It is interesting to note that the three biggest stories in Formula One right now concern a driver who competed in 2010 but not in 2009 (the Michael Schumacher comeback), a driver who competed in 2009 but not 2010 (Raikkonen loses his drive and goes WRC) and a driver who has never competed in F1 and quite possibly never will – Valentino Rossi. Indeed, Rossi has only ever driven an F1 car six times, but his status as one of motorcycling’s all-time greats and one of the most popular and media-savvy sportspeople of all time make the possibility an incredibly enticing prospect. For Ferrari, Rossi brings a global army of fans and the possibility of a rare Italian driver-car title combination that hasn’t happened since Alberto Ascari in 1953, despite 15 drivers titles and 16 constructors titles for the marque since then. This week Rossi tested in a Ferrari F1 car again, and was so fast that the possibility might now be approaching a probability.
Rossi is a very rare commodity indeed. “The Doctor”’s army of fans is legion. He is the only rider to have ever challenged Italian Giacomo Agostini for the mantle of “best ever” motorcycle rider, and his array of publicity stunts, theatrical post-race antics and endearing media perfromances make him the world's most popular motorcycle racer ever.
Having won MotoGP titles for both Honda and Yamaha, rumours have linked him to Ducati in recent times. Whether there is any truth to the rumours we’ll probably never know. Ducati has only ever had one consistent race winner on its quirky traction-controlled GP bikes in Casey Stoner. Stoner is the only rider seemingly capable of consistently beating Rossi and now that Stoner appears to have returned to full health, courting Rossi would be imprudent for Ducati for several reasons.
Firstly, disenfranchising Stoner could easily see him defect to Honda which would pay a hefty price to win back the MotoGP title it once thought of as its own, and Stoner is the only rider with any realistic chance of doing that as things stand right now. More importantly for Ducati, he's the only person they can be sure can win on a Ducati - anywhere, at any price, including the masterful Rossi himself.
That's the second reason - no-one else has been able to ride its MotoGP machine. Yes, Bayliss and Capirossi have won on the Desmosedici, but not regularly, and after proven race winners in Marco Melandri and Nicky Hayden have failed to be even remotely competitive on the Ducati, signing Rossi for an astronomical sum would be a massive gamble when it already has a happy and healthy Stoner on the books.
Finally, having the two best riders in the world on one team just isn’t feasible – Ducati couldn’t afford it, Stoner wouldn't stand for it, and Rossi would be unlikely to leave his current arrangement, no matter how uncomfortable Jorge Lorenzo’s identical machinery may be making him feel at Yamaha, for an identical arrangement at Ducati.
So with Ducati unlikely to take the gamble on Rossi regardless of how enticing the prospect of an Italian rider piloting its machinery might be, Rossi might well be running out of challenges in the field of motorcycling.
He’s won everything there is to win, his status as the greatest of all-time cannot be proven only because we haven't mastered time-travel yet and his speed in anything with a motor is so great that it demands investigation at championship level. He is equally at home behind the wheel of a rally car and rally cars had until recently been the most likely avenue for his talents once he’d finished racing bikes. He has started and shown championship-level pace in WRC events, and he's only just starting.
That was until the latest tests at the Catalan circuit of Montmelò near Barcelona on January 20 and 21.
After a first day delayed by a heavy thunderstorm, Rossi quickly adapted to the car, conditions and circuit, despite not having driven an F1 car since his last experience at Mugello in November 2008.
Rossi was driving an F2008 car at Montmelò, the test being a gift from Ferrari Chairman Montezemolo after Rossi won the World MotoGP Championship again in 2009. Formula One has a testing ban on current or new machinery in place until February 1, so the car brought to the Spanish track by Maranello’s F1 Clienti department was one driven during the 2008 season when the team won the constructors title . You too could have exactly the same treatment and the same car on offer from Ferrari’s Atelier service – all you need to be is a regular customer of Ferrari with the proven ability to drive elite racing machinery and very deep pockets full of large denomination lucre. It's a service Ferrari offers for the exceptionally wealthy and priveleged.
The car was kept at the circuit to give Felipe Massa some time behind the wheel in his recovery from the fractured skull he sustained last year. Massa took over the wheel the day after Rossi, using the same Bridgestone GP2 tyres in deference to the F1 testing regulations reference to tyres as well as current machinery.
Rossi drove more than 300 kilometres after the rain delays on the first day, completing 68 laps of the circuit, and expressing satisfaction after a briefing with the technicians at the end of the day: “I'm happy. It was a good test, although it was wet in the morning and without grip I had some problems. Fortunately the track dried off in the afternoon, I could use the slicks and improve my lap times.”
