Friday Summary at Valencia: MotoGP Mind Games, Burgess’ Dignity, And Rossi’s Swansong

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MotoGP fans have been rubbing their hands in anticipation of this weekend’s final round of the championship. The race has everything: a mental Moto3 race to be decided outright by the rider who wins, with just five points separating Luis Salom, Maverick Viñales, and Alex Rins.

There is the triumphant homecoming for a newly crowned Moto2 champion, Pol Espargaro wearing a positively regal helmet to celebrate, while his title rival Scott Redding wears special leathers and helmet thanking the Marc VDS Racing team who have stood behind him for the past four seasons

And then there is the shootout for the MotoGP championship, between Jorge Lorenzo, a man with nothing to lose, and Marc Marquez, who has to balance between riding hard enough to keep the bike working properly and not taking any unnecessary risks, while ensuring he comes home in fourth, something which sounds easier than it is.

There were even a couple of sideshows: the presentation of the Honda RCV1000R production racer, and Yamaha’s annual technical presentation, in which they brief the media on how they have developed the bike to be so competitive.

All that is forgotten. Valentino Rossi’s shock announcement on Thursday that he had told long-term crew chief Jeremy Burgess that he wanted to replace him with someone else has dominated the headlines, as well as the hearts and minds of almost everyone in the paddock. In the search for the elusive last couple of tenths of a second which separate Rossi from the three Spanish superstars who have dominated the 2013 season, the Italian is leaving no stone unturned.

Even the most revered of institutions – Burgess is held in extremely high regard throughout the paddock, even by his fiercest rivals – are no longer sacred. Rossi still wants to win, and so far, he has failed. “We’ve been chasing rainbows for four years,” as Burgess so succinctly put it, but to no avail. “We haven’t nailed anything decent in those four years. These are long periods in racing and it becomes more and more difficult.”

Even Yamaha’s technical presentation has been canceled, adding yet more rain on what should have been a wonderful parade. The problem, a Yamaha spokesperson told me, is the seamless gearbox. As this was still in the middle of its development, Yamaha did not want to present any information which was still too recently changed, still too current, to be safely shared.

The technical geeks in the paddock – of which, you will be unsurprised to hear, there are many – wiped away many a tear at this news. The carefully prepared lines of question – in my own case, how Yamaha hoped to manage in 2014 with just 20 liters of fuel, and why the hell they had agreed to that in the first place – can now be crumpled up and filed in the circular archive.

Before we get to the Saga of Rossi and Burgess, which is too big a story to ignore, we owe it to the 2013 MotoGP World Champion, whoever that may turn out to be, to cover at least the highlights of the reason we are all gathered in Valencia. There are two championships still at stake, and the protagonists are taking it just as seriously as it deserves.

While Pol Espargaro appears to be treating the Moto2 round as a lap of honor, dominating the Friday practice sessions, the battle in both Moto3 and MotoGP is as tense as ever. Salom, Rins and Viñales were fastest in Moto3 by a comfortable margin, though little separated the three of them. Salom was fastest in the morning, while Rins took the honors in the afternoon, the pattern seemingly set for the weekend. The scene is set for a battle royal in Moto3, and the top trio are doing everything to live up to that expectation.

The picture in MotoGP is very similar, with nothing to choose between Marc Marquez, Dani Pedrosa, and Jorge Lorenzo. The two Hondas are ahead of the Yamaha, but that does not appear to mean much when you look at the analysis timesheets, with all three men looking capable of banging out long and consistent runs of laps in the 1’31.5.

From track side, you can see the vastly different styles between the two bikes. Lorenzo rides imperiously, nanometer perfect, no sign of motion or movement on the machine. Coming into turn 12, he flicks the bike right, then heels over for the long left of turn 13, before braking hard for turn 14 and then full on the gas onto the straight.

Though he must logically be performing all those actions, his movements are imperceptible from the side of the track. You see him slow the bike, and hear him crack the throttle early, but the bike never budges, neither braking nor acceleration visible.

