By Stephen English

Valentino Rossi has spoken at length about his upcoming return to Yamaha and also about his failure to be competitive during his time with Ducati.

For the first time in his 16 year career the Italian has been unable to compete at the front of the field and the strain of being in the midfield has been clear throughout his tenure with Ducati.

At most races Rossi has looked like an imposter on the track and has lacked his trademark spark in the paddock.

The nine times world champion still routinely makes jokes during his interviews and gives a cheeky smile while waiting on the grid before a race, but his inability to perform aboard the Ducati has clearly made him rethink his standing amongst his rivals.

It is amazing to think that the rider who has been called the greatest of all time and who dominated the premier-class for the better part of a decade has lost his spark and self-confidence.

Yet in numerous interviews throughout the season this has clearly been the case.

Rossi is now looking forward to returning to Yamaha and attempting to rekindle the spark of their previous partnership, when they won 46 races and four titles together, whilst at the same time admitting he is unsure of his speed.

His autobiography was famously called "What if I never tried it," but he is openly questioning whether he can still do it.

Two years ago the paddock was thrilled by the prospect of Rossi riding the blood red Ducati. However their relationship was uneasy from the start with Rossi struggling during the Valencia test the day after finishing on the podium in what looked like being his final ride for Yamaha.

"I was never fast with that bike from the first test to now," said Rossi. "Unfortunately together with Ducati we were not able to improve the bike and to fix the problem that the bike have."

Clash of philosophies
When Rossi joined Ducati the Desmosedici used a carbon-fibre chassis with the engine as a stressed member, but this has now been dropped in favour of a traditional aluminum frame and unstressed engine.

The team has manufactured numerous swingarms - carbon fibre and aluminium - and changed the weight distribution to try and give a more responsive bike and allow Rossi to have increased confidence in the front end.

But nothing has been able to sort out the lack of front end 'feel' that has plagued Rossi, and to an extent Casey Stoner in his final seasons with the team.

Stoner's speed and success aboard the Ducati has been in marked contrast to Rossi's time with the team. But it should be remembered that following his title success in 2007, Stoner also suffered from the same lack of front end feel as Rossi and crashed in numerous races.

But when he stayed on the Australian was as fast as ever, winning 23 races for Ducati.

"I think what we did with Ducati was great, but it wasn't just me," commented the double world champion. "It was my team, my team-mates, everybody that's helped and actually put a lot of input in toward that bike. So it's disappointing to see the results they're getting at the moment, but I hope to see them bounce back soon."

Stoner has undoubtedly seen his reputation enhanced considerably by Rossi's failure to tame the Ducati.

The Australian has always been seen as a spectacularly fast rider, but in most quarters there was an expectation that Rossi would allow the Bologna manufacturer to finally produce a bike that could be ridden by a broad spectrum of riders.

Rossi never comfortable with Ducati
Speaking at Indianapolis last weekend, Rossi ruefully said, "I was never able to be fast with the Ducati, and this is a great, great pity, a very bad thing, especially for me and for my team."

It had been expected that Rossi, crew chief Jerry Burgess and their team of mechanics could repeat their feats at Yamaha, where they won the world title in Rossi's first year with a bike that had previously struggled to match the might of Honda and its all-conquering RC211V.

But that was in an era of unlimited testing, with a bike that already had a relatively rider-friendly chassis, while Masao Furusawa made big technical changes - most notably the 'big bang' engine - in time for Rossi's arrival.

This is not to downplay the role that Rossi and Burgess played in making Yamaha the force that they have become over the last eight years, but it should also be remembered that the M1 was a much more rounded motorcycle than the Ducati and as a result the ability to cure its woes was much easier.

Rossi's strength is his technical feedback and his relationship with Burgess was crucial in giving the correct feedback to Yamaha to find the final percentages and turn the M1 from a solid package into a world beater.

Rossi's strength is lost by handling problems
At Ducati, Rossi's problem has been understeer and a bike that wants to constantly push towards the outside of the circuit.

In the past Rossi's strength has been his late braking - just think of how rarely we saw him overtake another rider, then slide wide of the apex and allow his rival back past, but with the Ducati this trend has been reversed.

When Rossi has gone toe-to-toe with other riders we have seen him brake late and outmuscle his opponent only to slide wide of the apex and lose the position again.

Without the ability to brake late with confidence and turn into the corner Rossi has seen his key talents wasted. The only respite has been in wet weather.

In the rain the Ducati is transformed and the natural state of affairs is resumed with Rossi challenging at the front.

Self-doubt affecting Rossi
For Rossi the last two years have seen him begin to question his ability for the first time. He is unsure of himself and the confidence that marks any great champion has been lost. His return to Yamaha marks a turnaround in his fortunes, where Valentino needs to find out if he still has the speed and ability to race at the front.

