Ryder Notes: Ring Them Bells
Valentino Rossi and his cohorts plan their celebrations with the same meticulous precision that the man himself applies to his racing. Julian Ryder digs up some detail
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Valentino Rossi and his cohorts plan their celebrations with the same meticulous precision that the man himself applies to his racing. Julian Ryder digs up some detail

Why would a grown man, a world champion for chissakes, stop after winning a Grand Prix at the mighty Circuit de Catalunya and pick up someone dressed as a giant comedy chicken? For the answer to this and other questions it is necessary to go back to Tavullia and the headquarters of the Valentino Rossi Fan Club. Gatherings there are always an 'excuse to have some laugh,' says Rossi, and this is how, why and where all the post-race stunts, from a silly hat to an elaborate charade involving Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, are created. It is important to realize that the Fan Club isn't comprised just of Rossi and his old school friends like best mate Uccio Salucci. That inner circle is the Tribu du Chiauhaha, the Fan Club membership encompasses plenty of guys in their forties and older. Vice President Flavio Fratesi is one of the oldies, and a leading light in the planning and execution of the stunts, and although my Italian isn't up to much I'm sure I heard Uccio refer to him as 'a crazy old bastard.'

The first ever Rossi stunt wasn't conceived purely for its humour, it was a dig at Max Biaggi and his influence with the Italian media. The Roman had recently been snapped by the paps in the company of Naomi Campbell, an event seen by the more cynical among us as nothing but a publicity stunt. Max has always enjoyed the company of A-list celebs and the feel of a red carpet under his Guccis, so after winning the 125 race at Mugello in 1997, Valentino gave a pillion ride to a blow-up doll with Claudia Schiffer's name across her back. There is also an Italian pun in there - the word 'skiffer' is a not very complementary term for a young lady. Think 'minger' and you're there. Everyone, with the possible exception of Max, enjoyed that one so a succession of rostrum costumes followed - Robin Hood at Donington, the Rossifumi cape at Assen - leading up to the giant styrofoam number-one he strapped to his back after winning the title at Brno.

Then there are the nicknames, all self-created. Rossifumi came about because of the crazy gang of Japanese riders he competed against in the 125 years, especially 'my teacher' Haru Aoki, but was essentially a tribute to Norick Abe's 1994 wild-card ride at Suzuka. Norick's real name was Norifumi. Rossifumi morphed into the cartoon character Valentinik before The Doctor arrived. The first special helmet design was also a nod to his Japanese friends, for Suzuka '97 the usual sun and moon were topped with a rising sun - not the single red disc of the national flag but the radiating red arms of the battle flag of the Japanese armed forces.

Keen observers will have noticed that the frequency of these events are related directly to Valentino's form. 'You cannot force,' says Uccio, ''when things go well the ideas come.' Which is why when Vale was concentrating on learning the 500 in 2000 there was a complete absence of stunts.

Forced or not, some of the celebrations were designed to make a point. Brno 2003 was a response to criticism from the Italian media and what Rossi and the Fan Club saw as bigging up of Sete Gibernau. Rossi won, beating the Spaniard, then joined a chain gang breaking rocks. According to Uccio, this represented the fact that Rossi was 'condemned to win'. A bit deeper than a bloke in a chicken outfit, no? The prison number on Rossi's striped hat was 1111-46. This is a typical example of Vale's attention to detail. If there's a barcode on one of the special liveries it won't be a random collection of stripes, it'll generate a number that means something. The spoof tax disc on the screen of the M1 will inform you, among other things, that insurance is provided by J Burgess. The helmet he wore at Misano this year was a cartoon representation of his house, so the socks on the washing line had to be yellow. And no way in the world did those football strip leathers at Barcelona 2008, but nevertheless Vale delighted in the detail - the drawstring on the shorts, the little vents in the side of the shorts. Not that it matters, you get the impression that these stunts are usually for the amusement of the man himself and his mates and if the rest of us laugh along then that's fine but it isn't necessary. He is equally meticulous about his race bike's graphics, Yamaha can't sign it off until Valentino has approved every detail. One of the words he always uses to describe himself is 'precise', the others are 'sincere,' and 'funny.'

There is yet another category of celebration that really should be defined as tributes. Valentino is a true student of the sport, he reads widely and knows his history. There have been tributes to the memory of Barry Sheene - a number seven traced out on a hotel bed sheet, to Hailwood, and to Angel Nieto. On each occasion Valentino has celebrated equalling the past-greats' records, not beating them. Uccio says that Valentino regards paying homage to the sport's greats as 'an obligation'. The 'Sorry Mike' legend on the banner at the Sachsenring wasn't really an apology for equalling his record, more an expression of regret that the he is no longer with us. The details of Angel Nieto's ride on the M1 at Le Mans were dictated by the Spaniard, Rossi did what he was told - including winning at the track where Nieto had his last win! - and spent the celebratory lap as a pillion passenger. Strangely there has been no public demonstration concerning Ago's record. There is no personal problem between the two Italian legends, on the contrary Rossi respects Ago massively and says he has great 'personal impact.' However, there is a feeling that Ago is also a man of dignity who doesn't really do comedy. It's nothing to do with different generations, Vale has always been forthcoming about his admiration for Hailwood, but the situation is definitely complicated by the fact that they are both Italian.

