One of the oddest ‘what could have been’ moments in motorsport is motorbike racing legend Valentino Rossi‘s brief flirtation with joining the Formula 1 grid in the 2000s.
Rossi made his first official outing in an F1 car for Scuderia Ferrari in 2006, running in a test session at the Circuit Ricardo Tomo in Valencia in an example of the championship-dominating F2004. Rossi was genuinely considering making a switch to the Scuderia for the 2007 season, although he ultimately decided not to go for it as he was told that he wouldn’t be jumping straight into a 2007 Ferrari.
Rossi’s Moto GP team at the time Yamaha were actually so concerned that he would make the switch to F1 that it signed Jorge Lorenzo for the 2008 season at a point where he was basically an unproven talent (Lorenzo hadn’t even won the first of the two 250cc titles that he would eventually win!).
Ex-Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo opened up about the negotiations that went down in a recent interview with Motorsport.com.
“Everyone knows that it was not a publicity operation, Ferrari did not need it,” di Montezemolo said. “At the beginning it was almost a courtesy to the desire of a great champion. I saw that he was going strong, especially he lacked continuity, but he had a lot of potential and desire.“
Perhaps the most interesting part of di Montezemolo’s reveal about Ferrari’s flirtation with Rossi is that the Scuderia was legitimately considering loaning him out to the Sauber F1 Team (a Ferrari customer team at the time) full-time to get the F1 experience he would need before finally going to Ferrari. Eventually, though, this also didn’t happen and Rossi re-signed with Yamaha for 2008 and 2009 before his ill-fated switch to Ducati in 2010.
The Sauber drive is something that di Montezemolo was actually glad that he turned down, saying that “he was smart and preferred to remain number one in motorcycles than fourth or fifth in cars.“
Allegedly, Rossi did come close to becoming a substitute for the injured Felipe Massa in 2009, a role that was eventually filled by Ferrari test driver Luca Badoer and then the newly-acquired Giancarlo Fisichella after Ferrari was able to get him out of his Force India contract. Current Aprilia CEO Massimo Rivola, Ferrari’s sporting director at the time, revealed this to Motorsport.com in 2019, although he was adamant that any suggestions of Rossi making a Formula 1 debut in 2009 at Monza to fill in for Massa was more of a publicity stunt than anything serious.
The last time Rossi would test a Formula 1 car was in 2010, when he drove a 2008 car on GP2 tyres at Barcelona. He ended up driving Formula 1 machinery for Ferrari’s arch-rivals Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team nine years later when he filmed a ride swap with Lewis Hamilton. This involved Hamilton riding a Moto GP bike for the first time as well as Rossi getting his first taste of the 2019 Mercedes that propelled Hamilton to his sixth world title.
Rossi will be riding for the Petronas Yamaha Racing Team in 2021 alongside his protege Franco Morbidelli, with a decision on his future at the top level of motorbike racing to come at some point during the 2021 season.