MotoGP

MotoGP Preview of the Valencia GP: The Last Chance, And The Fondest of Farewells

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It is a strange weekend, the last race of the season. For all intents and purposes the season is already over, the championship is done, officially in MotoGP and Moto3, and as good as in Moto2 – Raul Fernandez can’t afford to throw in the towel, but he has to win the race, and the chances of Remy Gardner finishing lower than 13th are pretty small. But not zero, of course, which is why they will line up on Sunday.

The constructors’ championship was settled at Portimão last week, and the odds of Fabio Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli outscoring Pecco Bagnaia and Jack Miller by a combined 28 points on Sunday is pretty low (but again, not zero), which will hand the team title to the factory Ducati Lenovo squad.

So why are we bothering to race at Valencia? Well, apart from the contractual obligation – Dorna has promised TV broadcasters 18 races, Valencia has a contract to host a grand prix, and sponsors have backed teams on the basis of a full season, not knocking off early just because the title is wrapped up.


Why Are We Here?

It would make sense to move straight to testing, but even that has changed. This year sees the introduction of a change that was proposed for the 2020 season, before Covid-19 uprooted, well, everything.

Instead of the grind of two days’ testing on the Tuesday and Wednesday after Valencia, the paddock ups sticks and migrates south to Jerez for a test on Thursday and Friday.

That is the point where 2022 begins. And in contrast to previous years, as least there’s a few days off in between.

What makes this weekend even stranger is because it is a time for farewells. Three characters who have defined grand prix motorcycle racing, each in very different ways, will be competing in their final race on Sunday.

Valentino Rossi’s final farewell has been broadly trailed and widely covered, and Rossi’s stature as the most important figure in motorcycle racing in history is well established.

Danilo Petrucci was an unlikely grand prix winner and factory rider, given his physical size and stature, but he also brought a humanity and openness and succeeded against all odds.

And Tom Lüthi ends his career in Moto2, where for many years he was the gatekeeper, the measure of success for those who sought passage to the premier class. But more of that later.


Momentum

First, what are we doing here? The short answer is getting ready for 2022. Those who have had success through this year are hoping to carry it on to next year.

Those who have had a rough year, or a rough few races, are hoping to turn it around to start next season with some momentum. It is about finding the right trajectory.

Take Alex Rins. The Suzuki Ecstar rider came into 2021 as one of the title favorites. But that quickly evaporated in a series of crashes.

“This season can be the hardest season in my career, for all the crashes, all the ups and downs we had, so can be one of the toughest seasons of my life,” Rins said.

Four crashes in a row, from Portimão 1 to Mugello, scuppered any thought of the championship.

“It was a bit hard to accept. But we accepted it after the fourth consecutive crash. I mean, to be world champion you need to have a good regularity and for sure we need to improve this, because we still don’t have this regularity during the season. So if we can improve this for the next season, we will have the option.”

So although Rins was looking to Jerez, ending the season with a good result was important to get the right mindset.

“I’m thinking a lot about the Jerez test, but first there’s this race. So we need to keep focused all on this race,” the Suzuki Ecstar rider told us. The podium was the goal.

“Let’s try to finish on the podium, why not? Last year we finished first and second, and in the second race I finished fourth. So why not? For sure we will try, and let’s see if we get a good result, we will go to Jerez with much enthusiasm.”


Turning It Around

Brad Binder – seventh in the championship, but a rider who had hoped for so much more – took a similar tack.

“Obviously we are going to have a couple of very busy days in Jerez, but the main thing at the moment is we want to finish the year off strong,” the Red Bull KTM rider told us.

“We’ve had a couple of races now where we haven’t been as competitive as we wanted to be, for sure. We wanted to be fighting for podiums, but we’ve just been cracking the top ten, which is nowhere near where we want to be, and it’s not acceptable to be back there.”

“So hopefully this weekend we can buckle down, find a good feeling early on and from the layout and the way the things work here, I think we can do a strong job this weekend hopefully finish off the year on a high.”

It was all about carrying the right mental approach into the test, Binder told us. “I mean, at the end of the day, it’s the final race for us, the final one of the season, and there’s nothing worse than going into the off season feeling like you’ve had unfinished business.”

