“When you start to become old, you have to start to think to the young riders,” says Rossi. “And sincerely, now for me is fun, no, because I am more open to give some advice to the young riders and I have my brother (Luca Marini is Rossi’s stepbrother, in blue shirt with Rossi at San Marino in 2009) that races, but also have a lot of good friends of the young Italian riders, so is good.”
“We built a new bike, we tried a new technology,” Ducati team manager Vito Guareschi said of Rossi’s time on the Ducati Desmosedici. “We understand many new things. Maybe for us we need more time, but for Valentino the career is necessary to take a result and for this reason I think he change family.”
The pairing of Burgess and Rossi has been the most successful of the modern era and one of the most successful of all time. Burgess has been with Rossi since he moved to the 500cc class in 2000, and moved with him from Honda to Yamaha to Ducati and now back to Yamaha.
“For me the most important is the combination between a fantastic personality with an incredible good rider,” says Ezpeleta, shown here with Rossi in 2010.”This is the feeling…He has been very good, especially for us, but also for him.”
“For me, one of the best things of my career and that I’m very proud of this is that I open the limit of the MotoGP, of this sport, worldwide. Because before, the number of moto passionate in the world is already quite big, but with me arrive also a lot more people.”
Rossi’s longevity is impressive. Of the finishers of the first ever MotoGP race, which Rossi won aboard a Honda at Suzuka in 2002, only two other riders are currently active — and they’re both in World Superbike.
Yamaha’s senior management knows Rossi’s value. When Rossi left at the end of the 2010 season, after he’d won titles in ’08 and ’09 and Lorenzo had won in 2010, the Fiat sponsorship left with him.
“The group of people we have around him gets enormous enjoyment out of it and I think he gets enormous enjoyment out of giving them the enjoyment, so to speak,” says longtime crew chief Jeremy Burgess.
The history of MotoGP can be linked to one person: Valentino Rossi. Rossi is not only the only current MotoGP rider who’s been with the class since its inception in 2002, he’s by far the most prolific. He has more poles (45), he’s won more MotoGP races (66), and he has more MotoGP World Championships (six) than any other rider.
But mere numbers don’t tell the story. His impact on MotoGP has been outsized. What he’s done for MotoGP is unparalleled. His immense popularity brought grand prix to the masses in a way not seen since the days of Barry Sheene. He, along with Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, has drastically improved race track safety. Most importantly, he’s an Ezpeleta confidante which gives him greater power than any other. That influence was seen in the advent of the control tire era, though he’d later come to regret it. He’s been a champion of young riders, notably his close friend the late Marco Simoncelli. His elaborate victory productions, which we haven’t seen for more than two years, have been mimicked by others, notably Jorge Lorenzo. And, despite the fact that he’ll be 34 when the lights go out for the 2013 season-opener in Qatar, he shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, it’s just the opposite. His desire to return to the top of podium sent him back to Yamaha, the factory where he earned the bulk of his MotoGP titles before his “me or Jorge” ultimatum cost him his seat and sent him into an almost interrupted two-year exile from the podium.
Said Honda Racing Corporation’s media and marketing manager Livio Suppo of Rossi’s biggest contribution to MotoGP, “Sure, the ability to promote the sport outside the specialized people when you see that in Italy we have four, five, six million sometimes, people watching TV, of course they are not all motorcyclists. Valentino, especially in Italy, but not only in Italy — I think in many countries — is known by my mother and by the mother of the motorcyclists and this has been a big plus. To promote our sport outside the normal arena.”
Ezpeleta echoes the point. “Worldwide, he has become an icon for everybody,” he said. “And the majority of the (viewers) they are outside Italy. He’s not an Italian icon, he’s a worldwide icon and everybody knows him and his personality and everything, and it’s the impact of him. But the good thing of that is he increased the popularity of MotoGP and I think many people who were coming just because of his personality, now they have become already very big MotoGP fans.”
Ezpeleta, more than anyone, knows how valuable Rossi is to MotoGP. Having run the championship since the early 90s, the Spaniard has watched Rossi rise through the ranks with a powerful combination of talent and charisma, something rarely found in racing these days. It’s that mix that has made him a star worldwide, though without the talent all the personality in the world isn’t going to elevate the sport. “Since he started in 125 (in 1996) we realized he was not just a fantastic rider, which is my opinion is the most important thing — he’s a very, very good rider — but also his personality and everything has been very important for that,” Ezpeleta said. “Since the beginning, since he was very young in 125 he was starting to do things special and the way he approached everything. And then also, well, during all this time we were collaborating a lot in trying to do different things, he has been very good, especially for us, but also for him.”
Rossi’s influence in MotoGP extends even to the adoption of control tires, the results of which weren’t quite what he expected. “I was in favor and I think that, anyway, is a good thing for MotoGP. I have to say that I have a lot of problems that I don’t expect with the mono tire, because for sure when you go to the mono tire the tire manufacturer is not interested to spend any money to develop the tires and sometimes is worse than in the past. Because the scenario change a lot from, for example, 2008 to 2009 to 2010, the quality of the tire is always more difficult.”
And also for Yamaha. When Rossi went to Honda he was expected to win on a bike that had won six of the previous seven 500cc World Championships. First he won the final 500cc World Championship in 2001 and then he took the first two MotoGP crowns before Honda drove him into the waiting arms of Yamaha; Honda always believed it was the machine, Rossi thought otherwise. Then he proved it, starting with an unexpected victory in his first race on the Gauloises Yamaha at Welkom, South Africa in 2004. Not only did Rossi vanquish rival Max Biaggi, but he used it as a springboard to his fourth consecutive world championship. Rossi stayed with Yamaha through an injury-wracked 2010 campaign when he became part of what was expected to be a dream pairing: an Italian icon on an iconic Italian motorcycle.
