"I think I’m now quite good on 500s": Valentino Rossi on his first premier-class title

MotoGP

Even when he won his first premier-class world title Valentino Rossi was already talking about ditching bikes and racing cars

Valentino Rossi at Honda in 2001

Rossi and his NSR500, Italy, spring 2001

Honda

Exactly twenty years and one week ago Valentino Rossi was at Jerez, Spain, preparing for the race that would put him on a premier-class podium for the very first time.

This wasn’t an easy weekend, however. Rossi arrived at Jerez in April 2000 badly spooked by a worryingly poor start to his 500cc career. He had crashed out of his first two races aboard his Honda NSR500, then struggled to an 11th-place finish at Suzuka, Japan, 29 seconds behind winner Norifumi Abe, his childhood hero.

In other words, Rossi’s 500cc career wasn’t all plain sailing. Before he succeeded he had to fail, just as he had done on 125s and 250s.

His second season on an NSR500 was very different. He won 11 races, a feat he repeated with Honda’s sublime RC211V in 2002 and Yamaha’s YZR-M1 in 2005.

We did this interview at Sepang on October 18, 2001, four days after he had wrapped up the 2001 title at Phillip Island. This was before the days of 15-minute interview slots, so the chat went on for nearly an hour, much to the displeasure of Rossi’s manager Gibo Badioli, who paced around the office like a hungry wolf.

Rossi talks about arch-rival Max Biaggi, racing Mick Doohan, his wild victory celebrations and getting bored of racing motorcycles and doing something else!

 

You were incredibly dominant this season, were you surprised by how many races you won?

“I was surprised to win the first three in a row because I’m usually not so fast at the start of the season. But we had some very good tests during the winter, so we arrived at the first three GPs in good shape. I knew we had the potential to win some races and the world championship, but I thought it would start more slowly.”

Max Biaggi always talks a lot about you having the better bike…

“Who? Max who? Ha, ha!”

Valentino can test many different things at the same time, without getting confused. He has some kind of amazing link system which allows him to think ‘I like this’ and ‘I don’t like this’.”

But could you beat him if you were on a Yamaha?

“For me, I think yes, because we’re not talking about Biaggi winning six races and me seven, or me scoring just ten points more than him. Of course, I think my bike is very good. Me, my team and HRC had worked hard on this bike since October 2000, we did some fantastic work and we made a fantastic bike, but I also think that I was the fastest rider last season, usually. I won 11 races, Biaggi won three and he only won Assen because the race was stopped early because of rain.

“And when he won at Le Mans and Sachsenring, his team-mate Checa was second, so for sure those tracks were not so bad for the Yamaha; at Sachsenring there were five Yamahas in the first six! Sometimes Capirossi also said he’d beat me if he’d had a 2001 NSR like me. He had the old bike this year but I still beat him in 2000 when I was riding the same bike for most of the season. I ended last year second overall, he arrived in seventh.”

You seemed to make a big jump forward after the midseason break, which halted Biaggi’s title charge, how did you do that?

“We had a few better parts from HRC, but it was the team that made the difference because they changed their way of working to suit me. Mick Doohan had a different riding style from me, he didn’t use so much corner speed, so he had less of a problem with settings. He used to slide and go, like a real 500 rider.

“But I came from 250s so I had to change my style to go into corners a little slower and though I learned to understand slide control and started to slide like Mick, I’m still faster in the middle of the corner, not because I’m a better rider, just because I have a different technique. And to ride with this style, using more corner speed, you have to have more accurate settings.

“But the team also started working my way. Germany was a very hard race for us and a very bad result [Ed: Rossi was seventh, his worst dry-weather result of the year], but it was also very good because Jerry [Burgess, Rossi’s ex-Doohan crew chief] understood that it was necessary to follow me more and to make more changes. From Germany on he changed a lot and we tried many different things with settings. Before that I would sometimes say I want to try this or that and he would say ‘No, for sure it won’t work’, but now we try everything.”

So how did the bike change?

“All the suspension settings, to give me more front tyre grip, but most of all the bike now turns better. The Honda 500 had always had a turning problem, it would always run wide, now the bike is better from that point of view.”

[At this moment, Rossi’s HRC team manager Carlos Fiorano chips in: “I’m saying this because I know Valentino can’t. When Valentino came to 500s, Jerry would only let him test one or two things at a time, because Mick was like that, Mick would never test more than two or three things at a time. But now Jerry says that Valentino has an incredible system, he can test many different things at the same time, without getting confused. He has some kind of amazing link system which allows him to think ‘I like this’ and ‘I don’t like this’.”]

Valentino Rossi at Honda in 2001

Rossi in the studio, before his 500 debut in April 2000

Honda

Do you think Max hasn’t changed his style from 250s?

