Tavullia and Valentino Rossi's Motor Ranch: The Doctor's Empire
Valentino Rossi's hometown is the Graceland of MotoGP, where even the speed limit pays homage to him. But as Mat Oxley discovers, amid the hero worship something far more important is happening: an Italian motorcycling renaissance
Valentino Rossi’s racetrack achievements are awe-inspiring: 23 world championship seasons and 323 grands prix contested since March 1996, 115 victories, 232 podiums and nine world titles across three classes. And yet these numbers are very nearly eclipsed by the actual, physical empire he has created in the environs of Tavullia, the ancient hilltop town in Italy’s Marche region where he grew up and still lives.
Tavullia might as well be renamed Rossi Town. VR46 flags fly from most lampposts, trees and houses. The speed limit is 46kph, not 50kph. The town square is bordered by a Rossi merchandise shop, pizzeria, gelataria, bottega and bar. Buildings are painted in Rossi’s trademark yellow and traffic signs are adorned with graffiti scrawled by admirers who make the pilgrimage to his hometown from around the globe.
Thus Tavullia is probably as close as anything gets to the Graceland of motor sport. During our visit a coachload of devotees from Serbia rolls into the square. A queue of fans, cash at the ready, forms outside the VR46 official store, while others drink cappuccinos, each frothy mug topped with a number 46 sprinkled in cocoa.
Over the past decade or so Tavullia’s most famous son has become the town’s biggest employer, hiring 84 full-time staff, mostly locals, constructing a 3200 square-metre headquarters, where his business, merchandising, VR46 Riders Academy and Moto2 and Moto3 teams are based. And a mile outside the town he has built the VR46 Motor Ranch, a superb 1.5-mile dirt-track where he trains with the academy, which he established in order to reinvigorate Italian motorcycle racing. The CEO of this enterprise is childhood friend Albi Tebaldi, who nicknames his boss Il Capo.
“The academy and the ranch are like Florence was in Renaissance times for artists and poets,” says VR46 rider Franco Morbidelli, who in 2017 became the academy’s first world champion and last season won the MotoGP Rookie of the Year title. “This is Florence for riders. Vale is our teacher, he keeps us together, so we give our maximum and develop our natural skills.”
The relationship between Rossi and his academy riders is a brotherhood that works both ways. “It’s very important for me, because to train every day when you’re alone is a lot heavier,” says Rossi. “I started with one or two guys 10 years ago. First, that gives you a challenge when you are training; second it’s more fun. Now we are 10 or 15 riders training and riding together, so you can imagine! Also, it keeps me young.”
Alex Briggs, Rossi’s mechanic of 19 years, believes the ranch and academy are vital to the 40-year-old’s apparently undying enthusiasm for motorcycle racing.
“All those young kids at the ranch, they’re trying to kill him!” Briggs laughs. “They have a lot of respect for him but when they start racing him, they don’t care and that’s definitely got to help. They all want to be him and I think he loves that – it’s like he’s found the fountain of youth in Tavullia.”
“Marco was the only guy who could stay with Vale on a bike. They were like brothers, so after Marco died there was something missing.”
And there’s little doubt that these fiery youths do inspire their master. Last year the only race Rossi looked like winning was the Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang, which he led for 16 laps before sliding off. Earlier that day his younger half-brother Luca Marini had won his GP and the 21-year-old’s team-mate Pecco Bagnaia had secured the Sky VR46 team’s first world title.
“That was a great emotion, but I needed to sit down for maybe three hours to recover; so, f**k, it was a difficult way to prepare for my race!” Rossi recalls. “But Luca’s win was an unforgettable feeling and that was an unforgettable day, because also Pecco won our team’s first world championship. I’m very proud of my brother.”
There was another sadder motivation behind the creation of the academy. A decade ago Rossi’s best friend was another local racer, Marco Simoncelli, who won the 250cc world championship in 2008, the same year that Rossi secured his sixth MotoGP crown. Simoncelli graduated to MotoGP in 2010, but lost his life in October 2011 when he fell during the Malaysian Grand Prix and was struck by Rossi and American rider Colin Edwards.
