On March 8th Valentino Rossi will commence his 25th season as a grand prix rider and his 21st as a competitor in the premier MotoGP category. This is a startling achievement in a sport that isn’t usually kind to its contenders.
Rossi may not have won a race since 2017, but he is still a giant of the sport. Indeed he towers over the history of motorcycle racing like no other. There have been 940 grands prix since the start of the inaugural 1949 world championship season and Rossi has contested 402 of those.
He made his grand prix debut in Malaysia on March 31st 1996, at the age of 17 years and six weeks. This was before the Sepang circuit was built. From 1991 to 1997 the Malaysian grand prix was staged at the little Shah Alam circuit, just outside Kuala Lumpur.
Shah Alam was carved out of the jungle, with monkeys hanging from trees at the side of the track and snakes occasionally slithering across the asphalt.
At that time Rossi was just another grand prix rookie, who had guaranteed himself a place in the 1996 125cc world championship by finishing in the top three of the 1995 125cc European championship. He didn’t win that series, he was beaten into second by Lucio Cecchinello, now owner of the LCR Honda team, which currently runs Cal Crutchlow and Takaaki Nakagami in MotoGP.
In 1996 Rossi was the junior team-mate in Scuderia Carrizosa, owned by urbane paddock svengali Giampiero Sacchi. He rode an over-the-counter Aprilia RS125, thanks to his father’s friendship with Aprilia race boss Carlo Pernat.
“Valentino must say many, many thanks to his father for his help,” says Pernat. “Graziano called me on the phone every day for two weeks! He broke my balls to help his son!”
Cunning has always been one of Rossi’s greatest strengths. During the 1995 season, when many European championship rounds were staged at grands prix, he struck up a friendship with reigning 125cc world champion Haruchika Aoki.
“Valentino asked me for advice and we became very good friends,” says Aoki, who won the 125 world title in 1995 and 1996. “We became like brothers – I stayed at his house in Italy and he stayed at mine in Japan. At the races I was like a teacher – we would walk the tracks, so I could show him braking points and lines. He sometimes followed me in practice, learning how to get the lap time.”
“Martinez came to see me with a lot of anger. He wanted to kill me”
Aoki was like a god to the Italian teenager. “Now it’s the other way around!” Aoki laughs.
Rossi qualified 12th fastest at Shah Alam, 0.95 seconds behind polesitter and 1994 125 world champion, Kazuto Sakata.
He went better in the race, a methodology that’s been a hallmark of his career. He gradually worked his way forward into a gang of nine riders battling for a podium result. Within this group was one of the most successful small-capacity riders of all time, Jorge Martinez, winner of four 80cc and 125cc world titles. Perhaps the young rookie should’ve held back and learned from the maestro, but the mind of an impetuous teenage racer doesn’t work like that. Rossi only had eyes for the podium and was a fraction ahead of Martinez when things went awry in the final laps.
Martinez still remembers the moment. “Four laps from the finish I was fighting for the podium with a group of riders, including Valentino. I was waiting for the last two laps, when I would start pushing for the result. Then, in the middle of a slow corner, Valentino braked, I touched him and crashed. I was very angry!”
Inevitably, Rossi’s version of events is slightly different. “Another rider had a problem right in front of me, so I had to close the throttle; that’s why Martinez hit me. After the race he came to see me in my box with a lot of anger. He wanted to kill me, so from then our relationship was a bit difficult.”
In fact Martinez – a veteran rider/team owner by then – could have been team-mates with Rossi in 1996. “Valentino’s father came to see me at the end of 1995, so we could talk about Valentino riding for my team,” adds the Spaniard. “In the end, we decided, no, because my mentality was to use only Spanish riders. Now I think I made a bad decision!”
Rossi crossed the finish line at Shah Alam in sixth place, an impressive debut. But his next two outings were sobering: 11th at Sentul, Indonesia, and again at Suzuka. The championship’s move to Europe and more familiar ground changed everything for Rossi. He finished fourth at Jerez and Mugello, just a few hundredths of a second off the podium on both occasions.
Those results convinced him that he had what it takes, but they also over-excited him. He crashed out of the next two races at Circuit Paul Ricard and Assen, trying too hard to make his first appearance on a grand prix podium. Mid-season engine upgrades for his Aprilia – thanks to Pernat’s influence – made the difference. He scored his first podium at Austria’s A1-Ring (now Red Bull Ring) on August 4th, 1996 and then his first victory at Brno in the Czech Republic on August 18th. The man he beat in a vicious last-lap duel was 33-year-old Martinez.
Mat Oxley has covered motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner