It could be said that what Michael Schumacher has been to Formula1, Valentino Rossi has been to MotoGP. The parallels are far too many to ignore. If Schumacher transformed Ferrari from a has been to the most coveted and successful team, Rossi did so with Yamaha. Michael Schumacher won a record number of seven world titles in F1 and Valentino Rossi won the same number in the premier class apart from two more in the 125cc and 250cc classes. Michael Schumacher rose to great heights and decimated legends on the way, so too did Rossi. Schumacher made F1 fans forget the greats that preceded him as did Valentino Rossi in MotoGP. Michael Schumacher wanted his team mates to have a less than equal status, something that Valentino Rossi also always wanted. Michael Schumacher has a mentor called Ross Brawn and Valentino Rossi has one called Jerry Burgess. Michael Schumacher took his team of people when he switched from one manufacturer to another and ditto with Valentino Rossi. Schumacher instilled fear in the FIA and race stewards and that is the case with Rossi and the FIM and race stewards. Schumacher was hated by his team mates and rivals as was Rossi. Schumacher seems to have destroyed his formidable reputation by coming out of retirement and Rossi seems to be doing the same by not retiring when he should have. Now that we have finished drawing an exhaustive list of parallels between the two legends let us get down to the business of understanding Rossi, just like we did with Schumacher. And yet again we tread where angels fear to tread and claim that we will throw up a story that is based in objectivity.
Valentino Rossi started young and with typical Italian style and flair. He took one year to learn the ropes of the 125cc class and the next year won the World Championship in that class. He then moved on to the 250cc class, took one year to acclimatize and won the world title in that class in the subsequent year. He did this on an Italian machine called Aprilia and was sponsored by an Italian beer company called Nostro Azzuro. He always raced with the number 46 even when he was world champion because he is superstitious and believes in that number because his father raced with it. Also it totals to one anyway, numerologically speaking. Each of his victories was followed by celebrations that were as spectacular as the victories themselves. The fans loved him, TV commentators loved him and even the next door girls’ parents loved him. It was always “Everybody Loves Rossi” (please excuse us Ray Romano for punning like this on your show). Well there was this one person who did not like all that much. He found Rossi very cocky and irreverent especially since he was Aprilia’s original favourite son who won multiple 250cc championships with the manufacturer. This man goes by the name of Massimiliano Biaggi or the Roman Emperor. The Roman Emperor found that his reign and his reputation very totally disrupted by this gangly lad called Rossi.
Just after he won his title with Aprilia in the 250cc category, Rossi found himself staring at an opportunity. The great Mick Doohan who was five times 500cc world champion had decided he had had enough. Mich Doohan was the man around whom the Honda legend was built just as Yamaha’s was built first around Kenny Roberts Sr. and later in a more pronounced way around Wayne Rainey. Rainey had made the Yamaha look invincible and was leading a world championship and a race at Misano when he crashed and became paralysed chest downwards. After that the Yamaha seat was never filled properly by anyone and Max Biaggi was riding for the works Yamaha team along with Rossi’s hero Norifumi Abe who later lost his life in a road accident. Biaggi could not and did not make any difference to Yamaha in a positive way. Neither could Loris Capirossi who tried the Yamaha for one season. Mick Doohan’s decision meant that Honda had to find a very capable rider, one who would continue the reign started by Doohan instead of going the Yamaha way. Rossi and Honda were made for each other at that point. Honda needed a rider who could keep them in the front and Rossi needed a ride that could keep him in the front. The first year of their togetherness was very akin to Rossi’s history in the 125cc and 250cc classes. Rossi learnt the ropes under the watchful eye of Jerry Burgess who was Mick Doohan’s crew chief and who had trained under the legendary Erv Kanemoto. The second year in the 500cc class and on the Honda, Rossi did what was now a part of a pattern. He won the world championship.
