Graziano Rossi - The God's father

While Valentino proves proves his class in MotoGP, Niall Mackenzie speaks to The Doctor's daddy, Graziano Rossi

Nurture or nature? Graziano Rossi will surely go down in history as a man that possessed both in abundance. Three times a grand prix winner, he quit racing in 1982 after a serious head injury and then spent the next 13 years guiding his only son, Valentino, to his first GP season in 1996.

A warm-hearted man who remains totally unaffected by his son's success, Graziano is happy to stay in the background while observing the phenomenon he created attend to his business. I first met Graziano in the early '90s when he introduced me to his nipper, who at the time was cleaning up in mini moto races. I remember him as a bright-eyed, likeable kid with more than a passing interest in racing. No one could have predicted what the future held. I caught up with Graziano once again for a chat.

Where were you born and brought up?
I have always lived near Pesaro, which is south of Rimini and close to Misano.

When and where did you start racing?
I started racing at around 17, which is quite old now as many children start at 12 or 13. I raced motocross on a 250 Maico for a few years, then switched to road racing on a 250cc air-cooled Benelli. The bike to have was a 250cc Harley-Davidson, which cost five million Lira (around £2500), but there was no way I could afford that so I bought the Benelli. The Harley made 50bhp, but I had a brilliant mechanic who got the Benelli from 20 to 45bhp. My first race was at Vallelunga near Rome.

Did you ever race four-strokes?
Sure, but mostly in endurance. I raced Moto Guzzis and Hondas, but my favourite four-stroke was the 750 Kawasaki, which I won the Imola 200mile race on.

Tell me about your move to the 500cc class in 1980.
I signed for the Nava Olio Fiat Suzuki team in 1980, but I had a stupid crash rallying in the winter and suffered a bad head injury. I finished fifth in the world championship, but didn't have the same form as previous years.

How motivated were you as a rider?
I was 100% motivated. The problems came later in my career after some serious crashes. Until then, injuries and pain were for other riders. I never related racing to pain. After my accidents, my motivation suffered and I found I couldn't commit like before. The other problem I had was that I enjoyed being friends with everyone and that's no good for a racer. When you put your helmet on you must show respect to no one. Valentino is good at this.

After your 150mph crash at Imola, did you know it would be impossible to come back?
I was in a coma for half a day, but Doctor Costa created one of his first miracles and saved my life. It was time to stop.

Did you have a best buddy in the paddock back then?
Marco Lucchinelli. He was my team-mate in 1980 and I needed to beat him more than anyone, but being a friend made this difficult for me. At the last 500GP of the season, we went to the old Nurburgring in Germany. It was much too dangerous to race there. I found it dangerous even trying to learn it on a 30bhp Yamaha XT 500. Anyway, Marco and me decided to start the race but pull in on the
first lap. I did but he didn't and went on to win. Even then I was pleased for him as he won
his first 500GP.

Quite a few top level Italians have come to the Isle Of Man TT over the years. Was that something you ever considered?
No. I have never even been to the Isle of Man. It never really appealed to me as I thought maybe you have to be a little mad to race there.

Did you spend any time with British riders during your career?
Barry Sheene was around of course, but he was much too important and busy so I didn't spend a lot of time with him. I was and still am friends with Steve Parrish.

Steve Parrish says you caused him problems as his girlfriend, Linda, lusted after you.
No, that can't be true. I don't believe you. Really?

Apart from helping Valentino, what did you do after quitting racing in 1982?
I started rallying - a fantastic sport that I love - but I never raced professionally. There are probably two reasons why that didn't happen: I was maybe too old, or not fast enough. Or
possibly both!

Now that you no longer race, do you still like to ride motorcycles?
I still love to ride. We have about 20 friends, including Aldo Drudi (now famous for the Rossi and Schwantz helmet designs), who all ride for fun. We have enduro bikes with knobbly tyres on the front and intermediates on the rear, which we slide around supermoto style. We have proper races but, most important, we have big post-race celebrations. Valentino uses these days for training but also has fun.

Your family name is now one of the biggest in motorsport. Does that cause you any problems?
For me no, but for Valentino it is now difficult to be anywhere in public in Italy.

How many GPs will you travel to in a season?
Normally all the European races.

We like you in the notoriously tight land of Scotland as you have a policy of 'not paying to sleep'. Is that still the case?
Oh dear, I have a terrible reputation. You see, I like to drive to the races, but it would take too long in a motorhome, so I go in my car and sleep in it when I get there. I like to stay in the paddock because I like to see Valentino when he is relaxed at the end of the day. I don't want to say it is about money, but it does seem crazy to pay to sleep.

Well, in the spirit of the interview, I slept in my Ford Focus rental car last night and it was hideous. I don't know how you manage it.
Ah, but what you did was just sleep in your car. You must prepare it properly. I have a BMW estate and everything I need for a good night's sleep. It's as comfortable as any bed for me.

At what point did you think Valentino was a bit special?
Not really until his first 500cc GP win at Donington. Until then, he had done well in 125 and 250cc GPs [only 26 wins and two world championships later!], but I knew 500cc GPs were much more difficult. On that day, I thought he had the possibility to go on to be really good.

Did you ever feel that you had to push Valentino early on?
It has never been necessary to push Valentino, as he has always been totally motivated. He is generally a happy person, but deadly serious when his visor goes down. Only once I felt he needed help. At the beginning of 1993 in the Italian Sport Cup Championship, a production championship for 125cc street bikes, he was out of the top ten in the first three races and I could see he couldn't understand why. We worked hard at improving his confidence, but it took until the last race where he qualified pole and finished third before he was back on form. He won the championship the following year.

Does Valentino still ask his old man for advice on his career?
He listens, but I'm not sure if he ever takes my advice. He likes to make his own decisions and  his own mistakes.

Do you think Italy has the best system for producing good young riders?
Yes, and of course it has worked well for many riders. Valentino's route was Mini Moto, Sport Production, then 125cc race bikes.

What was your opinion when Valentino decided to leave Honda?
At first, I was very afraid he was making the wrong decision. But when he explained the situation and how unhappy he was, I knew it would be impossible for him to stay. A few days before he was due to sign for Yamaha he asked me if I thought it was the right thing to do. I said for sure, yes. I knew he had already made his mind up, but it was nice to be asked.

Valentino started off his motorsport career racing karts and has done some quick laps in a Ferrari F1 car. Do you think he could make a successful transition to four wheels?
Valentino has always enjoyed cars and been good at driving them fast. I think anyone with his experience and feel could adapt to cars. His co-driver from last year's WRC race in the UK said there was no question he would be competitive if he chose to take up WRC.

Bearing in mind his catalogue of successes, please tell us there is something Valentino is actually unable to do. 
(Laughs) Oh yes, there is something. I can't mention any names as you can imagine the problems it would cause, but she lives in South America...

OK, the important stuff now. What's your favourite Pizza?
Easy, funghi (mushroom)

And your favourite music?
Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits from the UK and in Italy Fabrizio De Andre, who is like an Italian Bob Dylan.

And finally...
Rome or Milan? Rome
Monza or Imola? Imola
F1 or WRC? WRC
Lucchinelli or Uncini? Lucchinelli
Ferrari or Lamborghini? Ferrari
Ducati or Aprilia? Too difficult. I love them both.

Grazie, Graziano