Valentino Rossi Wants A Faster Yamaha MotoGP Bike For 2020

Nine-time world champion is targeting a top-three finish in title chase.

Rossi
Testing, testing, testing: Valentino Rossi’s riding style has evolved greatly over the duration of his remarkable career. For 2020, the 40-year-old Italian has asked Yamaha for top speed on par with that of the rival Ducatis and Hondas. Twenty races are scheduled this season.Yamaha

A new year has begun and many MotoGP followers are asking the same question: Will this be Valentino Rossi’s final season in the sport before switching to a second career—perhaps behind the wheel of an endurance race car—or will the nine-time world champion contest a record-breaking 21st season in Grand Prix motorcycle racing’s premier class?

Rossi spent part of December driving a Formula 1 car at Spain’s Circuit Ricardo Tormo in a unique Yamaha/Mercedes swap with six-time F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton. Rossi was later joined by friend Alessio “Uccio” Salucci and brother Luca Marini at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, where the trio finished third overall in the Gulf 12 Hours driving a Ferrari 488 GT3.

I spoke with Rossi about those experiences, as well as his plans for the future.

The MotoGP bike/Formula 1 car swap with Lewis Hamilton at Valencia was set up as a show, but it turned out very differently.

And I was very happy because of it. When the idea came up, I said to myself, “That’s nice. That’s cool.” But, in these cases, you’re always risking the rip off. You go there, do 20 laps, and then four hours of pictures. So I said, “I’m coming, guys, but I want a real day, like with Ferrari: 70 to 80 laps, get out of the car at the end of the day, and you’re finished.” And it was like this.

You did some really good lap times.

Yes, I did 1:13.0. Lewis in the morning did 1:11.7, but he only did five laps. It was a real test; I worked with his team, and Lewis also helped me a lot. From there, to go faster, it still takes a while; you have to understand and study. But it was worth it.

It’s not usual to see champions of different sports hang out together. What kind of person is the Hamilton you discovered?

I’d met Lewis three or four times before but for 15 minutes—an hour or so in Qatar. He made a great impression. First of all because he has a great passion for motorsport. We had dinner, spent two days together, talked a lot. He’s a very humble, polite, and a nice person. We had great laughs.

What kind of motorcycle rider is he?

Quite amazing because he told me he only rode seven to eight times, not with a MotoGP bike but in general! He did very well. Conditions were difficult, and I was worried. I was afraid he was not having fun because there was a lot of wind and the bike was difficult to ride. He improved a lot during the day; he did a lot of laps, a real test. And, in the end, he was giving gas, he was braking hard—a good MotoGP rider; I told him that.

Mercedes-AMG F1 W08 EQ Power+
Rossi prepares for a run in the Mercedes-AMG F1 W08 EQ Power+ that carried Lewis Hamilton to a sixth world title. “At first, you get an amazing sensation of speed,” he said about the experience at Valencia. “Once I got into the rhythm, I could really push. I didn’t want the day to end.”Yamaha

You’ve driven three Formula 1 cars, a V-10, a V-8, and, now, the hybrid.

I was thinking about it the other night: I’m the only person in the world to have tried both the Ferrari and Mercedes, right? The only person in the world… How cool is that? I found a better F1 car. I had more fun because I had less physical problems with my neck. The Mercedes has an impressive engine; the turbo is insane. And the grip is monstrous with those huge tires.

You were once rooting for Jacques Villeneuve, met Michael Schumacher, and now there is Hamilton.

As little guys, we were a bit antagonistic. It’s bad to say that, but we were cheering for Villeneuve. But then I entered the Ferrari world, I met Schumacher and especially the whole team and, when we were kids, we were wrong. Hamilton is a very glamorous character. You never know what to expect from him. He goes from a race to a party. I look at him and I say to myself, “How the hell is he able to do it?” But then he comes to the next race and wins. I’m a big fan of him.

If you had won the MotoGP world title in 2006, would you have gone to F1?

No. I was closest to doing it in 2006 in the February test at Valencia. We sat at a table with the Ferrari guys and we asked ourselves what we wanted to do. There was a serious program. Not right away in a Ferrari, but, at the beginning, driving another slower car, the test driver. And there, I decided I was not going to make it.

Sports giants are often idolized, but maybe the real satisfaction comes when Hamilton called the day you spent together “epic.” Max Verstappen, another F1 race winner, confessed he only watches MotoGP for you.

It’s nice to have a lot of fans, but when you meet a great sport athlete, in this case, F1… In that world, they are almost all very passionate about MotoGP—[Lando] Norris, [Charles] Leclerc, Verstappen, everyone on Hamilton’s team who rides motorcycles. They are crazy about it. They told me that when they have their meetings, they stop to watch MotoGP qualifying. I told Hamilton that they are crazy driving those cars. He said we are the crazy ones. In the end, we don’t know who is more crazy.

