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’.”]
Rossi in the studio, before his 500 debut in April 2000
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.”