The Italian renaissance

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Mat Oxley

Valentino Rossi contests his 20th season of Grand Prix racing this year. The Italian made his world championship debut in 1996, when not yet an adult, and now a middle-aged man he is still racing, still winning and still a realistic bet for this year’s MotoGP crown.

Many argue that he is the greatest bike racer of all time. What is indisputable is that he is unique. A few other riders – compatriot Loris Capirossi, Australian Jack Findlay and Brazilian Alex Barros – have ridden a full two decades of GPs, but no one can match Rossi’s astonishing winning stretch, which reaches all the way from his first victory at Brno in August 1996 to his latest at Phillip Island last October: 18 years and 74 days.

In many ways last season was the crowning glory of Rossi’s career, even though he didn’t win the title. When he was in his pomp, throughout the first decade of this century, his success seemed inevitable. But three lacklustre seasons – 2011, 2012 and 2013 – tarnished his legend and it seemed like he was commencing the inevitable descent towards retirement.

Rossi, however, had other ideas. Before the start of last season he celebrated his 35th birthday, making him 14 years older than reigning MotoGP king Marc Márquez. At the first race he fought elbow to elbow with the youngster and two thirds of the way through the season he was fast enough to force him into a mistake and defeat him.

Rossi arrested his decline with sheer hard work, a cornerstone of his career that’s often overlooked by those keen to romanticise his success as the inevitable result of his genius.

Former MotoGP champion Nicky Hayden has twice been Rossi’s team-mate and has been able to scrutinise him closer than most.

“When we were at Ducati everybody said Valentino wasn’t trying, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Hayden. “He really wanted to make that work. I remember testing with him at Mugello a few times. We’d be there two or three days, then on the last day the track would close at six, so he’d send the team manager to the officials, asking for another 15 minutes, just to try one more thing.

“He really does work hard and he shows up prepared down to the last detail. Not just fitness, but mentally and with the bike, so he doesn’t just rely on his talent. He knows every setting, he knows every change the team makes. He doesn’t just show up at the box five minutes before the session and put his helmet on; he really works with his team.”

After studying Márquez at close quarters and endlessly on TV reruns, Rossi significantly changed his riding technique last season, proving Charles Darwin’s adage that “survival is ultimately dependent on the ability to change and evolve”.

“If you want to stay on top you must look at what the fastest riders are doing,” Rossi says.

“I now use more of the top of my body outside the bike to improve turning. I also try to modify my position on the bike and the movement of the bike and I move forward more during acceleration to avoid wheelies [which is better than relying on the anti-wheelie software to cut engine power].”

Rossi ended last season second overall, ahead of team-mate Jorge Lorenzo and behind Márquez, who dominated the campaign despite several accidents. That performance prompts the question: can he win an eighth MotoGP crown in 2015? Mick Doohan, the man who dominated the premier class before Rossi, is one of many who believe he can.

“If Valentino comes out of the blocks strong, anything is possible,” says the Australian. “And if he comes out hard at the start of the season, that will drive him to push harder. Márquez will be tough to beat, but he still falls off a lot.”

Rossi has been training more than ever this winter and spending a lot of time at his dirt track ranch, where he races friends and rivals every weekend. He is also working hard on Yamaha, who are fully behind him, taking bike development in whichever direction he desires.

His biggest hope is for a revised chassis character that will allow him to spend less time on the edge of the tyres. Yamaha’s YZR-M1 uses corner speed and lean angle to go fast, whereas Márquez’s Honda RC213V achieves its lap times from getting in and out, making corners as short as possible.

“We need to stress the rear tyre less,” Rossi says. “We suffer too much when the tyres go down – we lose turning and then we lose contact with the Hondas.”

There is every chance Rossi will stay in MotoGP beyond his current contract, which goes to the end of 2016. Perhaps he has his eyes on becoming the oldest winner of a premier-class Grand Prix. That’s a long shot – he will have to stick around until 2023 if he wants to take the record from Scot Fergus Anderson, who won the 1953 Spanish Grand Prix, riding a Moto Guzzi around Barcelona’s Montjuich Park, at the age of 44.

The British Superbike Championship is the world’s most competitive national bike series, so it’s fitting that four-time BSB king Shane ‘Shakey’ Byrne is the latest winner of the Royal Automobile Club’s Torrens Trophy, a grand silver tankard that is Britain’s major motorcycling award.

Byrne – who got his nickname from rivals amused by his spectacular riding style – received the award at the end of January for winning his fourth BSB crown at the age of 37. Alongside Rossi’s ongoing success, Byrne’s latest title underlines the increasing longevity of careers in bike racing, thanks largely to safer tracks, bikes and riding gear.