The Hondas are almost the polar opposite, bucking and weaving while never looking totally out of control. There is little visible difference between Pedrosa and Marquez as they hammer the brakes for turn 12, fling the bike through turn 13, lighting up the rear as they go, before sitting up and banging on the brakes for the final corner, then firing out onto the straight.

Where the Yamaha is motionless, smooth, like a swan gliding through the water, the Honda bullies its way along like a pit bull, hard, aggressive, fierce, on edge, and always ready to snap. The engine notes of the bikes suit the riding styles, the low, lazy boom of the Yamaha sounding as if it is barely trying, while the Honda shrieks like a banshee preparing to eviscerate the unwary the first chance it gets.

Though times are close, the battle is still intense, early skirmishes taking place on the timesheets. Marquez walked away victorious on that score, topping both sessions on Friday. But Lorenzo has no intention of rolling over for his young rival, racking up the pressure with a few mind games. As he came up behind Marquez for a practice start at the end of the afternoon session, Lorenzo rolled up and just bumped the rear wheel of his rival’s Honda.

It was harmless, a friendly touch, but clearly meant to intimidate. Lorenzo dismissed the touch as “just a little joke,” but Marquez knew full well what Lorenzo’s intention was. “Jorge is trying to use his experience,” Marquez told reporters. “It’s normal they try to put some pressure on me.” It would not work, he reassured his listeners. If anything, it merely acted as a source of extra motivation.

That is almost certainly what Jorge Lorenzo intended. The more ‘motivation’ he can give Marquez, the more likely the youngster is to make a mistake. Each little confrontation is aimed at making Marquez even more determined to face Lorenzo down.

What Lorenzo must be hoping is that every added piece of motivation cranks the tension up just a little bit more, increasing the likelihood of an explosion. Lorenzo wants Marquez as tense as possible, in the hope that the youngster implodes under the pressure. Marquez is not there yet, but it is too early to say whether he will.

And so to the question of Jeremy Burgess. In response to the tidal wave of interview requests from journalists for a few minutes with the veteran Australian crew chief, Yamaha wisely decided instead to organize a joint press conference with both Valentino Rossi and his crew chief Burgess. It was a strange affair, uncomfortable, tense, emotional.

They fielded questions from journalists, the pair sitting hunched behind a table, yet it developed into an open, disarming, sometimes almost painfully honest affair. Both Rossi and Burgess were honest about their opinion of the matter, though both men trod carefully, unwilling to offend the other partner in a relationship which has lasted for 14 seasons. The atmosphere was an odd mix of mutual respect, desire to win, and brutal assessment of the predicament Rossi finds himself in.

Yet despite the difficult situation, the overwhelming sense was one of dignity, most especially for Burgess and the grace with which he handled himself. That same sense of grace shone through in Rossi’s answers too: this was not a decision he had wanted to make, but he had to try something to try to close the gap. With every other avenue exhausted, this was the only variable still open to him.

Did Jeremy Burgess feel it was a betrayal, being left in the lurch by Rossi? “No, not at all,” Burgess said. “This is a business world, people have to make decisions.” This was a double-edged sword. “We have year-long contracts, and we are at liberty to leave at any time,” Burgess said. Loyalty – even the kind of intense loyalty built up over the period of fourteen years – only goes so far in the paddock, something which both men knew and understood.

Burgess had not suspected anything, until he had been invited to Rossi’s motorhome. “Clearly, it blindsided me. I was not expecting it whatsoever but I knew yesterday when Valentino invited me into his trailer that we weren’t going in there to discuss my Christmas bonus.”

Despite the suddenness of Rossi’s announcement, Burgess completely understood why the Italian had made the decision he had. “I have read many sports biographies and in many cases, top sportsmen in the latter part of his career may have a change of caddy or change of coach. This is part of that fix, this is part of trying to get Valentino back on top, to extend his career and be competitive,” he said.

