MotoGP / Motorsport

Mama Mia! It’s a dream team

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At the Indianapolis MotoGP in 2009, the younger Lorenzo won the race ahead of Rossi, who failed to make a finish

Yamaha might consider hiring crowd management specialists among others going into the first race of the 2013 MotoGP season. They need to, as the area around the Yamaha Factory Racing team garage could get crowded by religious fans and zealous photographers, all trying to get up, close and hopefully, personal, with the “dream team” in MotoGP—the great Valentino Rossi and the champion Jorge Lorenzo are riding for the Japanese manufacturer this year. But the “dream” could turn into a nightmare for Yamaha, who had a torrid time keeping both the riders happy in the garage the last time
they rode together.

As of now, the big bikes are getting tuned and primed; the teams have concluded the last of the official tests before the start of the 2013 season. Lorenzo and his Spanish rivals, Repsol Honda’s Dani Pedrosa and rookie Marc Márquez, dominated the pre-season time charts, and a duel to the wire between the three Spaniards and an Italian looks likely, even though, for argument’s sake, we can say the times logged in the pre-season tests are not true indicators of how the year will progress.

Seven-time world champion Rossi and defending champion Lorenzo were apparently “exchanging notes” during the test sessions at Sepang in Malaysia, and the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Texas, to get their bikes right up there on the front row in the first race of the year—the Grand Prix of Qatar at Losail International Circuit on April 7. They are “a team” now, and are, as Lorenzo puts it, “working together to give Yamaha the winning edge”.

The edge… Is it to power the 25-year-old Spaniard to another world title, the third of his career? Or will it be Rossi’s year? Or will the two use “the edge” to cut each other’s title chances down, letting Pedrosa and Márquez, the 2012 Moto2 champion, or even the likes of Cal Crutchlow of the Monster Yamaha team, call the shots.

Lorenzo is confident, much like any defending champion is expected to be.

“I’m feeling very positive about the 2013 season,” said Lorenzo. “I feel very strong on the bike, which is actually better than last year. I think the arrival of Valentino is good and we have a very strong team now. We have a great chance to be world champions again. The tests, especially (the last three days, Feb. 26-28) in Sepang, have been positive for us. We tried many things and some of them were good. We were able to improve a little bit. I also felt strong physically and mentally, and the riding was also good.”

Rossi, on the other hand, was happy that he was on a bike he is comfortable with. The Italian believes the good old days will be back this year.

“I am very happy to be back in the family,” said the 34-year-old who had won four of his seven MotoGP titles with Yamaha. “I cannot wait for another opportunity to ride the M1. I think the Yamaha Factory Team will be very strong this year with Jorge and myself riding. My last Grand Prix victory was in 2010 (with Yamaha). So my first goal is to come back onto the podium as soon as possible, and to try and win a race.”

So Rossi is hungrier for success, more  than he has ever been and understandably so. The Italian, after two years of obscurity at the middle of the grid on a Ducati, is keen to prove a point or two to his detractors who believe he is on the downhill stretch of his career now. Meanwhile, Lorenzo is out to seal his credentials as one of the “greats” in the sport, and another title won’t do him any harm in that process. The stage is set for an epic battle within the Yamaha ranks itself and the script looks explosive. Wonder how Lin Jarvis, the managing director of Yamaha Racing, and Wilco Zeelenberg, the manager of Yamaha Factory Racing, hope to manage the two superstars, who are not exactly the best of friends.

Rossi ended his two-year stint at Ducati last year, a team he had gone to in search of a “bigger challenge” after his four-title record-breaking run with Yamaha ended with a loss to teammate—Lorenzo—in 2010.  The other reason, probably the real one, was that the young Lorenzo, in the three years from his debut in 2008, had taken over the role of the lead rider in the team. Rossi left… To prove a point, no doubt.

But Ducati turned out to be too much for even “The Doctor”, the bike lacking the grunt to challenge the Hondas and the Yamahas. The now-retired Casey Stoner, Pedrosa and Lorenzo became the big boys while Rossi struggled to make even it to the top ten. A divorce was imminent. But no one would have guessed the Italian would again return to Yamaha and that, too, as a teammate to Lorenzo, considering their rather chequered history of rivalry on track, which has also taken on ugly proportions off it.