Speaking of great champions, Casey Stoner, having watched you race and seeing the effort you put in, is convinced you can stay in front. But, he adds, you have to look at young riders from your VR46 Riders Academy and learn from them by risking more.

Stoner was a master in this. He always rode to the limit even when the bike was not at its best. He was a great opponent of mine; at the level of pure talent, perhaps the strongest of all. He did impressive things in his career, even if it only lasted a short time. It was difficult with Stoner; he’s a tough character, and we didn’t have a great relationship. I read that he’s suffering from chronic fatigue. I hope he’s going to be okay again, and at least have a normal life.

Jeremy Burgess, your former chief technician, said at Phillip Island, “I’d ask Valentino if he still feels the same as the one who beat Stoner in 2008 at Laguna Seca. If he feels that way, then it’s right for him to continue.”

I think I am. There are various interpretations to what Jeremy said. Unfortunately, it’s been 12 years and the situation has changed; my opponents are very strong, and I’m older. But the instinct is the same. And I understand that because if it wasn’t so, it would really be time to say it’s enough.

You changed chief technician for 2020: David Muñoz is replacing Silvano Galbusera. Did that move come a year too late?

With Silvano, we did very well in 2014, ’15, and ’16. We’ve been struggling since the middle of 2017. Could we have done it a year earlier? Maybe, yes, but I thought I could do it this way too.

This is a watershed year: You either continue or stop. Do you live this moment differently?

A little bit, yes. I would like to have a little more time. Unfortunately, today in MotoGP everything is decided at the beginning of the year. I will need a little bit to understand, like mid-season. I’ll talk to [Yamaha Motor Racing Managing Director] Lin [Jarvis] and Yamaha to see what they think.

With whom will you speak to before deciding on your future?

I mostly talk to my dad, my mom, Albi [Alberto Tebaldi, VR46 manager], Uccio [Salucci, friend], and Carlo [Casabianca, personal trainer]. My dad and my mom—also, the others—want me to continue. But, come on, you have to be realistic. I'd like to but we have to be more competitive than this year. Otherwise, we’d better not. And that’s fine too.

Rossi and Hamilton
Uncommon sight: Rossi peeks over his shoulder at Hamilton, who traded his driving suit this past December for leathers and knee pucks. About the outing, Hamilton said, “It was so cool to be out on track and see Valentino ahead of me on the same bike.”Yamaha

Yamaha says there will always be a bike for you.

Do you know for sure? I'm happy to hear it. They seem very positive, and that’s an honor for me.

They say they don't feel hostage, that they believe in your competitiveness.

This is important. I repeat, it is a great honor and also a great luxury for a rider to quit when he decides. They usually fire you.

You have said that Yamaha should promote Fabio Quartararo. With Maverick Viñales, you have three riders for two seats.

It’s a problem.

Viñales made it clear that he won’t accept to be moved to the Petronas Sepang Racing Team, and maybe Quartararo won't agree to stay there.

I don’t see the difference in going to Team Petronas.

Would you go?

I’d like to stay where I am, but, as I said, there are three of us for two places and you have to think of a third place. And for me, even if it’s Petronas, the team doesn’t seem bad. But maybe Viñales is leaving. Or Quartararo changes bikes. Who knows what he thinks?

Yamaha has thought about Jorge Lorenzo as a test rider.

I think it would be a good idea to make him an offer. But you have to understand if Jorge wants to be a tester. If I have a motivated Jorge, who says he no longer wants the pressure of 20 races a year but still likes to ride, in my opinion, yes. For me, if he gets on the Yamaha, he’s fast.

Gulf 12 Hours podium
Rossi (top, right) celebrates a podium finish in the Gulf 12 Hours in Abu Dhabi with Ferrari teammates Uccio Salucci and Luca Marini. “It’s a long day but very fun,” Rossi said. “It was Luca’s debut. I know what he can do from rally driving, and we enjoyed it very much.”Yamaha

The Dakar Rally is beginning in Saudi Arabia, and Fernando Alonso will be the first F1 world champion to compete in the race.

I’m curious to see what he will do. I really like the Dakar, although I don’t know if I will ever race it.

Have you changed your mind?

I’d like more to race on the asphalt. I’m faster than on gravel and sand.

In the Gulf 12 Hours in Abu Dhabi, you shared the cockpit of a Ferrari with your brother, Luca.

It was beautiful. I’m trying to teach him about car racing. He’s got great potential. He’s fast and smart. And he’s having fun.

What can you promise the world of motorcycling this year?

What I can promise for 2020 is that I will do my best. I’ll prepare myself to the maximum, trying to be competitive. I would like to do good races and fight for the top three in the championship.

And what would you like personally?

A Yamaha that is 10 kilometers per hour faster on the straight, which is as fast as the Honda and Ducati. I know, that will be difficult…