Rossi trained, raced and socialised with Simoncelli, so the death of his young friend left a huge void in his life. “Vale and Marco were together all the time – because Marco was the only guy who could stay with Vale on a bike,” says Tebaldi, who got to know Rossi during camping trips to the Italian GP in the 1990s. “They were like brothers, so after Marco died there was something missing. A year or two later Valentino said, ‘Okay, let’s build something great.’ Life can be cruel and it’s incredible what fate can give you.”
Rossi works with his apprentices as he did with Simoncelli: training in the gym with the academy’s full-time trainer Carlo Casabianca and riding bikes, all kinds of bikes. There are dirt-track bikes and motocross bikes for the ranch, 80cc MiniGP bikes for kart tracks and tricked-up, slick-shod 600cc and 1000cc road bikes for nearby Misano and at Mugello. The action never stops. And it can get nasty.
“We ride at the ranch often and race there every weekend, when we are not doing MotoGP,” adds Morbidelli. “It’s very cool. When we race at the ranch or race MiniGP bikes I’d say the emotion is exactly the same as it is at proper races. The intensity is the same but, of course, the world championship is a different matter, so here you sometimes get pissed off with other riders, but at other times you are laughing!”
Occasionally, when the racing gets too heavy, Rossi has to mediate between his disciples. “It’s not easy to find the right balance,” he admits. “But the aggression is also good for training and improving.”
We visited Tavullia on the weekend of the ranch’s annual 100km Di Campioni dirt-track race, which team-mates Rossi and Morbidelli won after two hours of drifting, crashing, bumping and barging. It was thrilling stuff, the pair engaged in a vicious battle for the lead with VR46 rider Lorenzo Baldassarri and veteran Mattia Pasini, which raged all the way to the chequered flag. No victory bonuses or championship points at stake, just pride.
The race was sound-tracked by a DJ playing Wagner, Led Zeppelin, The Who and AC/DC. On the podium the winners were garlanded with strings of sausages and awarded a leg of ham each. The racing was deadly serious; the event itself, not so much.
Bagnaia – who was unable to contest the race because he was picking up his Moto2 world championship medal – is typical of the youngsters who have made their way to the court of the seven-times MotoGP king.
“The race became a mecca for all kinds of petrolhead”
“We are together every day, training and racing,” says the 22-year-old, born in Turin. “This is very important, because we are always in competition. We are friends, but at the track we want to beat everyone else in the group, so the motivation is always very high. And having Valentino as a coach is incredible, because he’s done everything in his career and made mistakes, so he knows how to do things and how to change, so it’s a faster process for us.
“The really special part is that we always go out together in the evenings, eating at different restaurants, where we talk about motorbikes and girlfriends.”
Morbidelli was born in Rome and was the first VR46 rider. His father had raced with Rossi’s dad, Graziano, so when Morbidelli was 13 years old his family moved to Tavullia to train with Rossi.
“Then I became the first VR46 rider when the academy was born in 2013,” adds the 24-year-old. “Valentino decided to make everything official, making contracts with the riders who were training with him. Valentino said, ‘Okay, let’s help these guys 100 per cent.’
“The first thing I learned from Valentino was to give everything that I had when I was racing, because I used to calculate things too much. He understood I was thinking too much. And the best advice for somebody who thinks too much is to tell them not to think too much! The biggest thing I’ve learned from him is that you need to have fun, because he has fun all the time
“VR46 has given me fantastic opportunities – I wouldn’t be in MotoGP without them. I race Valentino every week at the ranch; sometimes I’m faster, sometimes he’s faster. It’s been a long time now – I started riding with him at the quarry.”
The ranch has its roots in a gravel quarry a few miles further down the hill from Tavullia, where a very young Rossi first fell in love with wheels and engines. Graziano, who went rallying after a head injury ended his bike-racing career, practised in the quarry, which soon became a mecca for all kinds of petrolhead: rally drivers roaring around in beaten-up Ford Escorts and Opel Asconas, bikers on motocross machines and kids in karts, including his son.
