The first sign of trouble was anything but subtle. A strip of rubber peeled off the left side of the rear Michelin on Valentino Rossi's Yamaha late in the Red Bull USGP. On the predominantly left-handed Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca circuit, the loss of left-side traction meant lap times would soar. Adding to his tire woes was a failure in his Yamaha M1's cooling system that led to the 990cc engine losing power and spewing clouds of smoke from its exhaust. Eventually, Rossi began a gradual retreat from a threatening third place to his retirement from the race less than two laps from the end. Up to that point, Rossi's season had already gone up in smoke, his worst ever year in Grand Prix racing seeming never to end.
"The situation is very difficult, and today could not have been worse," he said after the race was over. "All weekend we've struggled, and we didn't find the right way to go with the setting of the bike. In the race I started to lose all grip when the problem with the tire began, and then when I slowed, the problem with the cooling system arrived, so that was it. I saw the smoke and I knew I had to stop."
Rossi began his summer break in an uncharacteristic fourth place, 51 points down from Nicky Hayden, with Dani Pedrosa and Marco Melandri in between. In his tenure of four MotoGP world championships, along with one 250cc and one 125cc title, he'd never been that far down in the standings that late in the season.
"I don't know what to say about the championship, to be honest; we only have six races left, which is maybe not enough to make up the difference, but anyway, I want to try to have some fun and win as much as possible."
The deficit Rossi found himself in at Laguna Seca wasn't entirely his fault. He'd been knocked down by Toni Elias in the first corner of the first race of the season in Jerez, Spain. He'd had a front tire fail in China, something Michelin couldn't remember ever seeing before. An engine expired in France, while he was leading on lap 21 of 28. At the Dutch TT in Assen, he suffered hairline fractures to his right wrist and left ankle, along with contusions on his chest and right elbow in a nasty practice spill; nonetheless, he managed to finish eighth and salvage some points. Following Assen came a second place in Donington and a win in Germany, his fourth of the year to Hayden's one. Yet despite Hayden's second victory in Monterey, Laguna Seca reversed Rossi's momentum in a strange way. And he found it liberating.
"I think I am happy because from now to the end, for the first time, I don't race with the pressure of the championship, because with a 51-point gap it is very difficult," related the Italian. How could the previously omnipotent Rossi find himself in this position?
Jeremy Burgess, Rossi's crew chief, is widely regarded as the most successful premier-class crew chief of all time, with 11 world titles to his credit through three different riders. Burgess stated the team had had "great success in all of our testing, but then some quite serious problems raised their heads in Jerez," at a preseason test. "And these problems had to be solved from perhaps the lead rider down." The issue was with the chassis, specifically the front end. The '06 M1 chassis had the engine moved farther back, with the bike having a more centralized overall mass. The result was front-end chatter that became magnified with qualifying tires.
"We were pretty much on top of everything going through the...preseason testing; we were not at all in any sort of [trouble]," Burgess recalled. "We had a minimal amount of chattering [during testing] in Qatar and also Malaysia. But nothing that gave me or Yamaha any areas of major concern. That was then, of course. In hindsight, we might say, 'Shit, perhaps if we'd have been more aware.'" After thousands of kilometers of testing on three continents, why did the problem show up at the Jerez season opener?
"Good question. I have no idea," Burgess answered. "If I knew, I would certainly be more aware with experience that what's good in Malaysia may not be good in Jerez. It's one of those things [where we felt that] if it's not broke, don't try to fix it. Perhaps this is something we should learn from."
"It's two different problems," Rossi said after qualifying sixth in the second race of the year in Qatar. "Now we need to find which problem gives the chatter. We need to understand why every problem we have with our bike arrives the chattering. Extra grip and more corner speed equals vibration. Tire grip goes down and more sliding with less weight on the front vibration. Two different things, but at the end it's the same problem."
Yet Rossi surprisingly ended up winning the race. "I start with the chattering, and when I start to slide the chattering disappear and I was able to win. With the qualification tire, disaster, disaster," he said.
