Valentino Rossi's MotoGP World championship signaled the end of a 12-year drought for Yamaha. A dozen years had passed since a Yamaha rider won the world championship and, even though riders like John Kocinski, Luca Cadalora, Loris Capirossi, Max Biaggi, Carlos Checa, and others tried mightily to win the crown for Yamaha, no one could do what Wayne Rainey did-three times in a row.
Soup caught up with three-time World Champion Wayne Rainey to get his unique perspective on Rossi, his opinions of some of today's other MotoGP riders, and his thoughts on a few other motorcycle roadracing topics.
Soup: Wayne, it's been 12 years since a Yamaha won the World Championship, and, of course, you were the last Yamaha rider to win. Did you ever think it would take this long?
WR: Well, all these years, Honda has pretty much dominated. It didn't matter who rode the bike; a Honda won. If they weren't first, they were second. If they weren't second, they were third. I think Yamaha-after 12 years of getting beat-they felt that their bike was good enough, but they didn't have the best rider. And Honda had pretty much tied down most of the good riders. When Rossi became available, obviously, they nabbed him because they thought he was their missing link.
It really surprised me when people thought that Rossi would struggle trying to win races, let alone the Championship. I thought he'd win at least five races, and I knew that he had as good a shot as he did on the Honda to win the Championship because I know the kind of rider he is.
I knew what the performance of the Yamaha would be like and, obviously, the abilities of the guys he's racing against. So I didn't think it was a gamble at all. If anything, I thought it was good for Rossi to switch manufacturers because riders in the past didn't make that change. When Rossi came to Yamaha, they were very, very serious about winning. After my accident, in going winless that whole time, they knew that they had to have a good product. The missing link was Rossi, and he showed them that the Yamaha is as good as a Honda...and, I think, better [than a Honda].
Soup: Do you think Rossi rides like you did?
WR: I think, in some ways, he does. But, each rider has his own style, his own way of thinking, and his own way of preparing mentally for it. There's no two riders the same. I think Rossi has studied the way I raced, he has studied Schwantz and Eddie [Lawson] and Doohan, and I think a lot of the riders probably do that. I studied the way Eddie rode; I studied the way Freddie rode, and [Wayne] Gardner, when I was trying to get where I wanted to be. So, I believe that [Rossi] just probably uses a little bit of everybody as all the good riders do.
Soup: It just seems like Rossi rides with the precision that you did.
WR: Yeah, Rossi is on the edge most of the time, but I think, with the current guys that he's racing against, he seems to be able to up the pace when he needs to. For instance, at Phillip Island last year, when he knew he had to pick up 10 seconds and he had 15 laps to do it, he just upped the pace a second a lap. And, to just go, 'OK, well, I'm going to go a second a lap quicker now,' that's pretty incredible. You have to be very precise to do that.
Soup: Rossi's competition doesn't seem to be as strong as the competition you had when you raced.
WR: Well, you know, it was a very special time in the early 90's, but I'm, of course, really biased towards the time when I raced. You look at the riders who were racing then, they all won Championships. Eddie won four Championships, Schwantz won a Championship, Mick won five Championships, and I won three. In the early 90's, it was very, very intense. When you lined up on Sunday, nobody really knew who was gonna win. So, the way that you approached the race, you actually had a strategy on what you were going to do. I had a different strategy at a lot of the races, and I don't know if that exists today. The way that we approached a race was, we knew exactly when the tires were going to drop off, we knew how much they were going to drop off, and we had a pretty good idea of what the other guys were going to do, and how their tires were going to affect their lap times. So we developed our strategy even before race day.
I think, nowadays, most of the guys plan their strategy around where Rossi is. If Rossi's in eighth place, they just go 'Well, we'll just kinda wait for him.' And, if he's in first place, 'Well, we'll just try to stay with him.' It's really a shame because I believe Rossi hasn't been pushed. I think he can go faster than he's going. If you look at what Sete's done in his career, I think this is the first Championship he's actually ever raced for. He might have raced for one Championship, the Ducados Open maybe once, but he's never won a championship, and that's very rareto go into Grand Prix racing without ever winning a Championship of any sort.
Soup: Speaking of Sete Gibernau, you're the one who got him started in Grand Prix. He's been able to stay in it so long, and he finally seems to be getting there.
WR: Yeah, you know, I gave him his first chance in Grand Prix when [Tetsuya] Harada stopped, and Sete did a good job for us then. So, we put him on the big bike, and he did a good job for us there, too. But some things changed and we didn't stay with him. Then, some other opportunities opened up for him through tragedy over at Honda a couple different times-once with Aoki and once, I think, with Mick. So, he's had some crazy ways of getting his rides. He knew the tracks, and he can speak a lot of different languages, which helped. This year, though, he proved that he should be there. It did take a little while, but after Rossi, he's the next fastest guy, and he did a really good job this year.
Soup: What if the roles were reversed. If Rossi was still on the Honda, and Sete was on the Yamaha ...
