"Hungry" Spies and "Nice Guy" Edwards
Next season, Lorenzo's teammate will be Ben Spies. In his debut year in MotoGP, Spies had a relatively eventful season, with podium finishes at the British Grand Prix and the Indianapolis Grand Prix. He ended his first season an impressive sixth in the ranking and was named Rookie of the Year. Last season, Spies captured the World Superbike Championship title in his rookie year. Kitagawa, who knows him, makes this cool assessment of his ability: "It was more or less what I expected. I predicted that he would achieve this kind of result. I think it was the result he needed to qualify for promotion to the factory team next year."
According to Nakajima, Spies too has the qualities of a champion. "Yes, Ben is definitely ambitious. He doesn't talk much in the garage, but he always summons me afterwards and gives me a good talking-to (laughs). Something I found out later is that, in the paddock, he apparently talks freely to different riders and manufacturers. He gathers information that way. For instance, he finds out that some guy takes this corner in 1st gear, so he says he wants the 1st gear range made longer, or wants it made shorter somewhere else. Seeing him give so much in these ways gave me a keen sense of his commitment to winning. Next year, I don't just hope but expect him to finish in the top five at least. That means he needs to tail the "Big Four" (Lorenzo, Rossi, Pedrosa and Stoner) and at least finish ahead of Dovizioso."
Edwards, meanwhile, ended the year ranked 11th. If Spies is the introverted one then Edwards is the extrovert. Both Americans, they are nevertheless a contrasting pair. Both being from Texas, Edwards has apparently supported Spies on the side with lots of advice. Moreover, his wealth of experience and his ability in technical development has earned him immense trust from engineers.
"The Michelin engineers used to rate him very highly, and now of course the Japanese engineers at Bridgestone have taken a real liking to Colin. At the time of the Valencia test, they even came and asked me, 'Colin will be doing tests both days, won't he? That's because there are so many tire tests we all want him to do," says Nakajima.
"Colin always gives a clear answer, yes or no. And because he also explains his opinion of the test in an entertaining way, the engineers always listen carefully and with a smile. Even staff from other teams seem to enjoy listening in, which shows how much he is trusted. It also demonstrates how highly he is valued."
Valentino Rossi's move and its effect
Valentino Rossi, who before the start of the season carried Yamaha's hopes for a third straight rider title, crashed in the free practice at the Italian Grand Prix and sustained a severe injury in the form of an open fracture of the right leg. Because of this injury, he was forced to withdraw from the championship temporarily. But he made a miraculous recovery in just 41 days and continued, amazingly, to appear on the winners' podium. He wrapped up a turbulent year with third place in the ranking. Next season, Rossi transfers to the Ducati team. Asked about their seven years together, Furusawa seems to be holding back a surge of emotion, and is silent for a while before saying, "……it's hard to make any comment." Then he carries on speaking slowly. "He faced a dilemma where he found himself getting older and about to pass his peak while his teammate was getting stronger. Probably because he didn't feel he had much in reserve, he went all out and he ended up crashing and breaking his leg. In simple terms, I think that was the background to the crash. I suppose that also strengthened his wish to go over to Ducati.
I guess he thought that even if he stayed with Yamaha, there was no role for him and nothing more he could contribute. In his heart he still wanted a new challenge, I believe. To be honest, as far as Yamaha is concerned, if he was going to leave us we would have preferred him to give up biking altogether. But Rossi himself said he wanted to carry on for another three years or so. So, when he gives up MotoGP, I think he may move to WSB."
Before the present talk of a transfer emerged, Rossi had never hesitated to declare that he would end his riding career at Yamaha. According to Kitagawa, however, there were already early signs at the end of 2005 that things might end this way.
"For a while, there was a rumor that Valentino would convert to Formula 1, and that caused quite a stir. After that, he did actually do tests in an F1 machine. That forced us to accept the need to quickly find a new Valentino to nurture. The result was Jorge."
When Yamaha signed the contract with Lorenzo, Kitagawa remembers how they explained it to Rossi by citing the example of Stoner, who took the championship in his second year in MotoGP. "Surely it's better to have him come to us rather than go to a rival manufacturer," they told Rossi. To reassure him they said, "On the same bike, you're the better rider." Rossi agreed and accepted the situation. "But Lorenzo's development went way beyond what anyone had imagined, and that ended up posing a threat to Rossi. It was unexpected, but it was also a welcome miscalculation, so we have very mixed feelings about it," adds Kitagawa.