Despite that victory, "We sort of struggled early in the season with Valentino up until Le Mans," remembered Burgess, when Yamaha delivered a revised chassis in France. The frame was similar to the '05 model and meant to cure the chattering. Burgess also pointed out that the newest-generation Michelin tires didn't suit the Yamaha. This is something of a seasonal occurrence; in 2004, the Honda riders complained that Michelin's new front tire upset the handling of the RC211V while favoring the Yamaha.
"The combination of our chassis problems-we couldn't get the best out of the Michelin tires, of course, because we had issues," Burgess said. "And when you're trying to change them to help you...in the end, actually we were just working against each other, in a sense."
Rossi suffered a DNF in France when his M1's engine expired, but he rebounded from that catastrophe to win three of the next five races. Then came the Laguna Seca DNF. The final six races would be a second season, a chance at redemption.
"Yes, it's true," Rossi said of the time after the USGP. "When you start after a lot of victories and a lot of titles in a row, is possible have some period not at the maximum. And when you don't have the period at the maximum, arrive also the unlucky. This period came for a lot of different factors, starting from the chattering at the beginning of the season. In Laguna, we touch the bottom with a very bad weekend, not just the race. Where we always fight with the bike, but we never understand why. But from that moment I think everybody focus better. This black period is just for two or three days. After I come back and I say, 'Anyway, we have a lot of races and is not impossible.'"
Even though Rossi was 51 points behind, he was still the rider Hayden feared most. "I've seen how much fight he's got and grit and how much he hates losing. I knew he was going to answer the bell and do something," Hayden said. "I've said I always thought Rossi was going to be bigger over 17 races. Even when he was that far behind, I knew he would be."
The summer break following Laguna was crucial. It gave Yamaha time to regroup, to find a solution to the chattering problem. When they showed up in Brno to begin the final stretch of six races, Hayden saw a different rider.
"Definitely after the summer break, he was a lot stronger," Hayden recalled. "And also once they got the bike working on qualifying tires, it made him even stronger. Give Yamaha some credit. They didn't pack it in and start working on the 800. They didn't take summer holidays. They stayed and worked. Give credit where credit's due. They did a lot of work to come back and make it hard on us."
Working in concert with Yamaha was Michelin. Stung by the early-season criticism and facing an increasingly serious assault by Bridgestone, the company rebounded. "Brno was a big, big step," Rossi said.
A test at Brno following the GP continued on the team's earlier progress. The team concentrated on rear grip and stability, and tested yet more new Michelins.
With the end of the season fast approaching, Rossi had to amass as many points as possible and hope for the opposite from Hayden. There were others between them, but Hayden was the most consistent.
Rossi believes that Pedrosa has more potential than Hayden, but that Hayden is the better rider at the moment. "In 17 races, I think Nicky is better. And Nicky's more versatile. Pedrosa is-if it's all perfect, it's all OK, he's very fast. But Nicky [has] more experience, and is also more able to use the bike with more problems." And he didn't see Hayden folding under the pressure of leading the world championship. "When I speak with him or when I saw him in track, he don't feel a lot the pressure."
Hayden and Rossi respect each other. It dates back to their days as teammates in the 2003 season. Rossi campaigned for Hayden to join him at Yamaha in 2007, a move Hayden considered with mixed emotions. "It made me nervous that these guys wanted me to come down there," Hayden said. "I guess, you know, it's like you keep your friends close and your enemies closer."
There was another change in Rossi this year that didn't go unnoticed. He was spotted jogging on the racetrack late into the evening. Never a formidable physical specimen, the slender Italian has always maintained a deceptive level of fitness.
"This year I train more, especially I run more than the past," he said. "I always make training, but not a lot of running. This year I am already 27 years old, so I need more breathing, and also now when I am at home I have some friend that come with me. When you never run, is a big problem. When you start is like a passion. After you go more and more."
When the lights went out to start the race in Valencia, the final race of the year, Rossi held an eight-point lead. But something didn't feel right in the first few laps. He was slower than the satellite Honda of Casey Stoner on the straight and had to push hard to keep up in the infield. The result was the same as Laguna Seca; the bike began to overheat. Rossi crashed by himself in Turn 2 on lap five, a slip seen as rarely as Halley's Comet. He remounted, but was riding a damaged motorcycle and was too far down the field to get to a point where Hayden would have to worry.
