Trackside Tuesday: Growing Expectations

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Valentino Rossi’s amazing run of nine world titles was aided, in some part, by the level of those whom he had to fight for wins. With all credit given to Max Biaggi and Sete Gibernau, his two main rivals until the modern class of “aliens” arrived in MotoGP, neither of these two riders was on the same level as Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa, and Jorge Lorenzo.

My colleague David Emmett has commented several times that these three riders came up through their development years knowing that to win they would have to beat Rossi. They alone managed to elevate their skills to a level that could challenge him over the course of a season, where as Biaggi and Gibernau, as good as they were, could not manage the same growth as mature riders.

I’ve often considered how, to win as many titles as Rossi and Agostini have done, you need some help in the opponent department. Agostini benefitted from Mike Hailwood’s career choices and own bad luck when it came to finding a good fit on a competitive bike.

Rossi benefitted from arriving in MotoGP long before riders as good as Stoner, Lorenzo, and Pedrosa were around to fight him. If those three had been present in 2001 and riding at their full potential, it’s a safe bet Rossi would not have seven premier class titles in his pocket.

As Rossi remounts the Yamaha M1 and hopes to be able to fight again for wins, he doesn’t have Casey Stoner to worry about. But the latest star to rise in the era of Rossi-beaters may be here to take Stoner’s place in the form of Marc Marquez.

It seems unlikely that Marquez will ride the Repsol Honda as effectively in his first season as Stoner did in the past two, so Rossi may have one season in which Lorenzo and Pedrosa are his main problems. But we are about to be able to make a very interesting comparison between Jorge Lorenzo’s rookie season on a factory Yamaha and Marquez’s rookie season on a factory Honda.

Lorenzo’s 2008 debut was remarkable and Marquez will be hard pressed to duplicate the way Lorenzo began his rookie season (pole and second place in his first MotoGP race, third place (having started from 16th) in his second race, pole and the victory in his third race). But thanks to the Rookie Rule’s demise, he may be the next rookie to step right into the fight as Lorenzo did.

From trackside at the Valencia test, there was no evidence that Marquez will have any difficulty with the pressures of entering the top class on a factory bike. Earlier in the day, I watched Bradley Smith take his first laps on a MotoGP bike, and while he did admirably well on the Tech 3 Yamaha, his body position and aggression with the throttle were nothing like Marquez’s when the Spaniard later took to the track for the first time.

Marquez was out of shape often as he explored the differences between his Moto2 machine and the 2013 Honda. He looked utterly un-intimidated by the more powerful bike, unconcerned with anything but the question of how to make it do what he wanted around corners.

At the age of 19, he appears to have arrived finally at the level of competition he was born for and, more to the point, he knows it. That he will be quick in 2013 seems certain. Whether his on-track immaturity, impatience, and other instances of poor judgement that have plagued him in the past will disappear, is much less so.

For 2013 we can expect Lorenzo to be reliable and quick on the Yamaha. We can hope that Pedrosa carries his new-found confidence, speed and reliability into the new season. (If he’d found it before Honda’s Brno update, things might’ve turned out very differently for Lorenzo in 2012.)

But the main mysteries to unfold will be Rossi’s reunification with the Yamaha and Marquez’s arrival on the factory Honda. If only Casey had stayed another season, we might’ve had five riders who could win races for the first time in many years. Wouldn’t that have been a season to enjoy?

Scott Jones is a professional photographer who covers MotoGP and WSBK for racing industry clients as well as racing websites and publications in the U.S. and Europe. His online archive is available at Photo.GP, and you can find him on his blogTwitter, & Facebook.

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Photo: © 2012 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved