But the story turned out to be Valentino Rossi firing Jeremy Burgess, who had been his crew chief through thick and thin, since his days on a Honda 500 two-stroke.
Rossi’s obviously had a hard, hard time riding the Ducati in 2011 and ‘12. He quickly had to face the fact that Casey Stoner could win on the Duc, but he couldn’t. I suppose he could tell himself that Stoner was a completely unique case -- the one person on earth for whom the Duc was actually a winning machine. It probably helped that Stoner was an odd duck himself and not particularly well understood or liked in paddock or by fans.
Then, Rossi returned to Yamaha, and notwithstanding a couple of flashes of brilliance (Qatar and Assen) he was showed up all season by Jorge Lorenzo. Honestly, there’s no dishonor in that... Marquez won the title this year, but 99, not 93, is the best rider of the current-gen MotoGP machines.
|The truth hurts: When Yamaha needed Rossi to finish on the podium, to give his teammate any chance of the title, he was incapable of doing so.|
Anyway, back to Burgess’ summary sacking.
My Facebook friend and ex-Bike magazine journalist Simon Hargreaves noted that in order to compete in MotoGP you simply must have a supreme degree of self-confidence. Si essentially excused Rossi’s undignified treatment of Burgess by saying, “Hey, an irrational self confidence is an essential trait of top riders, so it’s not Rossi’s fault that he can’t look in the mirror and spot the problem. Psychologically, he has to find someone else to blame and it can’t be Yamaha, because Lorenzo’s winning on the same machine. Burgess is the only logical target.”
I think Simon’s pretty much on the money there, although what he calls an essential character trait in MotoGP -- that selfishness and unwillingness accept blame or acknowledge the effect of your actions on others like faithful crew chiefs -- would make those guys psychopaths out in the world.
(As an aside, I can guarantee you that Jeremy Burgess is a ruthlessly competitive guy too, yet I am certain that he would never have dumped Rossi for some incoming hotshot rider. Nor do I think he would ever, ever have said, “Hey, the bike I give my rider is every bit as good as the bike Ramón Forcada hands off to Jorge Lorenzo; the only thing I can’t do is change the torque settings on the nut that connects the handlebars to the seat.” Burgess, I am certain, would have stuck by Rossi come what may, and would have been happy to retire when Rossi did, confident in the knowledge that Rossi had been the greatest rider of his era, as Burgess had been the most successful crew chief. Although Burgess was also the most successful chief of the preceding era, as well.)
What’s fascinating to me about the rider confidence that Simon noted is not the rather sad personality traits that come with it when those guys get off the bike. And I don’t excuse their sad personalities off the bike, because I’ve met real sporting gladiators -- guys who put their blood and bones on the line in scary, intense pursuits -- who are thoughtful, introspective, and even gentle people away from their particular arena.
What fascinates me about that confidence -- and makes me jealous of it -- is that it is not only a trait you need to ride at the top level. It is a trait that actually makes it easier to ride at the top level.
Most people see a rider like Marc Marquez and note his incredible lean angle at mid corner. I see the nearly shocking speed at which he makes the transition from upright to max lean. For us as hack street riders, or track day riders, or club racers, mid-corner speed is the thing that is going to move us from the C group to the B group; it’s the thing that is going to impress your pals in the canyons. But at the top level, everyone’s got mid-corner speed; it’s the transitions that determine your finishing position.
To ride at that level, riders must have the self belief to totally commit to 99%+ of max lean and go there instantly. Mortals would feel their way there. And when they get to max lean they can’t have self doubt, because anything that causes them to tense up on the bike will mask the sensitivity and feel they need, slow their reactions, and prevent them from making the myriad but very, very micro corrections they’re making.
Most of that is happening in their bodies, not their minds. But doubt is the enemy of kinesthetic genius. This year, for the first time in his life Valentino Rossi was flat out dominated by his teammate. 2013 probably brought a few doubts to the surface that he’d been able to compartmentalize -- even at Ducati where he’d been relegated to running mid-pack.
We’ll know next year whether Rossi’s new crew chief brings a return to winning ways. Like Jeremy Burgess, I doubt that will be the case. But if it does, it may not be because Silvano Galbusera actually knows anything that Burgess doesn’t. It may just be because a change -- any change -- has allowed Rossi to pack up any tiny doubts and hide them away.