It had not changed his opinion of Rossi as a person, Burgess said. “There have been too many good times and Valentino has always been up front and honest about what he wants. So when he said to me yesterday that this is what he wanted, for me it’s more important that the future of Valentino is the priority going forward, and always has been the priority. To do anything to prevent that taking place is not really being helpful.”

Burgess gave his vision of the background to Rossi’s decision. “I think he can see on the racetrack exactly what’s going on, it’s a new group of people, and it’s going to become very difficult for anybody. Another year on and we often say that the preservation gene starts to kick in a little bit, and I think as you get older it may be more difficult to be at the cutting edge of Grand Prix racing.”

Rossi’s results had been frustrating for everyone, Burgess said. “Valentino this year, we’ve been in 4th position at almost every race. Unfortunately, many times closer to 5th and not closer to 3rd, and so this has been something that we have tried to correct. And we haven’t been able to do it. But I think with another year on the bike, Jorge on the other side of the garage on the same bike, these are things that Valentino’s been looking at all year. He has the product, he now has to basically make sure he can use it.”

Was it the right decision? “It’s always the right decision, because it’s a decision we need to make to change something to go forward in performance. We can only judge at some time in the future.” Burgess said.

“Whatever we’ve been doing, we haven’t reduced the gap enough. He knows what he has, he knows what his teammate has, so clearly, on that side of the garage is the marker, this is what he has to do. He’s very lucky in that sense, because he knows what is next door. He has to beat Lorenzo, and if he beats Lorenzo, he’s going to beat a lot of Hondas. If this reignites the spark which he finds within himself, then this will be a success.”

Burgess leaves with many good memories – which fortunately, are likely to end up in a book, he hinted – of success, rivalries, and fierce battles. He named Erv Kanemoto as his greatest rival, still grating at having fought fruitlessly for so many years against Wayne Rainey with Mick Doohan.

“Trying to beat Erv was always a battle,” Burgess admitted. “Probably the hardest part of my career was the battle with Mick Doohan against Wayne Rainey. Even now, as much as I see Wayne, I struggle to see him as a friend, I still see him as the enemy!” Burgess joked. “That’s a little bit cruel, but he beat us so badly for so long, that those were really tough times. There have been been terrific moments.”

Leaving Valentino Rossi’s side now was something he could live with. His success rate with Rossi was good. “14 years, 80 odd Grand Prix wins. That’s basically over five a year, so those figures are good,” Burgess said. “What we’ve done I think has been terrific. I’ve enjoyed every bit of it.”

Though Burgess was happy to retire, and had no immediate idea of seeking another role in the paddock, he still felt he would miss the people around him. “I think in life, everything’s about people. You meet people, you walk away from things and you’ll know one day in your mind, when I get on to the plane to go back to Australia, I may never see those people again. When you know that you’re coming back here next year, you don’t think like that. When I go out of here whenever it will be, it could be five years before I come back to Europe.”

The big question was, of course, why this news had emerged now, rather than later? Rossi’s answer was blunt: “Because some fucking journalist says it in the newspaper,” he joked.

Yet as soon as he had made his decision, he knew he had to tell Burgess as soon as possible. “In my mind I made the decision last week and I don’t want to stay the whole weekend with Jeremy working with him and knowing this inside of me without saying to him. I’m not able to joke like this. So I think that the first time I see him I have to tell him.”

That was exactly as Burgess wanted it, the Australian said. “I’d say that I would prefer it the way it happened. I think this is a far better way to do it rather than sign off on Sunday night and say, right, ciao, it’s all over. I’m more comfortable like this than I would have been had it been a Sunday night decision, which I think it was going to be at some stage.”

But why, after so many years, had Rossi decided to push Burgess aside and try to work with someone else? Because he had to be certain where the root of the problem lay, and as Burgess said, this was the simplest variable to control, removing one piece of the puzzle and replacing it with another.

It had nothing to do with the team, Rossi said. “I don’t have any particular issue, regrets or problem with the way to work of my team and especially of Jeremy. But I know that it is a key moment because I have in my mind that I want to try one time in another way and I think this is the moment.”

