The question above is becoming more and more inconvenient if you are either a Valentino Rossi fan or an Italian motorsport journalist. When Valentino Rossi went to Ducati amid the celebratory sounds of bugles and the blaring of klaxons it was thought that Italy’s favourite son was going to decimate opposition on an Italian motorcycle icon. Then the first test after the last round of the 2010 championship happened. Rossi went very slowly on the Ducati to finish 15th on the timing sheets, as good as slowest and last. Casey Stoner who got off the Ducati and hopped on to a Honda went fastest, straight out of the box, exactly like he did in 2007 when against all expectations he went super fast on the Ducati and took victory in the first race and finally the championship itself. In that process he made Valentino Rossi look very ordinary and that ruffled Rossi so much that he threatened to quit Yamaha if Masao Furusawa did not take greater interest in matters. He also asked for Bridgestone tyres which Stoner was using and got his way. In the process Michelin was so demoralized that after a couple of years they quit MotoGP.
The devotion that Yamaha showed to Rossi and the hard work that Rossi and Jeremy Burgess his crew chief meant that the following year Rossi could wrest the initiative back from Stoner and went on to claim the championship in 2008 and 2009. Even while Rossi was winning championships a threat to his supremacy was brewing across the Yamaha pit garage on the other side of the wall. Jorge Lorenzo, young, ruthless and ambitious (some would also say disgusting but that is another story) was making his intentions of wanting to be MotoGP world champion very clear and that meant that he would not play second fiddle to Rossi. Rossi and Burgess were insisting at every possible juncture that Lorenzo was reaping the fruits of the plants whose seeds were sowed and nurtured by Rossi.
Meanwhile at Ducati things were not exactly quiet. Two things were happening there. One was that Casey Stoner’s victories were becoming more sporadic and he was crashing a lot more just like when he started racing in MotoGP on a 990cc Honda (with LCR). But he was still winning and finishing on the podium quite regularly. The second thing was that Loris Capirossi was out of Ducati after being Stoner’s teammate for a year. Loris Capirossi won the odd race but his record on the Ducati of whatever cubic capacity was no match for what Stoner had done in 2007. So Loris Capirossi leaves Ducati to go to a non performing Suzuki team where he continued a few more barren years in MotoGP. Loris Capirossi was replaced by another Italian Marco Melandri. Marco Melandri appeared pathetic on the Ducati with just one decent top five finish in China but otherwise ending up at the tail end of the field, much like Toni Elias this year. Melandri was so embarrassed by his non-performance that he hung his head in shame and voluntarily left Ducati and was replaced by Nicky Hayden.
Nicky Hayden was the world champion in 2006 on the 990cc Honda, though many would argue that he became one only because of the lack of reliability of the Yamaha. Whatever maybe the case, Hayden was a world champion. When Nicky Hayden was announced as Melandri’s replacement there was a lot of talk about how Hayden’s style was more like Stoner’s and how they would make a super duper team. Unfortunately for Hayden no such thing happened, even though it must be said that he managed to acquit himself a little better than Melandri had. But on the whole he too was spectacular in not getting to grips with the Ducati. By the time Hayden had gone to Ducati in Melandri’s place, one big change took place technologically on the Ducati Desmosedici. Till 2008 Ducati had raced a motorcycle with a conventional frame, but unlike the Japanese motorcycles which used an aluminium twin spar or Delta box frame, Ducati was using a steel trellis frame.
For a moment just let us get a wee bit technical here. We Indians have grown on antediluvian motorcycles of capacities of 250cc or 350cc or on 100cc pocket rockets such as the RX 100 from Yamaha and to some extent the KB100 and KB125 two stroke motorcycles from Kawasaki-Bajaj. The antediluvian motorcycles such as the Yezdi and the Enfield Bullet had handling characters that could make Tata and Leyland trucks feel like they were Formula1 cars. But the Japanese motorcycles handled quite well and one of the key reasons for that was a frame that was flex free. Flex free frames are rigid and actually give confidence to the rider but only if they are tiddlers like the Indo-Jap 100cc bikes. But bigger bikes that put out 150 bhp to 200 bhp would spit the riders off if they were completely rigid. Enter Japanese ingenuity. Instead of using steel for the frame the Japanese started using aluminium that is more friendly to building flex at the right places so that the rider is not thrown of the bike. Over a period of time the Japanese had perfected the art of building Delta box aluminium frames that could be tuned as per the necessities of the riders and their different styles.
Ducati’s steel trellis frame was trying to do what the Delta box frame was trying to do i.e build flex to make the motorcycle handle better. The philosophy of the trellis frame is that it is built in a way where the vertical steel pieces are welded at different angles to build flex and this is actually imprecise. Filippo Preziosi the builder of the Desmosedici believes that it was the trellis frame that was ultimately the undoing of Melandri. He therefore experimented with carbon fibre and built a monocoque chassis of sorts wherein the engine was used as a stressed member. Preziosi argued that carbon fibre lent itself to dialling in flex the best from all available methods. He was actually trying to overcome the problems of the trellis frame without doing what the Japanese were doing for that would only give them an advantage.
