Rossi defines the modern era in chess at 300ft per second

Arguably the best motorcycle racer ever explains the fear factor to <i>Gary James </i>as he prepares for tomorrow's British Grand Prix
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People who don't understand think that motorcycle racers are crude brutes who know only how to jerk open a throttle until they barge the opposition aside or crash in an explosion of dust and shattered metal.

People who don't understand think that motorcycle racers are crude brutes who know only how to jerk open a throttle until they barge the opposition aside or crash in an explosion of dust and shattered metal.

It's not like that. They may live in a world of 130-decibel exhaust noise and burning rubber, but the best motorcycle champions are as sensitive as ballet dancers. They have to be, in order to stay alive while they are razoring down the straight at 215mph, or arcing through a corner at 150mph with their elbow shaving the grass on the inside of the turn.

"It's true, many people believe that riders are crazy, but we are not," Valentino Rossi said yesterday.

"I move on the bike like a cat: very slow and very smooth. If you are too aggressive, you lose the confidence of the motorcycle."

Roughly translated, that last phrase means that if Rossi is minutely clumsy, the 145kg machine (23 stone in old English) will cast him over the handlebars and on to the track surface. The outcome can range from a mild bruising to - in the worst-case scenario - death.

But at this moment, as he prepares for tomorrow's Cinzano British Grand Prix, the 25-year-old world champion is seeing the positive side of his art.

"The feeling is strange because it's like I start to fly with the bike," he says.

Rossi is describing the sensation of plunging downhill at 130mph through the spectacular Craner Curves on the Donington Park circuit.

"Always when I go down there I try to understand the limits of the bike," he says. "I try to remember which tyre I am using and which suspension setting I have, and where is the limit of the angle and the limit of the speed.

"The line through the corner is very difficult because when you go down the hill you can't see the apex. You need to go with the memory, exactly."

Let's deconstruct what Rossi is explaining here. His 990cc Yamaha will be bucking and drifting towards the blind left-hander at the bottom of the Craner section. He will be angled over like a fighter pilot. Inches away - it could be ahead, behind or alongside - will be his great Latin rivals Max Biaggi and Sete Gibernau, who want to steal his championship.

And Rossi is trying to recall the setting on his front fork preload. This sport is not crude: it's chess at 300 feet per second.

Rossi has emerged as the game's greatest player of the modern era. No one can judge the millimetre-wide line between grip and disaster better than he. No other rider is as open to the nuances of what the motorcycle is telling him.

Does he ever feel fear? "Yes, yes," he says urgently. "I think you need to have a lot of fear when you go more than 300kph, and you make a long corner at 200kph at 45 degrees of angle.

"If you don't have fear you are stupid. You need the fear to understand the limit."

"He is such a smart guy," says Masao Furusawa, the Japanese engineer who heads Yamaha's MotoGP project. "He has an ability to ride the bike for only six or seven laps, and evaluate around half a dozen things accurately.

"It's also the way he downloads the data to his team and the engineers. He's like a computer, breaking down each component and assessing it in a logical way."

But Rossi is so much more than just a totter-up of race wins and championships. What elevates him into one of the all-time legends on two or four wheels is his refusal to allow the sport's pressures to crush him.

This season, Yamaha want him to deliver their first MotoGP title since 1992.

The Honda hunters Biaggi and Gibernau have more powerful bikes. And Rossi has, in effect, been hounded out of his home country by the frenzied Italian media.

But he doesn't withdraw or get bitter: he pranks about. With members of his fan club, he creates surreal post-victory antics on the racetrack that delight the crowds.

After one win last year he wore a prisoner's uniform to mock Italian journalists. "I didn't win for two races and they say I am in a big crisis," he complains. "It wasn't that I was crashing or coming in 12th - I was just finishing second or third. But it seemed that if I don't win it's better that I go to jail!"

In the Italian way, Rossi relaxes away from the track with his family and a close group of friends that he has known from childhood. "We go out to eat and drink. We go to parties," he said. "I like a lot to stay out during the night and go dancing." Much of this action takes place in London, where he lives for much of the year in an apartment in Mayfair.

"My life in London is full of people," he said. "Two weeks ago my mother came over. Other times my uncle comes, or my friends visit."

Today, however, it's time to get serious. Rossi leads Biaggi by just one point in the championship after eight of 16 rounds, and Gibernau is only 13 points behind. How will he beat them in today's qualifying session for pole position, and tomorrow's 30-lap race?

"It's difficult, because there are two overtaking points, on braking for the first corner at Redgate and into the Esses," he explains. "But the Honda has more power and better acceleration on the straights."

So what's he going to do about it? "Nothing is impossible," he responds. "We try!" This kind of Italianate can-do is Rossi's trademark.

Observers are constantly analysing his character and childhood - his father, Graziano, was a hippy-ish grand prix racer of the Seventies - to work out how he manages to remain unfazed in a world of giant money and egos.

Maybe the answer is very simple: the boy just likes to go racing and have fun.