“So I really want to leave here on a high, feel strong, have a good race, and go to Jerez happy and get things hopefully looking good for the 2022 season.”

Everyone should get a fair crack at this weekend, at least. The weather is set fair – it has rained in the early evening the past couple of days, but the weather has been bright and sunny during the day, and is set to continue through the weekend, giving everyone plenty of track time.

Though Valencia is always tricky – Turn 4 is especially vicious, the first right hander for nearly half the track, with plenty of time for the heat to disappear from the right side of the tires – the bright sun and balmy temperatures should take the edge off the danger.

That should give even those with a poor record at the track – Pecco Bagnaia has been fearsome elsewhere, but Valencia has always been a bugbear for him – a chance to score a result they can use to build on to start 2022.


The Perfect Gentleman

And so to the goodbyes. Starting off with Tom Lüthi, the Swiss veteran of Moto2. Lüthi has amassed a grand total of 318 starts. That is the third highest total, behind Valentino Rossi and Andrea Dovizioso, and ahead of Loris Capirossi.

He was also a rider who was a candidate for the Moto2 title pretty much every year between 2010 and 2019. He finished runner up twice, in 2016 and 2017, third in 2019, and fourth another three years.

He also managed to win a 125cc title back in 2005. Johann Zarco, double Moto2 champion, called him “an example for me in this category”. It was Lüthi who Zarco had to beat in 2016 to take his second Moto2 crown.

What marked Lüthi out was the calmness he always exuded. He was kind, quiet, and always calm. He always had time for fans, and for journalists, even after a long press conference of facing stupid questions.

He was a true gentleman, and a fierce racer nonetheless. But always clean, always fair. He was a fine addition to the grid.


Giant Man, Giant Heart

As was Danilo Petrucci. The Italian had no business racing in MotoGP – too tall, too heavy, too broad across the shoulders – and yet he still managed to win two grand prix, and race for a factory team for two seasons.

He took a chance on the very worst bike on the grid – the Aprilia-powered Ioda CRT machine in 2012 and 2013 – after winning the Italian Superstock Championship, as well as the FIM Superstock 1000 Cup in 2011.

He did not really fit into MotoGP, in terms of physical dimensions. At 1.81m and 81kg, he was built more like a boxer or a rugby back than a motorcycle racer.

But he had a dream, and was prepared to work for it. He figured out how to make the bike go as fast as it would with him aboard it, and managed to rack up 10 podiums, including 2 wins with Ducati. He worked for opportunities, and took them when offered. He was the ultimate overachiever.

What helped was the fact that he had a natural, disarming charm. He is honest, open, funny, self deprecating. He knew he didn’t fit a MotoGP bike, but took that with good humor and just tried to ride along to see where he would end up.

Even in his darkest days, he still had a wry sense of humor. He knew he was lucky to be in MotoGP, and he made the most of it.


Ultimate Overachiever

He had high hopes. “Here in MotoGP my childhood dream was to win the world championship. Unfortunately I found big talents here on my way,” Petrucci told the press conference. “But then in 2019 we were fighting nearly all the races for the victory or for the podium.”

Victory at Mugello had been special, but so special he hadn’t really been able to process the tidal wave of emotion he faced.

“Maybe the best feeling was winning in Mugello, but the thing is I don’t really remember that feeling because the moment was too big.”

His second victory, at Le Mans in 2020 in the rain, felt sweeter, Petrucci explained. “Last year in Le Mans I enjoyed it a lot more.” 

“After winning the race in Italy there is always more expectation for Ducati, for everyone, but sincerely I really have few memories after the finish line. Winning again in Le Mans has been really much better. I really enjoyed what I did on the sports side, I mean.”

So Danilo Petrucci is off to race the Dakar Rally with KTM. He needs to learn quickly – he has to be ready in January, less than two months from now.

But he will approach it with the same determination, humor and open mind with which he took on MotoGP, and succeeded. He will be much missed in the paddock. He was the most human of riders, warm hearted, open, friendly. A good man.

And of course there is Valentino Rossi. What can you say about Rossi which has not already been said a million times before, and usually much better? Rossi is not just a giant of motorcycle racing, he is a giant of sports, of all kinds.


