"Motor sport is corners with rubber on the ground, mechanics with dirt under their fingernails. It is not a 75-metre mega yacht full of girls... Though I like that world, too!"
His first love is bikes, but Valentino Rossi is a racer at heart, which is why he still plans to switch to four wheels one day
By Mat Oxley
If Valentino Rossi's father had been less unlucky as a motorcycle racer Rossi might now be ruling Formula 1 instead of MotoGP. Rossi Sr was a scarily fast though crash-prone bike racer of the late 1970s. He won three 250 Grands Prix in 1979, the year of Valentino's birth, and went on to race factory 500s for Suzuki, Yamaha and Italian marque Morbidelli. But serious head injuries stopped him from making it really big and getting really rich, which is one of the reasons his son became a bike racer and not a car racer.
Rossi Sr's head injuries (which still affect him) convinced him that he didn't want his son to follow in his wheel tracks, so he got him into karts. In 1991, 12-year-old Rossi finished fifth in the national kart championship in Parma and was poised to graduate to the Italian and European 100cc series. However, the family couldn't stretch to the 100 million lira budget, so Valentino suggested he should race something cheaper, like Mini moto, the minibike craze that swept Italy during the early '90s.
In fact, while finance was certainly an issue, Rossi was already beginning to understand that he gets a bigger kick out of two wheels than four. "My passion for cars and bikes was growing up together," he says. "But when Mini moto arrived, I began to think that I had a better taste from riding the bike. The money for racing karts was a problem, and because [my father] Graziano knew a lot of people in the bike world, it was more possible for him to find bikes and sponsors."
Rossi was a Mini moto prodigy, his success on the Lilliputian race bikes propelling him to success in the Italian 125 production championship and the 125 European championship. From there he went on to win the 125, 250, 500 and MotoGP World Championships. And yet it was possibly his very first kart that instilled his famous fighting spirit and talent for keeping things skating on the brink. "When Valentino was six I built him a kart. It was an evil thing," recalls his father. "The chassis was for a 60cc engine but I fitted a 100cc national engine."
Battling on the brink of disaster is what Rossi does best. His F1 heroes are Senna, Prost and significantly Mansell, which reveals a certain admiration for the bare-knuckle racer. His number-one bike racing hero is of the same cut; exuberant Texan Kevin Schwantz was renowned for his ability to explore the outer limit and reach places that other riders could not, even though he sometimes arrived there on his arse. Rossi's style, both on and off the track, is not dissimilar to that of the 1993 500 World Champion. These days Rossi doesn't crash like Schwantz used to, but in his younger, madder days he was another oft-floored genius. The Italian kingmaker who gave Rossi his Grand Prix break in 1996 was dismayed by the teenager's chronic inability to keep his Aprilia 125 rubber side down. "He crash very much," remembers Giampiero Sacchi. "Many came from Vale just not thinking; the tyres: cold! Give gas: crash!"
Although like most racers Rossi learned the hard way, he understood his own affinity for speed from an early age. "Going fast is always what I wanted to do in my life. I think I inherited that from my father," he says. "I started to understand quite early that I have a special talent to do this. When I was racing go-karts I understood that I have a good feeling to understand what's happening. But I was not the only one, there were other kids who were faster than me, so I say 'this is the way for me, but, f***, I have to improve'."
He certainly did improve, to the point now that he is arguably the most accomplished motor sportsman of his generation. Aside from his eight motorcycling world titles Rossi has won a few minor rallies, contested some WRC rounds and impressed testing a Ferrari F1 car.
Scuderia Ferrari famously courted Rossi a few years ago, committing him to a serious testing programme in 2005/2006 that was expected to take him full-time into F1. Ferrari wasn't the only one keen to get Rossi into cars. Bernie Ecclestone understood that F1 was in serious need of a little rock 'n' roll, something that Rossi has in his blood. He is an old-school petrolhead — he loves going fast, doing crazy things. He buckles a lot of swashes. His heroes in real life — Steve McQueen, Jim Morrison, Diego Maradona — tell you that he likes to play it fast and loose.
In the end, it was Rossi who turned down Ferrari, which must have come as a bit of surprise to a race team used to having the world's greatest drivers come knocking at its door. The dream of matching the unique achievement of John Surtees — World Champion on two wheels and four — was over. But Rossi has fond memories of his dalliance with the world's best-known race team. "Ah, Ferrari were unbelievable. I like them a lot," he smiles. "The people give all their lives to F1, to improve the car. The passion inside Scuderia Ferrari is something amazing, I liked that. And the car is f****** incredible, the acceleration is unbelievable. Maybe it's about the same as a MotoGP bike, but the feeling is more exciting in the car. You feel the acceleration more because you sit lower and because the bike is light and very powerful, but the car is heavier and even more powerful, so you feel the push a lot more." An F1 car's power-to-weight ratio beats that of a MotoGP bike — 1.2 horsepower per kilo to 1.001 per kilo.
