From being a painfully shy racing prodigy, Valentino Rossi has grown into a bonafide global celebrity. So how’s he coping?
n a rain-lashed Saturday afternoon in January 1998, I was standing outside the Los Angeles Coliseum speaking with American supercross superstar Jeremy McGrath when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Turning round, I saw Italian journalist Enrico Borghi. “Ciao, Eric,” he said. “I would like to introduce you to my friend Valentino Rossi. You may know of him. He won the 125cc World Championship this year. Would you be able to introduce us to Jeremy?”
Standing before me was a skinny 18 year-old dressed in jeans, a grey sweatshirt and Chuck Taylor tennis shoes. This teenaged kid from Italy who had raced his Aprilia RS125 to the 1997 world title was so painfully shy that he had a tough time even making eye contact with me. And that was my introduction to a racer who would in years to come not only define MotoGP, but actually pick the sport up, sling it over his shoulder and carry it to exotic and majestic places the world over.
It’s hard to say something about Valentino Rossi that hasn’t already been said, so we thought we’d just turn it all over to the man himself…
Valentino, you give the impression that you are just having fun, but at the age of 36 you must be training like a maniac. How do you keep fit?
When I say that I am getting old, I’m joking. I feel pretty fit and competitive actually. In the last two years I have worked very hard. Honestly, I have never trained so much in my career! Before the season, this year, I’ve been training a lot because I wanted to be prepared. In fact I was only able to rest during the summer break during a brief but nice holiday with my friends.
After so many years of racing I can say that the rider lifestyle has changed drastically. Today the riders are incredible athletes and the physical training has become essential, as in football. Before it wasn’t, you didn’t have to train, go to sleep later, drink some beers and you could still win the race! This is because the races have changed.
Before, during the race there was a time when we were studying the other riders. Today you have to set a record time on the first lap and hold an incredible pace during the race. So you have to train a lot to keep the rhythm, but you also have to be much more focused. As for me, I only had to change a few things. I like to do sports fortunately. During the weekends when I’m not busy with MotoGP I’m at the ranch [Rossi’s purpose built dirt track complex] with the guys of the Academy [his program for nurturing young Italian racing talent] and a few friends. It is a good training and it helps me so much, and above all it’s fun. I do a mix of going to the gym and training with the bike, because the gym is a bit boring. I need to stay on the bike as much as possible!
To hold that level of concentration and determination throughout a season is an inspiration to older guys everywhere. Are you aware of that effect?
I don’t know if I’m an inspiration to older guys, but if it were true I would be happy. In these cases it’s passion that makes the difference. I enjoy myself when I get on the bike and go out on track, that’s the secret trick for any age. I’m on good terms with people working in the Movistar Yamaha MotoGP Team and when you have a good working condition like this, everything is easier. In fact, I always say that as long as I’m having fun, I will continue racing in the championship, but even after my career in MotoGP I will continue racing! Surely!
Where do you get the courage from to make not one but two comebacks in your career? From the outside this second one is the most astonishing of all. How does it feel to you?
In the last ten years many things have changed. Obviously I’ve changed. Maybe the only thing that stayed the same was my desire to keep competing. I love racing and riding bikes. I think that this is the real reason for my comebacks. Yes, the two years with Ducati were difficult, but my comeback with Yamaha is a great story and a good bet made by me but also by Yamaha. I’m particularly enjoying this year a lot. I’m fit, I feel really good, the M1 is competitive and strong and I am doing good races. We are leading the championship [MCN Sport went to press just after the British MotoGP] and after 12 races I just have to be happy about that. The two years with Ducati were hard, definitely, and made me decide to make some changes – I returned to Yamaha, I changed chief mechanic and I gave myself time to understand the situation at hand. I needed new incentives but the desire to race and win never fails. The adrenaline is definitely an important component, but there are also other factors. Yamaha, for example, is very good team and this also contributes. The atmosphere in the team is essential; I have a strong bond with them.
How does your long experience counterbalance what must be the superior daring and energy of the younger riders?
Yes, these are things that decreased compared to ten years ago, but in return I gained more experience and I think that experience, in motorsports, is important. As a racer you must try to use other aspects, experience for example, to your advantage. I’m trying to give the best of me, despite my age! That’s all there is to it, as well as doing my team and all the people working with me proud.
Why do you love racing motorcycles?
I’ve always loved racing in general. Ever since I was young I was riding a motorcycle. I have always enjoyed racing and it’s still fun today. I not only love motorcycle racing, but also the rally car and racing cars in general. I like to compete with go-karts, dirt bikes, motocross bike – basically I enjoy everything that has an engine!
Who are your heroes these days?
These days my heroes are the guys of the Academy. I’m very happy for all our riders, they are very strong and have improved a lot. Antonelli won his first race in Brno, Morbidelli got his first podium in Moto2 in Indianapolis and all the riders of the Academy are strong during this season. For me the Academy is a very nice project, because we are trying to help a few Italian riders get into the right teams, to try to help them in their path. Among them there is also my brother who runs in the CEV, the Spanish league Moto2. I must say that this is all very exciting because we train together, we go together to the gym and go running. It’s nice to be with these kids, it helps when there’s a nice atmosphere when you’re home and you feel younger. They are also winning races, so I’m really happy!
What does it feel like to ride a YZR-M1 as fast as it can possibly go: braking at 1.6g, tipping it in, leaning at 63 degrees at 150mph, powering out?
Riding a YZR-M1 is something really special. The feelings that you get when you ride a MotoGP bike are unique. In particular the Yamaha YZR-M1 is a bike that I love a lot because it’s very precise but also very fast, especially in corners. When you ride a motorcycle like the YZR-M1 your adrenaline level gets so high! To do the same things with other bikes is difficult.
How much fun is it to fight with Lorenzo, Marquez and Pedrosa?
Jorge and Marc are two very strong opponents and I believe that in this championship we will have to fight each other until the very end. I believe that there is not a single favorite rider for the final victory. Every single race will be fought hard, as it was the last one. Both Jorge and Marc have different skills and characteristics and I will have to be very careful with both. It’s definitely going to be a very intense season finale.
What’s on your bucket list outside motorcycle racing?
At this moment of my life I’m just focused on what happens on track. Making my “non-racing dreams” come true is something I will deal with when my racing career is over. I think I will have plenty of time to do this, when I stop racing.
May there be full-time car racing in your future?
I like all motor sports. I follow Formula 1, rally, motocross, all car racing disciplines. There was a time when I thought seriously to become a Formula 1 driver, but then I changed my mind and I decided to continue with the bikes. To be honest, I’m very happy with the choice that I made at that time. At the end of my career I will surely enjoy some rally races but the time for Formula 1 has gone.
Can you ever go out and have a normal day like the rest of us?
Yes! I live in Tavullia, and there I have many friends. We often go to dinner, all together, in a disco or a pub. Every weekend, I ride at the ranch with the guys of the Academy. There are also many friends at the ranch, not only riders.
Words Eric Johnson Pictures Cormac Ryan-Meenan, Yamaha, Monster