Speaking about his future two-year deal with the Japanese manufacturer, it is clear that he cannot assume that he will be fast once he rides the M1 again:

"I want to remain more than two seasons in MotoGP, but it depends how much I'm strong and if I'm fast with the M1," said Rossi. "I hope to be faster, to be competitive, to enjoy and remain in MotoGP more than two seasons."

Over the course of the last two years while Rossi has seen his reputation as 'The Doctor' ruined by his failure to adapt to the Ducati, while his rival Stoner has been able to prove to everyone just how talented he is on the Honda.

Stoner remains the only Ducati rider to have won a dry race since the beginning of 2007.

Many riders have tried in vain to get competitive results for the team and with Rossi having been hired to cure the handling problems and make the bike an attractive satellite machine he has clearly failed.

Karel Abraham looks set to use a CRT bike rather than remain with Ducati next season and Pramac's poor financial standing means that it is also unlikely to lease a prototype next season.

The factory is also rumoured to have seen World Superbike riders refuse to ride the Panigale because it shares the same DNA as the MotoGP bike.

When asked about Rossi's failure with Ducati, Stoner was keen to point out that a rider has to be willing to adapt to the bike rather than try and change the bike to meet his demands:

"People have been saying for years one rider's style is similar to another rider's style and suit the Ducati," said the double champion. "I think it's nothing to do with style. It's pride, personally. However you think a bike should be ridden, you basically have to ride it how it wants to be ridden.

"You know, you can go to other manufacturers and say that's how I did it here and it worked, and why isn't it working there? But I think it's just about pride, and you need to give that up and ride it the way it needs to be."

Winning the most important thing for Rossi
Admitting failure in his attempts to solve the conundrum that is the Ducati handling problems was clearly a difficult decision for Rossi, but getting onto a competitive bike for the next two years motivated him to make the move and return to Yamaha.

At 33 years of age Rossi knows that his time is coming to an end at the pinnacle of the sport and while winning on the Ducati and proving he could win on another bike would have been the icing on a great career, Rossi clearly considers winning races and battling at the front as more important than adding to his legacy.

"I tried to choose the best bike for me for the next two seasons," commented Rossi, when asked for his reasons moving to Ducati. "I know that I can be stronger with the M1. I need a bike for enjoy. At this moment of my career I have to enjoy, I have to try to fight and to arrive happy at the racetrack."

But the challenge of returning to Yamaha after two years, when Jorge Lorenzo has cemented his position within the team, will be massive. Some of the best riders in history - Agostini and Lawson - have tried and failed to win titles again when returning to their former teams. Can Rossi once again be the exception?

After his struggles at Ducati nothing can be taken for granted, but his speed in the rain has also allowed us to see that his ability has not diminished.

Yamaha battle will be fascinating

The intra team battle with Lorenzo at Yamaha previously was a major headache for the team, with Rossi refusing to allow his Spanish team-mate access to his data and a wall famously having been placed between both sides of the garage.

This time around it seems that Yamaha will enforce a much better working relationship between both riders, with Lorenzo having been keen to point out that he had been involved in the discussions on whether to hire Rossi and that he welcomes the Italian back to the team.

"I never cared about my team-mate," said Lorenzo. "For me it is a pleasure to be again with Valentino, two more years with the same bike. So for me, everything is positive."

Rossi is also saying all the right things about his future teammate: "In the last seasons, Jorge has become stronger than when I was with him in Yamaha. And he rides the M1 at an incredible level without [making] any mistakes."

One of the sticking points for Rossi's negotiations with Yamaha was whether he would have the opportunity to bring his entourage with him. When he left Ducati he brought with him somewhere in region of 15 people ranging from engineers to hospitality staff.

For his return to Yamaha it has been widely reported that Rossi will be limited to just his team of mechanics.

"I think my crew comes with me," said Rossi. "More or less the same guys that come with me from Yamaha to Ducati. But is still not decided 100 percent. I think we have to fix some of the ties."

With Lorenzo currently leading the 2012 championship, Rossi will start as the unofficial number two rider at Yamaha. Yamaha has however admitted that while Lorenzo is their primary rider they will offer equal equipment to both.

For now, Rossi is simply looking forward to rekindling his relationship with the YZR-M1.

"I know that Yamaha will give to me the right bike, the right material," said Rossi. "You know, being with Jorge at this moment when he rides very strong and fantastic way, the M1 is difficult. But, you know, I have to try the bike at the end of the season, try to understand the growing up and try to understand if I can be fast like in the past."

The countdown is already beginning for Rossi, who will start his final race for Ducati at Valencia on November 11.

It had been said that winning on the Ducati would be the biggest challenge of Rossi's career, but climbing back to the top with Yamaha is also a challenge fraught with risk.



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