WR: Oh, no. I just think that people see now that the Yamaha is capable of winning. It's like guys who ride Dunlops. They complain about the tires...until somebody wins on them. You know, I think Rossi could win the World Championship on Dunlops. I really do. I think he could. To be a truly great rider, do it on Dunlops. You've done it on a Yamaha. Now, let's do it on Dunlops...
Soup: You did that, right?
WR: Yeah ... and I think Rossi is the type of rider who could make that work. He could make the Dunlops work, and Dunlop would make their tires work for him, and I believe he could win. I think Dunlop does a good job here in the States, and the Superbikes here don't have a lot less horsepower than what they have in MotoGP. If Rossi won on Dunlops, then more guys would think that they could win on Dunlops, too.
Soup: How about Colin Edwards? That was a pretty big surprise when he signed with Yamaha for next year. How do you think he's going to do?
WR: It surprised me this year with Colin. He didn't go as well on the Honda as I thought he would. I don't know what the situation was with his team, but I know he had a Honda, and I know he had Michelin tires, and he knew most of the tracks. I expected him to be in the top three or four every single race. So, for him to get the results that he did...I thought, for sure, that he'd have done much, much better than he did. I think with him now on the Yamaha with Rossi, it's gonna to be tougher for him than it was with Sete, that's for sure.
Sete's a nice fella, and so is Rossi, but on the racetrack, there are two different characters there. And I think, for Colin, this is it. If he doesn't get the job done next year, I don't know if it's gonna happen for him. Maybe he just needs a change. I know, coming to Yamaha, they're going to treat him a lot better.
Yamaha's a different company. I've ridden for both, and I'm very happy with Yamaha. I was able to do what I did for Yamaha because of the atmosphere. It's a great company.
Soup: Let's talk about Mick Doohan. It's interesting that you tried to get him to do something that Rossi ultimately did do-switch from Honda to Yamaha. I wonder if that crossed Mick's mind when Rossi won it in his first year with Yamaha.
WR: Well, Mick stayed with Honda, and the job that he did there was pretty incredible. But then, you look at the rest of the guys who also won on a Honda. I think Mick knew that the competition-the caliber of the riders he was racing against-wasn't as high as it was when Eddie and Schwantz, and I were there. So, I think Mick was racing for records. Mick was just gonna try to win as many races and as many Championships as he possibly could. And, the only way he could do that was to stay with the same programHonda.
The Yamaha opportunity came up a few times with him, and I think he was pretty close a couple of times but we weren't really ready for Mick at that stage. Yamaha hadn't quite recovered from when I stopped racing, so I don't think it was the right time for Mick to come. But, I'm not sure that he could have done what Rossi did, anyway.
Soup: With Rossi, regardless of how many championships he does win for Yamaha, when it does end, will there be another 12-year Yamaha drought?
WR: No. No, I don't believe so. I hope the next World Champion is an American. That's my main concern-getting an American to be World Champion again because that would really help us out here in the States. I really don't know why the Americans were so strong when I rode in that era-from Kenny to Schwantz-and why we're not as dominant now when the equipment is so plentiful out there.
I think four-strokes have a lot to do with it. Everybody can ride a four-stroke pretty close to the same level, and then you've got the one or two riders who can take that level and just be magic with it. I think we've got some good talent coming up here in the States, and we've got four American riders in MotoGP now who I think are capable of winning the championship. I don't know which of the four can do it, but one of them can rise to the occasion. I do want to see Yamaha get the next guy.
On the other hand, I was actually glad that Nicky [Hayden] didn't ride the Yamaha because everybody would've said, 'It's the bike that's the problem.' Now, you see Nicky on the Honda. Well, you can't blame the bike. He didn't have the success. In the beginning, I wanted Nicky on the Yamaha, but in the end, it was good for Yamaha that he didn't come. Rossi's proven that the bike is capable of winning and almost dominating.
Soup: Obviously, you've heard that they're going to run the Daytona 200 next year with Formula Extreme bikes. Your thoughts?
WR: I think it's absolutely, uh, it doesn't make much sense to me. For me, you know, safety is always first. Daytona is a racetrack that, the bikes are going so fast, that the tires get heated up so much on the banking. If you make a tire that lasts on the banking, then they don't have much grip because they have to be such a hard compound.
In my opinion, they need to change the way the track is configured, if they're going to race at Daytona. They can't be on the banking for as long as they are. I think for them to go to 600s is just, it's not the main class and they went to a class that none of the other manufacturers are in besides Honda. And, it's like, if you're going to make that drastic of a change, you could at least make it to where the other manufacturers would compete in it, and not just the class that Honda's racing in.
When I go to Daytona for the Yamaha Weekend of Champions, and I watch the Superbikes go down the straightaway, man, that is an awesome sight. It's so cool, especially if there are three or four of them together. You watch them go down that back straightaway, man, they're missiles, those things. The 600's just not going to do that. It's going to look a heck of a lot slower than what we're used to seeing there. You know, I understand the fact that they did it for safety, but I don't agree with them going with that class that just Honda is racing in.
(To be continued)