While growing up, Italian Valentino Rossi was enamored with Japanese riders and their home country. As a kid, one of Rossi’s favorite riders was Norick Abe; Rossi, like everyone of that era, watched slack-jawed as Abe nearly won the Suzuka GP in 1994 with a spectacular swashbuckling riding style. Later, as a 125 racer, Rossi raced with the nickname “Rossifumi”, a direct take-off on Abe’s name, Norifumi, on his personal gear.
A life-long sticker hound, Rossi was drawn to Japan’s anime-influenced decals and calligraphy, but he also was a fan of sushi, and, as much as he knew about it, Japanese culture. That reverence only grew once Rossi started racing a the 125 and 250 classes. These classes had a lot of Japanese riders in them and were closely followed by Japanese fans. Rossi was, of course, a rider of his own generation, and young Japanese fans, like those in Italy, responded well to him.
For the most part, what Rossi knew about the Suzuka 8 hours world endurance race he had learned from Italian magazines and watching snips of the race on VHS. He knew it was held at Suzuka, one of the last great true road courses in Japan, and that it was a balls-out fight between the factories, and many times, top riders from around the globe. Rossi was fast nearly everywhere, even when he was just a rookie 250 rider, and racing a big four-stroke at Suzuka didn’t deter him at all. He had been asking various teams to enter him in the 8 Hours since he started racing 250s. When he signed with Honda, Rossi actually requested that he be added to the Suzuka 8 Hours rider roster for the HRC bikes.
Someone once said that the best way to enjoy the Suzuka 8 hours is to watch it on television or read about it. Former WSBK champion, and Suzuka 8 Hours winner Scott Russell put it clearer–he said that having to race the 8 Hours was a form of racing sadomasochism. While the pay-off for a win–in the glory years of the 8 Hour–were huge for a rider, so was the toll. Held in punishing heat and humidity, with Japanese media hyper-focused on the event, it exerts intense pressure on riders. Add in several trips to Japan, during the GP season, for multi-days of testing before the race, and the almost prerequisite intestinal flu from the travel, and the joy of the Suzuka 8 Hours can quickly begin to wane.
For Rossi, his love affair with the Suzuka 8 Hours lasted about one year.
Honda teamed Rossi with American Colin Edwards in 2000 for the Suzuka 8 Hours. Edwards was already a previous Suzuka winner and knew exactly what it would take to win the event. He pushed the VTR1000 (RC51) into a comfortable lead in the early hours of the race, then handed off to Rossi who it was agreed would go just fast enough to maintain the lead. Instead, Rossi found himself caught up in a multi-bike battle and crashed out.
What followed was a brief but direct conversation between an American and an Italian in the team garage where the the phrase “Dude, what the f**k?!” was overheard. The bike was repaired, and Edwards went back out, but then crashed the bike properly, almost tearing it in half and setting it briefly on fire. Rossi admitted later that while the Japanese wanted to fix the bike and have him return to the track, he was over-joyed when the Honda twin was declared a total loss. And he did everything he could to convince them it was so, because he really didn’t want to ride around for six more hours.
Rossi later said that any reverence he’d had for the Suzuka 8 Hours was bleached out of him by the time he boarded the plane back to Europe post-race in 2000. This was not a cool race, a race to enjoy taking part in, not at all. The Suzuka 8 Hours was arduous work for a rider, and Rossi wasn’t sure that he really needed to have a Suzuka 8 Hours win on his resume to feel complete.
Rossi’s problem was that his Honda contract included that the stipulation that he race the 2001 Suzuka 8 Hours, as well.
Being miserable and a million miles from home does that sometimes: Edwards and Rossi cemented their friendship at Suzuka. They later went on to be teammates at Yamaha MotoGP. By July of 2001, Rossi was a long way from that boy who had watched the Suzuka 8 Hours on VHS and read about it in Italian magazines. By the summer of ’01, Rossi was well on his way to becoming a true global sporting hero to millions. He arrived in Japan with the mindset that win or lose, that this was his final Suzuka 8 Hours appearance. And he was a different man. The previous year, in what was no doubt an act of youthful rebellion, Rossi and his entourage went full Animal House on Japan: being rude to the Japanese in the airport and going on a shoplifting spree in the stores–lifting items from the hotel gift shop, all just to see what the response would be from the buttoned down locals. Such behavior is seemingly rare in Japan. The Japanese were flummoxed and could not come to terms with a racing superstar and friends shoplifting cheap flags from the gift shop or cutting in line to enter the track, so they just stood by in shock.
On his return to Suzuka in 2001, though, things were different. There was no entourage, pilfering or ‘my first beer’ scenes at the infamous Suzuka Log Cabin bar. In 2000, Edwards was the Suzuka expert, and Rossi deferred to him and his set up whenever a question arose. But by the time the 2001 Suzuka 8 Hours began, Rossi was on his way to the 500cc world championship and at the end of the year would win eleven Grand Prixs. At the Suzuka 8 Hours, he was a complete fireball of a rider–he and Edwards qualified third out of 83 teams. There is an oft-repeated story from ’01 8 Hours of Edwards standing in the Honda garage at Suzuka watching Rossi ride (via the television in the garage) with his jaw hung open in amazement.
Much of Rossi’s motivation in the 2001 Suzuka 8 Hours was based on the fact that he didn’t want to ever have to race the event again. To him, the only clear way to do so was to win the race. If he crashed out again or simply finished on the podium, HRC were probably going to ask him to do the Suzuka 8 Hours again until he won it.
Edwards stressed caution and moderation to his teammate. An ill but still very fast Edwards handed off to Rossi mid-race. Rossi had been informed before his stint what lap times he should aim for, how not to abuse the engine and that he should strive only to stay in the top three if possible, to wait for the race to play out.
On the bike, though, Rossi completely disregarded every measure of caution. After one stint, senior HRC engineers approached him in the cool down room, Rossi on IV drip, and asked him what the hell he was doing; they had looked at the data pulled from the RC51 and saw that he was constantly over-revving the bike, slamming it into gear and also being abusive to endurance-spec clutch. Rossi feigned ignorance and ultimately promised not to do it again.
Rossi’s late race stints in the 2001 Suzuka 8 Hours were unbelievable. At one point he stepped on the RC51 being thirty seconds down, yet was able to hand the bike back to Edwards an hour later ten seconds in the lead. This was speed born of desperation. Edwards did the final stint, and as the pair did the final rider swap in the pit lane, Rossi shouted to Edwards not to screw this up because “I’m never coming back here again.”
Edwards, Rossi and Honda won the 2001 Suzuka 8 Hours endurance race. Rossi later said that he was jubilant to have won a race he’d long admired, but gave it a back-handed compliment by saying he was equally as happy to know he was never going to return to the Suzuka 8 Hours again.
Rossi said afterward that it took months to feel recovered from the physical fatigue brought on by the 2001 Suzuka 8 Hours race. That the race was so brutal he didn’t feel physically whole again until the pre-season MotoGP tests of 2002. But, he also said that it was a race where he discovered within himself a special will to win, one that would serve him well in the coming seasons.