(Transcription by Susan Haas)
I spoke with Jeremy Burgess on Saturday night, on the eve of Valentino Rossi’s last MotoGP race. Now retired and living in his native Australia, Burgess was Rossi’s crewchief across three manufacturers during the period which cemented Rossi as a legend of the sport. Most will agree that JB was the backbone of Rossi’s team for more than a decade. We spoke about Rossi, racing and retirement, both his and Valentino’s.
Q How are you doing, and what are you up to these days?
A Very much in dislike of the COVID thing, you know. Being through that for two years, haven’t been able to really go anywhere. Done a few desert trips with Daryl Beattie on his adventure bikes. Still mucking around with the classic cars a bit.
Q Was there a period when you stepped away from racing, that it took you a while to acclimate? Or how did it work?
A Yeah, the actual stepping away from it wasn’t an issue. I was always a realist in knowing that everybody gets to a point where they retire. They’ve just got to find other things to do and get on with it. You miss the camaraderie of the guys and everything else. I’ve only missed two races on the telly since I stopped seven years ago. It’s going to be harder to watch now, because it seems like Valentino’s the only bloke I knew out there. I mean, I was 60 when I stopped, and I’m 68 now, so it’s … it’s coming to everybody. For me at 60 to go looking for another job over there, as I’ve said many times, I would’ve been a grandfather figure to a young kid. I think, after 34 years, I think it was a pretty good run.
Q Agreed. Well, it is Valentino’s last weekend as a rider. What are your thoughts, as someone who worked that closely with him for so long?
A Well, it’s the passing of the parade, really, isn’t it? When you look at the nine bikes he had lined up there the other day in Valencia, that certainly brought back memories. I would’ve liked to have been there. I would have liked the whole team to have been there. It would’ve been wonderful if we’d sort of just appear out of the background, and drift up behind the bikes, the Hondas and the Yamahas, because they were essentially the whole, the same crew the whole way through. And I thought of that in a passing moment of nostalgia, that if he’d walked away and we’d just filed in behind without him knowing we were there, that would’ve been a hell of a surprise.
Q [laughing] That would’ve been fantastic.
A If we didn’t have this COVID situation. But I enjoyed it very much, the fact that he got on each bike, sat on them – you could see he was really enthusiastic in a good way. All of what he’s done. I mean, he couldn’t have done any more. He changed motorcycling forever, in many ways. As somebody said to me the other day, they said, every race he went to was a home Grand Prix. There was always that many people there supporting him. I never looked at it that way, and I said, “You know, you’re right.” The sea of Pullmans, or the buses as you would call them, that would turn up from Tavullia, with the fans. It was an amazing period for me. He’s an amazing man.
Q Have you two stayed in touch?
A Well, of course, Phillip Island, when the race was on, prior to the COVID thing, we’d catch up for dinner there, and have a long chat. Christmastime we’d kind of swap messages, and a couple of the races through the year if something happened I might, and when he announced his retirement I got in touch with him. Yeah, we’re in touch, but we’re not – I might be in touch with him a couple of times a year.
Q What are your best memories of Valentino? What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Is there a race, or a championship?
A I think there’s a few, I mean, really. Meeting him for the first time at Phillip Island, when he came into the garage in 1999, at the end of the season, and sat on what was essentially Mick Doohan’s bikes, Sete Gibernau was riding them at the time, we had a clandestine meeting in the night, trying to woo him to Honda. I remember that very clearly. I remember the discussions about going to Yamaha, and how much thought that he gave it, and how important various aspects of that were. Of course we all remember the first race.
Q How about away from the track? Do you have a good Valentino memory, traveling, or testing, or somewhere?
A Well, in the early days, we used to have these massive dinners, and of course it was not only Valentino, but it was all of his inner circle, so to speak. Fish were being flung around in restaurants. Gary Coleman and I would be sitting back in an alcove watching stuff pass in front of our eyes from one end to the other. Reminding me very much of the Kenny Roberts-Randy Mamola sort of era, when that sort of thing was commonplace. And the barman just sort of standing at the end with his white paper, and just ticking, putting a cross through, sort of adding up the drinks and what was going. It was – and of course, that all had to be sorted out in the morning by one of his group, I suppose. The walls would’ve needed repainting. They were great. That sort of was the early days. It certainly sort of drifted down a little bit in the latter years, I think, a little bit maturity and everything else. Absolutely wonderful man.
He never raised his voice in the 13 years I was working for him. He would say to me, “Jerry, it’s me. I’m not getting the message across to the team” – you know, when we were having problems. And of course he had so many other commitments, media-wise, Italian television, he sort of bowed to. So some of the meetings were a little bit short on a Friday or a Saturday, and then he would come back if we were in trouble, sort of much later, and we’d get our heads together, and we’d, as Mac McKay said, they’ve done it again. They would go out in the warmup and go faster than he’d gone in qualifying by a full tenths. Those were magic moments, too, to start races in places in 11th place on the grid and actually win the race. It’s magic.
If I can digress a little bit, Dean, I was realizing how lucky all of these Grand Prix riders are today. I was watching a video of 1991, I think, or 1990, at Hockenheim. Wayne Rainey, Mick Doohan and Kevin Schwantz. It was ’89, actually. Eddie Lawson, Kevin, Mick ended up finishing third. But these guys were coming onto lapped riders. You’ve got a trio of three guys going at an absolute blinding pace, coming onto the back of riders 40 km slower. You just don’t see guys lapping guys any more. And you go, in the heat of battle, having to deal with backmarkers is a lot different from what happens today, and they’ve got it very easy in that regard, I think.