MotoGP is much, much bigger than it would have been if he had never raced a motorcycle – fans and journalists were telling him, “thanks for existing”. But thanks to Valentino Rossi, he leaves the sport in much better shape, and with a much healthier future than before he came.

It is not right to speak of the “Rossi Era”. The Rossi Era spans almost the entirety of his racing career, from when he first started winning in 125s through to perhaps 2019, the last time he was a serious contender for the title.

“Honestly, when I started watching MotoGP, it was the Valentino era. So I grew up seeing him as an idol,” Maverick Viñales said, summarizing the general consensus. Andrea Dovizioso, 9 years Viñales’ senior, was similar.

“I always follow him, he was my idol. Valentino for everybody, especially Italian riders, I was doing my first pocket bike championship, he was doing the last, so I knew him that year, and everybody followed him, because when you are doing pocket bike and a special rider wins and wins the title, makes crazy things, everybody loves that.”

To celebrate the retirement of Valentino Rossi (in truth, it is wrong to say he is retiring: he is ending his bike racing career, and starting his career racing GT3 cars), Dorna organized a display of the nine machines on which Rossi won his nine world titles, in 125, 250, 500, and MotoGP.

With those bikes come some memories of remarkable performances. Phillip Island in 2003, when he was handed a 10-second penalty and dropped his pace by 0.6 per lap to go on to win the race by over 5 seconds, including the penalty.

That was in the season that his worst result was a third place, and that only happened twice.


A Million Memories

Welkom 2004, his first race on the Yamaha, beating Max Biaggi on the bike he had left behind for Biaggi, the machine Rossi had won the 2003 title with at a canter.

Going on to win the title that year at the first attempt. Epic races in 2006 – Mugello, Sachsenring – but then going on to lose the title, at Valencia as it happens.

Laguna Seca 2008, a contest more like a knife fight than a motorcycle race, where Rossi had to find a way to stay ahead of Casey Stoner at all costs and not let the Australian get away.

The battle with Jorge Lorenzo, his young upstart teammate brought into to replace him, at Barcelona 2009. The wily win at Assen in 2015, when he beat Marc Marquez in the final chicane after Marquez had telegraphed his intentions all weekend long.

He had made his mark on others too. Maverick Viñales went a long way to explaining how Rossi succeeded, telling us the biggest lesson he had learned as Rossi’s teammate.

“The calm,” Viñales said. “How calm he is. It’s important. I was very explosive, and he was very calm. I learned to be quiet, this is the most important thing. I learned to be quiet and to talk a bit more on the track.”

Three weeks ago at Misano, Fabio Quartararo, the rider who had replaced Rossi in the Monster Energy Yamaha team, explained that this is what had won him the title, becoming more calm. Rossi’s lessons still stand.


Growing the Sport

But Rossi’s biggest impact has been on the scale of the sport, bringing in new fans. That was also his proudest achievement, the Italian told a special celebratory press conference.

“I think that the most positive thing is that in my career a lot a lot a lot of people start to follow MotoGP to follow my career from the beginning,” Rossi said.

“And the sport became bigger, become more famous, in Italy but all around the world. It’s good to understand that during my career I became something different. Something like an icon. And this is a great, great pleasure. Even if for a rider it’s always more important what happens on the track. The result and everything, but I think this is the best thing of my career.”

Valentino Rossi grew MotoGP to be a huge sport worldwide. But that success also prompted Dorna to make the changes necessary to keep it that way.

Knowing they could not rely on fans staying loyal once Rossi left if the processional racing of the 800cc MotoGP bikes continued, they took a series of steps to ensure a more level playing field, restoring the bikes to 1000cc, limiting the number of cylinders, restricting electronics, bringing in Michelin to replace Bridgestone with a brief to make the racing more exciting.

Rossi raised the sport to a new, higher level, and Dorna saw that if they didn’t fix the racing, the bottom would fall out of the market if he left.

Rossi kept racing for long enough for Dorna to have time to turn the sport around, and make it sustainable once he leaves.

The figure of Valentino Rossi will be hugely missed when he is gone. But MotoGP will continue, and will thrive. And Rossi played a massive, massive part in that.

Photo: Yamaha Racing

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