What does Valentino Rossi look at while riding? He won't say. Shown here testing his new D
Why does Valentino Rossi always wear a dark face shield? According to him, it's so no one can see what he's doing with his eyes! Anyone can see his braking points, turn-in points, rate of lean, lean angle, brake release, on-gas, lines, body position, etc. We can also see his head position but we cannot see how, where, when or even what he is looking at. Is that his secret weapon?
Top racers of the past have been photo-graphed in action wearing a "1000-yard stare." For example, Mike "The Bike" Hailwood had an unshakeable calm about him. His easy regard for the unfolding action with face and mouth relaxed, just looking, stands in stark contrast to the often strained visages of today's riders when seen with clear face shields.
The real perceivable difference is not in their apparent stress levels, however, but in their degree of head rotation. In the evolution of body position, a rider's head position has followed suit. How early most of today's top riders pick up their exit reference points, witnessed by their helmet position, is a major factor. Compared to the '60s Hailwood/Agostini and even the '70s Sheene/Roberts eras, today's riders are not only lower on their bikes but also exhibit much greater head rotation-and it's much earlier in the turn. Looking over old photos, I believe it was Eddie Lawson, followed by other '80s Grand Prix riders, who noticeably exhibited this style.
Are the current MotoGP bikes so much faster through the bends that they require this new style? Whatever the technological improvements, the net reduction in lap times from 2002's 500s to today's 800s averages 3-5 seconds. But when comparing '60s riders with '10s riders, there is a definite case for it. A good '60s average speed at the Isle of Man TT was 100 mph ("Doing the Ton"), whereas today it's over 130 mph. That's a good case for the improved visual foreknowledge of turn entries, apex and exits afforded by this new style, and lends credibility to increased speed being a primary influence on head position.
But the biggest reason could simply be that all riders want to look the way winners do. History bears this out. If you don't think that top riders study each other, think again: Consider knee dragging, popularized by Kenny Roberts in the late '70s, or Rossi's current dangling leg while braking.
In working with racers in the early '90s, I made some interesting discoveries about body and head position. One was that some world-class riders didn't always have it right-and in some cases had it very wrong, and were missing out on the improvements afforded by assuming different positions on the bike.
One of the key elements of body position concerns visual perspective. It is easier to see where you are going when you are more upright on the bike, a la Schwantz/Spencer, compared to just barely peering over the top of your handlebars in the current Rossi/Lorenzo style.
Did the new-style body position bring about the new head position? Not necessarily. In our experience at school, it is difficult to re-orient riders to down-low positioning. A rider's physical limitations aside, the unfamiliar, closer-to-the-deck view can seem disorienting at first. I recall it took us eight days to sort out one accomplished young female racer with plenty of experience on this. In other words, if you don't "look MotoGP" right away simply because you decide to, be patient!
Good visual skills aren't easy to achieve. Our survival instincts restrain us from optimum usage of our eyes. Whatever Rossi is doing will remain his secret until he decides to spill the beans.