“The gravel quarry was a completely crazy place,” says Tebaldi, who was also a member of the gravel-pit gang. “Graziano always arrived first in the mornings and would decide the track for the day, depending on where the piles of gravel and rocks were that day. When we arrived he would give us a briefing: ‘Okay, after the straight there is a broken-down digger in the middle of the next corner, so be careful.’ He improvised every weekend and we enjoyed racing the young riders who came along.”
Eventually Rossi decided he needed somewhere better and safer to train. Graziano owns some land in a valley overlooked by Tavullia, which Rossi visited in 2010, with Simoncelli and Pasini. They imagined a dirt racetrack, undulating across the hillside, beside a half-derelict farmhouse, which would be renovated and transformed into circuit offices.
“Racing here is a lot more fun than MotoGP,” grins Rossi. “Riding this track is one of the best things you can do on a motorcycle. Also, you don’t have any pressure. You just have your friends with you, so you play and you fight. It’s the best.”
“All these young kids at the ranch want to be him, and I think he loves that”
The Motor Ranch and VR46 headquarters are Rossi’s fiefdom, a money-no-object racer’s utopia where all is done to perfection. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has worked with Rossi since he first arrived in the grand prix paddock almost a quarter of a century ago. He has a passion for perfection, always has had, but it came as shock to his first team manager.
“Even then, Valentino was Valentino,” says Giampiero Sacchi, who signed the unknown 16-year-old on the cheap at the end of 1995. “I’d never seen a rider who wanted to do things like fix all the stickers to his bike. He has always been very careful with the details.”
Indeed. All the track layouts at the ranch have concrete foundations, topped with limestone and various grades of sand, which is manicured by tractors to create just the right amount of grip. Dirt track is the best way to practise and perfect bike-control skills, because it’s easier to push past the limit and then recover. Dirt track is also safer, because it’s slower than road racing, although it’s not 100 per cent safe. Each bend at the Motor Ranch has a name, including Tebaldi Corner, where the VR46 CEO crashed and broke three vertebrae.
The converted farmhouse is just as impressive: immaculate changing rooms, meeting rooms, kitchen, dining room, bedrooms for visiting riders and so on. The toilets include bidets, which might just be a first in any motor sport complex.
Tavullia sits within a verdant agricultural region, with ploughed fields criss-crossing the ranks of hillsides that fade towards the horizon. Some years ago Graziano did his bit for local agribusiness by planting the hillsides above the racetrack with vines, but the wine was rubbish, so now there’s an olive grove that produces excellent oil.
There’s no prize money at Valentino Rossi’s annual 100km dirt-track race, but the racing is just as vicious as MotoGP
On the other side of town stands the VR46 headquarters, with mirror-windowed reception area. Downstairs are the workshops of Rossi’s Moto2 and Moto3 world championship teams and Moto3 Italian championship junior team, plus a warehouse that annually processes 20 million euros of merchandising. And not only Rossi kit. Cal Crutchlow, Maverick Viñales, Alex Rins, Jack Miller and others also have VR46 look after their merchandising. Upstairs are studios, where everything is designed, and the management offices, where deals are thrashed out with riders and sponsors.
This empire springs from Rossi’s desire to keep everything in-house. He doesn’t want anyone else making money out of him. Instead he owns a business with a total turnover of more than 30 million euros (not including his own earnings), which is run on a daily basis by people he’s known for decades. This followed one of the darker moments of his career, when his first manager left him with a £75 million tax bill. Rossi has known Tebaldi and Uccio Salucci, who runs the riders and teams side of the business, since he was a kid. It’s all very Italian, in the best possible way.
It’s the same throughout the organisation. Some of the staff and mechanics in his Moto2 and Moto3 teams first worked with Rossi in the 1990s, when he was just a teenager working his way up.
Rossi has 11 riders, aged between 17 and 24, in his academy: world champions Morbidelli and Bagnaia, Marini, Marco Bezzecchi, Nicolo Bulega, Nico Antonelli, Andrea Migno, Celestino Vietti, Baldassarri, Stefano Manzi and Dennis Foggia.
Of course, many of them grew up worshipping their mentor, never imagining that they would become part of his crew.