"You're never going to win a race from giving away 24, 25 seconds," Burgess said. "The competition is so strong. If you're going to claw your way back, history has shown us that even a Valentino Rossi, as we saw again in the Jerez race, is only going to get you back into the last three or four positions. End of story. The race was over once he fell off."
Rossi wanted to win the championship because it was the last for the 990cc MotoGP weapons. He'd won the last 500cc title and all four previous MotoGP crowns. Only 27, the Italian from the small town of Urbino is fast approaching records that no one thought would be broken. With 10 more premier class wins he'll equal the 68 held by the legendary Giacomo Agostini. Ago's last win came as a 34-year-old in the final race of the 1976 season.
"Yes, for sure, first I race just for my personal fun and for my personal satisfaction, because this is the thing that I like and I have a lot of fun," he said. "But when you start to come close to Agostini, Angel Nieto, Michael Doohan, this type of names, you start to look also at the records. Is not the main reason for sure. But become always more important."
As for not winning the '06 championship, he put it in perspective. "For me, I don't have to win. I won a lot, I am seven-time world champion. I am 27; if I don't win this year, I try another time next year."
Rossi and Burgess on 2007
Valentino Rossi isn't looking forward to the 800cc era. Pushed through by Honda in a failed attempt to cut speeds, the 800s were breaking lap records in end-of-season testing while still in the very early stages of development.
"I think the lap time is, I think from the beginning is very close, but unfortunately for the rider is a lot, lot worse, because a lot more spin, a lot more control in acceleration with the throttle, especially in the first year, I think," he says. "Maybe after the power come back more or less at the same level. But when you take out 50 horsepower, it's like the bike is broken."
Rossi isn't sure that Dani Pedrosa's light weight will be an advantage. Certainly it will help with tire life. "He put less pressure, so he have better tire at the end. But sometimes is also the opposite." And it won't help the diminutive Spaniard in wet conditions, where he already struggles. "So we need to understand. I think, anyway, the level of the riders don't change a lot between 1000 and 800. I mean, Pedrosa is fast with this and he's fast with the 800, and the same for Hayden and for Capirossi."
Crew chief Jeremy Burgess doesn't see the rider's weight as that large a factor. Suited up and ready to race, Rossi weighs about 165 pounds, according to Burgess. He thinks Hayden is similar. But Hayden believes he needs to lose weight to be competitive with his much lighter teammate Pedrosa.
"If I was Nicky," says Burgess, "I wouldn't be focusing too much on that. I'd be focusing on if you start to lose too much of your own physical body mass, you start to make your life pretty miserable. I'd rather see Nicky concentrate on not shredding kilograms here and there, but actually focusing on beating his teammate. And not only his teammate, but everybody else. I don't think a kilogram here or there is going to save him. Otherwise, I could be world champion if it's all down to shedding weight.
"At that level, if Nicky feels he's got a few kilos he could lose, well good on him, let's lose them and still get on with the job. I think he's got good people around him; I think he's got a good trainer. I don't think he'll have any problems at all in that respect."
Burgess says that they're starting "with a clean sheet of paper, and we're all aiming for the same thing. We're very keen to correct the deficit.
"I think if you average out the points versus wins over the last 10 years and you look at the graph, you'll see that the Mick Doohan and the Valentino Rossi era is very strong, and then you have these glitches of Alex [Criville] and Kenny [Roberts] Jr. and also Nicky now. When you divide maximum points by races, there's some serious anomalies in the actual graph. I'd like to put that graph back where it should be and see the guy that wins five or six races be the world champion.
"In no way am I taking anything away from any of those riders on their way through, because they have scored better than anybody else in the season. From the purist point of view, I feel we've let the sport down, not us personally, but the rest of us. We need to push that average as high as we can. You need to finish first or second or first, first, first, first to be the genuine champion. That's pretty much how Honda drilled it into me over the years."