Valentino Rossi may have taken his first Ducati podium last time out at Le Mans, but the MotoGP superstar is still fifth or sixth under normal circumstances.

That's the opinion of former 500cc title contender Randy Mamola, who pointed out that Rossi's third place in France - 14 seconds (0.5sec a lap) behind Honda race-winner Casey Stoner - was only possible because Marco Simoncelli and Dani Pedrosa clashed ahead of him.

"Rossi lucked into the position at Le Mans and Ducati are well aware of that. But in racing sometimes you get those gifts," 13-time 500cc race winner Mamola told "In reality, he is about fifth or sixth, when you look at the machinery and the riders ahead of him."

Considering Rossi finished his first test on a Ducati, at Valencia last November, in just 15th place, the Italian is clearly making progress.

There is plenty of work still ahead, but Mamola is enjoying the spectacle of Rossi fighting it out as an underdog - and seeing his increasing influence on the Desmosedici - although he questions whether attention should turn to next year's 1000cc bike.

"Rossi left Honda [at the end of 2003] and turned the Yamaha into a winning bike, then came to Ducati at the end of last year and went 'how can you ride this thing?'" said the American, illustrating the size of the task Rossi and his team have taken on.

"Vale is now trying to make the Ducati more than just a one-rider machine. It's good to see him battling hard in the pack and step-by-step getting the bike closer to the top.

"But we are going to a completely different engine in 2012, so how much money and effort should you pour into the bike right now when you have less than a year to go?" asked Mamola.

Rossi and team-mate Nicky Hayden have each spent one day of testing on an early version of next year's Desmosedici. The #46 will soon have another 1000cc outing at Mugello (see separate story).

Not withstanding his healing (2010) shoulder injury, the time it is taking seven-time MotoGP champion Rossi to reach the front with Ducati has prompted many to re-evaluate the achievements of Stoner.

The Australian won on his Ducati debut, at the start of 2007, and went on to win that year's world championship. Stoner had claimed 23 race victories by the end of last season, when he moved to Honda.

However, after 2007, Stoner wasn't able to produce a sustained title challenge and suffered numerous accidents, which Mamola believes were caused by having to push his machinery ever harder.

Stoner had finished every race in 2007, with a worst result of sixth.

"In 2007 the Ducati was so fast and the package, with Casey on it, was unbeatable," said Mamola. "Over the years, Yamaha and Honda caught up and Ducati hadn't done much in terms of development. So Casey had to work more in the corners and he started crashing a lot."

Loris Capirossi is the only Ducati rider other than Stoner to win a race since 2007, courtesy of a wet-dry victory at that year's Motegi round.

Stoner is 12 points behind Yamaha's reigning world champion Jorge Lorenzo heading into next weekend's fifth round of 2011 at Catalunya.

Rossi is 31 points from Lorenzo, in fifth.



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