Lorenzo, the kid, made his MotoGP debut for Yamaha in 2008, after winning the 250cc championship twice (2006 and 2007), carrying with him a reputation for being a fierce competitor on track. As a 20-year-old, he was entering the realms of Rossi, the undisputed king of MotoGP, as the Italian’s teammate. The Spaniard was not keen to play second fiddle, and made his mark with a second-place finish in the opening race in Qatar. A podium finish followed in Spain and then he claimed his first MotoGP victory, at the Portuguese GP in Estoril. Lorenzo then had his famous run of crashes and injuries that effectively ended his title bids in 2008 and 2009 (he finished fourth and second in the championship). Rossi was crowned champion on both occasions but the young Lorenzo had shown his pace and, more importantly, had proved that he was a quick learner. In 2010, helped a little by Rossi being sidelined for three races due to a broken leg, Lorenzo marched onto his first title. That victory, and the incidents that led to it, heralded Rossi’s exit from Yamaha, a team he had help mould into the competitive unit it is now.MOTO-IDN-YAMAHA

Both riders were known not to give an edge to the other on track during those days. In 2010, when Lorenzo was in a direct dash with Pedrosa for the title during the second part of the season, Rossi made a couple of high-risk overtaking moves on his teammate, which almost took out Lorenzo. The most famous of those incidents happened at Motegi during the 2010 Japanese Grand Prix, when Rossi bumped his bike into Lorenzo’s a few times, before overtaking for a third-place finish. The Spaniard was left fuming after the race and was very vocal in expressing his disappointment at how Rossi almost jeopardised his championship challenge. For Rossi, probably, he was just retaliating to a duel from the previous season when Lorenzo had challenged him at the Catalan Grand Prix. At that time, Rossi was the championship leader and Lorenzo, who was second behind him, was trying to cut into a big deficit. But teammates are supposed to help each other’s title bids, especially if one of them emerges a clear leader in the standings. Instead, a famous dogfight played out in the final three laps of the race, when Rossi and Lorenzo exchanged leads after high-risk moves, which could have seen either of them, or both, crash out. Eventually, Rossi overtook Lorenzo in the second-last corner of the final lap in an impossible move to seal the victory, much to the relief of the members of the Yamaha team management, who were all glued to the garage monitors, wondering what their riders were up to.

Such tense, what-the-hell-are-they-up-to looks are likely to return to the Yamaha garage this year, especially since Rossi has expressed his intention to get back to winning ways, and Lorenzo is intent on continuing his victory runs. This might indeed turn out to be the Ayrton Senna-Alain Prost saga of MotoGP. Senna and Prost’s time together at McLaren in the 1988–89 season did bring out the best in both the drivers, but more importantly, it brought out the worst as well.

Everyone at Yamaha management would be keeping their fingers crossed.

And in between this likely internal strife and conflict of interest, Yamaha also has the significant business of beating the Hondas of Pedrosa and Márquez. Lorenzo is expecting a stiff challenge from Márquez, the 20-year-old rookie, just like he is wary of the challenge Pedrosa and Rossi would pose.

“The reality is that it’s between four favourites for the title and it looks very equal,” said Lorenzo. “We’re all on a similar level, so it’s going to be a hard season for all of the top riders in the class. The six days at Sepang, Dani (Pedrosa) and I were the top two riders. At the same time, Márquez and Valentino were both really, really close.” But the tests were held on just three tracks (Sepang, COTA and Jerez) and “so we’ll have to see what happens on circuits with different characteristics, because each track is a whole different world”.

Márquez, who won the 2010 125cc crown and the 2012 Moto2 title, could surprise the seasoned pros this year. He is in the same shoes as Lorenzo was when he debuted in MotoGP. Márquez was fastest during the test sessions at COTA on April 12 and 13, showing signs that he has got the hang of the powerful RC213V, the 1000cc four-stroke, liquid cooled, DOHC four-valve Honda machine. It is just a matter of keeping it all together during races, while sticking to his natural and aggressive style of riding. Besides, Márquez and his Repsol Honda management won’t have the added variables the Yamaha crew will have to deal with on the other side of the fence.

In the Yamaha garage, there is a question of team synergy, which could give the Japanese management, generally particular about such factors, a lot more sleepless nights than it would have bargained for.

Rossi and Lorenzo have matured, no doubt. But will that maturity be enough to curb the race instincts they both possess, the basic thing that makes them the best in the world. One thing is for sure… We couldn’t afford to even blink on race days once the 2013 MotoGP season starts, with a bang in
all likelihood.

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