'The Doctor' in no mood to quit practice

The defending MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi will keep competing until he runs out of motivation.

As soon as it comes to race weekend, the joking stops and Yamaha rider Valentino Rossi gets very serious about what he does which is trying to win MotoGP races.
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Valentino Rossi has few qualms about riding at speeds in excess of 200mph on two wheels. At his first test for this season - at Sepang in Malaysia - he came off his Yamaha YZR M1, skidded off the track, dusted down his leathers and got back on the bike. However, when it comes to domestic life, the defending MotoGP champion is increasingly cautious and admits there is nothing of the daredevil about him within his own four walls.

His new-found trepidation is down to an incident at his home in Italy last month with the fairly innocuous challenge of attempting to put up a set of curtains. As he was setting about putting together the finishing touches, he lost his balance and fell through a glass table, leaving him requiring stitches in a hand and a foot. As comedy injuries go, Rossi admits he has few rivals and that he is still bearing the brunt of it.

He said: "It was a shock at the time because there was a lot of blood but the hand is completely fine and the foot still has a little bit of pain although it's nearly better. The problem is the teasing. I'm still getting a little bit from my friends but you can't blame them can you?" Despite the injuries, Rossi, 30, has lost little time in putting together the defence of the MotoGP world title - his fifth - which he won following a season-long battle against Casey Stoner.

The early pace in testing would suggest the pair will once again be the ones to beat this season, although in testing at Losail, where the season-opening Qatar Grand Prix will take place tomorrow, Stoner was, at times, more than half-a-second faster than Rossi. Rossi, though, is unfussed. He claims to be "ahead of schedule" compared to 2008 when he struggled in the season opener in Qatar, finishing fifth to Stoner's first place.

And the Italian, who hails from Tavullia, said he expected the top two, who bagged 15 of last season's 18 grand prix wins, to dominate the championship once again although not run away with it as in previous seasons. "I think it'll be me against Stoner once more but I also expect Dani Pedroso and Jorge Lorenzo [Rossi's Yamaha teammate] to be very strong," he said. "I'd prefer it not to be just me against Stoner. I want a strong battle up front - it makes it more exciting for everyone.

"But now it's difficult to predict how the season will unfold because we don't really know how it will be with the new tyre regulations. You can guess a little from the pace in testing but we really won't know until the season starts and we've had a few races. But I think it's possible there can be some surprises. I like surprises." A mono-tyre rule has been introduced for this season, which will see every bike shod in the same rubber. Rossi expects the ruling, part of which was aimed at cutting costs, to also bring better racing, a recurring theme in any conversation with the Yamaha rider.

"I think it'll make a better show, especially at the start when the bikes are all likely to move around a bit more," he said. "You won't see someone pull away so easily and I expect a lot closer battles. I hope so." Rossi relishes the battle of racing. Looking back on last season's championship win, his highlight marks the character of the racing - he picks out his race-long duel at the United States Grand Prix at Laguna Seca against Stoner.

The pair narrowly avoided coming off their bikes following a series of audacious moves, most notably by Rossi, which left the usually unflappable Stoner livid at the Rossi. Rossi laughs off any suggestion of wrongdoing. "I'm a racer and I race to win," he said. "I did nothing wrong it's just that I brake better than him so I could leave things later in the corners." Having recently celebrated his 30th birthday, which included public birthday greetings from the likes of actors Tom Cruise and Daniel Day-Lewis, Rossi is now something of the elder statesman of the MotoGP, although any signs he might be slowing down are far fetched.

His level of achievement in motorsport over the last two decades is astounding, since finishing sixth in his first outing, a go-kart race in Italy he was taken to as a 10-year-old by his father, Graziano. Four wheels soon lost out to two and, just eight years later, in 1997, he had won his first world title, the 125cc crown. The 250cc title followed in 1999 and, by 2001, he had bagged the final 500cc championship before the inception of MotoGP. He also has five MotoGP crowns under his belt - won from 2002-5 and again last year.

He readily admits his goal is to win a ninth major title but insisted that's not the sole aim. "There are just two goals for 2009," he said. "One is to win the title and the other is to enjoy it. They're equally important and I don't think I need any more goals. That's enough for me." Rossi has two more years on his current contract and has declared his desire to finish his MotoGP career at the team. However, as for his longevity in the sport he is unsure.

