Perhaps one day Valentino Rossi will work out how to sit back and rest on his laurels. But he’s not there yet.
Eleven weeks before his 4oth birthday and two days after MotoGP’s longest-ever season of racing and testing, he was back at it: racing motorcycles around in circles (and hurting himself), because that’s what he likes doing.
Sunday was the biggest day of the year at the VR46 Motor Ranch, the training venue that Rossi created in 2011 just outside Tavullia – the hilltop town where he grew up.
Rossi and his gang train here most days, mastering the art of throttle control and machine control around a 2.5km dirt course that includes 13 corners: lefts, rights, uphill, downhill, all graded and manicured to provide just the right amount of grip: not too much and not too little. It’s an epic facility that dwarfs many commercial tracks.
The 100-kilometre race has been the main event at the ranch since 2014. In theory, it’s a bit of postseason fun with his friends and his young apprentices from the VR46 Riders Academy, but the reality is somewhat different.
There are no world championship points up for grabs, no prize money, no bonus money, no grandstands crammed with adoring fans, but you’d never know it. The battle for the lead – Rossi and co-rider Franco Morbidelli versus Mattia Pasini and team-mate Lorenzo Baldassarri – was fast and furious throughout most of the hour and 50 minutes. As rough and as tough as anything you see in MotoGP.
“It’s a lot more fun than MotoGP… Here it’s just fun – it’s just the taste of riding a motorcycle”
“The prize is pride, just pride!” grinned Morbidelli, who took the win with Rossi by just 1.5 seconds. “Now for one year we can tell the others, we beat you!”
Morbidelli had the biggest fight of them all with Baldassarri, as they contested the lead in the latter stages of the race, during which riders did stints of around 15 minutes. The pair cut each other up continuously and collided on several occasions. Moto2 race winner Baldassarri was none too pleased with the tactics of the 2018 MotoGP rookie of the year, but Morbidelli didn’t seem bothered.
“We have very, very hard fights here – more intense than in the GPs because here there’s no Race Direction!” he laughed.
Rossi admitted that it isn’t always easy to keep aggrieved riders from boiling over in the changing rooms.
“Sometimes it’s difficult after a race, difficult to manage between the riders,” he said. “One guy says to the other: don’t do that again… I’ll f**king get you next time, things like this. But we always try to be piano, piano [softly, softly]. It’s not easy to find the right balance, but this aggression is also good for training and improving.”
The 100km lead swayed this way and that, sometimes changing several times a lap and sometimes in the pits, when each team swapped rider and bike, with mechanics switching transponders from one bike to the other as quickly as possible.
In the closing stages Rossi had taken the lead from Pasini, but when they came into the pits his crew was a split second too slow swapping their transponder, so Baldassarri raced out just ahead of Morbidelli.
Finally, Rossi and Morbidelli seemed to have lost the battle when Rossi clouted a trackside marker pole with his right foot during his penultimate stint. After he handed over to his team-mate he was limping heavily and the doctor was called.
“I was right behind Paso; very, very close to him because I wanted to attack,” he said. “In a fast right I closed my line too much and I hit the post with my foot. F**k, I felt a lot of pain. We checked it with the doctor and I said we won’t stop because, on the bike, it wasn’t a problem. I hope it’s okay – we will check it in the next few days.”