February 2, 2006 Italian MotoGP star Valentino Rossi is already a phenomenon and seems destined for an even greater share of the media’s attention over the coming year now that he has stepped into the limelight of the world’s biggest spectator event – Formula One. Yesterday he stepped out in his new capacity as an official Ferrari F1 test driver alongside team leader Michael Schumacher and amongst most of the major Formula One drivers on the same track – the Ricardo Tormo circuit in Valencia, Spain. Driving a 2004 Ferrari F2004, Rossi finished eighth fastest of the 15 drivers, completing 53 laps, with a best time of 1.12.851. Schumacher covered a total of 71 laps, setting the third quickest time of the day at 1.11.814. Rossi was faster than a number of established F1 stars on the day, including Red Bull’s David Coulthard, Williams’ Mark Webber and Toyota’s Jarno Trulli. Rossi has been linked to a move to Formula One in 2007, with his Yamaha MotoGP contract expiring at the end of 2006. This article looks at the parallel careers of Rossi and the only person to have won both the F1 and MotoGP championship - John Surtees.
Rossi is clearly a once in a generation talent already, and at 26 years of age, has already comprehensively conquered the world of motorcycling, winning world titles on four distinctly different types of motorcycle 1000cc 4-stroke, 500cc 2-stroke, 250cc 2-stroke, and 125cc 2-stroke, with the first two categories at around 230 bhp, the 250 at a peaky 120bhp and the 125s producing a razor-sharp powerband peaking at 65 bhp.
Despite such tender years, Rossi is already the most successful motorcycle racer in history other than the legendary Italian Giacomo Agostini, but it is not what he has done, but what he might go on to do that is even more intriguing.
With Rossi looming large in Formula One, it might surprise readers to know that he has other options in yet another of the ultimate forms of Motorsport – World Rally Championship. He has previously driven in rally events several times and reportedly acquitted himself admirably but the story took yet another fairytale twist in December when Rossi was entered in a Motorsport event against rallying’s elite at the Monza Rally Show. Rossi finished second on the first day of the event then won the second day of the event dispatching a number of well-credentialed performers including five-time WRC champion Colin MacRae. Whatever common talents are required to make any form of machinery go fast, the mischevious Italian appears to have them all in adundance.
No-one at Ferrari is saying what the relationship with Rossi constitutes. His informal test sessions in the Ferrari began in 2004 and it has confirmed he will test regularly throughout 2006. Given that his main adversaries in 2006 were all hard at work testing their machinery at the Phillip Island circuit in Australia while Rossi was driving the Ferrari in Spain, it's clear that Rossi's future lies beyond MotoGP in the near future and the both the motorcycling world and the Formula 1 world would no doubt be delighted to see him on the grid in the Marlboro Red Ferrari.
The move from motorcycles to Formula 1 has been done successfully several times, but only once before has someone conquered both mountains.
John Surtees won seven World roadracing championships and six Tourist Trophy victories on the Isle of Man at a time when the trackside walls of the notoriously dangerous TT circuit were often made of stone. Half of the 37 kilometres could be in bright sunshine while fog or rain could be afflicting the other end. The TT was more prestigious than the World Championships at the time, so he completely conquered the world of motorcycling (ditto).
Surtees had an additional edge over most riders in that he was fascinated by the engineering aspects of his motorcycles and with access to the best (he was the lead rider at MV Agusta, the dominant marque in racing at that time) his quest for innovation saw him abdicate the throne at the height of his powers.
Surtees first won the World 500 cc Championship in 1956 then completed three successive 500cc/350cc World Championship doubles before dramatically switching full-time to car racing in 1960 as the standing world champion in two classes – his double acts in 1958, '59 and '60 were the work of a zen master.
In that final year he began a car racing career that would take him to the World Formula 1 championship by the age of 30 and subsequently lead to a career as one of the foremost automotive engineers of his time. In 1960, he competed in several Formula 1 races in between winning the 350 and 500 championships. In his second F1 race he finished second and in his third race he took pole position. Four years later he won the title as the works Ferrari driver and went on to become one of the most successful racer-engineers of all-time, not just driving the car, but running the entire engineering facility and race car manufacturing.
Surtees was also responsible for the next great sport swap in history when “Mike the Bike” Hailwood, another candidate for the best of all-time who won a host of motorcycle titles, swapped to car racing and won the 1972 European F2 car championship (driving a Surtees-designed car) and reached the front of the pack in F1, but although he led the 1972 South African F1 GP, he never won one, and was a long way from the crown.
We are currently in the process of researching the history of motorcycle-car racing achievements and no doubt Valentino will continue to write history, though he’ll need to be at his very best to equal the achievements of John Surtees.
One thing is certain – it will be a wonderful experience watching him try, whatever he decides to do.