All last season, and for the first three races of 2012, when I’ve walked past the Ducati garage and looked in at Rossi’s side, watching for an interesting moment to photograph, I’ve seen pretty much the same thing, immensely talented people looking immensely frustrated. I stand there for a moment and think, I’ve already taken this photo, many times. When are things going to change in there?
Things changed this weekend at Le Mans. But after three MotoGP races in a row, I’d elected to be home for some family events instead of away at the French GP. From the perspective of getting different images of the Ducati box, this was bad timing. But in other ways, and not just family-related, it was good timing indeed, because I watched the MotoGP race with friends at the San Francisco Dainese Store, which was, as one might expect, full of Rossi fans. Being there was a bit like going back in time.
Many Rossi fans have been nearly beaten into submission by the Rossi-Ducati situation. So there were generally low expectations of Rossi’s 7th place spot on the grid, even though the race was wet. But a great start put him into 4th place ahead of the Tech 3 Yamahas on the first lap, and he worked his way up to third place shortly after. What was going on? Could it possibly last?
As he attacked Stoner, there were general murmurs of hope, but no one dared to get too excited, at least in any way observable to the others watching the D-Store’s huge bank of TVs. I, too, had the sense that it couldn’t last, and when, with 16 laps to go, Rossi lost two places in a few hundred yards to Crutchlow and Dovi, that change appeared to have been inevitable. It just seemed impossible for him to fight at the front, even in the rain.
But the wet track was magic, and the Rossi of old was freed by the rain, which muted the GP12’s problems and allowed Rossi to ride as he had for so many years in the past. Just as Rossi seemed to have settled into 5th, where he ‘belonged’ in these conditions, he fought back to pass Crutchlow, and then went right after Dovizioso. I was reminded of a line I’d heard in college that a grad student had muttered about Shakespeare; in spite of how many people there are who say how great he is, he really is pretty good.
As Valentino fought for that podium position, the excitement in the store grew ever louder, and we seemed as a group to be experiencing a reminder of why this guy with the yellow 46 was known as Rossi. In spite of all the Rossi fans saying how great he is, when circumstances allow him to show the talent that won nine world titles, there it is, plain as day.
Now the Rossi haters out there are already thinking of rebuttals to this opinion, that he isn’t great enough to tame the bike that Stoner could win on, that he only won all of those races because he was on the best bike at the time, that he had nothing for Lorenzo on race day at Le Mans, even in the wet, and so on. All of that may be true. I’m not a Rossi fan boy so I won’t argue against any of it. But I do recognize a truly great racer, which Rossi certainly is. And it was fantastic to share his return to the podium with a group who had been waiting so long to see that very thing. It was great to see a performance which flew in the face of criticism that he has lost his fighting spirit or the will to win.
Sadly, unless it rains until Valencia, as Rossi has joked about wishing for, we’re still unlikely to see him show these qualities as frequently as we’d like. The GP12 remains a troubled machine in the dry, with Rossi unwilling to take the risks on every corner of every lap as Stoner was. But for those fantastic rainy laps in France, it was great to see the old Rossi back at the front once more, and really good to share that experience with friends in a warm, comfortable space rather than slogging around in the mud, cold and miserable, and wondering what was happening on the other side of the track. Then again, the photos from France probably would’ve been worth it.