Rossi enjoyed getting to grips with the unique demands of an F1 car but finally realised that what held true when he was a kid still holds true today: he wasn't getting as much fun out of driving the Ferrari as he got from riding his Yamaha. Enjoyment is at the heart of everything Rossi does. His greatest strengths are an astonishing natural talent, a fierce, creative intelligence and a tireless dedication to his cause, but a sense of fun is also central to what he does. More than anything, Rossi goes racing for the love of it, for the buzz of it, and ultimately he didn't enjoy driving the Ferrari enough. It didn't light his fire.
"With the Formula 1 car the driving becomes a bit unnatural, a bit different from a normal car. It is very important to understand how the aerodynamics work. A MotoGP bike is like a normal bike, but lighter, more power, more everything. A Formula 1 car is not like a normal car; you have to understand all about the wings, the braking is very different, everything is different. And then there is the traction control. The traction control worked very much and that's what I didn't like." Ironically, F1 has now banned traction control, while anti-spin technology has become an overriding influence in MotoGP, something you won't be surprised to learn aggravates Rossi intensely. He is one of several riders to have lobbied MotoGP bosses to exorcise electronic rider aids and return control to the human.
Motor sport is a bewitching mix of art and science, man and machine; that surely is one of its greatest attractions. In F1 Rossi felt that he was not a big enough part of the equation. He is an artist by temperament, not a dour race track scientist, which is why people love him. "It is true that in MotoGP we already have a lot of technical meetings in the team, a lot of thinking. I speak a lot about electronics with my guys, but in cars it is different. With cars, everything is already fixed, so if you do this, you make this lap time, if you add that fuel, you make that lap time. So it is like the driver doesn't have anything to invent. It's more like a job."
That isn't to say that Rossi doesn't like a challenge and a bit of hard work. Five years ago he quit Honda when the company's RC211V was comfortably the best bike on the MotoGP grid and defected to Yamaha, then at its lowest ebb, without even taking a pay rise. "Maybe my choice seems a little bit crazy," he said at the time, before turning Yamaha's YZR-M1 from pitlane joke into race winner in just a few months. He left Honda because he felt the company's racing bosses put too much emphasis on the machine and not the man. By winning on the Yamaha he proved them wrong. He proved that he was the bigger part of the equation.
The Rossi/Ferrari romance began soon after Rossi had joined Yamaha, when he was invited to test at the company's Fiorano test track in the spring of 2004. Ferrari's reigning F1 champ Michael Schumacher was present and impressed. Later that year Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo pronounced: "There will always be an open door for Valentino at Ferrari."
The following summer the then Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn announced that Rossi would test with the team once a month throughout 2006, presumably with a view to an F1 race debut in '07 or '08. In November 2005 Rossi got to test the Ferrari at a real race track for the first time, lapping Mugello fast enough for Ferrari to reserve him a place at the Valencia pre-season tests in January 2006, alongside the rest of the F1 grid — Alonso, Schumacher, Raikkonen et al. In the meantime he beat Colin McRae in the Monza Rally and took 11th place in Rally New Zealand.
Rossi again impressed at Valencia, after spinning off during his very first lap. Experts calculated that he ended the tests just six-tenths slower than Schumacher, allowing for their different spec cars. It seemed an F1 future was his for the taking. But it wasn't to be. Rossi still remembers the exact moment he decided to stay on two wheels. "It was on the plane going home. I went to Valencia to do the test to understand my potential against the other guys. I understood that with a lot of work I had the potential to go fast. But on the plane I decided: bikes. The main reason was that I was not ready to stop racing bikes; this was the biggest problem. I like cars and I hope to have 10 years of extra career in cars when I stop with bikes, but I'm not ready to stop bikes now."
Rossi admits he was also repelled by certain aspects of the F1 world. He finds the blue-chip corporate atmosphere too suffocating and he cannot abide F1's 'masters of the universe', high-rollin' swankers like Renault team boss Flavio Briatore. "Achh," he says, his voice hissing with disdain. "For me, motor sport is not Flavio Briatore. It is corners with rubber on the ground, mechanics with dirt under their fingernails. It is not a 75-metre mega yacht full of girls..." He starts laughing. "Though I like that world too! I don't feel that the F1 atmosphere is close to my lifestyle, it's a lot, lot more serious. I'm more comfortable in the bike world."
Most of all, Rossi prefers motorcycles because of what happens out on the race track. In motorcycling the rider is a greater part of the performance equation, in every way. Rossi weighs around 70 kilos, his MotoGP bike weighs about 148 kilos. This fact has a huge influence on the amount of control a rider can bring to the motorcycle. Not only is he one third of the combined weight of man and machine, he is also mobile. Bike racers move all over their machines, transferring load to the front tyre to increase grip entering corners, shifting load to the rear tyre exiting corners, and moving left and right to steer and control lean angle. The dividing line between man and machine becomes blurred, they almost morph together like some kind of race track centaur.
