Thursday, February 16, 2006

Rossi: The Real Deal?

On two wheels, the answer to that question is, without reservation, yes. I'm only the most casual motorbike racing fan, and don't profess to know a great deal about it. Having watched quite a few Moto GP races on Eurosport over the past couple of years, though, I'm well aware that he is a rider of quite exceptional ability.

If you believe last week's edition of Autosport, then he might well be the real deal on four wheels as well. "Rossi has pace to rival Schuey" their headline screamed (somewhere along the line, over the last 20 years, Autosport has gone from 'broadsheet' to 'tabloid' but that's for another time). "Analysis proves bike legend is within 0.6sec of Ferrari star" they gasped excitedly underneath.

Rossi would not be the first to make the leap from bikes to cars. John Surtees is the most famous example, and the only man to have won the World Title on two wheels and four - taking the 500cc world title in 1956, 1958, 1959 and 1960, before switching to Formula 1, and winning the world title for Ferrari in 1964. However, as Mark Hughes pointed out in his ever excellent 'Inside Line' column, this was achieved in the pre down-force era, when arguably the skills of motorcycle and car racing were more transferable - being both about mechanical grip.

There have been plenty others switch between bikes and cars down the years, though none were as successful in both categories as Surtees. Alberto Ascari and Luigi Fagioli and Tazio Nuvolari are among those who began by racing bikes, while Damon Hill started his motorsport career in dirt bike racing. World 350cc champion Johnny Cecotto tried his hand at F1 in the early eighties, but scored only one point, and found himself rather overshadowed in his second year in the sport by his talented young Brazilian team mate, Ayrton Senna.

Rossi, it is said, intends to emulate Surtees and make the jump straight from 2 wheels to formula one. And if he really is just 0.6s slower than Schumacher then perhaps this is achievable, but is he really good enough?

Lets look first at the claim that he is just half a second or so slower than Michael Schumacher. This claim comes from a test Rossi did in early February at Valencia, where he lapped in a 1.12.3 in a 'restricted' V10 Ferrari F2004. Schumacher's best time in the same car, at the same track, was a 1.10.2 However, that was achieved with an unrestricted V10 which Ferrari engineers reckon is worth around 1.5s over the engine Rossi was testing Et Voila - Rossi, veteran of, well, no car races, is within 6 tenths of the man who has won more Grands Prix than anyone else in history. Perhaps.....

Or perhaps not. The F2004 was, by pretty much whatever measure you choose, the class of the field in 2004. And yet, in February 2004, Webber got round Valencia in a 1.09.0. In a Jaguar. The 2004 Jaguar wasn't a terrible car by any means, and in Webber's hands it was quite competitive on occasion, but it was hardly in the same league as the Ferrari. During winter testing in 2004, ten different drivers got under the 1.10 barrier. Is it not reasonable to assume that on the day Schumacher set his 1.10.2, he might not have really been going for a time? And if he had, that perhaps he might have gone a second, maybe even two second quicker? In which case, the story becomes "Rossi about 2 seconds a lap slower than Schumacher" which seems less of an endorsement somehow.

There are plenty other variables we would have to consider before drawing any meaningful conclusions. For instance, was Schumacher on 'whole race' Bridgestones or '25 laps and in the bin' tyres. And what was Rossi on? What were the weather conditions on the days in question? Was the F2004 that Schumacher tested of exactly the same specification, engine aside, as the car Rossi was driving?

There's more. I know better than to believe everything I read on the internet, but I did see that someone who claimed to have been in the grandstands at Valencia that day had measured the decibel levels produced by the various cars and come to the conclusion that Rossi's engine wasn't restricted at all. And when you think about it - why bother to restrict Rossi's V10? Might they have decided to pretend the engine was restricted to make the time more newsworthy?

All of which tells us what every long time motorsports fan already knows. Testing only ever tells you so much, and testing times should always be read with a pinch of salt.

Don't get me wrong. We can tell something about Rossi from his lap times at Valencia: namely that he probably wouldn't be humiliatingly slow in a Grand Prix car, though not necessarily fast enough to deserve a place on the F1 grid. I remember reading an article by a journalist and club racer who managed to get a test in a Jaguar F1 car a few years back - just how many strings he must have pulled for that I don't know. He was around 10 seconds a lap slower than the team's regular test driver. He reckoned that, given a whole week behind the wheel of the car he might have narrowed the gap to 5 seconds, but he had no idea where the other 5 would ever come from. Rossi, on the other hand, is probably no more than 2 seconds off the pace, despite his four wheel racing experience being limited (as far as I recall) to a rather disastrous attempt at the RAC rally a few years back. Given enough time, he might well get to the point where he'd genuinely deserve a place in F1.

But does Rossi really intend to make the switch? F1 testing is expensive, and teams aren't usually inclined to let people do a lot of laps just for fun. Rossi, though, is a star, more so in some ways than even Michael Schumacher. Ferrari and its sponsors have been getting an awful lot of exposure out of the deal, if that is what it is. Rossi, meanwhile, gets to play around with some very good F1 machinery, just in case the endless MotoGP wins are getting boring - that might well be enough as far as he is concerned.

If he really intends to make the switch from 2 wheels to 4, he would probably be very well advised to do a season of GP2 before making the jump to Formula One. Johnny Cecotto did much the same back in the early 1980s, and the lower downforce levels and shorter races (not to mention the slightly lower overall talent level of the drivers) would give him a chance to learn about racing, as opposed to merely driving, a fast single seater. And of course, I do believe there's a Mr Todt over at a rather successful little squad called ART whom Ferrari might perhaps have a little leverage over when it comes to securing Rossi a drive.

Ferrari have shown that they can be eccentric when it comes to driver selection (Felipe Massa? Why?) but I still doubt they would be prepared to employ a driver who had never driven a car race before, no matter how close to Schumacher he might be able to get in testing. Could be that I'll be eating my words in 12 months time though.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice write-up of the situation. Autosport does like to hype a story when they've got no real news for the front cover.

Alonso said today that Rossi was "wasting Ferrari's time". I think he might be right there.

12:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the modern world of formula 1 , I think it is the car that makes all the difference . I would say most of the F1 drivers , if given a car like ferrari or mclaren would be title contenders . Try put Kovaleinen in the mclaren and hamilton in a renault and see the result . I think it is the extra something , that seperates the champion from the rest , and judging by Rossi's track record , I think he has that extra something. Put him in a ferrari , and I think 46 will mean much more than bikes .

7:21 AM  

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