two podiums and three pole positions.
Yet Rossi’s early season promise has fizzled out. He was a full 20 seconds slower than his 2018 race time at the Sachsenring as he struggled to a distant eighth place behind rookie Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar).
“It looks like the bike needs a different setting compared to last year,” he said after the race in Germany. “But for me and also for Franco [Morbidelli – Petronas SRT Yamaha] it's more difficult to use this type of setting, that is more where Maverick and Quartararo are very strong.”
Despite his age, Rossi was insistent the issue is not at his end. “We need to find a way, we need to find our bike. Because if today I am as fast as last year, but I only arrived eighth because the other guys make a step and they are 20 seconds faster, you say ‘maybe it's over, it's difficult’. But I'm 20 seconds slower than me last year, not 5 years ago. And I feel good. I feel concentrated. I feel motivated, but I don't have the touch with the bike.”
“But we don't give up, because it's true that I'm old for sure, but the problem is last year I was already old, also 5 years ago I was already old. But last year is only 12 months and sincerely I don't feel in my mind that I give up, or that I'm not concentrating, or I don't have enough motivation to arrive at the race weekend.”
There have been few updates from Yamaha through the year. Rossi had a new exhaust at the Catalan GP, an attempt to limit the M1’s top speed advantage that he felt didn’t make a great deal of difference. But there are positives ahead: at the Brno test he can expect to sample Yamaha’s 2020 M1 for the first time. The Czech track plus England’s Silverstone have always been kind to the bikes from the Iwata factory.
Rossi will be hopeful those changes can catapult him back toward the front as he seeks to end a winless drought that stretches more than two years.