Q I think Valentino has made the sport infinitely more professional. He has enabled Dorna to do this because of his popularity. It has helped accelerate the championship.
A Absolutely. He’s done marvelous things. It is so disappointing, if I have one disappointment, is that we couldn’t have had his retirement in what you’d consider a normal year. It announced at the beginning of the year in a COVID-free environment that he was going to retire at the end of the year. It would’ve been a sellout for promoters everywhere around the world. It would have been a party from one track to the next, for all those who came to the circuit to watch him. And bring their young children, as I saw when Mick Doohan was heading toward the end of his career, the number of fathers at Phillip Island with five-year-old boys who normally wouldn’t come to the race, but were taking their boys to say, “You may never see this man again,” you know? And you just think, wow, that’s wonderful. All kids have some sort of memory like that of their father taking them somewhere special, just father and son, and it could have happened with Valentino, perhaps, if – I feel sure, if we hadn’t had this COVID situation. That’s a disappointment. We have to get through it somehow. This human race is fairly resilient.
Q Hopefully so. My understanding is that when he sat on that Aprilia yesterday, Rossi sat on it, he went into a tuck, kind of in his own little world, went into a tuck, and he did like three gears of verbal two-stroke exhaust with the throttle pinned. He’s really a motorhead. He’s one of us.
A He is. One of the things that impressed me very much early in his career, is he had – he understood the history of Grands Prix. He knew previous riders. And he didn’t want to be a Mick Doohan and win by 25 seconds. He knew that the people had come to see a race, and he would win the races, of course, but he would then go on at the press conference how it was a great, great battle between him and Loris, or him and who else, Max Biaggi, I was faster in some sections and he was faster in others, but I was able to get away at the end. And really, he could have been probably, you know, (been) 40 seconds up if he wanted to be.
So he knew that – he looked at the Doohan era and said Mick was a little bit boring, and certainly people like Michael Scott put that to paper. But as Mick said, “it’s not up to me to slow down, it’s up to the other guys to go faster.”
Q Valentino did have the flair for drama. … a little bit of Hollywood. .
A And he was in control all the time. He managed the whole thing, in a wonderful way. It’s come to the end of an era. And we’ll move on, but you won’t be able to mention motorcycle racing, the history of motorcycle racing, without mentioning Valentino Rossi. If you only get a chapter, wow. As Mac McKay used to say, if it comes to writing the history of the world, motorcycle racing might get a paragraph, but if you’re going to write that paragraph, it’s going to have to include Valentino Rossi.
Q When you think about his mental strength, what comes to mind?
A It’s certainly unique to anything I’ve experienced, because as I’ve said before, I never heard him raise his voice. He never screamed and yelled at anybody. In the battles he had with Max and Sete, and I can’t really speak for the Marc Márquez incident, but he was focused in his own mind, as far as I saw. What he said and did within the inner circle of the Valentino Rossi entourage, which there’s a sort of inner circle of about seven or eight, then a sort of another circle, and then the mechanics, he was always like that. His group was very important to him.
You’d go into his motor home at 8:00 on a practice morning or whatever, and there would be bodies lying around everywhere. Boys would come over from Tavullia or whatever. He just loved it. That’s the bottom line. He just loved it. It’s strange, in a way, to see how far back he is, and how the game has changed so much. Because to see Dovizioso sort of come back after a couple of years, and he’s not much farther in front than Valentino, they’re about the same, and he’s probably an odd signing, in my opinion, at 35 years of age. I think that they should be giving youth a crack. But yeah.
The last meaningful conversation I had with Valentino was in Phillip Island in 2019, and he said to me, he said, “Jerry, how old were you when you had your first child?” And I said, “I was 41.” And he said, “Oh, that’s good. My girlfriend, she wants to have children. I think she wants a child.” And here we are, a year or so later, and he has one. I guess we all arrive at certain stages in our lives when the gentle transition which we don’t really recognize on the outward journey, but as we look back, we can see that, you know, in my sporting career as a footballer, I would realize a year or two late that I should’ve stopped a year earlier. I can see now that I wasn’t playing well, and I was kidding myself that I’d be better next, and then I’d be saying next week we’ll be playing that team, we’ll beat them easy, and you go, Hang on, that was a year of that sort of thing. When really it was the human clock sort of saying it’s probably time to move on a bit.
Q As you and I have discussed previously, it really struck me when Wayne Gardner wrote his book after he retired from Grand Prix, and confessed to being so – having a serious lack of confidence and really, honestly, being scared when he was riding. Did you ever see anything like that with Valentino?
A No, not at all. Not at all. If he had a moment or so he’d say it was a bit scary. He used the word “scary”. His English is essentially perfect, but sometimes there’s the odd word that he misses. I’m sure there’s incidents that are more foremost in his mind than other incidents, but with Wayne Gardner admitting that, there was something that Eddie Lawson said about Wayne Gardner that the thing that scares Wayne the most is that he doesn’t know why he’s faster than the other guys. And when or if that could stop. So when you’re consistently better than the other guys, you know you’re on that pedestal where if somebody else could find a chink in your armor, you could be in trouble. So you’re pretty much in a defensive mode.
Wayne Gardner, … the example of Wayne, you’d have to remind him that he’d beaten all these guys last week, so he could beat them this week, sort of attitude. I remember saying the same to Mick Doohan, and Mick looked me straight in the eye, and eye-to-eye and said, “Don’t you think I can do it?”
The only thing I’d ever say to Rossi was, “Enjoy!” That was my last word to him on the grid. I’d say, “Enjoy.” Because if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, essentially, in my mind, you’d better stop. He enjoys it.