So when Rossi sat on the Ducati for the first time he was sitting on a motorcycle of this variety that found limited success in Stoner’s hands. In fact, when an even firing order was used in the Ducati engine (screamer engine) and when this was mated to the monocoque it seemed to give Stoner better feed back than it was doing when Ducati shifted to the uneven firing order or Big Bang or growler engine and mated it to the monocoque. Stoner only won three GPs and all of them after the Motorland Aragon GP (including it). When Rossi rode this motorcycle to 15th on the timing sheets, most people thought it was just a small thing. Rossi too simply said that the “Ducati should be ridden differently, in a more dirty sort of way”. Then the 2011 season began and Rossi has looked far from being a winner. His detractors were overjoyed and one among them was Casey Stoner. Stoner had been vexed by criticisms by Rossi fans and their booing every time he won a race. He was also put off by the sympathy that journalists had for Rossi.
Rossi is not only a very skillful rider but one who knows how to keep journalists happy. He could hold press conferences where he would pull a chair and sit in their midst and with great charm and grace field their questions. He knew most by name and made it a point to use their names while answering questions. The same journalists fraternity has now started defending Rossi. They say that Rossi looks ill at ease with the Ducati and after months of investigation have declared that it is the bike that is a dud and not the rider. It also helps immensely that Loris Capirossi who returned to the Ducati fold found himself more on the asphalt than on the bike as did his teammate at Pramac Ducati, Randy De Puniet. Nicky Hayden too has not been going very well and so the popular verdict was that it is the bike and not the rider. Stoner however has been queering the pitch by questioning Rossi’s inability to ride the bike even after truck loads of Marlboro and Ducati money are being thrown. Those questions have become very inconvenient with all of Rossi’s experiments with the Ducati in terms of various designs of chassis and different materials being used, all leading to no improvement of any kind.
So is Stoner the better rider? In the face of the overwhelming evidence that is available to us today, the answer has to a yes, however inconvenient that maybe to the Rossi fan. Italian journalists are at a wit’s end to deny this. If you deny then you vilify an Italian marque’s motorcycle and if you don’t then you damn an Italian great who is a nine times world champion, seven of those in the premier class and five in the four stroke class and four on the Yamaha to make it the most successful marque in the 800cc era. Rossi humbled the might of Honda and resurrected Yamaha by making it rise from the ashes. Dani Pedrosa, Andrea Dovizioso, Marco Simoncelli and before them Nicky Hayden could not bring the world championship in the 800cc era to Honda. That may well have been the case this year too if it wasn’t for Casey Stoner who is riding the wheels of the RC212V and looks certain to take his second world championship and the first for Honda in the final year of the 800cc era. This at a time when Rossi is languishing at the back of the field and generally making up the numbers. So it does appear as if Stoner is a better rider especially since both he and Rossi rode the same bike from last year and where Stoner won and Rossi looked like anything but a winner. But then life’s mysteries are seldom so easy to resolve. So let us consider a few things.
When Casey Stoner jumped on to the Ducati in 2007 he was all of 21 yrs old and eager to prove his mettle as a rider. He was fearless and took risks to establish himself. Remember he won the championship on a trellis framed bike. Rossi got on to the Ducati when he was 31 years old. It is well known that advancing age makes people more aware of their mortality and therefore fewer risks are taken. Rossi also went as one of the greatest champions of all time. So the determination to explore the outer limits of a bike could be missing. In fact, the ego of the nine time world champion must have felt that it was up to Ducati to give him a winning bike and not up to him to make the bike win. He also thinks he is this great development rider and so has taken on the onerous responsibility to developing the Ducati into a rider friendly bike. In doing so he has found that he is just a rider and Ducati did not have the wherewithal to build an aluminium space frame or delta box. So everyone is struggling. Perhaps what Guy Coulon of Tech3 had to say when it comes to riders is very important here. Coulon is the person who designs the Moto2 frames for Tech3 apart from being Colin Edwards’ crew chief. In an interview with David Emmett a renowned journalist when questioned about the lack of innovation in frames, Coulon said that innovation in MotoGP is limited by the fact that rider’s want what they are used to. He believed that conventional delta boxes delivered a certain kind of feedback that a rider to could process but if the nature of the feedback changed then the rider does not know how to process it. That is perhaps where the answer to Rossi’s problems lies. After years of riding Japanese machinery and with advancing age Rossi could be finding it difficult to process the information that he needs to. A younger, eager and needing to prove himself Stoner had perhaps been able to do that. No wonder then that Preziosi said that he would once like to have Stoner ride the Ducati to see where they really are. Good thought but in the complex world of MotoGP contracts that is never going to happen. And so we will never really know for sure as to who is better, Stoner or Rossi.