His fastest lap was 1.25.200, which was a remarkable effort. That compares well with the circuit lap record of 1:21.67 set by Kimi Raikkonen in 2008 in an identical car, albeit with different tyres. Compare it with the fastest race laps by F1 drivers in the 2009 Spanish GP and the fastest race laps by F1 drivers in the 2008 Spanish GP, and you’ll see why everyone was so chuffed.
As Aprilia, Honda and Yamaha have all found out during the last decade, the association of the Rossi name with their brand is sound business strategy because it represents dollars in the bank the day after race day. Rossi is a master communicator who seemingly endears himself to everyone but a handful of his competitors.
The same Rossi gravitas that filled the grandstands at a racetrack in Spain on a rainy day in the off-season, landed him coverage in the New York Times the morning after his first test day. Even Ferrari commented on this strange phenomenon that gave them greater coverage than winning a Formula One Grand Prix at the same venue had afforded them.
The Ferrari press release read: “Last night, the online edition of The New York Times, the most important newspaper in the USA, published an article on its homepage about Valentino Rossi’s day, with his declarations, stated on our website. This is a real exception for a newspaper and a country quite reluctant to give space to motorsport from the Old Continent: the coupling Rossi-Red prevails above scepticism “Made in USA”. And who knows what they might write one day soon after Vale’s great lap times at the end of the test session!
Day two of Rossi’s test session was also postponed, this time due to thick fog. By the end of the second day of the test sessions Rossi had more than 600 kilometres on the clock and the team and Rossi had kept the last three quarters of an hour to try a ‘time attack’ with fresh tyres and a close to empty petrol tank so the car was as light as possible.
The results were quite astounding. On the 135th circuit of the 136 laps of the 4.655 km circuit, Rossi stopped the clocks at 1.21.900 - less than a quarter of a second off the lap record.
Valentino was extremely happy with his lap time, saying: “I would have given anything for such a lap time” and commenting that he had much more fun compared to his last experience in Mugello in November 2008.
“It’s more fun here, because it’s a little bit easier. It’s more effort in Mugello, but this track here is really wonderful, with motorbikes and cars, although I have to say that turn 10 is a little tight (he spun out twice on this corner during his two day test) and you’re braking much later.”
Ferrari's Luca Baldisserri commented on the “Doctor’s” adventure positively: “We tried different set ups and he improved a lot: this means that the driver learns quickly and has room for improvement.”
Interestingly, Rossi had spent a day inside Ferrari’s new F1 simulator just a week prior to the test and the additional freedom to explore the limits of an F1 car in a simulator might have given Rossi the understanding he needed to be able to push the real world car closer to the edge, without actually crashing it.
Though the times set by Rossi are not directly comparable with those set in either 2008 or 2009 at the Formula 1 Gran Premio De Espana Telefónica, as the tyres are quite different, the times of Felipe Massa set the following day in an identical car were very relevant, and Ferrari notably withheld them when releasing details and quotes of how Massa’s test fared.
Now quite simply, we don’t know whether Rossi’s times were faster, slower or similar to Massa’s – our focus at Gizmag is on emerging technology – but it was interesting to note that at least one of the hardcore F1 sites believes the times were withheld so that no-one else knows how good Rossi is until they have secured his signature on a contract.
Ferrari race team boss Domenicali had been asked about a possible future for Valentino behind the wheel of a third Ferrari in Formula 1 at a press conference earlier this month. This was his response BEFORE Rossi’s test: "Never say never. There has been discussed a lot about a third car and this could be a hypothesis of an interesting improvement for the whole world of Formula 1, even more if as a result Rossi had the possibility to race in our sport. This is not true only for Ferrari, but also for the other teams: when we’re talking about a third car we don’t necessarily mean that it has to be three cars in our team, but we might also give our single-seater to be run by a small team.”
So the stage is set for an enticing 2011 F1 season. By that stage we’ll know how successful Michael Schumacher’s comeback will have been, and the musical chairs game played by the world’s best drivers will have an extra player in the form of Kimi Raikkonen. Indeed, with Rossi’s Yamaha contract due to expire at the end of 2010, and the much higher stakes F1 game beckoning, there may well be two extra players in the game of musical chairs nine months from now.
Let's hope so. Only one person has ever climbed to the pinnacle of both two and four wheeled sport - John Surtees.
Watching Rossi attempt the feat would make epic viewing.