After seven years with Yamaha, Valentino Rossi made his first official appearance as a Ducati rider on Tuesday during the Italian squad's annual winter retreat at Madonna di Campiglio.
AUTOSPORT heard from the MotoGP legend ahead of his new era in the category.
Q. Two questions, the simplest and most obvious questions. The first is this: I want to ask you first of all how are you after your surgery, how do you feel physically?
Valentino Rossi: First of all, ciao to everyone and best wishes for the New Year. I have to say that at this time of January I was expecting to feel a bit better. In reality I have to say that as far as the shoulder is concerned there's still a lot to do. Everything is going well, I'm respecting the timings, I'm also going slightly faster than was expected, but it's a race for me to get in shape before February 1st; it's not going to be easy for me.
Q. The second obvious question is this - after Valencia, you could not speak for contract reasons. This is the first time that you're in front of the press as a new Ducati Marlboro rider, so we want to know your first feelings about the bike.
VR: The test was extremely important, because we were able to have a precise idea about many things, many important things, things which have to be improved. Unfortunately, in Valencia I could no longer ride, I did not have any more strength in my right arm, so was not in shape. And so we're going to have to test the bike when I'm going to be a bit better, when I'm going to be at 100% physically.
Q. You say you were unable to evaluate the bike properly, but what do you think needs to be done?
VR: Well, of course there's a lot that we have to work on. This is true on the Desmosedici and clearly, before the tests it is true that I have to feel well physically, this is more important. I'm surely not going to be 100% in Malaysia, but we are working a lot so as to recover at least the mobility of the shoulder that I need to ride well and to stay within the fairing in the straight. So I hope to be able to ride well even if it's going to be impossible for me to be extremely strong physically.
For the strength I'm going to need more time. So it's a fight against time, this is true. It will have been easier if I had been in shape from the start; it is probably not going to be so, unfortunately. My shoulder was more severe than what was expected from a medical point of view. Based on the controls that we have done during the year it seemed just the result of a normal fall, but in reality the problem was a bit bigger, so the physicians told me from the start that the shoulder would go back to 100%, but that it would take a bit more time to go back to 100%. So not only do we have to do some work on Desmosedici on our part, I have to try to get well, this is my first goal.
Q. You rode the bike in Valencia, but you started asking already for some radical changes on the bike even if you were not at 100%. Isn't it possible that you did not interpret the bike as it should have been interpreted (whilst) having more strength on your part? Isn't it possible that maybe you may have not understood the real soul of this bike during those tests? My question is this - are you going to have to change your style, or is it Ducati which will have to change this bike? After the first test, did you take into consideration the possibility that the challenge, that you may lose this challenge?
VR: First we started working on the basics on the bike. Ducati is quite different from other bikes, quite different from Yamaha but also from Honda. Because this is a bike that from our point of view is like a prototype, and different from the Japanese bikes which are in reality like some road bikes, so to say, transformed into MotoGP. This Desmosedici is, conceptually speaking, totally different. It must be used in a totally different way. For the time being we have not done anything radical following initial tests, and nothing radical, (just) changed the riding position and we asked to make some changes on some of the components of the bike so that I can feel a bit more comfortable, so that I can ride a bit more like I like to ride the bike.
Of course, after this we're going to find a solution mid-way, meaning that we have to improve the Desmosedici to make it as fast as it is now, but it should also be consistent to ride. So where possible, we should be able to make it more driveable. But on the other hand, on my part, I'm also going to have to trust the bike and change also my riding style so that I can exploit to the maximum this bike. As for winning or losing this challenge, I don't know. We are going to give our best, of course, and we're going to have to see how much time I can go back to being perfectly fit physically, if I can be perfectly fit for the beginning of the championship. That's going to be very important.
Q. When do you think your shoulder will be healed, at what time, what race in the championship - race 3, race 4?]
VR: Usually five or six months are necessary to be perfectly fit, 100%, and to have also the right strength. What I've seen, and this was explained to me before - is that when you have a broken bone, you can do ... okay... a lot can change in the times of recovery, and as the riders that were good, that were courageous, that were expert, in accidents, we can usually be slightly faster in going back to a bike. But unfortunately, when you have to nurture a tendon, you cannot improve too quickly. You have to adjust yourself to the normal time for recovery. The tendon, five, six weeks just to have no scarring, then after that you can start working on the muscular structure. I hope to be in shape for March 20th and at 100% in let's say April or May, that's when I should be at 100%.
