Rossi drops Ducati hint as contract talks stall

Motorcycling: World champion goes into this weekend's British Grand Prix with doubts surrounding his future at Honda

Valentino Rossi, the world motorcycle champion, revealed yesterday that he is prepared to abandon the Honda bikes on which he has won the past two of his four titles, and would consider switching to Italy's Ducati factory.

The 24-year-old is gambling for high stakes with the Japanese company, who want him to sign a two-year deal. But Rossi is insisting on a one-year agreement so that his contract would expire at the end of 2004, in line with those of other top riders in the MotoGP Series. Then he would have more negotiating power and more choice over his future.

"For sure, it would be a dream to ride for Ducati,'' Rossi said yesterday. The combination of his exceptional talent and the Ducati's 990cc V4 engine - the most powerful in MotoGP racing - could break Honda's grip on the sport. It would also delight Italy's millions of motorcycling fans, who worship the red Ducatis as fervently as the Tifosi follow Formula One Ferraris.

"We are talking with everybody," said Rossi, before correcting himself: "No, everybody is talking with me."

It was a typically flamboyant display of wit, charm and grace from the Italian who has emerged as the most charismatic character in motorcycling. On Sunday he will battle at 180mph in the British round of the MotoGP Series at Donington Park. He will be mobbed by British fans who adore him almost as much as the Italians. Rossi lives in London, to escape the Beckhamesque pressure of life in Italy, and has won five times at Donington.

Yesterday he rewarded his followers with a typically Rossi gesture. He jetted from Bologna to London, swept up the Thames in a speedboat and then rode a motorcycle from Westminster Pier to Leicester Square to sign autographs.

"Donington is a fantastic track for me," he said. "It's a little bit like my second home grand prix, after the Italian races. The first part of the lap, with all the flowing bends, is the best in all the championship. The last part, with the chicane and hairpin, is a bit like a car park. But it makes it very difficult to set the bike up for the two sections."

Rossi's effervescent personality and his willingness to mix with his public inevitably draws comparisons with Formula One stars, and particularly Michael Schumacher. Whether the pair are judged on performance or personality, the Italian biker must surely win. He has amassed 53 grand prix victories to Schumacher's 68 Formula One wins, but he is a decade younger than the German.

In addition, Rossi makes it fun to be a champion. The merry prankster has appeared on the podium in a Superman cape, wearing a Robin Hood hat (at Donington, which is near Nottingham), and in a medieval minstrel's hat.

In 1997 he completed a victory lap at Mugello, in front of his Italian fans, with a blow-up doll bearing Claudia Schiffer's name on the back. His rival, Max Biaggi, was rumoured to be having a liaison with Naomi Campbell, and this was Rossi's way of mocking his opponent.

He invented what he calls the "nac-nac", a victory wheelie performed while standing on the saddle of his bike with only one leg. "When I came to grand prix all the riders were very, very serious," he said. "So when I started winning, me and my friends decided we should start to make some big fun."

Rossi has never met Schumacher, but recently he did get acquainted with John Surtees, the 68-year-old Briton who remains the only person to have won world championships on two and four wheels.

In theory, Rossi has time to break into Formula One and attempt to match Surtees' feat, and he has not ruled out the possibility.

"I don't know, but maybe it's possible," he said. "I would like to do another two or three years in MotoGP. Then maybe Formula One, maybe rallying, or maybe nothing. Surtees is an exciting man. He said I need to try for the Formula One title."

Rossi made a brief appearance in last year's RAC rally before wrecking his car against a tree. This year, he may compete in the rally again, even though it takes place only a week after the final MotoGP race of the season in Spain.

On Sunday he will face pressure from the 30-year-old Spaniard, Sete Gibernau, who is only 38 points behind in the championship, and Loris Capirossi, the little Italian leading the Ducati attack this year.

Rossi admitted the pressure was tougher this season, but remains confident for Sunday. "For sure, the others are more equal this year, and the bikes are faster. But I think I can win at Donington," he said.

And then the man who calls himself The Doctor - "Because you need to be calm on a 200hp motorcycle" - swept away to an appointment to sign yet more autographs.

VALENTINO ROSSI: THE LIFE AND TIMES

Born: 16 February 1979, Urbino, Italy. Rossi's father, Graziano, was also a competitive rider and finished third in the 1979 250cc World Championship.

Record: 14 MotoGP victories, 13 500cc victories, 14 250cc victories, 12

125cc victories.Four World Championship victories: 1997 125cc, 1999 250cc, 2001 500cc, 2002 MotoGP.

1993: Makes debut with Cagiva in the Italian 125cc Sport Production championship, winning the title a year later.

1995: Rides for Aprilia in the European Championships, finishing third at the end of the season. Also retains his Italian 125cc championship title.

1996: Makes 125cc World Championship debut at the Malaysian GP and wins his first GP in the Czech Republic.

1997: Becomes second youngest 125cc world champion.

1998: Makes debut in 250cc class riding an Aprilia for the Nastro Azzurro Team. Finishes the season in second.

1999: Is the youngest rider to win the 250cc World Championship, riding for the Aprilia Grand Prix Racing Team.

2000: Takes the step up to 500cc class riding a Honda for the Nastro Azzurro Team. Finishes season in second.

2001: Claims victory in the Suzuka Eight Hour Endurance race with Colin Edwards. Also clinches the 500cc World Championship riding a Honda for the Nastro Azzurro Team.

2002: Wins the first MotoGP title with four races remaining having won 11 of the 16 races.

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