There was one post-race stunt that was anything but comedic in its intentions—the cleaning of the track at Sepang in 2004. That came a week after Valentino had been sent to the back of the grid after his pit crew had illegally cleaned his grid spot. He held Gibernau and his team responsible, and that feeling deepened when Vale crashed in the race and damaged a finger. A week later he destroyed the field in the heat of Malaysia to all but guarantee he would retain his title. On the slow down lap he stopped, took a broom from a marshall's post and swept the track. That's what you call a pointed gesture.

Of course some of the jokes are only really funny if you are Italian. Bowling an imaginary ball at six blokes dressed as skittles, for instance, reminds you that slapstick is still regarded as sophisticated humour on Italian TV. And as for the lawyer's desk at Motegi and the "Sorry for the delay" message on the t-shirt... that would only have been funny if it was the tax man he was getting approval from. The idea of using a camera pen to sign the helmet came from the tradition of tennis tournament winners signing the camera lens and an outsize tennis ball. No coincidence then that Vale had been referring to Motegi, his first chance to clinch his eighth title, as his first 'match point.' The best bit of Rossi's Motegi stunt was the Norick Abe sticker on his helmet. The young Rossi was obsessed by Norick's 1994 Suzuka wild card ride and the sticker was of a red bike with green numbers, the livery of the Honda that Abe used to frighten Doohan and Schwantz all those years ago, not of the Yamaha he rode in every other one of his 144 GPs. There's that attention to detail again.

One thing everyone, the Tribu, the fan club, several million people watching on TV, are agreed on is that the golden era of this craziness was 1998 - '99, the 250 years. It started at Mugello '98 when Valentino appeared on the rostrum dressed for the beach - flip-flops, shorts, towel round neck, and included giving a lift to his guardian angel after Rio '99. The angel was Flavio and the rationale was that as the guardian angel had done such a good job he deserved to be thanked publicly. One of the two best stunts came after the Jerez 250 race in 1999. Vale and Uccio were running the track on Thursday when they noticed a portaloo for the marshalls right in front of the hillside that becomes the biggest grandstand of the year on race day. You know the rest.

But the longest running, maybe the funniest and certainly the most surreal joke of the lot is Osvaldo the Chicken. You won't be surprised to hear this goes back to Tavullia, to football and a series of Sunday morning matches between the Tribu and what Uccio calls the 'old guys.' The Tribu lost the first match and won the second, so it went to a decider. Flavio turned up with some shirts for the Tribu bearing the sponsorship of the Polleria Osvaldo. Pollo is Italian for Chicken, Flavio was winding the lads up, calling someone a chicken means the same in Italy as in the UK. The Tribu won, decided Osvaldo's was a lucky logo and Vale wore a Polleria Osvaldo bandana on the Imola '98 rostrum. Italian TV asked about this new sponsor, and Vale told them it was 'a shop in Tavullia.' Next thing, an Italian TV reporter is telling Uccio that they are coming to Tavulia to film a story about Osvaldo. At this point, says Uccio, he told Vale they were in trouble. Flavio came to the rescue again, finding a suitable chicken shed outside of town and recruiting another older fan club member to be Osvaldo. This bloke - a lawyer in real life! - played the part of the local loony perfectly, ending the interview by telling the reporter to 'fuck off.' The TV crew were delighted with their story. This amused all concerned so much that at the next race, Barcelona, the giant chicken appeared and was introduced as 'the real Osvaldo'. The TV reporter didn't find out the truth until he read Vale's biography. He wasn't amused, it took him several years to talk to Uccio again.

The more complex celebrations take a bit of planning, and of course they rely on Valentino winning. There is one celebration that never was that I would have paid good money to see. It involved the local priest from Tavullia, who follows the same tradition as Ferrari's local church in Modena by ringing the church bell when Vale wins. So a complete bell tower, a campanile, was constructed complete with bell and along with one slightly confused old clergyman transported to the track where he would toll the bell in celebration one more time. Where a problem arose. It was the German GP of 2004 where Sete Gibernau beat Rossi on the last corner. The old priest was even more confused when the whole shooting match was frantically dragged back across a gravel trap before he'd had a chance to do his stuff. He did get to go to a race this year though.

