Doha Grand Prix qualifying created a dubious new statistic for Valentino Rossi, as the Petronas SRT Yamaha rider completed the session in 21st place.
That’s his worst-ever qualifying performance after 20 years in the premier class.
Coming after finishing the opening race of 2021 at the same circuit in 12th last week, it marks a new low in the nine-time world champion’s career.
“I never had the feeling to be fast enough,” he admitted afterwards. “Last weekend we were able to do more with new tyres, but we tried something this week to try and improve the life and I just wasn’t fast enough.”
That’s been the story of his entire weekend, Rossi simply unable to get the best out of the rear Michelin tyres.
It’s not a new problem for Rossi in particular or Yamaha in general, but amid changing conditions not only day to day but from run to run at the Losail International Circuit, it seems like he’s been completely unable to come to grips with the situation.
That’s going to make for an exceptionally tough race for Rossi too.
Qualifying isn’t always a huge hindrance at Losail given the competitiveness of the field, with only 16 seconds covering the points-scoring places last week.
But the deficits of Rossi’s Yamaha M1 when it comes to overtaking means that it’s going to be hard to charge through the pack with one of his typical Sunday performances, especially when it looks like he’s got some of the worst race pace out there as well as no ability to push for a time attack.
Adding insult to injury is that he currently seems to be the only Yamaha rider suffering with these problems – at least to this extent.
Rossi’s 2017-20 team-mate Maverick Vinales will start from the front row on his factory bike, with race pace that makes it look like he’s all but certain to kick off the 2021 season a double race winner.
Yet despite the woeful performance that Rossi has been suffering this weekend, it is simply too early to do what many fans on social media have already done and write him off completely as a spent force, for one very good reason: the very nature of the Losail track.
It’s an unusual place to kick off the season at the best of times. Coming straight after pre-season testing, everyone has had what seems like endless days of riding here but that’s amplified the strengths and weaknesses of bikes and riders here rather than levelling things up.
Then there’s the unusual race weekend schedule that renders half the sessions practicality useless thanks to practice one and three taking place in daylight, before the sun sets and the floodlights come on for the remaining sessions and the race itself.
And then in 2021, you have to add to that the weather conditions. It’s been blisteringly hot during the day, and that has come with high winds that have ravaged the circuit. It’s affecting some bikes more than others and leaving riders flummoxed by ever-changing set-up goalposts. It can be almost impossible to define what’ll work well.
Losail is also, of course, a circuit built in a desert. Dusty and dry even without constant winds, the track feels like it has been sandblasted clean every day, leaving riders second-guessing constantly changing grip levels. Not ideal when you are, like Rossi, chasing a set-up to fix those specific problems.
The reality right now for Valentino Rossi is that things are bad, There is no mistaking that.
But from the very start of the year we have insisted on one thing: the days of Rossi title challenges are long gone. Instead, a successful 2021 season would be one where he can fight for the podium and occasionally the win.
And when your form is such that you’re only having the odd great weekend, it’s logical that you’ll have the odd terrible weekend too – and that’s what we’re seeing right now at Losail. Rossi is not the only person struggling (things aren’t great in the KTM camp either), but it’s a phase of the year that’ll soon pass.
The real reality for Rossi, and the real chance to judge his level, will instead come at the traditional European tracks.
Jerez, Barcelona, Mugello and Assen are the early-season markers of his real form, and you write him off before then at your own peril.