“Yes, absolutely. Biaggi is a very hard 250 rider, he won four 250 championships, so he’s very good on 250s, and of course, he’s also very good on 500s. But he never slides the rear, never, you never see him sliding because he uses the front so much. Riding like that it’s possible to win three or four races a year, because with that style it’s necessary to have the settings 100 per cent correct. When I started 500s I also used the front very much, and I crashed many time because I was using the front too much. Biaggi also uses the front too much.”

Does Biaggi’s Yamaha YZR have any advantages over your Honda NSR?

“It’s always been quite easy for me to overtake everywhere… just because I try”

“Yes, the Yamaha is easier to use than our bike on acceleration, it’s easier to open the throttle early because the engine character is softer. We have good braking stability but the Yamaha has a very good corner speed.”

You rode your best race of 2001 at Donington, coming from 11th to win; how come you’re so good at overtaking?

“I’m very used to coming from the back because I’ve never been a very good starter, it was the same in 125 and 250. Like at Barcelona this year, I started from pole but I was almost last at the first corner because I collided with [Alex] Crivillé or [Sete] Gibernau. Maybe other riders would have though ‘Oh fuck, we’re lost’, but I did the same in the 250 race there in ’98. I started from second on the grid, and I’d had a good pace in practice, but I started very bad and I was 20th at the first corner, so it was necessary to stay calm and just go.

“It’s always been quite easy for me to overtake everywhere, but I don’t think that’s because I’m better than the other guys, just because I try. Many other riders say that it’s very hard to overtake at the Sachsenring, okay so it is, but if you try, maybe it’s not very hard.”

During 2001 the 500 pace was much faster than before, why?

“With Michelin’s 16.5in rear for sure it’s possible to have a faster rhythm all the way through the race. Also, there were three Italians fighting for the championship, so there was lots of rivalry and we all gave 120 per cent to be the fastest. Plus I’ve always had a good pace in races, so if the others want to chase me and beat me, they’ve got to push.

“During 1999, when I was doing 250s, and during 2000, the 500 pace was sometimes the same as the 250s and I hated that. It’s not right that the pace should be the same because 500s have double the horsepower, so it was time to raise the pace. After Mick said stopped in early 1999, the 500 pace was very calm and sweet, the lap times were always slower than the lap record.”

So if Mick was still racing, could you beat him?

“Ha ha! I think I’m now quite good on 500s, but I’ve seen some of Mick’s data readouts and, fuck, he was very fast. It was him that made the difference, not the bike. He was able to make the difference because he’d always been fighting with Rainey, Schwantz, Lawson and Gardner, and when all the ‘Old Dogs’ stopped, it was easy for him to beat Crivillé, Roberts, Okada and all. If I was to race Mick, I think I could fight with him, but I don’t know who would win. Nobody knows, ha ha!”

When Biaggi crashed right in front of you at Motegi, for the second time in four races, are you sure you didn’t smile?

“No I didn’t smile. When Biaggi crashed at Brno and Motegi he was going so quick. I had my mind on other things, like ‘Ah, maybe it’s possible to overtake him here on the last lap’, or ‘Here I’m faster, there I’m slower’, and when he crashed I thought ‘Oh fuck, now it’s necessary to change my plan’, so it was ‘What do I do now?.  For sure it was easier to win after he crashed at Brno and Motegi but I didn’t smile either time.”

Will beating Biaggi to the title change your relationship with him?

“It won’t change my relationship with him, because we don’t have a relationship, ha!”

Tell us what happened when you had the punch-up at Catalunya.

“What happened wasn’t very big and it wasn’t important. It was like being at school: “He started it!”, “No, he started it!”, “No, he started it!”. Biaggi said that I started this fucking shit but it’s necessary to think about what happened before. I started the race from last position and I arrived first at the flag, I made the fastest lap and I made a fantastic victory, so why would I want to make all that shit? That’s all I’m saying.”

Max says you use the rivalry for energy to help you ride faster, do you agree?

“When I was racing for the 250 title in 1999 my main rival was Tohru Ukawa but I always knew in my mind that I could beat him. For sure, Biaggi is stronger because he’s so fast. To beat me he gave 120 per cent, so the fight was fucking hard. In the past in he never rode the 500 like he did last season, maybe ’98 but in ’99 and 2000 he wasn’t so fast.

“In ’99, when I was fighting with Ukawa, he had a 40 point lead after my chain broke at Paul Ricard. It was a strange situation because I knew I was faster than him but I knew I couldn’t afford one mistake because the gap would go to 60 points and I’d be fucked.

“You want to choose between the RCV and NSR for 2002, but do you really think Honda will let you make the choice?