Meanwhile, Nakajima regards Rossi's transfer as having partly to do with keeping the show going in MotoGP as a whole. He believes that was part of Rossi's calculation.
"It is certainly true that in a sense the world of MotoGP orbits around him. If you think of MotoGP as a TV drama, then everyone will agree that the central character is Valentino. In this drama, perhaps he thought it was time to open up a new storyline. When he crashed at Mugello and broke his leg, I think he felt that his work on the Yamaha storyline was over. Now it's going to be a drama all made in Italy, so I think the storyline will definitely be interesting. That's one thing he has the ability to deliver, and I think as a result next year's MotoGP will be an even livelier show. But, to be frank, he was one person I didn't want to hand over to the other side," admits Nakajima.
Kitagawa agrees with this assessment. "It may sound like arrogance, but when you look at it from the point of view of racing fans, I think that Valentino's transfer creates a healthy situation. If Yamaha's two riders battle each other for top position next year again, fans will begin to get tired of it. If interest in racing wanes, that's no good for any of us in the sport. If we think in terms of the healthy development of racing itself, I feel we should even be grateful for Valentino's decision. It goes to show once again how dependent MotoGP has been on him," Kitagawa concludes.
Seven years of memories – then preparations and ambitions for next year
Valentino Rossi looks back on seven years at Yamaha and recalls the opening round of 2004, the South African Grand Prix, as his best race. For Furusawa, Kitagawa and Nakajima, the feeling is the same. All three agree that they will never forget the exciting race at the Welkom circuit at the southern tip of the African continent, where Rossi won first place in his very first race after transferring to Yamaha.
"Yes, his first race in South Africa has got to be the one. At the time, there were some people who fainted, and some of the staff almost threw up (laughs). Probably the South Africa race is the one that everyone remembers most," says Furusawa.
"In the world of racing, there probably isn't anything that beats it. There have been a number of great contests that have gone down in history, and for us that race was the greatest of all," adds Kitagawa.
"I didn't faint (laughs), but the moment the race ended I felt like collapsing. Then there was Laguna Seca in 2008, when he won a hard battle with Stoner, and Barcelona last year, when he overtook Jorge on the last corner of the last lap. That was another race that was typical Valentino. It was those two races that really made me think he was one rider I didn't want to hand over to our rivals at any cost. This year again, even with the leg injury and the shoulder injury, he won one of the season's closing rounds at Sepang. Even though Pedrosa wasn't there, it's scary to think what Valentino could have done if he had been fully fit."
In the 2011 season, when Rossi is bound to loom as a rival for Yamaha, the battle of the "Big Four" promises to be even more intense than this year. As defending champions we at Yamaha are ready to face the opposition with an unbeatable team in terms of riders, staff and machine development.
"The best situation for us would be for Valentino to win an occasional first place while the rest of teams struggled and in the end Yamaha emerges with the title," says Furusawa with a laugh. After his joke, Furusawa assumes a serious expression and makes a concise statement of his goals for next season. "I guess it's to win the triple crown for another year." Kitagawa takes up the thread: "Four straight titles is something we have never experienced before. Kenny Roberts was champion for three years in a row and Wayne Rainey also won the title three straight years. We're entering uncharted territory."
Kitagawa continues, saying, "While we're on the subject of Valentino, we want to show our gratitude for the seven years by knocking the stuffing out of him next season (laughs). In the end, I think that would be a good way of saying thanks to him."
"That's right," says Nakajima. "Valentino took the YZR-M1 under his wing and made it the machine it is today. Beating the opposition with the M1 would be repaying our debt to him. One more thing is that Furusawa has been working on innovations since 2004 to make Yamaha's MotoGP team into an invincible squad, and at last pieces are starting to come together. Every day is a reminder of the difficulty of winning, but how far will we get this time? Still, all you can do is keep pushing. We want to take the triple crown again, but our first goal for the time being is to defend the championship at all costs. Of course we are ready for a hard fight."