Kenny Roberts Junior brings an interesting perspective to the rupture between Valentino Rossi and Ducati after the Qatar Grand Prix. Roberts, scion to the most famous roadracing family in America won the world championship in 2000 while riding the Suzuki RGv500. The rider who finished second in the championship the season Roberts won his world title? Valentino Rossi. Who won the world championship in 2001, the season following Roberts Junior's title? Valentino Rossi.
Kenny Roberts Junior is retired from Grand Prix racing and has no desire to have any serious involvement with the sport today. He retired healthy and spends most days with his wife and kids, playing golf or on the water. That doesn't mean he ignores Grand Prix; he still keeps an eye on it. He sees a lot of parallels between Valentino Rossi's current situation and what he experienced at the Suzuki GP team.
"It is a similar mental situation to what I was in with Suzuki," Roberts Junior said this week. "I think where Valentino is right now is that he is coming to terms with not being competitive, and beyond that, coming to terms with not even being close to the front."
After his championship season in 2000, Roberts Junior struggled with a Suzuki that was not competitive with the other Grand Prix machines week in and week out. He later had a career resurgence when his father put a Honda V5 engine in a Team Roberts chassis, but the difficult days of the Suzuki team post championship is clear in Roberts' memory.
"I was always telling them as early as the 1999 season, that Suzuki were not going to stay competitive if they didn't make major improvements," he says. "I knew what type of horsepower and electronics Team Roberts had in the early 90s. I was competitive, winning races and telling them we have to get better. They hadn't seen success since Kevin (Schwantz), and compliancy set in and we were done. Once we lost touch we never had a chance."
|"I think where Valentino is right now is that he is coming to terms with not being competitive, and beyond that, coming to terms with not even being close to the front."|
-- Roberts Junior
"I think in Valentino's mind he's probably thinking to himself, 'Look, I've won titles, I've won races. I've done all this and if I were riding a Yamaha or a Honda right now I'd be right there.' I think overwhelmingly we all believe that. When you've achieved something, people know what you are capable of. Rossi probably feels that it's not really his job to race for fifth or tenth place. Ducati didn't hire him to race for those positions either."
"When the results suffer, then you have to really think about what is going on."
The romantic answer is to over-ride the bike, uncork the talent and make up the performance deficit with a heavy dose of swashbuckling riding.
Roberts politely doesn't laugh at this suggestion.
"Talent can't over-ride all problems, okay? Especially since the 500 era ended; that's not possible," he says. "He's looking at it like, okay, I can ride this thing at 110% and then what, finish fifth? And riding at 110% on a bike that is not sorted or is not even close carries with it a lot of risk for the rider. The risk of falling when you're making up for major shortcomings is probably close to 100%. My success rate when I pushed the bike past its limits in 1999-2001 ... well, lets just say eighty percent of the time I was picking myself up off the ground, angry."
Roberts Junior continues, "It's the same as it was with me and John Hopkins (Roberts' teammate at Suzuki). I can remember telling John Hopkins, 'Dude you're gonna hurt yourself pushing past the limit that much.' John would push past the limit of the bike for a lap or two to try and get a good time, but a lot of times when he did that he didn't come back to the garage. He was in an ambulance. And sometimes when he did eventually come back, he'd have broken bones and have crashed so hard that his teeth were chipped or loose from the impact. I saw that and said to myself, 'Look, I want to play sports when I'm done here. I want everything on my body to work. I want to be able to play with my kids when I am older. If Suzuki could get me a bike that was capable of winning races, then I'd worry about beating John. Until then ..."
"I did really feel bad for him (Hopkins)," says Roberts, "I know he was young and was always trying to make a good impression, but the limits he was pushing, were high risk and little reward, in the big picture."
Furthermore, it goes without saying that Roberts Junior essentially grew up with Wayne Rainey as his father's protege. "Wayne's injury, for me, changed everything," he says.
Moreover, the Californian is sympathetic to the plight and role of Ducati in what is largely becoming known as "this Rossi mess".
"For Ducati this is creeping into worst case scenario. They bet a lot on this, pulled their team from World Superbike, pulled all of those resources to give Valentino everything they could. The results aren't there yet." he says.
"It's a hard task now for Valentino," Roberts says solemnly.
But what about Rossi? Riders remember seasons in a completely different manner than anyone else. Not in terms of factual events, who won the championship is an indisputable fact, of course, but in terms of the back-story. For Roberts Junior, who raced against Rossi for years, doesn't just see Rossi's ascent as a man who mastered the Honda 500, then the RC211V, then turned water into wine with the Yamaha M1.
Roberts begins, "Look, Valentino has a load of talent and he's earned everything that he's won. He probably even has as much talent as my dad," he says, laughing.
"But the thing that many don't seem to recognize is that along with amazing talent, Valentino has had just a an exceptional gift when it comes to being on the right bike at the right time. Think about it: when we were on 500s we had the 17 inch tire. That tire was kind of the equalizer to a degree, and with it, I won the world title, that's a big part of why Suzuki was competitive. Then, they change to a 16.5 tire and importance of horsepower goes way up, because the contact patch is basically doubled. Just in time for that, Rossi is on the Honda, has it figured out and has Jeremy Burgess. Honda has the bike, crew, tires, etc. The championship is his."
"Then, he is with Honda when the move to four strokes and MotoGP is made. It's (the RC211V). Honda again has the bike, crew, tires, etc. He wins."
Roberts continues, "Then he goes to Yamaha. Okay, nobody remembers this, but, who rode the Yamaha the season before Rossi? Alex Barros. Remember they gave Barros an RC212V at the end of 2002 and he won three of the last four races on it. So he was very good. And Barros told Yamaha in 2003, 'Hey, you have no torque here. What you need is more power and a flatter torque curve so it has a wider powerband'. And so, when they go to build the new engine configuration, they make it with more torque, change the firing order, a wider powerband and more power. Valentino rode the bike at Malaysia and it was a lot better. So, Rossi, with a lot of effort from Yamaha and himself, gets on the Yamaha and wins the world championship. And at the same time, when he got off the Honda, Michelin had brought in a new tire, which on the Honda created a lot of chatter. Honda didn't use that new Michelin, which hurt them. Yet Yamaha didn't have that chatter problem with the new Michelin. Valentino and Burgess got that new Michelin to work on the Yamaha."
"Yamaha did a lot of the same things resource wise for Valentino that Ducati has done for him."
"I don't take anything away from Valentino Rossi, at all," Roberts says. "He's talented. He's amazing. Now he is fighting a lot of gremlins on and off the bike. He's fighting, struggling, in probably four of eight areas that you need to win races. He's fighting feel, electronics and speed and more. Racing right now is just no fun. Life for him right now is probably no fun, but at the same time, that's what racing is normally like. You don't have the perfect bike every season. If you see it once in your career you're lucky."