"When you drive a car you are always in the same position, you are stuck in the seat, all you have to do is drive. On a motorcycle you use a lot of body movement, so the rider is more important than the driver in a car. I like driving cars, but for me riding bikes is more exciting, you can express yourself more.
"In car racing, the set-up is very important. It is important for the driver to understand everything in order to modify the car to go faster. The set-up is also important in bikes, but with the bike you can also modify your style to go faster. Maybe you can change the way you move your body into a corner."
During his nine seasons in MotoGP Rossi has become famous for being able to magic a few tenths of a second as if from nowhere on Sundays. There have been weekends where he seems beaten after practice but on race day he comes out guns blazing, after adapting his riding technique and tweaking the set-up to solve the riddle of a tricky corner or two. Last July's US GP at Laguna Seca — where in the race he destroyed polesitter Casey Stoner — was a case in point. "Sincerely, every weekend I try to improve my riding style to go a little bit faster. And even now in bike racing, it seems like there is something undiscovered." That's where the art takes over from the science, the man from the machine.
Perhaps this is why Rossi has always adored rallying, where raw talent still triumphs over technology. Again, this was a love instilled by his father, who was a handy rally driver in his day. When Rossi was a kid he spent many a weekend hurtling round the local gravel pit in beaten-up rally cars with his father and friends, Rossi starting out with that "evil" kart, playing the game of throttle versus traction.
"Driving rally cars is a lot of fun, a lot of sliding. In circuit racing the most important thing is precision and perfection. In rallying it is control which is most important, so it's fun. I think it is more wild than motorcycle racing. It's so different — you're driving out in the country, with the mechanics working on the cars in the dirt. But I do not know if rallying is what I will do when I stop bikes. I like also circuit racing and I think I have a better potential there because I know the circuits. I don't know what kind of car racing, I haven't decided yet, maybe DTM. Of course, I love rallying but for sure I will need more time to go very fast." His next rally date is Rally GB in December.
Perhaps Rossi's problem is that he gets a kick out of most forms of motor sport. He sees a similar passion in Schumacher, who he got to know during those Ferrari tests. "Schumacher is very good, I got a very good impression, especially because he has a great passion for motors, for racing cars and bikes. He is from Germany, so he is quite cold, but he has a great passion for motor sport."
Rossi is slightly amazed by Schumi's bike racing antics. "I think Michael races bikes because he loves motor sport and fun, he isn't thinking about becoming MotoGP champion. But it is very strange when you start racing motorcycles when you are 38, after riding a Harley-Davidson for many years. It is quite difficult, because to race motorcycles you need to grow up with them." Funnily enough, when Rossi first tested the Ferrari in 2004 he offered Schumacher a ride on his Yamaha, but the F1 king demurred. "Going from two wheels to four is okay, going from four wheels to two isn't," said Schumacher.
Rossi doesn't believe that when he's an old man he will regret saying no to F1, but he may always be nagged by a sense of what if? "Regret is not the right word. I am still curious to understand my potential in F1, but I've made my choice, it is done."
His continued devotion to motorcycle racing is impressive, considering that he has broken all the records. Rossi recently became the most successful premier-class racer in bike racing history, eclipsing the three decades-old record of 68 Grand Prix wins set by 1960s and '70s legend Giacomo Agostini. He is also rich beyond his dreams, with annual earnings that put him ahead of David Beckham. But records and bank balances are not his motivation. Mick Doohan, the rough 'n' tough Aussie who ruled bike racing before Rossi, explained that it was the "instant gratification of winning" that motivated him to go racing. Rossi is the same. "Racing bikes is my passion, I get a great taste riding the bike and fighting with the other guys."
Of course, the fight doesn't always go his way. After winning five straight premier-class crowns from 2001-05 (three with Honda, two with Yamaha), things went awry in 2006 and '07. Rossi suffered machine failures and tyre woes and lost his title to former Honda team-mate Nicky Hayden and then to Stoner. This season he is back on a roll, relishing his hard-fought victories over Stoner's rocketship of a Ducati. Most impressive was his 69th win, achieved in treacherously wet and windy conditions as Hurricane Ike battered Indianapolis in September. He didn't need to take the risks he took to win that race — he was already way ahead on points — but he won anyway, unable to resist the challenge of dancing on the edge of the precipice.
One question remains: when will Rossi quit bikes and start his 10 years of car racing? Even the man himself has no idea. He celebrates his 30th birthday next February and his current contract with Yamaha expires at the end of 2010, so the earliest he could move to four wheels would be 2011. Whatever happens, Rossi will make his own decision, as and when it pleases him.