Can the Doctor Deliver for Ducati? | Checkers

In the red

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Gold & Goose

Though the hype surrounding Valentino Rossi’s decision to ride for Ducati suggests otherwise, this isn’t the first time a top-tier Italian racer has campaigned an Italian motorcycle. Just last year Max Biaggi became Italy’s first-ever World Superbike Champion, riding a red, white and green Aprilia. But Biaggi isn’t 15-time World Champion Giacomo Agostini, and Aprilia —the Toyota of Italy, some say —is hardly MV Agusta. It’s been since Ago’s glory days four decades ago that such an irresistible Italian love connection was made.

When reports of the Rossi/Ducati deal—racing’s worst-kept secret—first leaked last summer, no one was surprised. Not even a pit-box wall could contain the clash of egos that was Rossi’s relationship with teammate, chief rival and eventual 2010 MotoGP World Champion Jorge Lorenzo—especially after Yamaha reportedly asked Rossi to take an $8 million pay cut to help fund Lorenzo’s raise. The move to Ducati, fueled by what is said to be a $20 million deal funded by title sponsor Marlboro, was a foregone conclusion.

Italian hysterics aside, this alignment raised more questions than answers. Rossi is arguably the greatest motorcycle racer ever, with nine world championships and more premier-class wins (79) than anyone. But the once-unstoppable racer arrived in Bologna in the wake of his most disappointing season ever, the result of injuries that torpedoed his 2010 results. Rossi’s recovery from a broken tibia suffered in practice for the Italian Grand Prix at Mugello was nothing short of miraculous —he tested a Yamaha World Superbike just a month after the injury, and returned to the grid just 41 days later. But the shoulder he injured in an early season motocross accident was slower to heal, and the lacking strength and flexibility plagues him to this day. Turns out this racing deity is human after all...

Rossi’s physical problems were only exacerbated by the notoriously hard-to-handle Ducati GP11, a machine he described as wild and requiring a dirty riding style—a sharp contrast to the surgical precision that inspired his Doctor nickname. Nicky Hayden and Casey Stoner have had success on the Desmosedici—Stoner winning Ducati its first and only MotoGP title in ’07—but their results were frustratingly inconsistent, brought down (sometimes literally) by persistent problems with chatter and front-end grip. It’s hoped that Rossi and long-time crew chief Jeremy Burgess, regarded for their development skills that helped turn Yamaha’s YZR-M1 from an also-ran into a runaway champion in ’04, will revive the Ducati GP platform, STAT.

Initial results have been far from promising. Rossi’s first outing on the Desmosedici, during post-season testing at Valencia last November, left him down the timing sheets in 15th—nine spots behind teammate Hayden. The final 2011 pre-season test at Sepang showed little improvement. Rossi left there in 11th position, nearly 2 seconds off the lead pace of newly signed Repsol Honda rider Stoner and his teammate Dani Pedrosa.

The situation is no doubt frustrating, but Rossi remains circumspect. He is a masterful tactician, revered for skillful psychological warfare. Everything is calculated, tempting us to believe he emphasizes his challenges while downplaying his chances, hedging for a brilliant race debut at Qatar. But this is a man who isn’t accustomed to finishing off the podium; a bad day for him is second place. When he says he’s in troublefor the first time in his careeryou believe him.

Regardless, every Italian—and most of the rest of us, too—holds out hope that Rossi will add a 10th world title to his remarkable rsum, and a second MotoGP title for Ducati, too. It won’t be easy. It might not even be pretty. But Rossi has amazed us countless times before.

If not, there’s still that open seat at Ferrari’s Formula 1 program. We can’t imagine any of the tofosi would criticize that retirement plan...

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