There is a new MotoGP World Champion and there is a local hero looking for a fourth straight Phillip Island victory, but still the fans at this weekend’s 2010 IVECO Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix will be keeping a special watch on the man on the number 46 bike.
That’s Valentino Rossi, whose stunning career on two wheels has made him one of the most recognisable sportsmen the world has ever known as well as one of its most popular. Though not necessarily with his teammates.
The man currently sharing the Yamaha garage with the Italian is Jorge Lorenzo, who has just been crowned world champion as successor to Rossi after taking third place in Malaysia, where the race was won by Rossi.
But that’s not the cause of the young Spaniard’s annoyance. He complained vociferously to the team after Rossi’s robust ride in Japan two races ago as the two went wheel-to-wheel and elbow-to-elbow in pursuit of the final podium place – and like the Malaysian win last weekend, it went to Rossi.
Not only was the success in Sepang a special one because he was 11th through the first corner, it was also Rossi’s 46th win on a Yamaha – it had been delayed only by injury this year and prompted celebrations with a special pit board pointing out that the tally matches the Italian’s famous racing number.
“I rode so well and it was a fantastic race, one of the best of my career I think,” Rossi said. “I wanted this 46th win so much because as everyone knows it’s a special number for me!
“Thanks to my team because everyone worked so hard this weekend and I think this is a great repayment for everyone.”
Malaysia was also Rossi’s 79th win overall in the senior class since his maiden victory for Honda at Donington Park in England in 2000.
Those 79 wins have come in 178 Grand Prix starts: that represents a staggering 44.38% strike rate at the elite level of motorcycle racing. Small wonder the man has been world champion seven times since then…
He has also won seven times here at Phillip Island, including five on the trot in the 500cc/MotoGP class between 2001 and 2005, when his dominance on two wheels eclipsed even Michael Schumacher’s on four.
Interestingly, however, Rossi has not won here since then. He has finished third twice and second twice since 2006, a set of numbers that has him slightly riled, as he admitted after winning in Malaysia for only the second time in an injury-hit season.
“Now I really want to try to finish the season strongly and I’m excited about getting to Phillip Island, which is one of the most fantastic places in the world to ride a motorcycle,” Rossi said.
“I haven’t won there for a few years and I would really like to change that. It’s always special to go there because many of my team are Australian and the fans are great. I can’t wait!”
Among those fans is another of the world’s fastest men – Mark Webber, the Australian who currently leads the race for the Formula One Drivers’ World Championship with just three rounds to go.
Webber’s a big Rossi fan and the feeling is mutual, especially since they have shared recent experiences of severe injury as Webber broke his leg in Tasmania at the end of 2008, Rossi broke his leg in a fall at Mugello earlier this year.
“Mark is a good guy and a great driver,” says Rossi. “We speak sometimes and he had some good words for me after my accident. I am a Ferrari fan but I think Mark too will be a deserved world champion. I will definitely congratulate him if he can do it!”
Rossi will be all the more determined to add to those 46 wins for Yamaha because this is his last season with the Japanese marque.
Next year he will replace Australia’s Casey Stoner at Ducati to begin a relationship which, given his current age of 31, will probably carry him to the end of his top-flight career.
Even as the 200-Grand Prix landmark approaches, Rossi has lost none of his speed: his Yamaha set fastest race lap in each of the last two rounds in Japan and Malaysia, and he has five of those fastest laps here, including 2009 when he and Stoner set the Phillip Island track alight.
Rossi is determined to finish a season that started with a victory and three podiums as strongly as he can, just to make a point to Lorenzo and the rest of the field before he tries to master the Ducati in 2011.
He has abandoned plans to end his season early and continue his rehabilitation because his love affair with Australia is firmly based on his affection for its motorcycle circuit.
“Phillip Island is one of my favourite tracks in the world and of course I want to try to do well, we will have to see how strong I am when I get there,” Rossi said.
“It’s an incredible track, next to the ocean, amazing views and a ‘proper’ track, not designed on a computer. Lukey Heights is amazing especially, but really the whole thing is incredible, fast and flowing and technical.
“Stoner is always very strong there and it’s also one of Lorenzo’s favourites, it will be a big fight for sure!”