ON THE RANCH WITH VALENTINO | MotoGP
Deep in the Italian countryside Valentino Rossi is building an Italian renaissance in MotoGP, while having one hell of a blast at the same time
Tavullia has been Rossi Town for a couple of decades. Pretty much every tree, light pole and window flies a VR46 flag. The speed limit is 46km/h instead of 50, and the town square – flanked by his pizzeria, gelateria, merchandise shop and bar – is basically a shrine to the 115 Grands Prix and nine world titles he has won across the globe.
But it gets better than that. Take the south-east road out of town, towards the war memorial that marks the Allied breakthrough of the Nazis’ Gothic Line in 1944, then turn left, down a steep single-track road that drops down into a valley through half a dozen tree-lined hairpin turns. Out of the forest and before you stands an epic dirt-track circuit that twists and turns across the hillside. And there is the man himself, racing his mates, kicking down a couple of gears, throwing his YZF450 sideways into a corner and filling your face with sand. Thanks, mate.
Cynics might dismiss this creation as nothing more than the plaything of a multi-millionaire petrol-head, but in fact it’s much more than that. Rossi created his VR46 Motor Ranch because he needed somewhere to ride every day to keep his skills sharp. When he was a kid he spent his weekends blasting around a gravel quarry a few miles further out of town, but the quarry was chaotic, with broken-down diggers abandoned here and there, waiting to smash you to a pulp if you got it wrong.
Rossi made his first visit to the ranch site in the autumn of 2010, with best friend Marco Simoncelli and Mattia Pasini, another local Grand Prix winner. They imagined the layout that gradually came to fruition: 13 corners across 2.4km of a painstakingly laid circuit, with concrete foundations topped with limestone and sand to create the perfect surface for practicing your sideways skills.
But a year later Simoncelli was dead. The 2008 250cc world champion lost his life when he fell during the 2011 Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang and was struck by Rossi and American Colin Edwards. His death affected Rossi hugely and transformed his life.
“Vale and Marco were together all the time – training and having fun – because Marco was the only guy who could stay with Vale on a bike,” says Albi Tebaldi, a childhood friend of Rossi’s and now CEO of the VR46 empire.
“They were like brothers, so after Marco died there was something missing. A year or two later Valentino said, okay, let’s build something great. Life can be cruel and it’s incredible what fate can give you.”
With Simoncelli gone, Rossi needed riders to train with, so the construction of the VR46 Motor Ranch was followed by the establishment of the VR46 Riders Academy, which would fill the void left by his friend and also nurture young Italian talent. Rossi was unhappy that MotoGP had been taken over by Spanish riders and teams, so he wanted to revive his nation’s fortunes, while having a blast at the same time.
“Racing here is a lot more fun than MotoGP,” beams Rossi, lord of all he surveys at the ranch. “Riding this track is one of the best things you can do on a motorcycle. Also, you don’t have any pressure. You just have your friends with you, so you play and you fight. It’s the best.
“Also, it’s very important for me, because to train every day when you’re alone is a lot heavier. I started with one or two guys, which gave me a challenge and made training more fun. Now we are 10 or 15 riders training and riding together, so you can imagine! Also, it keeps me young!”
You can be sure that the success of Rossi’s proteges inspires him to greater things. His best ride of 2018 was at Sepang, where he led for 16 laps before sliding off. That outing – his 323rd Grand Prix start – followed the Moto2 race, in which his half-brother Luca Marini took his first victory and Pecco Bagnaia won the Sky TV-sponsored VR46 team’s first world title.
“That was a great emotion, but I needed to sit down for maybe three hours to recover; so,
fuck, it was a difficult way to prepare for my race,” he laughs. “But Luca’s win was an unforgettable feeling and that was an unforgettable day, because also Pecco won our team’s first world championship. I’m very proud of my brother.”
Rossi’s racing university now includes 11 students, who will all contest this year’s Grand Prix world championships: Bagnaia, Marini, 2017 Moto2 champ Franco Morbidelli, 2018 Moto3 title-challenger Marco Bezzecchi, Nicolo Bulega, Nico Antonelli, Andrea Migno, Celestino Vietti, Lorenzo Baldassarri, Stefano Manzi and Dennis Foggia.
The gang hone their skills at the ranch every week and race there every weekend, when they’re not away with MotoGP. There’s no prize money or world championship points up for grabs, but the racing is super intense, just like in MotoGP.
“It’s very cool,” says Morbidelli, who in 2013 became the first rider to sign with the VR46 academy and last year was the first to make it into MotoGP. “When we race at the ranch I’d say the emotion is exactly the same as when we are doing proper races. The intensity is the same, but of course, the world championship is a different matter, so here you sometimes get pissed off with the other riders but other times you are laughing!”
There is no Race Direction at the ranch to penalise badly behaved riders, so it’s left to Rossi – nicknamed Il Capo by his VR46 colleagues – to mediate when riders see the red mist.
“It’s not easy to find the right balance,” Rossi admits. “But the aggression is also good for training and improving.”
Our visit to the ranch coincides with its biggest race of the year, La 100km dei Campioni, when two-rider teams battle it out for almost two hours. Rossi teams up with Morbidelli and for the last half of the race the pair are locked in a vicious battle for victory with Baldassarri and Pasini. Rossi crashes once, Pasini twice and Baldassarri rages about Morbidelli’s aggressive tactics, which have them colliding more than once. Morbidelli doesn’t seem bothered.
“We have very, very hard fights here – more intense than in the GPs because here there’s no Race Direction!” laughs Morbidelli, who partnered Rossi to victory, by just 1.5 seconds.
“The only prize here is pride – now for one year we can tell the others: we beat you! There are many, many things I’ve learned from Vale. The biggest thing is that you need to have fun, because he has fun all the time.”
The racing action doesn’t stop at the ranch. Among the VR46 Riders Academy’s stable of machinery are several 27-horsepower 80cc two-stroke MiniGP bikes, made by Italian company RMU. Rossi and his gang race these bikes at go-karts tracks. And then there’s a stable of slick-equipped R6s and a R1Ms, which they use at Misano and Mugello. In other words, the racing never stops, according to a calendar that’s arranged at the start of the year to fit around MotoGP events.
“We are together every day – racing and training,” explains Bagnaia, who this year becomes the second academy rider to make it into MotoGP. “This is very important and very good, because we are always in competition.
“We are friends, but at the track we want to beat everyone else in the group, so the motivation to be strong is very high, all the time. And having Valentino as a coach is incredible, because he’s done everything in his career and made mistakes, so he knows how to do things and how to change, so it’s a faster process for us. The really special part is that we always go out together in the evenings, eating at different restaurants, where we talk about motorbikes and girlfriends.”
Rossi gives advice to his academy riders even during MotoGP weekends, when he’s trying to beat Marc Marquez and the rest.
“We spend a lot of time with Vale – every evening we go to his motorhome,” says Marini. “We all ask him for technical advice about riding and the track. He gives us a lot of attention and always gives us good things to think about. If I have a problem at one corner I message him between practice sessions and he messages me back, telling me what to do. When we are in his motorhome we don’t always talk about the motorcycle world, but staying together helps us.”
When Rossi lines up for the 2019 MotoGP championship he will have two VR46 riders alongside him: rookie Bagnaia on a Pramac Ducati GP18 and Morbidelli on a Yamaha YZR-M1, just like Rossi’s. “I hope I’ll be racing with him – I’m looking forward to it,” grins Morbidelli.
We will have to see how Rossi feels about that when it happens, which it surely will…