An ill-fated '06 season for...
An ill-fated '06 season for Rossi - A year he'd rather forget...
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.
Valentino Rossi's crew chief...
Valentino Rossi's crew chief Jeremy Burgess
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 front-end chattering problems...
The front-end chattering problems that surfaced at the opening round of the season bedeviled the Yamaha team.
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.