“It’s a difficult situation but I think it’s necessary for me to try the RCV because although Honda think this bike is very much faster than the 500, I’m not so sure. Before I speak anymore I think I need to try the RCV again because so far I’ve only ridden it for eight laps at Suzuka in the rain.”

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You seem to think the four-stroke won’t give you as much riding satisfaction as the 500…

“Yes, the satisfaction of riding the 500 is a very, very big motivation for me, because when you’re riding the most difficult bike in the world, it’s necessary to have a perfect set-up if you’re to be able to ride fast, and you’ve also got to ride perfect all the time. I think it’s necessary to have big balls to ride the 500. I think the four-stroke may be faster but for sure it won’t give same sensation.”

You have achieved a huge amount of success, and wealth also, but is the price of fame too much?

“There is a price, but for sure fame has more good points than bad. The first bad thing is the stress. Now I can’t go anywhere in the world without being recognised. Very many people recognise me and want autographs and photos. The situation is a little better in London, but now I’ve won the 500 championship, Italy is a nightmare, a nightmare. I will never be able to live a normal life there, never.”

You seem to cope very well with fame, especially the attention you get from the media.

“Until this year I was most famous when I started 125s because I was new, and I started to win very much and I made some big shows at the end of races. At that time my popularity increased and it changed my life, because then before I was normal! Now I don’t know when I’ll dare to return to Italy. But fame affects you in different ways; when you have many fans waiting outside your motorhome who follow you like a slipstream, yes, it’s heavy, but it’s good. But it’s worse with the Italian journalists because they only follow me for one reason, they’re waiting for a mistake. If I say one word wrong or if I crash, it’s “Ah fuck, he’s stupid”.

After you won the 125 title, you went to 250s and your popularity slipped, why?

“When I started 250s my results were, well, not shit, but during the first half of the season I only won one race. I made some mistakes, had some crashes and sometime I finished behind Harada and Capirossi, who were also riding Aprilias. I think that was normal because Harada and Capirossi had ridden 250s for many years, while it was my first season, so it was difficult to beat them with so little experience.

“But very many people, who I thought were my friends, said “Ah, 250s aren’t the same as 125s. Rossi won very many 125 races last year but this year he’s made mistakes, he’s stupid”. This was really bad for me, but also really good because I found out who my real friends were. Before then I thought I had more friends that I actually did.”

So who are your real friends, celebrities or old mates?

“For sure, in my position I know some famous people, singers, actors and whenever I’m in Milano or Roma, I see these people and say “Ciao!”. But my best friends are old friends. We have a group of eight or nine people who have been friends for 15 or 20 years, since preschool.”

Valentino Rossi at Honda in 2001

Rossi and his NSR500 won 11 races in 2001

Honda

You seemed less open and more serious during 2001, have you changed?

“The way you see things, your view of the world, changes between the age of 18 and 22. I’m older now, so I think I understand more, and for sure my life has changed. Whenever I leave my motorhome there are always very many people and unfortunately I don’t have enough time to do every autograph and photo because we have work to do. If I never say stop, I don’t get a minute to myself.

“When you’re 16 or 17 you don’t have problems, unless it’s something really big like family problems. Life is different when you’re young, you only think about having fun. All that changes when you get more responsibilities, especially in my case because I have so much to do.”

Tell us about your alter-egos: Rossifumi, Valentinik and the Doctor…

“Before I started racing in the world championship I was a big fan of GP racing, it was my passion. I watched all the races on TV, knew all the riders’ numbers, all their helmet design, the whole circus. Rossifumi was for Norifumi Abe because I really liked him and all the Japanese riders.

“We changed to Valentinik in 1999 because we needed a superhero to come back from the bad situation of ’98. At the end of ’98 I changed my riding style a little, won the last four races and became very strong on the 250. After that I prepared to win the championship in ’99, so we chose this superhero based on an Italian comic hero called Paperinik. Paperino is Donald Duck in Italian and Walt Disney has a duck superhero called Paperinik, who wears a mask and a cape, but he’s not like Superman, he’s a little bit unlucky, he makes some mistakes, some casinos, but at the end of every story he’s always the superhero. Paperino becomes a superhero and becomes paperinik, so Valentino became a superhero and became Valentinik!

“After that we changed to the Doctor for 2001 because with 500s you don’t need a superhero, you need to be quiet, calm and thoughtful, more like a doctor. Also, because in Italy there are very many doctors called Dr Rossi, so I became Dr Rossi.”

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So what’s next?

“Next year we stay with the doctor for sure, and after that I don’t know, we’ve no ideas yet.”

And what do the words ‘Tribu dei Chihuahua’ on your visor mean?