It is a statement of intent on the part of Rossi. “Now the level has been raised a lot by the top three and they are able to ride these bikes very fast. The lap time in each track improves a lot and it is a great challenge for me and I know it is difficult,” he said. Could he beat them, did he believe? “Yes!” came the emphatic reply. Yet there was also doubt. “Sincerely, I also want to wait for next year. In my mind I want to continue, but I will decide next year after the first races, depends also on the results.”

Taken together with Rossi’s decision to drop Burgess, that last statement looks like preparing the ground for retirement. There are are only three reasons why Rossi cannot challenge Marquez, Lorenzo, and Pedrosa: either the bike is not good enough, his team can’t set the bike up sufficiently well, or he has lost his edge.

With Lorenzo currently the rider with the most wins, and still in contention for the title, Rossi cannot reasonably blame the bike. That leaves only the setup or Rossi’s riding ability, and with just two variables, he has to explore the setup option first.

It is the job of a crew chief to give the rider the tools with which to finish the job, and so Rossi’s first option was to take Burgess out of the equation. If that fails, and Rossi’s results are the same with a new crew chief as they were with Burgess, the only explanation left is that the problem lies with Valentino Rossi himself.

Of the people I spoke to – journalists, crew chiefs, veterans, youngsters – nobody expected dropping Burgess would lead to better results. The overwhelming sense was one of shock, that Rossi would even consider this, though there was also understanding. When faced with any engineering problem, you work through the possible causes one by one, eliminating each one as you go.

After two years on the Ducati, Rossi switched back to the Yamaha, expecting to be in contention once again. While his results improved drastically, he was still finding it hard to keep up with the front runners.

Where on the Ducati he struggled to keep up with the second group, consisting of the satellite Hondas and Yamahas, now back on the Yamaha, he is having a hard time catching the first group, the leaders.

The bike has moved him from the second group to the first, and a new crew chief will either move him from behind the first group to the middle of the first group, or not. If a new crew chief doesn’t help, then there is only one conclusion left: at nearly 35 years of age, Valentino Rossi’s time at the top of Grand Prix racing is at an end.

Will he carry on in if that is the case? It seems unlikely. While there is still hope of improvement, Rossi is still motivated, and from standing watching him at track side, still riding just as hard as ever, and trying to emulate his teammate’s smoothness. But if he spends another year having to fight for fourth spot, then that will be too much to ask, and he is more likely to retire.

He is not an early retiree like Casey Stoner, but he will also not hang on well past his sell-by-date, as Loris Capirossi did. Rossi has business interests to earn him an income, and racing interests outside of his own riding career in helping develop and bring on young Italian riders.

If he decides to hang up his leathers for good, then he will still have plenty to do, and have an active role in motorcycle racing.

That leaves Dorna with one year to prepare. If Rossi does decide to retire – and frankly, I believe that his decision to drop Burgess is as clear an indication that he fears the end might be near as anything you could imagine short of turning up in a dressing gown and slippers – then Dorna will face the cold, harsh, empty reality of a series without their major draw.

Though Marc Marquez is being groomed as a possible replacement, the charming, funny and likeable Spaniard does not have either the wit nor the charisma of Valentino Rossi.

The retirement of Rossi will force Dorna’s hand, forcing them to finally make good on their threats of taking away the electronic playthings of the factories. The MotoGP series is primarily a form of entertainment, with audiences paying indirectly (through TV contracts) to see a show.

If the sport’s great natural showman is no longer pulling in the crowds, that means bringing back the spectacle in racing, which in turn means taking a lot of the electronic controls away.

In the long run, that will be for the good of the sport, but first, Dorna has to ensure Honda don’t walk away. Or rather, at least not until there are enough competitive, team-owned bikes in circulation that Honda’s threat to leave the series if spec software is imposed does not leave the series bereft of top equipment.

With the introduction of the RCV1000R, and despite their best efforts, Honda may just have given Dorna the biggest bargaining chip in the discussions which will start to take place next year. The future is uncertain, but it was ever thus.

Photo: © 2013 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.