Rossi's charm offensive sets fine example for champions

Italian is latest in line of defiant daredevils
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Life for a racing driver isn't too hazardous these days. Improvements in car construction and circuit safety mean that a shunt often involves nothing more serious than an embarrassing trip into the gravel trap. Motorcycle racers, however, hit the track cart-wheeling at up to 300 feet per second if they crash. They work in a clammy leather suit in temperatures of up to 100F, and pain and injury come with the job.

As if those turn-offs were not enough, the reigning MotoGP champion, Valentino Rossi, defected from Honda this winter and will ride for Yamaha in 2004. The five-cylinder Honda is the best bike in motorcycle racing, and Rossi is the best rider. He could have won an easy sixth championship if he had stayed put. But the Italian wants to prove that it's the man and not the machine. Thus the shift to Yamaha, whose troubled four-cylinder bike gained only one podium position in 2003.

But such is the personality of the 24-year-old Rossi, who delights in performing theatre-of-the-absurd sketches after a grand prix victory. In Portugal this year he carried a toy monkey on his back: some observers interpreted this as a protest against Honda's supposedly joyless ways of working; or it could have been a fingers-up to the hyper-critical Italian press. With Rossi, you never quite know the meaning of the symbolism.

The grand prix writer Mat Oxley analyses the motives that fuel the rider in Valentino Rossi: MotoGenius (Haynes, £16.99). While the world is jaded with six-time champion Michael Schumacher and the preciousness of Formula One, Rossi knows not only how to dominate, but how to charm. Sports champions, as well as bike enthusiasts, would benefit from reading this book.

Earlier this year, David Jefferies, the most outstanding TT rider of his era, lost his life in a crash on the Isle of Man circuit. Beautiful Danger: 101 Great Road Racing Photographs (The Blackstaff Press, £16.99) celebrates those thrill-seekers for whom the risks of ordinary racing are not enough. They perform on public-roads circuits, where the penalty of losing control is to shatter one's body against a wall or a lamp-post.

The author, Stephen Davison, himself a leading photographer, has assembled a collection of outstanding pictures of public-roads racing at the TT and in Ireland from his own files and those of colleagues. The book covers heroes from the Sixties to the present day, including Mike Hailwood and the Irish TT genius Joey Dunlop, who lost his life on a track in Estonia.

Public-roads riders earn a pittance compared to MotoGP and superbike competitors, but they take an elemental satisfaction from gazing into the eyes of death at 190mph on two wheels. Many in the book died on the curves they adored; Beautiful Danger is a moving tribute.

Steve Hislop's family history was marked by early deaths. His father died in his arms from a heart attack when Hislop was only 17, and his younger brother died in a motorcycle racing accident at 19. None of this deterred Hislop, who went on to win 11 Isle of Man TT races and two British Superbike championships.

In his autobiography Hizzy (CollinsWillow, £16.99), Hislop admits to being financially naïve and says he would have to find an ordinary job when he retired from racing. Tragically, the fate of early death overtook him, too: he perished in a helicopter crash earlier this year.

The writer Stuart Barker collaborated with Hislop and captures the gritty, pain-drenched world of motorcycle racers. Barker is also the author of Barry Sheene (CollinsWillow, £17.99), a new biography of the former world champion who died this year of cancer.

Sheene reinvented the profession of motorcycle racer: he made himself a celeb long before the cult of celebrity had been invented. He was also an irreverent maverick: he famously blew up unhygienic pit toilets at the Finnish Grand Prix in protest at the conditions imposed on riders by outdated circuits and stingy track managements.

Sheene's 178mph crash at Daytona in 1975, when he shattered his legs, an arm, six ribs, a forearm, wrist and a collarbone, and damaged his kidneys, was seen on television worldwide. He courageously recovered to win two 500cc world championships in 1976 and 1977, and at 51, with 27 screws holding his legs together and cancer destroying his life, was still racing classic bikes this summer, shortly before his death.