On August 18 1996 Valentino Rossi won his first Grand Prix, in the 125cc class at Brno in the Czech Republic. Eighteen years later he is still winning Grands Prix. You probably already know that this is a unique achievement in motorcycle racing.
That first victory wasn’t followed by theatrical celebrations or frenzied crowd worship, because the Rossi legend had yet to be built. In the summer of 1996 no one knew that the 16-year-old would amount to anything special because success in GP racing’s smallest class is no guarantee. The bike world is littered with the broken bikes, bones and dreams of successful juniors who thought they had what it takes. But handling 50bhp doesn’t mean you will cope with 250 and enough electronics to send you to the moon.
When Rossi commenced his GP career that spring, he wasn’t even sure he had what it takes to make it in 125s. The first time he shared a track with 125 GP riders he was stunned by their speed.
“F**k, it was incredible!” he says. “They were so fast! It was like another sport, maybe four seconds a lap faster. I needed to learn another way to ride.”
School friend Uccio Salucci – still at Rossi’s side – remembers the sense of foreboding that came over the youngster during his baptism.
“After a few days testing Valentino said, ‘F**k, Uccio, these riders are very, very fast; maybe too fast for me’.”
Rossi wasn’t a particularly quick learner in his younger days. He had yet to locate the limit and spent most of 1996 tripping right over it, much to the disgust of team owner Giampiero Sacchi, who was paying for the accident damage to Rossi’s Aprilia RS125.
“Many of these crashes came from Vale [pronounced as in ‘valley’] not thinking: the tyres, cold… give gas… crash!” says Sacchi, rolling his eyes. “So we take him into the motorhome and I say, ‘Vale, how is it possible you crash so much?’ But now I understand: if a young rider is very fast, he’s going to crash. He needs to discover the limit, and without crashing that’s impossible.”
Rossi wasn’t the only one getting lost and ending up tumbling down the road chased by a disintegrating motorcycle. At that time the 125 class was changing, with a new breed of youngsters prepared to win by any means necessary, regardless of whether that meant knocking off a rival or two. These impetuous upstarts were upsetting the old guard, men like four-time world champion Jorge Martinez, now owner of the Aspar MotoGP team.
“Now I understand: if a young rider is very fast, he’s going to crash. He needs to discover the limit, and without crashing that’s impossible”
Rossi’s antics in his very first Grand Prix race caused Martinez to crash. “After the race Jorge came to see me in my pit with a lot of anger. He wanted to kill me… But it was necessary for me to ride crazy because my bike was so slow, and when you ride like this all the time, it’s possible you make mistakes.”
Step by step, accident by accident, Rossi learned. At the Spanish GP in May he came within a fraction of a second of his first podium finish. Six races later, at Zeltweg in early August, he achieved it.
“I began to think that I had the potential to fight for victory, but you never know until you actually get there,” he says. “Before my first victory I thought that all riders are divided into two big groups: those who win Grands Prix and those who don’t. And if you haven’t won, then you never know…”
Not only was Rossi learning, his bike was getting better. By mid-season the Aprilia factory was starting to believe in him and furnished him with upgraded engine and chassis parts.
“At Brno I got pole. I didn’t expect to win the race but I was beginning to arrive in a good place, so I knew something was possible. I remember the race; it was a very hard battle with Martinez, like much of the season. In the end it turned into a big braking battle; who could brake the deepest, because Martinez was always the rider who could brake latest. At the very end I was able to overtake him. I remember after my win he gave me his hand and said, ‘F**k, you were strong’.”
Speaking to journalists later, the vanquished Spaniard was less congenial. Much earlier in his Grand Prix career, Martinez knew Rossi as a paddock toddler, travelling around Europe with his racer father Graziano, who rode factory bikes for Morbidelli, Suzuki and Yamaha. “I should have taken my chance then and run him over,” he said, only half joking.
The aggression Rossi unleashed at Brno in 1996 is still there, though now tempered with decades of experience and meted out in carefully controlled doses; except in qualifying, which seems to be his eternal Achilles heel. Whether or not he wins this year’s MotoGP championship, few will dare argue that the Italian isn’t the greatest bike racer of all time. What is beyond question is that no motorcycle racer has ever walked the line for so long, balancing youthful vigour with Yoda-like wisdom.