Motorcycling: Rossi tribute to 'hero' after title triumph

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The Independent Online

Rossi, who won the final 500cc world championship in 2001 before the MotoGP was introduced the following year, finished behind his compatriot Loris Capirossi's Ducati yesterday to join Giacomo Agostini and Mick Doohan as the only riders to have won the premier class of grand prix racing five times or more. Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "7", the number of world titles he has won in all classes, the 26-year-old said: "Last year was more of a surprise," explaining that his switch at the end of 2003 from Honda to Yamaha, then seen as the inferior bike, had lifted the burden of expectation. "This year, all of the other riders want to beat me."

Rossi needed to finish within 12 points of Max Biaggi, another Italian, to take the championship. Biaggi, on a Honda, finished sixth. Spain's Carlos Checa took third, giving Ducati two places on the podium. They have now won two races in a row with Capirossi and appear to have worked out a winning combination with Bridgestone's tyres.

Rossi and Capirossi played cat-and-mouse at the halfway stage, with Rossi flirting with danger and grabbing the lead twice before Capirossi snatched it back. With three laps to go it looked like Rossi, who crashed out in Japan a week ago, was thinking of the championship rather than the race and he did not threaten again. Rossi said later that Capirossi's Ducati was unassailable on a baking-hot Sepang circuit. "For sure, I try. For three corners he played with me like a cat and a mouse, so I say, 'OK, see you next time'."

Rossi won the 125cc title in 1997, the 250cc crown in 1999 and was the last 500cc world champion in 2001, with Honda. He won the first two MotoGP titles with Honda before winning the title again at his first attempt on the Yamaha M1.

Rossi also paid tribute to Britain's Barry Sheene. "Today I put the number seven on my T-shirt because this is the number of my championships but also because it was the number of Barry Sheene, who was a great hero of mine and a truly great racer."

His seventh title equals the career totals of the Britons Phil Read and John Surtees, with only Agostini (15), Spain's Angel Nieto (13), Britain's Mike Hailwood and Italy's Carlo Ubbiali (both nine) having won more. Rossi's run of five premier titles matches Doohan's feat from 1994 to 1998, although both riders trail behind Agostini's seven from 1966 to 1972. Rossi has won 51 of 93 races since 2000.

Rossi is contracted to Yamaha until the end of next season and has had two tests in a Formula One car with Ferrari. He has said that he has made no plans for 2007 but has not ruled out moving to four wheels in an attempt to emulate Surtees, the only man to have won the top prize in motorcycling and the Formula One world title.

Honda's top two hopefuls for the 250cc championship, Spain's Daniel Pedrosa and Italy's Andrea Dovizioso, skidded off the track, allowing Australia's Casey Stoner to cruise to victory and build a dangerous challenge for the title, currently led by the defending champion Pedrosa.

In the 125cc class, the Swiss teenager Thomas Luthi extended his championship lead with a narrow win over his main rival, Finland's Mika Kallio.

Valentino Rossi: The life and times of a champion

* 1979: Born on 16 February in Urbino, Italy.

* 1990: First race.

* 1994: Wins 125cc Italian sports production championship.

* 1995: Takes 125cc Italian title; third in 125cc European Championship.

* 1996: Makes grand prix debut in Malaysia in 125cc class. Wins first grand prix in Czech Republic, ending the season ninth.

* 1997: Wins 11 races on his way to 125cc world title.

* 1998: Runner-up in 250cc championship after five wins.

* 1999: Wins 250cc world championship. Nine wins.

* 2000: In 500cc class and wins two races in first season.

* 2001: The final 500cc world champion after 11 wins for Honda. Wins the Suzuka Eight Hours.

* 2002: Takes new MotoGP title after 11 wins.

* 2003: Completes a hat-trick of world titles for Honda before an unlikely move to Yamaha.

* 2004: Yamaha make significant strides as Rossi clinches title No 4 with one race to go.

* 2005: Wins fifth title with second place in Malaysian Grand Prix.