I spoke with King Kenny Roberts last week on the eve of his birthday. Roberts is a former three time AMA champion and three-time world champion, and currently owns the Roberts Proton GP team
Roberts spent all of his professional racing career with Yamaha, thus I felt the obvious question would be what he thinks about Yamaha's recent acquisition of Valentino Rossi to their team for 2004.
Q. What do you think of Rossi leaving Honda for Yamaha?
A. I think he made the right decision, because if he would go on to win two or three more championships on the HRC Honda, it doesn't mean anything. It's the best bike, and has been the best bike for ten years. If you want to prove that you're the best racer in the world then it is hard to do on a Honda because everybody knows the Honda is bloody good.
So it's a huge challenge for him. And having been in that situation, sort of, it's kind of hard to find a challenge after you win the world championship on a good bike. It was much more challenging when I had bikes that weren't too good or weren't classified as the best, because it was much more challenging for me. I respected that more, rather than being on the fastest bike that handled the best with the best tires.
I think that Valentino has been doing this for a while and has been winning a lot. But he's always had a fairly good bike. Even back in the Aprilia days, he had a good Aprilia, no doubt. I think he just kind of got bored with reading about 'Valentino wins on HRC Bike'. There were a lot of races where he would move up every straightaway, every straight he'd move up once place (laughs).
The Italians especially are so critical of that stuff. The Italian press are more knowledgeable about racing than I am, by far. That's because they've lived racing their whole life. So you're not going to pull any of that stuff over on them. I guess he just got tired of reading (that) so he just decided to do something else.
Q. Regardless of his motivation, would you agree that it took a lot of balls to do what he did. Leave a winning team, on the best bike.
A. Absolutely. He's backed himself into a corner and is going to have to come out swinging. But he chose to do it, and that's what makes it so great.
The Yamaha in my opinion was off the pace quite a bit. And if he has to ride the 2003 bike, there's no way. No way. No way for the championship.
Now, he ain't gonna ride the 2003 bike. There's no doubt that Yamaha has something for him that they feel is pretty close. Or he's got to think is pretty close.
He's taking the Honda people with him. I don't really think that's going to be a disadvantage or an advantage. I think the engineers at the factory are the ones he's got to get on his side. They've got to do what he wants to do. It might not be the right thing to do, necessarily, but they've got to do what he thinks is right or what he needs to win the championship. It'll be a little different than they've had in the past.
Q. It's been an odd culture at Yamaha Racing for the past few years, some say.
A. I agree. It just seems that it took them a while to understand that the road they were going down wasn't going to be successful. I think being that they are a Japanese company and that they are Japanese, they take little steps in where they want to go. Because obviously they don't need sponsorship to get where they want to go. So they can make these little steps and no one cares except Marlboro, who they lost.
They make these little steps and then suddenly they just figured out that these little steps don't count for much and it wasn't going to get them where they need to go. It looked like that to me.
They have a lot of good people in that company. But from time to time they are not in the right position to make that call.
To be continued