I have to admit to having a personal favourite celebration: South Africa 2004. That was Vale's first ride on the Yamaha after a not entirely acrimony-free split with Honda. He won the race and on the slow down lap stopped and sat down on the track in front of the M1. It looked as if he was shaking, I assumed he was overcome by emotion. Not a bit of it; he was laughing, laughing at the enormity of what he had achieved. Which, fittingly, along with the fan club and the Tribu de Chiuhaha, is what we've all done for the past twelve years.


> 1997
> Japan - the first special crash helmet colour scheme celebrates Vale's friendship with the Japanese riders

Mugello - Blow up Claudia Schiffer doll takes the mick out of Max's PR stunt of being papped with Naomi Campbell at Nice Airport
> Assen - Rossifumi superhero Superman cape on rostrum
>Paul Ricard & Nurburgring - silly hats on podium
> Donington- Robin Hood outfit complete with bow and arrow - costume supplied by Dunlop

> Brno - celebrates 125 title by carrying a giant number - 1
> 1998
> Mugello - beach clothes on rostrum
> Various - Polleria Osvaldo sticker and bandana appear
> Barcelona - giant chicken - the real Osvaldo - rides pillion on slow down lap.
> 1999
> Jerez - runs into marshall's portaloo on slow-down lap.
> Imola - shaves head in tribute to his crew chief Giovanni Brazzi ­and wears Polleria Osvaldo bandana on rostrum
> Rio - says thank-you to his guardian angel for doing a good job by giving him
> a lift on the slowdown lap.
> 2000
> Not a lot, too busy learning the 500
> 2001

> Jerez - takes comedy doctor back to pits 'to give the bike a check up for Honda.' The Doctor nickname follows.
> Mugello - the most complex stunt of the lot. The bike, team and Vale's
> leathers are decked out in Hawaiian shirt livery. Race day weather was anything but tropical and Vale crashed out of a rostrum position

> 2002
> Mugello - stopped and booked by speed cops after he crosses the line to win
> the race.
> Rio - celebrates the title with the fan club who dress up as the Brazilian
> football team complete with World Cup

> 2003

Jerez test - The Iraq war is about to kick off, Vale wears rainbow crash helmet with 'Make Love not War' on the back.
> Mugello - the complex celebreations of previous home GPs are boiled down to a helmet, designed by Aldo Drudi, mimicking the great striker Paolo Rossi's Italian team football shirt
> Brno - the chain gang, a response to criticism from the Italian media
> Phillip Island - tribute to Barry Sheene on rostrum - a sheet stolen from his hotel with a giant number seven painted on - the correct type face of course.
Valencia - the Austin Powers scheme was the result of a Spanish magazine competition, the Afro wig on the rostrum was Vale's touch.
> 2004
> Welkom - no accessories, just a racer laughing at his own audaciousness
> Mugello - another response to criticism of his run of fourth places, his crash
> helmet is painted to look like wood. In Italy after the gold, silver and bronze medals, you get the wooden medal. Personally, I prefer the East European version - the potato medal.
> Sepang - sweeps the track after destroying the opposition, a sarcastic comment
> on his penalty for cleaning his grid spot in the previous race.
> Phillip Island - Che spectaccolo! What a show! Says it all really.

> 2005
> Mugello - after getting an honorary degree from Urbino University his helmet
> bears the legend 'Il Laureato' - the graduate.
> Donington - crosses the line miming playing a violin - just something he saw someone else in another sport do, a totally spontaneous bit of mime.
> Sachsenring - draws level with Mike Hailwood's total of GP wins - 'Sorry Mike,' says the banner on the rostrum
> Sepang - clinches his seventh title and poses for celebratory photos with Snow
> White & the Seven Dwarves.'Was your mother playing Snow White,' asked a journo.'No, but my mother is the real Snow White!'
> 2006
> Mugello - the helmet shows his heroes, Steve McQueen, Jim Morrison, Enzo
> Ferrari
> Sachsenring - Italy win the World Cup, Rossi wears Matterazzi's shirt on the rostrum - he was the one Zidane nutted.
> 2007
Jerez -
> Mugello - wears his heart on his crash hat
> Assen - the wacky colour scheme with all its 1950s references was down to
> Fiat's relaunch of the Cinqecento. The poster on the back of Vale's helmet was his detail. It advertised a band - Vale and the Chiuhahas - live at Assen!'
> 2008
> Barcelona - bloody awful representation of an Italian football strip for leathers, football crash helmet. Hmmm...
> Mugello - the best paint job ever for the crash helmet. Days before the race
> Vale and Drudi hadn't come up with a design. Talk me round a lap of Mugello, said Drudi. When he was describing the fearsome drop through Casanova - Savelli he made a face. 'Hold it,' said Drudi, took a photo, and that was the image on the lid.
> Misano - helmet design is a cartoon of his house in Tavullia.
> Motegi - championship number eight. He stops to have the papers endorsed by a
> lawyer.
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