Motorcycling: Restraint the name of the game in the Rossi fast show

To feel fear is to be clever when the dangers are never-ending says the sport's greatest drawcard
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The Independent Online

Even the lads' mag Nuts, who normally stimulate their readers with such delights as "Real Girls in Wet T-shirts" were sufficiently persuaded to dispatch a reporter along to a rare public appearance of the six-time world champion rider in his adopted city.

Quite why the world's ninth-wealthiest sportsman - last year he earned a reported £18.75 million - has chosen to reside in London's Knightsbridge, within potent paparazzi territory, since 2000 in order to preserve his privacy, only he knows. But it works for him. They say that back in his homeland, where Rossi is the richest sportsman - and that in a country of fabulously wealthy footballers - the pressures of celebrity would be impossible for him to withstand.

So, it is probably as well for the 26-year-old Yamaha rider, as he prepares for today's British Grand Prix at Donington Park - which he will start on pole position - that he has not been persuaded to emulate John Surtees and translate his two-wheeled talents into Formula One. That really would be sexy.

It was not the first time that the Italian had been interrogated on the plausibility of such a future. It will not be the last. "I have spoken in the past about F1 because four wheels is another of my great passions," he explains. "I started with go-karts and it was always my dream to become an F1 driver. But I don't know if it's possible. I think it's very difficult and for me it's better to carry on riding a bike."

Rallying is apparently a different matter, though. "I have one or two races at the end of the season, and maybe in the future that will become my sport."

For the moment, the rider who this season boasts six victories from eight races continues to confirm the impression that he is the finest rider of not only his generation but that of every other. What other rider could have moved from Honda to Yamaha, who had not won a championship since 1992, and proceeded to win nine of the 16 grands prix in his first season with them, last year?

He possesses an affinity with his sport which makes his achievements appear easy, though he protests that they are not. "It is always difficult, with rivals like [Marco] Melandri [his closest championship challenger]," he insists. The truth, however, is that Rossi has the ability to recover from minor errors which would prove punishing to others.

Though he has had his celebratory moments - discarding his bike and hurling himself into the crowd after one triumph - his post-match demeanour tends to be one of restraint. "It is my biggest problem," Rossi says sarcastically. "Maybe it is better that I should arrive after the race, all sweat, with eyes bulging and say something very stupid. No, it is my character. If I win or if I don't, I feel like being quiet. If I don't finish first, like at Laguna in the US [his last grand prix, where he finished third] I just try to understand why."

His countryman Melandri is reported to have commented recently that it was easy to be friends with Rossi while you were the slower rider. Lay down a serious challenge to him, and things change.

"It's not true," Rossi says. "When, this year, Melandri started to go fast the Italian journalists especially tried to put some bad blood between us, to say it was like me and Max Biaggi [the Honda rider, and third Italian in this championship-leading triumvirate, who once claimed that Rossi was "a boy in a man's world"]. But I've known Marco since I was 10, from mini-bikes. We are friends from many years ago. I don't like a bad relationship."

Rossi is not afraid to talk of fear, both on the track and off it. He concedes that he is troubled by the current bomb campaign in London, but not scared enough to contemplate leaving the city. "I was scared of [travelling on] the Tube even before the bombs," he adds wryly.

As for his fear on the bike, he not only admits it exists, but insists it is a positive. "The clever riders will always be scared, because our sport is dangerous," says this member of a fraternity who produce speeds in excess of 200mph and corner at 140mph with their protective suits inches from the asphalt. "To be scared is important; it means you understand the limits. You try to go quite near those limits, but never over them."

He supports the plan to reduce the maximum size of engines from 990 to 900cc in 2007. "For me, it is a good idea. If not, the bikes become too fast, too dangerous," Rossi says. "Every year, the bikes become faster and faster. Four-stroke development between 2002 and now has been incredible: speed, acceleration, power. It is never-ending."

He was born and raised in Tavullia, near Urbino in eastern Italy. His early mentor was, and still is, his father, Graziano, a works rider who won three grands prix. In 1982, Rossi Snr was in a coma for three days after a crash at Imola, although that was in a rally car. He is always remembered as being somewhat erratic.

"It's true. He was quite crazy," says Rossi Jnr. "He always made big mistakes when he raced. But he's very important to me, because he gave me the passion to ride bikes. Also, when I first started, he knew a lot of people, and that made it easier for me. He's clever, and always gives me good advice. At the beginning, when I was younger, he would say something but I didn't hear a lot. But now I listen to him more."

It must still be selective hearing, though. Rossi has had the occasional spill, but nothing serious. One was at Donington Park in 2002. A head injury put him out for a day. He still won.

He regards Donington Park as his second home, after Mugello, his home circuit. It is one of his favourite tracks; he has been successful there in 1997 (in 125cc), 1999 (250cc) and in MotoGP in 2000, 2001 and 2002. "Riding the bike at the limit is my passion," he says. "The taste is different when I win compared to when I arrive second. That's the biggest motivation for me. When that taste is different, maybe it is time to finish."

Racing-bike enthusiasts will be praying that he retains that appetite.