The results were nightmarish. To the very end Rossi said that the problems he found when he first rode the bike hadn’t been resolved, even though Ducati ordered up more than one new aluminum perimeter chassis. What no one on the team understood is why things didn’t improve. They had a wealth of knowledge from working for other brands and winning titles. But somewhere above and beyond the 40 people at the circuit, things weren’t happening. When they started to chew over in their own minds the reasons that things don’t happen, they got more frustrated. From Rossi and the team’s point of view, it was very difficult to fathom. As much as he complained and told them what was wrong, nothing ever got fixed.
“Obviously, Valentino’s been in MotoGP since the get-go and a lot of the others probably haven’t,” said Rossi’s long-serving crew chief Jeremy Burgess. “I guess his longevity in the sport is not only in MotoGP, but in grand prix racing in general is something unique in itself. Not many have been at the level that he is and with the following that he’s got before. So in that area he is unique.” That he could be at the pinnacle of the sport for so long says something about his motivation. Burgess believes part of the answer is that he’s been “relatively accident-free. He obviously thrives the sort of competition and he enjoys it very much.”
Not only has Rossi been involved in racing since 1996 when he joined the 125cc World Championship, he’s been heavily involved with rider safety. Rossi was instrumental, along with Ezpeleta, in forming the rider safety committee following the death of Japanese rider Daijiro Kato at the Suzuka season-opener in 2003 The committee, which is open to all riders and is also attended by Ezpeleta and other race officials, meets every grand prix weekend. They review the previous race and discuss what needs to be done to the current race track. No other rider has given so much of his time nor had a greater impact on the health and safety of his fellow competitors.
“Yes, this is one of the most important things,” Ezpeleta said. “After the accident of Kato in Suzuka, he took a very predominant position with everybody. He remains. I think he has missed maybe four or five grand prix, some due to his injury and others because he has conflicts. But if not, he’s coming very often and taking the responsibility to do that. It’s a very, very, very important thing for the rest of the riders. He’s taking care of his opinion regarding safety or whatever and we have always been very close with him. Maybe this is the part which his public doesn’t see, but this is the part, in our side, is very important.”
“I try to work very hard,” says Rossi. “And I have to say that also Carmelo (Ezpeleta) is very clever, because he always hears the advice of the riders, things that maybe in Formula One doesn’t happen. But Carmelo and all the organization is always open to follow the riders and to hear the riders and try to improve.”
Those who have followed in the past have included early foils Sete Gibernau and Max Biaggi. Rossi beat up on them with a predictable formula; after stalking them for most of the race he’d find a way past by any means and miraculously win. It was that flair for the dramatic that burnished his reputation. Kevin Schwantz, a close friend of Rossi’s, never bought into the last-lap heroics, believing it was pure theatre. Rossi has said otherwise. Asked if there was anything in Rossi’s on-track repertoire that had had an outsize impact on MotoGP, Schwantz said, “I cannot think of anything I see about 46’s riding style or racecraft that makes him unique. I think it’s more his personality we see, riding very fast motorcycles and loving doing it. He doesn’t have any weakness in his racecraft; most do.”
Ezpeleta’s championship benefitted greatly from Rossi’s flair for the theatrical, if that’s what it was. But Ezpeleta believes it was more a case of Rossi raising the bar for the others. “One thing that’s happened, when somebody is as good as him he encouraged the other people, he encouraged the level.”
Whether or not it was theatrics or racecraft, one thing is certain: Everything changed when Casey Stoner came of age. “I mean as [Valentino] got older, younger guys came in beneath him, so all said and done, that may have been the norm regardless of whether it was Valentino or anybody else,” Burgess said. “Certainly he was there from the beginning of the electronics age right through to where we are today. Other guys came on board, accepted that sort of technology quite readily. The dulling down of the general competition in terms of the level of the machines with the single make of tire and continuing messing about with the rules has probably had the desired effect for the organizers of creating what appears to be a closer show.”
Will everything be rosy in 2013 or will Rossi’s talents have declined to the point that he’s a supporting actor rather than the star? The question is somewhat moot. Yamaha’s Lin Jarvis knows his value. “If I was a team manager or a bike manufacturer I would choose him,” says Ezpeleta.
What Ezpeleta and others marvel at is his enthusiasm after 16 years on the circuit. The grind of traveling — yes, it’s first class and private planes, but still — is one of the main reasons many riders quit. On top of which he has promotional activities not only for his brand but other sponsors, including Bridgestone. Then there’s the relentless glare of the media, both specialist and national, which he faces four times every weekend. Still, he remains motivated. “It’s unbelievable,” Ezpeleta says. “I understand. It’s his life and he enjoys that. He’s a very young person. And he said, ‘When I’m retired you become old.’ If you are enjoying is not any reason to say, ‘hey, I prefer to stay home’. Doing what?”
Ezpeleta’s admiration is understandable. He’s worked with a number of the great champions, Mick Doohan, Kevin Schwantz, and Wayne Rainey. “There have been many, but he’s spent more time with us than any other rider. It’s true we are very close. I think it’s, we both have a lot of respect for the other person.” The closeness of their relationship gives Rossi more influence on MotoGP than any other rider.
Rossi now has at least two more years in MotoGP. Whether he continues or not will depend on his competitiveness. Ezpeleta wouldn’t predict the future, though he did say if he does continue to race it should be at the highest level and not in World Superbike, where riders of a certain age dominate the championship. “Yes, we need to contemplate that, but this is something we can do nothing about,” Ezpeleta said of Rossi’s eventual retirement. “I hope still he will remain with us many years. For me is not a question of age, it’s a question of how he feels himself. If he still enjoys that…he will be with us minimum two years more, ‘13 and ‘14, but I hope he will continue later.” SR