In another story in the Power Stroke column itself we have talked about the clout that Honda enjoys in GP racing and how it successfully changes everything including rules. Honda felt that the 500cc two strokes were meaningless in a world which was moving in the direction of environmental correctness and therefore was looking at reduced emissions. In the real world four strokes were the way forward and Honda felt that should be so in racing as well. What Honda wants, Honda gets and so the MotoGP category came into being. Five hundred cc two strokes paved the way for 990cc four strokes. Electronics also came into play. Rossi became number one and there was no challenge to him till such time that Daijiro Kato looked like a threat. Honda wanted to promote Daijiro, because he was Japanese and very rarely did any Japanese rider look like a world championship prospect. But unfortunately Kato died in a crash and Honda decided that it was time to slow down the bikes and shifted to an 800cc format. But before that happened Honda found that Valentino Rossi was becoming very demanding and Honda always puts itself first and so Rossi in order to keep his ego intact, went to Yamaha. Yamaha who were starved of victories did everything that the Rossi-Burgess combo ordered and in the process went on to become the most successful manufacturer in the 800cc era and more importantly Honda went rapidly backwards and did not yet win a title in the 800cc era as yet.. The only other manufacturer to win a title was Ducati. Yamaha realized that it cannot only depend upon Rossi and also that his team mate Colin Edwards was growing rather long in the tooth and was only producing less than ordinary results and so decided that it needed to invest in a younger rider for the future.
They found Jorge Lorenzo who was brash, tempestuous, arrogant and imminently dislikable, but pretty talented. In the very first year on the Yamaha Lorenzo went like stink. He crashed in practices, walked on crutches but ended up on the podium after races just like Lewis Hamilton did in his first year in F1. Rossi was not comfortable with the growing reputation of Lorenzo and the complaints started. First it was all about how he develops bikes and how Lorenzo benefits from that. As Lorenzo grew in stature and became a bigger threat, Rossi issued an ultimatum. Me or Lorenzo, choose. Yamaha was caught between the devil and the deep sea. On the one hand was Rossi the man who transformed Yamaha from a lost in the wilderness team to a consistently world championship winning one, but the man is now in his thirties and beginning to crack under pressure occasionally. On the other hand is Lorenzo growing in strength, younger but his development skills were yet unknown. Yamaha made a call and decided on Lorenzo and to invest in the future since Ben Spies who had won spectacularly in the rookie season of the World Superbike Championship was also contracted to them.
Rossi had successfully burnt bridges with Honda and now with Yamaha. Suzuki, the other manufacturer in the fray, it seemed had forgotten how to build motorcycles. Kawasaki came, saw and got conquered and had already run away, tail firmly between its hind legs. That left only Ducati. Ducati had always been an iffy machine, its only success truly coming in the hands of Casey Stoner who seemed like he could ride anything, anywhere, anytime. The Stoner and Ducati relationship too had developed problems and his mentor at Ducati, Livio Suppo had gone to Honda already, and made a case for Stoner. Honda bought that because Stoner seemed to be the only realistic possibility of fetching them an 800cc world title before it is wound up at the end of this year. Ducati’s other riders such as Loris Capirossi, Marco Melandri, Nicky Hayden and handful of others found the Ducati to be more than a handful. They had all failed spectacularly. Ducati’s only hope now was Rossi. So the brilliant Italian marriage happened in MotoGP, just like the German marriage in F1. Rossi is now finding out that the Ducati is not just more than a handful, it is more than his shoulderful as well. And Rossi is now hovering dangerously on the precipice that can destroy is formidable reputation. So far this season he has been saved and made to look respectable by other people’s misfortunes. Otherwise Rossi is comfortably behind the Hondas by a second and a half and some times even two seconds. Now the rules are changing again next year. Ducati is not a manufacturer with a lot of experience in GP racing. If they falter again, Rossi’s reputation will be in tatters.
So is this all Rossi’s fault? We say yes. Rossi should have understood that he was in no position to issue ultimatums to Yamaha. He should have reconciled to riding around on a Yamaha with Jorge Lorenzo having equal status. If that was too difficult to digest, he should have just retired from GP racing gracefully and gone into rallying, apparently a sport he enjoys. That would have looked like an ace motorcycle racer trying something new. But Rossi chose Ducati and this could end in tears, like Michael Schumacher’s return to F1 is threatening to. Schumacher was doing quite fine racing a Honda CBR in the occasional race in German Superbikes. But he chose to come back to F1. Now we have two legends who have the proverbial sword of Damocles hanging on their heads. They are most likely to come out looking second best from the decisions that they have made. But ultimately who knows. We shall wait and see.