"People ask me about retiring," he said. "I'm pretty old for this, well, compared to the others but I feel okay for an old man. I really don't think about the end of my career. I have two more years with Yamaha and that's all that matters, that and winning with the team. There's too much to think about with that alone so there's no need to think further ahead than this." There have been increasing rumours of a future on four wheels after the end of the 2010 season.

He has already regularly tested for Ferrari and has bagged some notable rallying results - he has competed in Rally Great Britain and in the Rally of Monza. As for what he has left to achieve, Rossi insisted F1 is probably not the way forward for him, despite having previously been offered a race drive with Ferrari in 2006. He said: "Maybe if I'd done it sooner who knows, but I still had things I wanted to achieve in MotoGP when it was mentioned, and I still have things I want to achieve. I would love the chance to do some more rallying so who knows."

Appropriately enough, he shares a lot of characteristics with the man he would have replaced at Ferrari, Michael Schumacher. The same drive and determination that saw Schumacher win seven world titles and saw him build the Ferrari set-up around him is coursing through Rossi, who describes himself as a "joker off the bike but as serious as he can possibly be on it". "As soon as it comes to the race weekend, the joking stops and I'm serious about what I do which is trying to win," he said. "Nothing else matters."

It remains a mystery quite where the likes of Rossi and Schumacher still get their drive from. Rossi cannot explain, merely insisting that "all I know is that the motivation is there and while it's still there I'll keep on racing". The motivation for 2008 was perfectly clear. Rossi had gone two seasons without a world title to show for his efforts - his longest barren spell since he got into competitive racing.

The 2006 crown had looked destined to be his but a fall in the final race of the season dropped him to second as Nicky Hayden was crowned world champion. And then, in 2007, Rossi was well off the pace as Yamaha failed to give him a bike competitive or reliable enough with which to compete. But last season, having threatened to quit Yamaha unless they drastically improved the bike, he returned to winning ways, taking his career tally to 97 race wins, 151 podiums and 51 pole positions. And the Italian is all smiles once again and expects more of the same.

"The bike is quicker and better than it was this time last year so the signs are good," he said. Despite his positive stance, early tests - particularly in Losail - have suggested that Stoner has the edge, but eternal optimist Rossi is unfazed. "It's never been a good circuit for me so I don't mind," said Rossi, who finished fifth to Stoner's first place there 12 months ago. "We struggled for grip with the tyres but we should be a lot quicker when the race comes."

More worrying for Rossi, however, is the fact that he was beaten on the timesheets by teammate Lorenzo, who Rossi has tipped to be a serious world championship rival, dubbing him "my equal" for the coming campaign. The number of rivals on the grid is down on last season after Kawasaki's decision to pull out of the sport because of the financial climate, and there are realistic fears that others may follow suit.

And Rossi, who is just one of 18 riders set to race in 2009, said: "I hope not because we already needed more riders before this happened. It's worrying, but what can you do?" Rossi is keen to cut costs. Already Friday morning practice has been scrapped, while the mono-tyre rule is also aimed at slashing costs for teams. But more can be done, according to Rossi. He added: "I think we need less sophisticated bikes with less technology and cheaper to run. That should get more riders back on the grid. There are many other ways that we can cut costs but I think there are some things being studied.

"Getting rid of Friday morning practice is a good thing and scrapping electronics could be a good idea but I've said that before and everyone knows I think we should have a change there." Changes are likely to be afoot for MotoGP's No 46 rider, who is nicknamed "The Doctor". He refuses to explain the nickname although there are all sorts of explanations doing the rounds. One is the moniker stuck because of his "cold and clinical dismantling of his opponents", while others suggest it is due to the degree he has in Italy or that it is simply a mark of respect for someone in his home country.

Despite the level of success he has enjoyed, Rossi remains fiercely superstitious. He has the same pre-ride ritual - stopping two metres from his bike, bending over to hold his right foot with his head bowed and he always puts on one boot and one glove before the other prior to climbing his bike in the same manner. He does not to like discuss his pre-race rituals, instead preferring to focus on his goal of the 2009 title. To help prepare, he has been concentrating on his other passion in life - Inter Milan. A Sampdoria supporter in his youth, he changed allegiance after the Brazilian Ronaldo first joined the club and has become a big supporter.

He bemoaned the departure of Roberto Mancini but says he has revelled in Jose Mourinho's success. He watched his side bow out of the Champions League against Manchester United last month but still believes Mourinho is the right man for the job. "He's so committed to winning and getting everyone around him doing what he wants," he added. The same could be said of Rossi. mmajendie@thenational.ae