Q. You said something about the shoulder making it difficult to ride the bike. Is it in position down the straight, or on the brakes? Where is it most painful at the moment?
VR: At Valencia - this is usually totally different - at Valencia, the shoulder I could move it, I could stay also within the windscreen. But I did not have the strength. On day two I did not have the strength to brake as I should have braked. So I could not even bring the tyres to the right temperature with that problem. Today, the shoulder mechanically works, but I do not have the entire range of movement to fit within the faring on the straight. To get low behind the windscreen, so that's what I have to work on so that on February 1st I can at least be capable of having the right position on the fairing and be able to drive
Q. Your decision to change to Ducati came spontaneously, or did you think about it for a long time?
VR: Honestly speaking, at the beginning of last year I thought I was going to stay for a few more years with Yamaha, or at least end my career there. The situation, the scenario evolved quite rapidly, so to say. We started speaking to Filippo (Preziosi, technical director) early on during the season, because I knew that Ducati was looking for me. Their offer was extremely positive, and from then I started to think about it. So it is something that came up gradually.
Q. I think previously you are one of the riders with the most experience in MotoGP also, because you're one of the oldest age-wise. How do you assess, how do you judge the fact that Casey Stoner has been able to achieve the results that he achieved with the bike that, as you say, it's like a prototype that still has to be fine-tuned? Which are the characteristics that Casey has, which other riders including you do not have?
VR: At the end of last year he was very strong with this bike. And he rode this bike with... his style is a bit special. He has a special riding style that he could exploit this bike. He's very strong in riding in all conditions; he is a major talent in adjusting himself to whichever set-up of the bike and to whichever condition. But, you know, he had been with Ducati since 2007, so he did four years, you know, four seasons he worked on it. So at the end it was a great feeling with that bike, and this is something that I still miss, of course. So apart from fine-tuning the bike after many kilometres, how it behaves at racetracks, this takes time.
Q. Two questions. Is this the most difficult challenge of your entire career? And the second question - 95% of fans want you to join Ducati, but the pure Ducatisti are a bit critical about your arrival. How do you assess this?
VR: As for the challenge, yes. This is like the one when I passed to Yamaha, even if it is different from that for many reasons. At that time I was at 100% physically and it was the bike which had to grow more. In this case, with Ducati, the bike is already strong, it just has to be fine-tuned, so to say, but especially in this case I have to get back in shape. So I usually pass the winter training, riding bikes. This winter I could not do anything. So this means that I have to go back to being a riding rider; I have to do this as soon as possible. As for the second question, I think that it is also going to be important. If we can achieve some good results, if we can make Ducati win, I think the 5% will be less skeptical.
Q. When you went to Yamaha, you were in a similar position. I read that in your biography. Who trusts more in the bike? You or Jeremy (Burgess, race engineer)?
VR: So Jeremy, he started with this challenge, with this experience. It was a great commitment and great joy for this new experience. He also saw that the team will have to work a lot as against what was being done now in Yamaha where everything went smooth thanks to the work that was done a few years ago. So we have to go back to work. The Desmosedici today, it's a bit like the (Yamaha) M1 was at the beginning. So my experience, especially with Jeremy's experience, the experience of the team, we can improve this bike, we can set it up as we like it, so my feeling is extremely trustworthy, I have to say, vis-a-vis this challenge. So I believe in it, in other words.
Q. One of the things that always struck me about you was that you were invulnerable, you were going back to race tracks in situations where other riders would have given up. But last year you had two accidents which were quite serious. So I was asking myself, if you've ever thought that this could be the sign that you're becoming older, that you've thought some time about giving up.
VR: Surely, I'm no longer 20, unfortunately. But this is something that, you know, that happens. The accidents, but also Mugello, that could have happened anywhere and in any other year; it just happened by chance. Of course when you're younger, you recover earlier on. When you're older, you have to train more to go back in shape. But I've never thought about quitting, because I think there are some other years in which I can be fast and competitive. So there's still desire on my part, and there's also the change of team, which gives me plenty of motivation. So I'm sure that I can... I hope to be able to remain at the top for a few more years.
Q. Two questions. Do you fear thinking that maybe at race 1 you're not fit, and at the championship with this level of riders, with riders such as Lorenzo, Stoner, Pedrosa, if you're behind them at the first two races it's like losing a championship. So what do you think? You sit here in red at Madonna di Campiglio. Is it the first time that you meet Fernando Alonso after many discussions between you two?
