Top 15 Stories of 2013, No. 2: Rossi Fires Burgess
Wednesday, January 15, 2014

'93 world champion Kevin Schwantz enjoys some calm moments on the grid with his old rival Jerry Burgess. Rossi's surprise move to fire Burgess shocked the planet.
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Editor's Note: This is a series counting down the top 15 stories in MotoGP in 2013, as determined by the Soup staff.

Figurative lightning bolts strike the MotoGP paddock from time to time. But this one was a true bolt from the blue, the equivalent of a sky-to-ground electrical current from the heavens on a sunny day: Valentino Rossi was firing Jeremy Burgess.

Rossi and Burgess were arguably the most successful rider-chief mechanic pairing in Grand Prix history. The young Italian rider hooked up with the veteran Australian wrench in 2000, as Rossi insisted landing Burgess as his engineer as a prerequisite for joining Honda as a 500cc rookie fresh off the 250cc World Championship.

They set the MotoGP world ablaze for the next 14 years, winning seven 500cc/MotoGP world titles and 67 victories. The consistent excellence of the Rossi-Burgess tandem was metronomic and mind-numbing, as Rossi finished on the podium in 115 of his 149 starts between 2000 and 2010.

Even more impressive is that Rossi and Burgess won those titles and races on five different flavors of machine: a 500cc, two-stroke Honda, a 990cc, four-stroke Honda, a 990cc, four-stroke Yamaha, an 800cc, four-stroke Yamaha and a 1000cc, four-stroke Yamaha.

Perhaps their greatest season was 2004. Rossi, Burgess and crew left Honda after winning a third straight world title in 2003 to wrestle with the Yamaha M1, trying to deliver the Crossed Tuning Forks its first World Championship in 12 years. Their challenge was increased when Honda held Rossi to his contract, refusing to release him to Yamaha through Dec. 31, 2003.

Rossi and Burgess showed their brilliant alchemy by winning their maiden race on the M1, the season opener at Phakisa. It was the first of nine victories in 2004, which ended in a fourth consecutive premier-class world title. Rossi became just the second rider to win back-to-back world championships with different manufacturers, following Eddie Lawson in 1988 (Yamaha) and 1989 (Honda).

They were the Dream Team. The Glimmer Twins. The charismatic Italian kid and the quietly intense Australian who learned his craft from fellow legendary wrenches like Americans George Vukmanovich and Erv Kanemoto in the 1970s and 1980s.

The partnership still looked bulletproof even during Rossi's ill-fated stay at Ducati in 2011 and 2012, which resulted in no victories and just three podium finishes. Most of the stiff fingers and shaken fists of blame were pointed at Ducati and its initially unyielding commitment to carbon-fiber frames and then its inability to react to Rossi's requests for a more traditional, Japanese-style box frame near the end of 2011 and into 2012.

Rossi and Burgess regained competitive form with a return to Yamaha Factory Racing in 2013, with six podium finishes and a victory at Assen. But cracks began to appear in the partnership as it became evident Rossi lacked the last run down the grindstone to reach the peak sharpness of his dominant years.

The Doctor was clearly the fourth-best rider on the grid, behind Marc Marquez, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, despite being on one of the two superior machines of MotoGP. It was unfamiliar territory, a low-rent district he never occupied during his premier-class career.

Many suggested age finally was catching up to Rossi, 34, thinking he lacked the manic drive that causes younger, hungrier competitors to reach for the brake lever a meter or two later than mortals, tempting the hand of the motorcycle gods in almost every corner.

Burgess agreed with that assessment in some media reports in the late summer, saying maybe it was possible Rossi never would return to his untouchable form of the 2000s.

But most MotoGP observers and fans also figured the mechanical and human bonds between Rossi and Burgess were too strong to break. These two were a package deal for as long as Rossi wanted to squat before a Grand Prix motorcycle and then race before his legions of fans.

They figured wrong. Rossi stunned the motorcycle world Nov. 7 by confirming he was releasing Burgess after the season.

The timing of the announcement was peculiar at best, just a day before the opening practice of the season-ending Valencia Grand Prix. Most media members criticized Rossi for creating a lame-duck situation for Burgess in what could be his final race as a MotoGP mechanic. Legends deserve proper sendoffs, not a dinghy ride into castaway oblivion.

Burgess took the Everest road during a media availability at Valencia, saying Rossi had every right to try someone new and that he had no regrets about Rossi's timing. It was classic, straight-talking Jerry.

The press conference also was extraordinary because it probably was the first time Rossi was ignored by worldwide media. Reporters surrounded Burgess while Rossi was alone on the other side of the room - an apt metaphor.

Even stranger was the announcement Nov. 11 of Burgess' replacement, Silvano Galbusera. The Italian has a long, impressive resume, starting with Gilera in 1979 and working on Ben Spies' championship-winning World Superbike campaign in 2009. But Galbusera hadn't tuned a Grand Prix motorcycle since 1994, when he turned wrenches for John Kocinski on a 500cc Cagiva.

Rossi's only prior experience with Galbusera came during his recovery from a broken leg in 2010. Rossi tested his fitness and speed at Misano for one day on a Yamaha R1 WSBK machine tuned by Galbusera.

Maybe Rossi needed the change. Maybe Galbusera will bring fresh ideas and a new relationship that will find those extra tenths Rossi needs to stay with "The Aliens."

But the optics of this will be hard to grasp this season. Rossi without Burgess will appear almost as unfathomable as the hypothetical of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady without coach Bill Belichick or the very real - and so far unsuccessful - scenario of Manchester United this season without Sir Alex Ferguson calling the shots.

This better work.


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