Courting Valentino

Last weekend Valentino Rossi claimed his fourth consecutive Moto GP title and again fuelled speculation that he might switch disciplines to Formula One with Ferrari in 2007. It has been 20 years since anyone significant did this, and it would be fascinating to see how he performs.

Mike Hailwood, Johnny Cecotto and, most famously, John Surtees have all made the jump between F1 and the two wheel world. They met with mixed results: Surtees became the first man to win both motorcycle and F1 world championships. Hailwood was a successful F1 driver but never replicated his success on bikes. Cecotto was lumbered with uncompetitive Formula One machinery before his career was ended by a crash at Brands Hatch in 1984.

The pace of change in F1 and Moto GP since the mid-eighties has been quite different. F1 has been a global industry since the early 1980s, but Moto GP has only become a potent commercial proposition on a worldwide scale in the past few years. If Rossi were to make the switch it would be under vastly different circumstances.

Partly this is because to many Rossi is Moto GP, such is his dominance and off-track charisma. He is without doubt the first superstar rider, to the extent that even my mother knows who he is. If Rossi were to make the switch it would be the ultimate example of learning a trade in the public eye. The pressure would be immense from the outset. Likewise it would be hard to see any detractors staying off Rossi’s case for very long if things went badly. There would be the expectation that Rossi was on the pace from the outset.

Furthermore the transition would be hard for the Italian. At his initial test in the Ferrari his neck muscles gave up after a few laps, and the monastic levels of fitness and lifestyle maintained by many of the top F1 drivers, contrasts greatly with Rossi’s more laid back approach to life. On the track, life would be difficult too. Whereas Rossi on the Yamaha can at times be almost poetic, it is hard to see how the Italian could inject any of the modern F1 cars with character. The concepts of traction control and massive aerodynamic grip do not fit with Rossi’s sliding, charismatic on track style.

Even Rossi’s race craft is different. In Moto GP, Valentino likes to play a waiting game, preserving his tyres and biding his time until he gets bored before blasting off into the sunset. F1 doesn’t work like that and it is inconceivable that Rossi could move through the field as easily as he does on a bike. That said his win-or-crash ethos will make a welcome change to F1 where, Kimi Raikkonen excepted, most drivers seem content to cruise to the points, stuck in one position from quite an early stage in the race.

But I, and many F1 fans, would love to see Rossi in a Grand Prix. His character alone would make a massively refreshing change to the dourness of Schumacher or Raikkonen and his youthful exuberance will see him slot neatly into the Alonso generation. More importantly his penchant for pranks would make the slow down lap of Grand Prix vastly more interesting.

Then there is his talent. Rossi is perhaps more gifted on two wheels than Michael Schumacher is on four. He has such a natural feel for the machinery and the intricacies of the circuit. And his bike-riding mentality will hopefully lead to a variety of differing lines and new approaches.

I find it hard to believe that Rossi will have the final decision. He is too big a star for motorbike racing to let go of and the F1 powerbrokers have become nicely accustomed to drivers that are not too outspoken. It is hard to see Rossi ever toeing the party line if he is unhappy about something. His influence could well be perceived as a threat to the Max/Bernie regime, and at the very least would shift the focus away from other established figures.

Equally, despite its recent rise, Moto GP is not in the same corporate league as F1, and it is hard to see some of the blue chip and designer firms that sponsor Grand Prix really wanting Rossi as their spokesman. This is especially the case as Rossi is perhaps the first rider in the history of Moto GP to publicly criticise Honda, a feat seemingly unthinkable to many.

I cannot wait to see how this one plays out. Rossi would on one hand be the shot in arm that F1 needs to connect to a younger audience, but on the other I want him to succeed. If he were to make the switch I would hope it would be done because his testing pace were equal to that of the frontrunners, and not for any commercial reason. We shall see. What I am willing to bet, though, is that this becomes the motor sport story of 2006.

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