It is ironic that the high point of the relationship between Valentino Rossi and Ducati came as he rode the first few meters out of pit lane and on to the track at the Valencia MotoGP test in November 2010. All of the excitement that had been building since the first rumors emerged in early June that the nine time world champion would be leaving Yamaha to join the iconic Italian manufacturer culminated as Rossi emerged from a crowd of photographers and powered down pit lane, watched by a large group of fans who had come to the test to see this very moment.
From that point on, it was all downhill. Within a few laps, it was clear that Rossi would struggle with this bike, and though everyone was putting a brave face on his performance, he left the test in 15th place, one-and-three-quarters of a second behind his ex-teammate Jorge Lorenzo, and 1.7 seconds behind Casey Stoner, the man whose bike he was now riding and who had left Ducati to join Honda. The contrast between the two could not be greater: where Stoner was bullying the Honda around as if he had been born on the RC212V, Rossi – handicapped in part by his still-injured shoulder – looked like a frightened rookie, thoroughly intimidated by the bike.
Rossi learned two important but disturbing things at that test: the first was that the Ducati was a much, much worse bike than he had expected. Stoner’s brilliance and the genius of his crew chief Cristian Gabbarini had flattered the machine, disguising its massive weakness. The second was that Casey Stoner had to be a much, much better rider than he thought if the Australian had managed to be competitive on the bike that had so shaken Rossi’s confidence. Throughout the year, as Rossi struggled, he was forced to answer the same question over and over again. Why could he, the man with nine world titles and widely regarded as one of the greatest racers of all time, not be competitive on the bike that Stoner had won three races on the previous season, and put on the podium at Valencia before handing it over to Rossi? “Casey rode this bike in a special way,” Rossi answered every time. “I cannot ride this bike like that.”
Understanding that Stoner could be so competitive on the Ducati must have been a blow to Rossi’s confidence and his self image. After their legendary and heart-stopping duel at Laguna Seca, Rossi had felt he had the measure of the Australian, beating Stoner more often than not and taking the 2008 and 2009 titles. Once he realized that throughout that period, Stoner had been bringing a knife to a gunfight and still regularly beating him – even after the introduction of the spec tire – Rossi must have asked questions of his own ability.