Over Valentino Rossi’s 21-year career in MotoGP, few fingers have been as consistent a part of the legendary rider’s life as his veteran mechanic Alex Briggs.
After working with Rossi since the day he made his debut on a 500cc two-stroke Honda at Jerez, Briggs will finally end his long association with the nine-time world champion next year when Rossi moves to satellite team Petronas SRT Yamaha and Briggs retires.
Over their time together, the pair have enjoyed incredible success – winning title after title on two different manufacturers’ bikes, on four- and two-strokes and across two decades against some of the fastest riders in history.
And perhaps the most telling thing about Rossi the person is that when The Race sat down with Briggs to chat about 20 years of working for ‘the rider’ – as he refers to Rossi – it became clear that Rossi has changed very little over that time.
“He’s a very honest person, he’s a very humorous person and he knows how to have fun,” says Briggs of the now 41-one-old global megastar.
“He gets a lot of enjoyment out of seeing other people happy, which is interesting.
“Someone said ‘that kid is Valentino Rossi’ and I thought ‘huh, and?’” :: Alex Briggs
“Not everything is just for him. He knows things about you that you haven’t told him, that he’s seen in you.
“His character hasn’t changed much at all, and the working style hasn’t changed much either.
“The way he rides, the way he works up and turns up in the garage, it’s all very similar to when he was a kid.
“The change is his commitments from the media, having everyone always pulling at him, and how he’s dealt with it.
“The more he deals with that, the less we see him.
“When he was young, the garage was where he came to get away from things but now he can’t do that. His essence hasn’t changed, but both him and [right-hand man] Uccio [Salucci] have grown up.
“They were kids, and now they’re men with families and kids and business.
“It’s happened so slowly that I haven’t seen it happen. Everything has changed and nothing has changed!”
Rossi’s first premier-class employer Honda had him on its radar before he even made his debut in the grand prix paddock in the 125cc series in 1996, Briggs reveals.
“I don’t know why, but I have this feeling that Valentino came to a race with someone else, showing him around, and they came into our garage,” he said.
“He wasn’t riding yet, and it was a bit of a ‘this is Mick Doohan’s garage.’ It was before he was riding in 125s.
“Then the next time I remember seeing him, and again I couldn’t tell you when or where, was him doing wheelies up and down the back of the garages on a bicycle.
“Someone said ‘that kid is Valentino Rossi’ and I thought ‘huh, and?’ I didn’t really care.
“It wasn’t until he was working with us at a test in Jerez that I really spoke to him for the first time.
“I just knew that I had worked for Mick Doohan and then this young kid was going to replace him – and I think he was more excited, to be riding a HRC bike and in our team.
“Maybe he felt that he was working for us, and maybe it was special for him at the time because he was just a young kid.
“I always remember that we did a test, and when he gets on and off the bike he swings his leg over the screen.
“That was unusual, really unusual, and one of the guys had never worked with him, so we sent Dickie [Smart] out to catch him really hoping Valentino would kick him in the face!”
It’s clear listening to Briggs that Rossi – who turned 21 just before his Honda debut – made an instant impression on the team, too.
The crew he was inheriting was already a group of seasoned veterans, having won five titles with their fellow Aussie Doohan.
Rossi was a spark of fresh energy in the box – and a quick favourite thanks to his nature as well as his speed.
“The following year they produced an engine more like he had asked for, and off we went!” :: Alex Briggs
“He was great even from that first two or three days in Jerez,” Briggs recalls.
“He knew all of our names, where we came from and what we did beforehand.
“He asked those sorts of questions, not just because he knew he should but because he was genuinely interested.
“I know other mechanics who have spoken about their riders the whole time they worked with them not knowing their names – and I’m talking about guys who have worked together for five or six years.
“They’d say ‘that guy with the curly hair.’ You don’t know their names, yet they’re the guys making sure your bike stops!
“I realised from the first lap that he was special. We already knew from watching 125cc and 250cc that he was a great rider, but from the first lap he was fast. You could tell very quickly.
“The Japanese in our team at the time were able to understand that, and after half a dozen races they started to really listen to him.”
With that pace came rapid development, too, and Briggs says it didn’t take long before Honda headquarters in Japan started to take notice of the hotshot young rookie who would go on to win his first premier class title (and the last ever 500cc championship) only one year later.
“We were riding a bike that [Alex] Criville had done a bit of testing for, and he had produced a bike that had lots of power,” says Briggs.
“The guy on the dyno in HRC loves it – if he sees a lot of power, he’s happy!
“But it makes the bike quite difficult to ride, and Valentino was able to figure that out.
“We had a lot of weird crashes, and they were all power delivery related. He figured that out, the engineers figured that his input was worth listening to even though we weren’t in the ‘factory’ team, and it was clear to everyone that he was special.
“We did well, the following year they produced an engine more like he had asked for, and off we went!”
Rossi, Briggs and most of the crew remained together from that first test day to the final round of the 2020 season at Portimao.
It’s clear to see that the relationship between Rossi and his mechanics is more than just that of co-workers – even if the Australian says he’s always tried to remain at least a little distant to ensure both can do their jobs to the fullest of their abilities.
“The most common question that people normally ask, wherever I go, is ‘what’s he really like?’” says Briggs.
“And my standard stock answer is that what you see on TV is 95% of Valentino Rossi.
“He’ll have a coffin with wheels on it, just to be the fastest” :: Alex Briggs
“The other 5% is the stuff that he won’t say on TV but that you or I would say anyway.
“There’s a little bit of a relationship outside the garage – when he’s been injured or when there’s been a problem, we’ll send a few WhatsApp messages.
“But I’ve never gone over the top with my access to him.
“If you’re too good a friend with the guy you’re working with, it can cloud your judgement a little. What you say and what you do can be softened.
“He’s my friend, but he’s not my best friend, otherwise it would be like a doctor working on their family.
“It’s only what I think, but I’ve never strived to be that close.
“He’s a friend that I care about and worry about when things aren’t going well.
“I know him well enough that I can see in his face when he’s sad, happy or frustrated. But at Christmas it’s one or two messages, not talking every day.”
While he might not be working with him in the future, Briggs’ unequivocal answer when asked by The Race how competitive Rossi remains shows he expects more success for him at Petronas.
“Have you been to the Ranch [Rossi’s training facility]? That’s all you need to know!” Briggs answers.
“If you’ve seen him riding there, you know. If you’ve been go-karting with him, you know. If you’ve been mini-biking with him, you know.
“It doesn’t really matter – if it has wheels, he’ll still want to be faster than everyone else there.
“I don’t know what his heart is telling him, but his brain will always tell him he wants to win.
“He’ll have a coffin with wheels on it, just to be the fastest. He doesn’t know any different. Fast is fast.”