“Vale has been my hero since I was very young – I met him but never spoke to him when I visited MotoGP races as a kid,” says 20-year-old Bezzecchi, who challenged for last year’s Moto3 world title. “I joined the academy after I won the Italian Moto3 championship in 2015. At first it was very strange working with him. I was always nervous, but now it’s normal. The academy supports me in every way. They have made me physically stronger and more motivated. And whenever I need something they do everything they can to give me what I need.”
VR46 Academy riders took first and second in Sunday’s MotoGP and Moto2 races, largely thanks to the efforts of big uncle Rossi: San Marino GP insight, part 2
Rossi continues mentoring these youngsters even when he’s at GPs, where his main focus is chasing more victories.
“Every evening we go to his motorhome,” says Marini. “We all ask him for technical advice about riding and the track. He gives us a lot of attention and always gives us good things to think about. If I have a problem at one corner, I message him between practice sessions and he messages me back to tell me what to do.”
All the riders pay 10 percent of their earnings into VR46, for which they get access to track and training facilities, business management, merchandising operations and so on. They even get English lessons, so they can communicate with non-Italian engineers and media. And two days after our visit Aldo Drudi, Rossi’s favourite graphic designer and another lifelong friend, took several VR46 riders to the Uffizi gallery in Florence. This is no normal motor sport enterprise.
But it seems to be working. Italy has long been grand prix racing’s most successful nation, with more than 800 GP victories since the inaugural world championships of 1949. However, Spain is catching up, with more than 600 since 1968. And leaving aside Rossi’s seven MotoGP crowns, Italian riders won three world titles between 2001 and 2016 to Spain’s 19. Thus the 2017 and 2018 Moto2 successes of Morbidelli and Bagnaia suggest that Rossi’s academy is turning around Italy’s motorcycling fortunes.
This season Rossi will share the MotoGP grid with Morbidelli and rookie Bagnaia. And there’s a good chance that Morbidelli – who rides a Yamaha YZR-M1 just like Rossi’s – will sometimes have the beating of his mentor. Which will be interesting…
The class of 2019
Who’s who in Valentino Rossi’s riding academy – and what will they be racing during the season ahead?
1 Marco Bezzecchi (Moto2, Red Bull KTM Tech 3)
Came out of nowhere to challenge for last year’s Moto3 title. This year graduates to Moto2.
2 Francesco Bagnaia (MotoGP, Alma Pramac Ducati)
Won Sky VR46’s first world title last year and becomes the second VR46 rider to make it into MotoGP
3 Valentino Rossi (MotoGP, Monster Yamaha) The old warhorse celebrates his 40th birthday and 24th GP season in 2019. His contract lasts until the end of 2020.
4 Luca Marini (Moto2, Sky VR46 Kalex)
Last year finally came out of his big brother’s shadow with his first GP win. Goes into 2019 as a world title contender.
5 Nicolo Bulega (Moto2, Sky VR46 Kalex)
Struggled through the last two years in Moto3. VR46 hopes that a move to Moto2 will revive the lanky teenager.
6 Andrea Migno (Moto3, Bester Capital Dubai KTM)
Hasn’t won a race since his first GP victory in 2017, so he will need to dig deep to justify the academy’s investment.
7 Franco Morbidelli (MotoGP, Petronas Sepang Racing Yamaha)
The first to sign to the VR46 academy, the first to win a world title and the first to make it into MotoGP.
8 Stefano Manzi (Moto2, Forward Racing Team MV Agusta)
Last year topped the all-classes crash league, with 31! Rides a different bike this season.
9 Niccolò Antonelli (Moto3, SIC58 Squadra Corse Honda)
Goes into his eighth GP season needing to step it up after failing to finish on the podium last year.
10 Dennis Foggia (Moto3, Sky Racing Team VR46 KTM)
Won the 2017 Moto3 Junior world championship with Sky VR46’s junior team and moved to GPs last season.
11 Lorenzo Baldassarri (Moto2, Pons HP40 Kalex)
Another Moto2 world title hopeful after his best season which included one race victory and four more podiums.
12 Celestino Vietti (Moto3, Sky VR46 KTM)
Contested last year’s Moto3 junior world series for the VR46 junior team. Made his GP debut at Motegi. Scored his first GP podium the next weekend at Phillip Island.