Motorsport / 27 February 2019, 09:05am / Stanislas Touchot
Tavullia, Italy - Motorcycling legend Valentino Rossi says he has discovered the fountain of youth in his VR46 Riders Academy as he aspires to continue competing at the highest level past his 40th birthday, which he recently celebrated.
"Working with young people keeps me young," said the nine-time world champion who set up the Academy near his home town of Tavullia in 2013 to help aspiring young riders and revive the ailing MotoGP sector in Italy.
Five years on, the Yahama rider, also known as "The Doctor," is competing against two of his proteges - Franco Morbidelli and Francesco Bagnaia.
Three of the six Italians who will line-out in the first Grand Prix of the season on March 10 in Qatar train on a dirt track circuit at Rossi's "Motor Ranch" at Tavullia, a village in eastern Italy where the local hero grew up.
Forming two oval circuits, the 2.4-kilometre track stands out in the valley against a backdrop of vineyards and olive groves.
In this unlikely location 11 aspiring riders train alongside their idol, during long "American-style" sessions - two eliminations on each passage before a final four.
Next season, they will all be competing at the world championships in MotoGP, Moto2 or Moto3.
"The original idea of the Academy was to bring Italian motorcycling back to where it was 15 years ago, when we were on top," Alessio Salucci, a childhood friend and right-hand man of Rossi, now the Academy's sporting director, told AFP.
"It was a lot of work, listening to Valentino and going full throttle."
The ranch is located on the site of an abandoned gypsum quarry, where Rossi used to train with his friends.
Rossi enjoyed working within a group so much that he decided to convert an abandoned farmhouse and start the Academy on 65 hectares of his father's land.
"First there were riders, only afterwards did it become the Academy," explains Salucci.
"Valentino worked out at a gym at Pesaro. Local kids Niccolo Antonelli, Andrea Migno, Franco Morbidelli used to tag along because they knew he trained there.
"They would say: 'Vale (Valentino) we don't have gloves; Vale, we don't have a riding suit'.
"We helped them, but in a basic way. So Vale offered to start the Academy, to help these boys, but to do so in a serious way."
The business has grown to such a point that there are now 12 riders working at the Academy.
"It has become a successful project because we've had two junior world champions, two Moto2 world champions (Morbidelli in 2017, Bagnaia in 2018) and we're going to have two MotoGP riders," Alberto Tebaldi, another of Rossi's friends who oversees the VR46 project, told AFP.
Rossi's lifestyle provides the model for the aspiring riders.
Eleven mini-Valentinos work out and compete alongside the maestro and have assess to his personal doctors, dieticians and trainer Carlo Casabianca.
"Valentino's lifestyle revolves around the bike," said Saluccio.
"The others need to understand how to live like a rider. So everything that Valentino does, every minute, is worth following."
"He's been in this sport for the past 23 years and I'm 22. All the difficulties, he has already experienced them. And thanks to him we know immediately how to resolve them," Bagnaia told AFP.
"I've grown up with Valentino as my idol. It's obvious to see he can't live without this. The simple fact he's the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave training, that tells you a lot.
"It's an all-consuming passion."
The Academy students' success has, however, resulted in a unexpected conflict of interest -- riders who train together compete for rival stables, including Rossi's Sky Racing Team by VR46 which takes part in Moto2 and Moto3.
"They guys know our philosophy. We're very happy to have Team Sky and some results, but we also give the maximum for Marco Bezzecchi (an Academy member but also a Red Bull KTM rider). And if Bezzecchi wins a race, we'll be very happy," insisted Tebaldi.
For Rossi, who finished third last season in MotoGP, his 18th podium finish in all categories in 23 years, it's a win-win situation.
"Training on your own is boring," said Saluccio.
"Now he's training with guys who go fast and who want to beat him. He wants to beat them too and it's not easy. Competition, day in, day out, that's what Valentino gets out of the Academy."