Written by Sophie Harvey, Edited by Meghana Sree
When the topic of conversation turns to motorsport greats, Valentino Rossi sits comfortably amongst that of his four-wheeled counterparts. Perhaps Lewis Hamilton or Sébastien Loeb come to mind, but it is undeniable that Rossi left a mark larger than most in his respected series. With seven world championships and 89 victories in the premier class alone, it is hard to imagine him anywhere other than MotoGP.
But what if his name was destined to compete head to head with the likes of Max Verstappen, or rival that of Michael Schumacher? It was closer to reality than you might have previously thought.
Making an Impression
It wasn’t until 2004, when Rossi was already a three-time premier class champion, that he took part in a private test around Fiorano, a track famously owned by Scuderia Ferrari for that exact purpose– testing and development. Suited in one of Schumacher’s spare helmets rather than his own, this was the first time Rossi had experienced a single-seated car since his childhood karting career, and somehow, he was producing lap times only 3 seconds off that of Schumacher himself.
“He was very impressive by the end of the day,” Schumacher had commented. “When you have racing in your blood, you know what to do.”
Media outlets became littered with rumors of Rossi participating in further ‘secret’ tests with Ferrari. The idea of a MotoGP champion arriving in Formula 1 was irresistible and an occasion rarely seen in the sport’s history. Rossi was believed to be the one who could emulate John Surtees, the only individual to win a championship in both categories, back in 1964.
Standing Out Against The Crowd
In 2006, it was announced that he would participate in a three-day F1 test with Ferrari in Valencia. This would be the first time Rossi was on track with other teams and drivers, making it far more important than the laps he’d completed back in Italy.
His first impression wasn’t without embarrassment, spinning out on a wet opening lap. However, any criticism soon diminished when he set a lap time of 1:12.851, just 1.622 off the fastest time, set by none other than the then reigning world champion Fernando Alonso.
“I didn’t give him any advice, he doesn’t need it,” Schumacher had said with confidence. A point clearly proven by Rossi lapping 0.7s off the pace of the man himself, with an older spec car.
Discussions in the Driver Market
Although publicly stating that he’d be sticking to two-wheels for the foreseeable future, that was not the end of the numerous discussions that suggested he’d be joining Formula 1. Ferrari’s dominant era was coming to a close and Yamaha were increasingly fearing an imminent switch, deciding to sign talented young Spaniard Jorge Lorenzo in an attempt to cover any losses.
Former Ferrari president, Luca di Montezemelo, revealed that there had been hopes to loan Rossi to Sauber. The sole purpose of this being to gain experience before stepping up to Ferrari itself.
Nothing materialised from this deal, but it was clear that he had still made a sizeable impression on the team. This was evidenced by Stefano Domenicali’s gift to Rossi, a two day test in Mugello as recognition for his eighth world title in 2008.
Arguably the last time Rossi was placed in serious contention was in 2009, when Felipe Massa experienced a catastrophic crash at the Hungarian Grand Prix. Unable to complete the season, the seat was given to Luca Badoer as a form of acknowledgement– a sincere thank you for his twelve years as their test driver. However after two races, Badoer had not impressed, jolting Rossi back into the forefront of Ferrari’s mind.
“I talked with Ferrari about racing at Monza, but without testing it would not have been logical.” Rossi told La Gazzetta dello Sport.
In hopes of salvaging a rather disappointing season, Ferrari instead opted for Force India’s Giancarlo Fisichella; Rossi's decision to remain exclusive to motorcycles paid off, securing what would be his final championship.
Moving Out of the F1 Spotlight
Having since retired from MotoGP in 2021, Rossi now participates in a number of four-wheeled pursuits. This includes the likes of the GT World Challenge and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where he has already earned himself an impressive set of results.
However hopeful that may sound, his distinctive ‘forty-six’ hasn’t been seen on an F1 car since 2019 when, during a sponsor event, Rossi swapped machinery with Lewis Hamilton. Driving a Mercedes AMG W08 and a Yamaha ZHR-M1 respectively, the pair were filmed setting laps around Valencia.
With the success of Max Verstappen’s debut as a teenager, opting for young, talented drivers is now a common occurrence amongst teams. So, as time continues to pass and his connections to Ferrari inevitably weaken, the chances are that Rossi will never make his F1 debut.
Although a sad reality, Montezemolo himself had sympathised with Rossi’s career decisions: “He was smart and preferred to remain number one in motorcycles rather than be fourth or fifth in cars.”
Valentino Rossi joining the famous Scuderia Ferrari, or even Sauber, will remain to be one of the biggest ‘what if’ moments in motorsport. We will never know if he could have challenged for an F1 title, but his statistics and respectable stack of silverware prove that he was fast in almost any situation. Regardless, he is a generational talent who will continue to inspire both drivers and riders for many years to come.