VR: Well unfortunately, our sport has changed, because when I decided to change teams and went to Yamaha in 2004, we started to test in January. Before the first race, I had done five tests with the M1, and was also physically fit. Today, now we have only three tests with the Desmosedici and as mentioned I also have to wait to be physically fit with my shoulder. So of course, unfortunately, it is possible that I am not going to be at 100% from the start. This is true. And this is, of course, negative for our championship. However, I cannot change this. This is simply what the situation is. So we have to work calmly, knowing that we're going to need some time, but we believe that we're going to be able to do it.
As for Fernando, I met him last year. It was a summer afternoon - I went to Ferrari and he was there. There was never a challenge (to race him), and I think we will not do a challenge even here because I don't think Friday afternoon (Wrooom ice race) I'll be able to race with a kart or with a rally car, unfortunately. But hopefully there will be other occasions for us to be able to meet on the track, for him to be able to try MotoGP, for me to try maybe Formula 1. Fernando's very nice and I was for him last year, (I felt) very sorry for Ferrari and for (Stefano) Domenicali that they lost that last race, but I'm sure they'll try to come back in 2011.
Q. You were saying your shoulder was worse than you had expected, than the doctors had expected. Looking back on it now, do you regret that you didn't quit earlier last year, and have the operation earlier, firstly? Secondly, did the fact that you carried on racing, did that damage the shoulder more to make the situation come about?
VR: Unfortunately, when the doctors' physicians entered the shoulder they saw that the damage was worse than expected, and so after surgery, when I woke they told me that a bit more time would be necessary to recover. Did I have two possibilities last year? I could have undergone surgery after I got hurt on my leg, so to exploit that stop also for the shoulder, but it was not possible because I was healing with the leg to do surgery also on the shoulder. I would have had to stay in bed one month without even moving with crutches, so I could not have done that.
The other possibility would have been skipping the last two races of the season, so going to surgery after Australia. Surely I would come in better shape to the first tests in February, but I didn't want to stay home. I'd already skipped four races. I knew that in Portugal and Valencia I could have done two nice races, two podiums, and I was sorry not being able to race the last two races. Also because I was able to ride with the other riders, I had the possibility of testing also with the Desmosedici even if I was not 100% physically, so in the end (the) perfect solution did not exist, so this was perhaps the best one that I took, hoping of course that I would be in shape for February 1st.
Q. Do you think Lorenzo and Yamaha, or Stoner and Honda? Who's more dangerous of the two?
VR: I think that those two are going to be the favourites for this season, and it's difficult to say. Lorenzo knows the bike very well, he has plenty of experience, and last year he rode extremely well, he practically never made any mistake. Stoner, I believe, if he wants to fight against Lorenzo he has to try to become a bit more constant over time, some inconsistency. But now he has the Honda, which is really, really strong, it's a bit faster than the Yamaha in terms of its engine, so he could have a slight technical advantage. It should be a nice challenge between those two.
Q. You've said you might need to adjust your style to fully exploit the Ducati. Do you have any idea of what you might need to do to your style to work with the bike?
VR: The Ducati is quite different from the M1, it must be driven with a bit dirtier of a biking style, the style has to be a bit more dirty, so to say. With the Ducati, you take corners more sharply, and so you have to adjust yourself to the bike. I hope to be able also to be able to modify the Desmosedici to make it easier for me to ride. It's a bike - you can change whatever you want on a bike. So I think - I repeat, I think we should also be able to improve the bike to make it a bit easier, a bit more competitive from the start to the end of the race. This is what I expect.
Q. In your opinion, for how long is Lorenzo going to maintain Yamaha at a top level, since before there was also part of your work within the M1? I want to ask you if you need to be a bit braver, in order to drive a Ducati maybe you have to be a bit more courageous, since you were saying it was a bit more edgy as a bike to ride. Is it maybe easier for a younger rider, this is the question.
VR: Let me say this: honestly we do not have to go against all odds to go fast. Stoner has always been fast, and okay he made four mistakes I think in a race, and I... In spite of the fact that I broke my leg and I skipped four races I was able to come out in front of him, so it means we have to work on it. Not only do we need a brutally fast bike, but then it might be risky to drive. No, we need a bike that should help us to be constant and competitive, with consistency from the beginning to the end of the race, risking a bit less. Then, having said that, historically the Ducati bike has always been evil, nasty - you have to ride it with your fingernails, with your clutch. But I think that I should be able to do it.
