Having won nine world titles and a record 81 MotoGP races, does Valentino Rossi really care if he stays ahead of Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo for second place in this year's standings?
While Marc Marquez is already confirmed as champion, Rossi is tied with Pedrosa for the runner-up spot (ahead on podium count) with Jorge Lorenzo just three points behind, heading into this weekend's Australian Grand Prix.
For Rossi, the fight for second is a question of pride.
“[Fighting for second place] is for sure less exciting but, sincerely, this is a personal question more than about the second place. Because every Sunday is a fight with the other three,” Rossi explained.
“This year we were very close in a lot of occasions. It's true that Marc has won a lot of races and the championship, but we fight very much together. Also the gap at the end of the race is always very close, like last time in Japan.
“So it will be interesting because although it's just for second place. it is between me, Lorenzo and Pedrosa. So it is a good battle. It will be important to make three good races, arrive on the podium, try to win and especially try to finish in front of Jorge and Pedrosa.”
After winning the first ten races, Marquez has taken only one win from the following five, including mistakes at Misano and Aragon. If those mistakes had occurred earlier in the season, might it have made a difference to the championship?
“It never ends because also if I didn't crash in Aragon and I took 20 or 25 points, maybe the championship could stay open to the last race,” said Rossi. “We tried to beat Marquez at the beginning, but he was strong and raced very well and also the Honda was faster at the beginning. Now our bike is coming better, so we have to try to beat him in the remaining races.”
Rossi's Movistar Yamaha team-mate Lorenzo is MotoGP's man of the moment, overcoming a dismal start to the season to score more points than any other rider in the past seven rounds. That includes wins in the last two races.
“I always say that finishing second in MotoGP, the best and highest level championship in the world, is an unbelievable position,” Lorenzo said. “Obviously we are here to try and win - especially when you have been champion before - but if cannot win, second is the best you can get. Also if we can get second place it will be six years in a row that we've finished first or second in the championship. So this should be our goal.”
But Lorenzo played down the suggestion he is now the strongest of the trio battling for the runner-up spot.
“At this moment it is difficult to say. Every year is different. Last year I was very competitive here. Maybe tomorrow I am not. We need to wait and see how everything goes,” Lorenzo said. “Theoretically Phillip Island is better for our bike, Malaysia a little worse and Valencia so-so. But as the past demonstrates you have to always have a winning mentality, try to win at every track - as we did at Motegi, which is normally better for Honda.”
Repsol Honda star Pedrosa, team-mate to Marquez, is well aware that Lorenzo has pulled back 48 points since the Sachsenring.
“Lorenzo is now in very good shape. Since the summer break he has been second or first, so for sure he is very strong and has recovered a lot of points, also out of some mistakes by me and Valentino,” Pedrosa said on Thursday. “But three races remain and it's like a three round [series].”
Comparing the machinery, Pedrosa feels that alongside Lorenzo's return to form there has been a step forward by Yamaha.
“I think our bike is working quite well still, but obviously we can see that Yamaha has made some step,” Pedrosa said. “Not sure where and when. And now the races are - you can see Lorenzo is catching back his level and Valentino is still consistently on the podium. This makes clear that somewhere they did a small improvement.”
One area where Yamaha seems a lot closer to Honda is top speed.
“It's always a lot related to the acceleration than the top speed,” Pedrosa explained. “I think their traction is quite good which makes the bike more flying down the straight, which is affects the top speed. But I guess the biggest improvement is that even with the frozen engines they still have enough performance after many, many kilometres [of use].”
Pedrosa's Australian weekend got off to an unfortunate start when he toppled over during a pre-event ride in Melbourne.
“I don't have long enough legs to touch the ground with both at the same time, so I lost my balance,” he smiled. “It happens to me about 20 times a year - also practicing motocross, supermoto… I wasn't even moving. I was standing only. One time here at the start of the GP I almost fell, because the wind pushed me the way that I didn't have my foot on the floor and I almost lost my balance.”
The two riders most likely to influence the outcome of the second place battle are Marquez and Andrea Dovizioso, who took Ducati's first pole since 2010 last time at Motegi and has claimed two podiums this season.
“It will be very nice to see because all three are now at more or less the same level,” said fifth in the standings Dovizioso. “They all have a big chance. I believe Lorenzo and Valentino are really strong in this track, Dani in Malaysia and Valencia. So anything can happen.”
Newly crowned double champion Marquez stated: “I know they are fighting for second place, so the best way is to try to win the three races then I will not disturb their fight! But that will be difficult because they have a lot of motivation and are pushing a lot. Nobody wants to finish fourth so it will be a nice battle.”
And if Honda ask Marquez to help Pedrosa complete a perfect one-two for the team? “In Honda we don't have team orders [but] if they ask, we will consider."