MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi arrived at last year's Valencia finale unsure if he would retire at the end of 2014. The Italian returns targeting a tenth world title next season.
Rossi has won two races this year and is fighting to defend second in the world championship from Yamaha team-mate Jorge Lorenzo. But Rossi is now the oldest rider in MotoGP, at 35, and last won a world title back in 2009. So why the optimism?
The answer is that Rossi is certain he can improve further in 2015, the second year of his partnership with new crew chief Silvano Galbusera.
“It was a very good season because I was able to improve my speed and results a lot compared to last year and that was a very important target for me. Because I had to decide whether to continue or stop racing,” said Rossi, who duly signed a new two-year contract and has the chance to equal his 2009 podium tally of 13 at Valencia on Sunday.
“I'm so happy and proud of the work especially because this year I enjoy a lot. I did a lot of very good races, very good battles. I was sure I could do a lot better than last year, but sincerely I didn't know how much.”
It is Rossi's confidence that next year will be even better that is fuelling his title hopes.
“Yes, I think that next year will be not impossible. This is the target,” he said, referring to a tenth world title. “I say that because we can improve from this year to next year.
“Already the work has started during this season. We demonstrated a good potential and I think next year I can improve. Especially my team and Silvano, with one year more experience, can improve. Because he knows MotoGP in a better way. He had no experience before this year.
“We can improve the way to work between us, because this was just the first season together. I know him better and he knows me a lot better. The way I want the bike. So we can do better.
“But at the same time it will be very, very hard,” Rossi warned. “First because I expect Jorge to be very strong from the beginning next year and especially Marc. We can't forget that he won 12 races this year, so ten more than me!
“He has a lot of points of advantage, so to try to fight for the championship with these two guys next year we will need to take another step. But for sure we will try.”
It was at Valencia last year that Rossi announced his decision to drop Jerry Burgess, at his side since his 2000 premier-class debut, in favour of Galbusera. Many labelled it as a desperate act by a fading champion, but The Doctor has proven them wrong.
“It was a very difficult decision, first of all for our personal relationship because we were together a long time,” Rossi said of the Burgess split. “It was a brave decision but I was quite sure. Especially because now the way to work in MotoGP is different, compared to the past.
“Now all the team and the engineers have to speak first with the rider, but afterwards spend a lot of time on the computer to analyse all the data about the behaviour of the bike. Then the modification to the setting is made from the feeling of the rider, but also what the telemetry says. For me this is the biggest difference this year.”
It is not just the engineering that is behind Rossi's revival, the #46 also feels he has raised his game to new heights. Is he riding better than ever?
“For me yes,” Rossi replied. “It is different, so it is difficult to say. But I work a lot this year on all the small details. Everything has changed. First of all my rivals have changed, they are younger and a lot stronger than in the past.
“I am older but I feel at 100 percent. The bikes, tyres, electronics and especially the way to ride the bike is a lot different compared to ten years ago. But I like a lot to improve and try to be part of the game.”
Rivals praise Rossi's comeback
Rossi's return to the front of MotoGP - following two disastrous seasons at Ducati, then a dubious Yamaha comeback - has been praised by his rivals.
“It is incredible,” said Honda's newly crowned double MotoGP champion Marc Marquez. “35 years old is one thing, but for me the most important is that after two years at Ducati not so good, then come back in Yamaha and struggle a little bit, but this year come back [to the front].
"It is important and shows how strong he is as a rider, because when you pass for three years without good results it's difficult to come back. He came back really strong and for example last time in Malaysia, with 35 degree heat, he was pushing me until the last three laps. I respect him a lot. I always say I would like to be like him in the future but it will be really difficult!
“I think the season from Valentino has a lot of unbelievable merits,” added team-mate Lorenzo. “After, as Marc said, three years not so good. Especially the two years at Ducati. Coming back so strong, improving his riding, working even more physically and also staying in the pit box and working a lot of hours to try to improve the setting on his bike.”
Last year Lorenzo eclipsed Rossi in the world championship standings, despite double mid-season collarbone surgery. It was the first time Rossi had even been beaten in the championship by a team-mate, aside from his leg-breaking 2010 accident.
“When you have a strong team-mate and he is faster than you it is very difficult to keep believing very strongly in yourself to try to beat this guy, no?” Lorenzo said. “Some riders in the past when the team-mate is very strong get worse and worse. Valentino did the opposite. He became better and better and now for me it is very difficult to beat him. I would like him to be a little less strong!”
For rookie Pol Espargaro, who has spent this season adjusting from Moto2 to MotoGP machinery at Tech 3 Yamaha, the stand-out aspect is how much things have changed in the last decade.
“The most difficult thing in MotoGP is changing the style in the way to ride the bike. It's really difficult if you see the races ten years ago, you see a completely different style, completely different engines and electronics systems,” Espargaro said. “Changing and adapting to the young style has to be really difficult. Just one guy did it, Valentino. Like Marc I want to be close to his results at 35! It would be great.”
At the opposite end of his career to Espargaro is Randy de Puniet, returning to MotoGP action as a wild-card for Suzuki this weekend.
“I was watching on TV all year and what Rossi did was incredible, honestly,” said the Frenchman. “I enjoyed a lot watching the races and all the riders here must respect this guy because he did an incredible career. It is not finished and he wants to fight to be world champion again next year.
“I'm not in the same situation, but I am only two years younger and I know what he felt with two or three difficult seasons and he still came back at the top level. That is why what he did is such a big, big thing.”