HE’S DOMINATED MONZA, AND SOME SAID ROSSI COULD’VE BEEN A 2020 WRC WINNER, BUT WHAT IF RALLYING HAD BEEN HIS CAREER FOCUS?
It was Valentino Rossi’s 42nd birthday on Tuesday, and he’s celebrating by launching his VR46 team’s move into MotoGP for 2021. Everyone knows he’s dabbled in rallying alongside his motorcycling career, but just how good was he? Last year we investigated…
A few years ago he beat Colin McRae. And Didier Auriol. More recently, he’s done the same to the World Rally Championship’s contemporary heroes. Thierry Neuville. Dani Sordo. Andreas Mikkelsen. They have all been shown the way home by him on northern Italy’s most famous rally. In 2018, he grounded M-Sport’s latest flying Finn Teemu Suninen.
His love of the WRC is well known, which is why he’s started events at rallying’s highest level in both factory Subaru and Ford World Rally Cars. Just not for a while. And not very often.
What he has done regularly – and often – is drive a World Rally Car faster than anybody at Monza.
He is, of course, Valentino Rossi.
After a season away from an event he’s dominated in recent years, it had been hoped the 41-year-old could be tempted back by Monza’s arrival as the 2020 WRC finale. Unfortunately, despite discussions with M-Sport to run a Ford Fiesta WRC, it didn’t happen. For the second year in succession, Monza’s most successful rally driver sat out Monza’s most famous rally.
What if the seven-time Monza Rally winner had taken the start?
John Steele – M-Sport’s commercial director – has worked with the seven-time MotoGP world champion every time he’s started the event in one of the Cumbrian-built cars.
“You’re asking the wrong man,” Steele tells DirtFish.
It’s not that Steele doesn’t have the data or the digital inside line on what makes Rossi so good at the venue. It’s more that he fears for his own impartiality where the diminutive Urbino rider – driver – is concerned.
“If he’d switched to rallying, he would have been world champion,” says Steele, matter-of-factly. “No doubt.”
Steele’s been at M-Sport since the beginning, since before the beginning to be accurate. He’s seen world champions come and go – the likes of McRae, Marcus Gronholm and Sébastien Ogier – and none of them have impressed him as much as Rossi.
“His level of professionalism is above anything I’ve seen anywhere else in the sport,” he says. “His attention to detail, his commitment to testing, to debriefing, to absolutely everything is just remarkable.”
I remind Steele that Carlos Sainz drove for M-Sport as well.
“Even more than Carlos,” he adds quickly to underline his point.
“I remember when he was riding for Ducati [in 2011/12]. I went to a MotoGP race to sort things out for Monza that year. There was somebody there providing video analysis, overlaying data for all the bikes. Vale could see if he was oversteering more in one corner than [Casey] Stoner or sliding more than [Dani] Pedrosa in another. He watched all of that, he used all of that analysis and it was that sort of meticulous approach he brought every year to Monza.”
Rossi’s love of rallying is well documented and understandable. His father Graziano Rossi is of course well known for his success on bikes, but he’s also a man who has won rallies in a Lancia 037. And competed on the Swedish Rally in a Lancia Delta Integrale. Most recently Rossi Sr has spent his time entertaining RallyLegend crowds as the BMW M3 course car driving warm-up act on the San Marino event.
Aside from three WRC outings – two in Britain, one in New Zealand – Rossi’s rally career has been centred on Monza. His first outing was the 1997 Rally di Monza, where he retired a Renault Maxi Mégane. He switched to World Rally Car power the next year and delivered a maiden podium with a third place in a Step2-run Toyota Corolla WRC in 2004.
Rossi’s first factory effort – a Prodrive-supplied and run Subaru Impreza WRC05 – bettered that result by one in 2005.
“We started talking to him in 2006,” said Steele. “At that time he was a superstar of MotoGP. But he wasn’t the megastar he is now. Figuratively speaking, we sent a car and a van down there for him and he won. At that point, we were like: ‘Oh, OK…’”
Since then Steele has worked closely with Rossi on every Monza he’s done and the respect has grown and grown.
“He’s obviously got huge natural talent as a driver, but as much as that, nothing really phases him at all,” says Steele.
“He’s very much in control of everything. If he’s being beaten then he knows what he can turn up and he knows what more he can do, but when he’s at the limit, he knows he’s giving everything he’s got and he can accept that, on that day, somebody is quicker than him.
“So many drivers keep pushing and pushing until the inevitable crash comes.
“When we were beaten by Sébastien Loeb in 2011, the pair of them were neck-and-neck all day long. Vale would take one second here, Loeb would have another one back there. The difference came in the night stages. Séb pulled around 20 seconds on one long stage and that was the gap to the finish. That was simply Sébastien’s better understanding of competing at night.
“When he lost to Robert [Kubica] a few years later [in 2014], again they were level all the way through, but going into the final loop of stages the heavens opened and it poured with rain. Robert had a softer, more suitable tyre than Valentino and we lost by a couple of seconds or something.
“I sound like I’m making excuses, I’m not. I don’t need to. He’s that good. I remember when he came to do Rally GB with us, his times were right where you’d expect them to be. Like I said, he’s a natural talent and a guy who understands the balance, the control and all the inputs required to get a car through a corner quickly and undramatically.”
Coming from bikes, Rossi is only too well aware of what a wild-style, all-angles approach can do to mid-corner speed. High-side a bike and it tends to smart a wee bit more than the equivalent tank-slapper on four wheels. You don’t forget that. Particularly not if you’re as smart as Rossi is.
“Every debrief we did in Monza or on Rally GB was done with exhaustive professionalism,” says Steele.
Unfortunately, Monza’s own megastar didn’t chase an eighth win on a set of rally stages he’s made his own in a season where victory would have meant more than ever.
But could he really have won? Without a doubt, he would have been in the mix on Friday night, but could he have kept pace down the lanes on Saturday?
Let’s ask the wrong man.
“I genuinely believe he would have been right up there,” says Steele. “And, don’t forget, in Carlo [Cassina] he has one of the most experienced and best co-drivers in the business. Vale puts so much emphasis on the team around him and with good engineers and a good car from us and Carlo being a massive asset in those mountains, I’m sure he would have troubled the WRC establishment this week. You underestimate this guy at your peril!”
Regardless of who wins on Sunday, Italy’s temple of speed in winter will always be about one man.