Q. Nicky has said that there's not going to be any wall dividing your two boxes, but why did you have this separation with Lorenzo in the past, if you can explain it to us?
VR: With Nicky, now, I'm going to have to look at his data, so I do hope there's not going to be a separation, a wall between us (laughs). We're going to try to work together, to improve the bike. He has plenty of experience with the Desmosedici, so initially he can teach me many important tricks for the bike. As for the separation of the data with Lorenzo, this is a historical problem of how the thing turned out in the past. All that started from 2007 to 2008, we had a bike which had many problems; we had to work a lot on it. The only thing that was changed from 2007 to 2008 was only the teammate, so I tried to safeguard myself to do my job, of course, but it was impossible. And so that separation was just virtual, but things went as they went.
Q. I was wondering if, as a rider, do you think that last year Lorenzo, in winning a championship with you - let's say - not fully physically fit, do you think it matters a bit less because of this? Thinking about your fans, do you have an idea of let's say how long it will take you to show to the remaining 5% of Ducatisti who you really are? In other words, do you think that you have to do things quickly, so that in June you have to have some good results or they start criticizing you? What do you expect?
VR: I think that Lorenzo does not care if I was 100% or not 100%. This was his first World Championship in MotoGP, and in World Championships what is important is not how you win them, but if you win them or if you do not win them. That's what counts. And he won, and he deserved it 100% because he always went very fast. He was lucky during some races, first with me, and then in some races Pedrosa got hurt, but in any case he was always in front, and he exploited the M1 to the maximum, so he really deserved it. As for the rest, okay, unfortunately we do need some time and maybe fans will not give us this time. Many would like to see me fast from the start, from Day 1 of the first test and Day 1 of the first race. Unfortunately, it will perhaps take a bit more time. But I do hope that the tifosi, the fans will be a bit more patient, and I do hope they will wait for us.
Q. Three more questions. You have won so many championships. Which one is the most precious for you? Which one do you appreciate most?
VR: I need to think. As for the best championship, maybe it was in 2001, with the Honda 500, and the first year with the Yamaha in 2004, when I won my first race of the season. But also 2008 I have to say was very nice. I don't know. I would say 2008, the last one, is the one I remember most. So 2008, I would say.
Q. What was your best race in your career? The best thing you did in your career?
VR: Many races were fantastic in my career, the best one, I think, is still the first victory with Yamaha, in South Africa, back in 2004.
Q. Do you understand Michael Schumacher and his return to Formula 1? What do you think about it?
VR: Who knows? Meaning, Michael perhaps was expecting to be a bit more competitive. Frankly, after a few years that you stop, it becomes difficult to start again and to go back to winning. But still - he seems extremely determined to continue in the forthcoming years. So he hopes to be able to go back in front, to achieve good results. This is what he hopes.
Q. I do not know if you are still asleep or not, because you're changed - you've been extremely calm this morning. Do you feel changed as a man? Where is age taking you? Previously you were saying that the best thing was to win in 2004. Do you think that in Qatar 2011 you could have an even greater result?
VR: Not that I'm asleep, but a press conference so early in the morning (10 00am) is not something that I've ever done! But, okay, since you have to speak in English would have been difficult before noon, before 12 o'clock. I do not exclude categorically anything, I do not exclude anything. Qatar 2011 is going to be a great feeling for me, just as it was in Welkom (South Africa) 2004. Now the situation is more difficult, I repeat not so much for the bike but especially because for my physical condition. So in these cases you have to take it with calmness, to be calm and wait. I am doing my best to be as fit as possible, I do hope to be ready for a nice race from the start, in Qatar, and this is what we are going to try and do. To give our best.
Q. I go back to what Filippo was saying, let's see the glass half full. We spoke of age as a negative factor, but how do you feel? Do you accept things more? Are you more reflective? How do you feel as a rider, as a man?
VR: I think my work for Ducati can be divided into two parts. The first is the most important, that of trying to win - of course. And so to be competitive as soon as possible. But together - and here mixed feelings come in - we also have to try to improve, I have to try to help Filippo to allow them to make a step forward, to work like I did also at Yamaha, to improve the Desmosedici in this case and to bring it to the top, to make it more competitive and easier to drive.