“It means ‘The Chihuahua Tribe’. The Chihuahua were a tribe of North American Indians, and our gang of friends is called the ‘Tribu dei Chihuahua’!”

And WLF on the collar of your leathers?

“WLF stands for ‘Viva La Figa’ which means ‘Long Live Pussy’!”

Tell us how your post-race victory celebrations started?

“Usually in a bar in Tavullia at two in the morning! They’re just a game, just some fun with my fan club. When I started winning GPs, we decided we should try to make some big fun because back then all the riders were very, very serious. We just wanted to do something new to show the big emotion of winning races.”

So why did they finish?

“Because I don’t think a lot of people really understood the whole thing, so they don’t deserve it. It’s like last June at Mugello, we had my bikes in that Hawaiian paint scheme, they looked great. But when I crashed out of the race some people said I’d only crashed because I’d been up all night painting the bikes!

“In ’98 at Mugello I finished second and arrived on the podium wearing beach gear and people said bad things. It’s like if you win every race of your career you’re a genius, but if you finish second you’re a fucking clown, or stupid! So I decided it was better to stop all this and just wave like other riders, then have a big party on Sunday night with my real friends.

Valentino Rossi in beach gear on the podium at Mugello in 1998

On the podium at Mugello in 1998

Getty Images

“The problem with many journalists who write bad things is that they are too conformist, so if you make a rude sign for fun, you’re a piece of shit, or a criminal, so you should go to jail. I don’t understand all that.”

Where did the Hawaiian paintjob come from?

“It was an old idea. In ’99 we had two different ideas for my Mugello paintjob – the Seventies-style Valentinik peace and love thing, which is what we used, and the Hawaiian thing. So we already had the idea, and I think it was a very, very beautiful bike.”

Tell us about your sleeping habits, JB has had to wake you a few times for practice…

“I never go to bed before one o’clock, and there’s no limit on when I go to bed, but even when I go to sleep very late I always wake up at 8.30, though when I do wake up I always have a big confusion for the first five minutes, then after that I remember: “Oh fuck, I’m at world grand prix!” So I have a shower and then I’m okay. I never get up too close to riding time because the 500 is a dangerous bike so it’s necessary to be awake when you climb aboard. Maybe in the afternoon after practice at four or five o’clock I’ll sleep for another hour.”

How much time do you spend in London now?

“Most of the time. I have very many Italian friends there, who work in restaurants. There’s one near my home, all the chefs and waiters are Italian, and when they finish work we go dancing, to clubs like China White.”

What’s the girl situation?

“I split up with Eliana last October, so I’ve been single for a year. One year of freedom, ha!”

You’re 22-years-old and you’ve already won everything in bikes, how are you going to stay interested?

“Now we have a new fight with the four-stroke. It’s like starting from zero, like changing classes again. But if I win with the four-stroke maybe it will be necessary to change sport. I know myself very well, and once I’ve won, I don’t find it very interesting to stay on to win again. Breaking records isn’t important to me. Once I’ve won the 250, I’ve won it, same with 500. Now I have the four-stroke, which is a new bike to develop, a bit like having a baby. If we win with the RCV, it will be very satisfying. And after that, bo, I don’t know…”

What about rally driving?

“I like driving cars very much. My first dream when I was young was to become a car racer. I started racing in karts because I very much liked Formula 1, Senna, Prost and Mansell, I was a big fan, so I started go-kart racing. I also started riding minibikes, but that was just for fun. But the problem with go-karts is that they cost too much money. Just to do the Italian championship needed very much money, so I said to my father, “Maybe it’s better we race with the bike,” and he say “Ah, bo, really?” I say “Yes, so is it possible we try a bike?”. He said “Yes,” so we started minibike racing in ’92.”

Maybe you should retire and become an actor, like Agostini did?

“I think, no! I like driving cars very much so maybe that will be the new fight. After bikes, rallying is my passion. But to say I’ll do the world rally championship after bikes is unreal, because, fuck, you have people who’ve been racing rallies for 25 years, while I’ll be starting from zero. I don’t know if I can be fast enough.

“Yes, I’m quite good because my father has raced rallies for the last ten years and I sometimes go with him, so I understand it a little, and I’m quite fast with a WRC car like Subaru or Toyota. I did a Michelin championship in the Canary Islands last winter and I fought with [Gilles] Panisi, who won a round of the WRC this season, but I lost five or six seconds to him in two minutes, so I’m not the best in the world, and it won’t be very easy to change sports.”

I guess your other choice is a very, very long retirement.

“Yes, for now I have something to do here, though I don’t know how long for. The problem is that I’ll be finished by the time I’m 30. And that’s too long a retirement, so it will be necessary to have something new to do.”


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