Valentino Rossi very nearly changed to F1 on multiple occasions, but how close did the 9-time champion actually come to moving?
Valentino Rossi’s love affair with all things two and four wheels isn’t exactly a revelation to motorsport fans of all disciplines, but what might come as news to at least some is just how seriously The Doctor was pondering an unthinkable cross-code move to the world of Formula One.
Rossi first tested for Ferrari in 2004 at Fiorano, Ferrari’s private testing facility. Here, he was afforded the opportunity to test the F2004 car, driven by that year’s world champion, Ferrari’s own Michael Schumacher. Rossi’s stunning natural ability in the Formula One realm is best summed up by ex-Ferrari engineer Luigi Mazzola. When asked about working with Rossi on his Facebook page, Mazzola wrote, “At the first [test], Valentino went on the track and did about 10 laps – and on the last, it was an incredible time. I remember that Michael Schumacher, who was with me looking at the telemetry, had a stunned look, almost incredulous.”
In the 2004 test, Rossi was just 0.7 seconds off the pace of Schumacher, the then world champion, naturally justifying the “stunned look” at Fiorano. In 2006, Rossi tested the F2004 in his first “real” test for Ferrari at Mugello. If anything, this test was even better for The Doctor; he set a best lap time of 1min 12.851secs from 53 laps – to appropriately contextualise this, he was just 1.662secs from the fastest driver, the reigning F1 world champion – Renault’s Fernando Alonso. He was also polling ahead of accomplished race winner David Coulthard of Red Bull Racing, Mark Webber of Williams F1, and Robert Kubica. Clearly then, not only was Rossi giving a very good account of himself, but he was within serious competitive contention amongst the main men in Formula One.
The key question to ask when pondering Rossi’s possible Formula One switch is this – when would such a potential switch have been at its peak potent possibility? The answer is that it most likely would have occurred in the period of 2006-07. In 2006, Nicky Hayden won one of the most dramatic and memorable MotoGP championships in history. In this season, Rossi struggled immensely onboard the Camel Yamaha M1, with both a fractured wrist as well as multiple mechanical failures. This difficulty, coupled with the serious promise he was showing in Ferrari’s F2004 car, made for a seriously strong lure towards crossing codes to F1.
So, we know how promising Valentino was in the F2004, and we know how much difficulty he endured in the 2006 MotoGP season, but how close did he actually come to doing the unthinkable and making the cross-code switch to Formula One? Well, closer than you probably think. Valentino’s father Graziano has stated that his son was “very, very close” to making that switch in the 2006-07 period. Following this, former Ferrari boss Luca Di Montezemolo claimed that, had the rules allowed it, he would have been all too willing to field Rossi in a third Ferrari car on the F1 grid. Not only that, but Rossi happened to be in a “contract year” with Yamaha in 2006, making the possibility of the F1 switch all the more palpable.
Ultimately, however, Rossi re-signed with Yamaha, won two more world titles (to date), and the rest is history. There was a brief re-opening of the luring door to F1 in 2009. When Felipe Massa got injured in Hungary, and Luca Badoer struggled in the subsequent two races, Rossi seriously entered the pool of possibility for Ferrari at Monza. In the end, Valentino rightly concluded that “Without testing…it would not have been logical.”
In short, the possibility of The Doctor challenging for world titles on four wheels was a lot more powerful than many MotoGP fans realise. It has widely been held that Valentino would have been a serious contender had the shocking cross-code switch have been made. As grateful as the MotoGP community is for The Doctor remaining on two wheels, the possibility of such a switch is best summed up by former Ferrari Formula One team principal, and current Lamborghini CEO Stefano Domenicali in 2010, “Vale would have been an excellent Formula 1 driver, but he chose a different road. He’s part of our family and it’s why we wanted to give him this opportunity.”
Written by Keelin McNamara