The funny thing is, Valentino Rossi was never particularly a Ferrari fan. As he wrote in his 2005 autobiography, "What If I Had Never Tried It," the Italian motorcycle racer who has won world championships at 125cc, 250cc, 500cc and five times in MotoGP was not a team devotee so much as a driver fan. "And as a boy, I had liked Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell and, later, Jacques Villeneuve," he wrote. "And, at the height of his career, Villeneuve was the archrival of (Michael) Schumacher, and therefore of Ferrari as well."
So maybe it's Ferrari who are fans. Because there Rossi was again this week, driving a Formula One F2008 with his chosen number, 46, airbrushed broadly across the nose. The Urbino native was at Mugello, familiar as a motorcycle venue. Just off a runner-up spot in the Monza Rally, the 2008 MotoGP champion tried the F2008 Thursday and Friday, setting a best time of 1 minute, 22.55 seconds, less then 2 seconds off F2008 times recorded by team drivers Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen. Rain put Rossi off course Friday, stopping a morning session then spinning him off again after 20 laps. In two days, Rossi drove just under 200 miles.
Rossi, 29, manages respectable, not record, times. Then he observes a certain protocol: He profusely thanks his Ferrari hosts -- starting with President Luca di Montezemolo. He praises mechanics and engineers. He extols the virtues of all.
"I'm really happy that I had this possibility, and I want to thank President Luca de Montezemolo and [Ferrari team director] Stefano Domenicali for it," Rossi said. "Driving a Ferrari Formula One car on a track like Mugello is something fantastic and incredible. It's great to work with people on such a high level, like those who were at the track with me today. We've done some pretty good work, very professional, and we tried to improve lap after lap."
Now and then, he teases.
"With a lot of work, I could have become a good F1 driver."
The funnier thing is, when Rossi drives a Ferrari F1 car, sages flock to keyboards to predict the date The Doctor, self-named to reflect the number of Italian medical practitioners called Rossi, will chuck two wheels for four. He reitereates his future is MotoGP, but speculation persists. Can there only ever be one Surtees?
As it is, Rossi has been not only vocal but active in his interest in rallying. He'll be at the wheel of a Ford Focus when Wales Rally GB rolls off Dec. 4 in aid of BBC charity Children in Need.
Ferrari and Rossi always call his F1 flings fun runs. While Rossi wrote that he was distressed over news of the first such making its way into media, the real benefit of these drives is public awareness -- to Ferrari and to the nation -- for holding up that an Italian champion and Ferrari do mix. No less than agencies Reuters and AFP carry the news.
The latest Rossi ride is hailed as an opportunity for two champions, a constructor and a rider, to celebrate. The sessions have been spearheaded throughout by then sporting director, now team boss Domenicali, one in good position to understand the value of an Italian champion driving an Italian champion as Ferrari looks to its roots in its post-Teutonic time of life.
"It's two days of pure fun for us and Vale, although we're doing serious work, you can see that how he prepared himself physically," Domenicali said. "Vale would have been an excellent Formula One driver, but he chose a different road. He's part of our family, and that's why we wanted to give him this opportunity. We're happy to be together once again, two Italian symbols like Ferrari and Valentino Rossi."
Well, if that isn't PR on a platter, there's no such thing as people pleasin'. But just to be pragmatic, recall that Ferrari is a Fiat subsidiary and Fiat is title sponsor to Rossi's MotoGP ride, Yamaha's factory bike. Talk about super best friends ...
And what explains the F1 dabbling of World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb?
After warming up in a private drive at Silverstone, the all-conquering rally driver -- like Rossi, Loeb has effectively retired the trophy in WRC after claiming a fifth successive title this year -- Loeb hiked it down to Barcelona, Spain, to join real F1 team testing. A one-day deal and lo and behold if he didn't stick a Red Bull RB4 eighth-best on time charts. Eighth among 17 drivers testing for nine teams. Eighth. On a lark.
"I barely know the circuit and even less the car," Loeb said, rightly pointing out that Circuit de Catalunya is a fixture venue known by heart by F1 racers. His 1:22.503 was less than 2 seconds off the fast time of the day set by veteran F1 racer Takuma Sato (1:20.763), and .162 seconds behind BMW Sauber star Robert Kubica, currently fourth-best F1 driver in the world. Further, Loeb drove 82 laps, or nearly 237 miles in his one-day spree.
Like Rossi, Loeb isn't new to the F1 thrill. Loeb drove a Renault at the Paul Ricard test track in Southern France last year. Like Rossi, Loeb doesn't pretend he has any serious future in the so-called pinnacle of motor racing. Unlike Rossi, Loeb describes the differences between F1 and rally cars, and he waxes elegant on the intersections of speed, downforce and grip. At 34, Loeb calls himself too old for F1, but he's not one to pass an opportunity. He will find himself back at Paul Ricard in a few days to drive a Porsche 908 HDI FAP.
Loeb is kind enough to put video and debriefs on his website, allowing one and all to gain insight into his skill and articulation. He's as gifted describing as he is driving. He's recommended listening and reading for anyone wanting to know more about why F1 cars are distinct, how acceleration works with and without traction control, and where the differences lie among prototypes, rally cars and F1.
Yet as Loeb and Rossi make headlines jumping out of the pools in which they are big fish, they, like Mike the Bike Schumacher, are more than PR stunts or fun days out. These champions of speed are made so by needs unmet in other occupations. Rossi has described a potential for crime to match the adrenal thrill speed offers. Italy and the world must be pleased he chose a legal fix to his craving. Loeb similarly is a seeker ... of speed, of precision, of result.
Only by applying their skills to other disciplines do these experts define their craft and expand their horizons. They push as if to verify what English thinker Edward de Bono points out, "You know what you know; you know what you don't know; you don't know what you know, and you don't know what you don't know." For seekers with the gifts of Rossi and Loeb, perhaps speed is the best teacher, or at least one that makes you think.
In former days, drivers did their seeking by racing all sorts of vehicles at any opportunity, none more than two-time world driving champion and Indy 500 winner Jim Clark, who took any wheel he could and produced remarkable drives. Formula cars, Indy cars, stock cars, sports cars, saloon cars, rally cars, historic cars, tractors, even delivery rigs known as milk floats. Three-time world champion Jack Brabham famously won his elbows-out driving style as a midget-racing dirt tracker. Mario Andretti did it all, won it all.
The knowledge transfer is less common in shifting from two wheels to four or four to two. While any time is a good time to invoke the memory of pre-FIA world championship racer The Flying Mantuan, Tazio Nuvolari (look him up, kids), John Surtees remains the only man to win world championships on two wheels (seven, 1956 to 1960) and four (one, 1964). Former gymnast Loeb started racing bicycles then minibikes then mopeds. Surely, he doesn't dally as a KTM rider these days.
For the legends, finding new and different drives wasn't about publicity. It was about mettle. Come to think of it, it's that way for Rossi and Loeb, maybe even Schumacher, too.