When most young drivers make their debut in Formula 1, a typical question asked is: “Who did you look up to?” or “who was your hero in racing?”

And normally, you can expect the same kind of answers.

Senna, Prost, Schumacher, Hakkinen. The typical run of names come up time and time again.

So when two new drivers joined the grid for 2019 both citing their greatest influence as a racer not only outside of the usual group, but outside of F1 altogether, it was worth talking to them more about it.

This is how two of F1’s newest stars, Lando Norris and Alexander Albon, were inspired by Valentino Rossi.

There is an ongoing generational shift in F1 thanks to an influx of youngsters born in the late 1990s who, as a result, will have watched very different drivers growing up to many of their older peers.

Success through the mid-2000s, the formative years when many of the current juniors will have been stepping into go-karts of the first time, would make drivers prime candidates to be named as significant influences. The likes of Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, and even Lewis Hamilton - the latter two still on the grid - will surely be the names that come up in the future.

Yet neither Norris, 19, or Albon, 23, identified as strongly with that quartet as they did with Rossi, whose heyday would have coincided with their first exposure to motorsport. McLaren youngster Norris was particularly enthralled by MotoGP when he discovered the series in the early 2000s.

“I saw MotoGP on TV first, before I saw F1 and other types of car racing. It’s what I got more into. It was cool, there was good, exciting racing,” Norris says.

“And Rossi, it was because of him. It was a combination of him being a cool guy. He’s different. He’s not super-tense, he’s chilled, he’s funny. But then on top of that, he was different in terms of having a bright yellow lid, and cool clothes. He’s just got character which a lot of people don’t have. They don’t stand out as much.

“At whatever age I was - five or something - I just instantly loved it. I’ve always enjoyed MotoGP, it’s always awesome racing, and he’s still the guy he was back then: he’s still a cool, chilled, relaxed, funny guy. It’s just nice watching someone like that.”

Albon was similarly captured by Rossi’s character when watching him race, making mention of his famous bowling celebration at Jerez in 2007. The Anglo-Thai racer was an immediate convert, prompting him to emblazon his go-kart with not only the #46 made famous by the Italian, but also stickers reading “The Doctor”.

“If you’ve ever seen photos of me when I was like eight years old, I had 46 and Rossi stickers everywhere on my kart,” Albon says. “I liked his attitude. I remember when I was a kid and I saw him, he won a race and he was bowling his fans and they fell apart - I was like, ‘who is this guy? What a legend!’

“Of course he’s very serious off the track. People forget how hard this guy works behind the scenes. But he’s a cool guy.”

Albon had the option to use #46 for his permanent number in F1, but opted against it, instead going for #23 – a ‘half Rossi’: “If you just say 46, no-one will ever say ‘oh that’s Alex Albon’s number’. That will always be Rossi’s number.

“I’m born on 23rd March, odd numbers are luckier for me than even numbers, and I thought 46 in half is 23 - let’s do it.”

Albon may have based his number selection partly on honouring Rossi, but he did not grow up wishing to emulate the Yamaha rider – even if he feels there are some similarities in their character.

“He’s that charismatic guy off the track and then serious on it. I like that. Maybe part of me is like that, but not because I wanted to be him,” Albon says.

“Maybe it is because I looked up to him, but that’s more just because I think we’re quite similar in that respect, rather than anything else.”

Rossi did, however, have a very direct impact on part of Albon’s home life.

“I have two dogs called Valentino and Rossi that named after him!” he reveals. “I have three dogs: one called Michael for Michael Schumacher, and two called Valentino and Rossi.”

Like Albon, Norris can see some reflections of Rossi in his own approach to racing. While he too stresses there was never a deliberate effort to follow his lead, the McLaren F1 driver feels there may have been some subconscious impact.

“I don’t know who I would have been if I never watched MotoGP,” Norris says. “He’s fun. He does rallying, he does different things. He takes his job seriously, but at the same time, he has fun, and he just loves doing what he does.

“I probably don’t know it, but it’s something that naturally or subconsciously that I would have grabbed onto or kind of felt myself, or acted myself. But not something where I’ve gone ‘I’m going to try to be like him’. That’s definitely not what I did.

“Subconsciously, yeah, probably being a relaxed, fun, just enjoyable guy - probably a little bit has come from him.”

They say you should never meet your heroes, yet both Norris and Albon say they would love to do so someday – and in Albon’s case, he’s already got a plan in the works to race against Rossi.

“I’ve spoken to him on Instagram a little bit!” he says proudly.

“He saw the photo of me karting, and he liked the photo of it. He followed me on Instagram. That was only like a couple of months ago, and I was like ‘Oh my God!’ I was kinda star-struck and shocked!

“He goes karting a lot, so I told him next time he’s karting give me a shout as I want to come along, and he was like 'yeah of course'. I hope he karts soon so we could have a bit of a bash.”

Racing for the Honda-powered Toro Rosso team, Albon is set to appear at the Japanese manufacturer’s annual ‘Thanks Day’ later this year. In the past, F1 drivers such as Fernando Alonso have tried their hand on a Repsol Honda MotoGP bike, and the Honda-powered F1 drivers met with reigning world champion Marc Marquez earlier this year at the Spanish Grand Prix.

But even for all his love for MotoGP, Albon is quick to rule out giving it a go.

“No. Way. I will kill myself, I can guarantee you that!” he warns with a laugh.

“Those guys are nuts. What we do is quick, but we’re harnessed in, we’ve got the seatbelts, and it is a safe thing really. A MotoGP bike, that’s serious.

“It seems like every time I go on two wheels, I break something as well! I broke my collarbone in 2017 on a bike. I’ve broken so many bones on two wheels, and that’s not on a motorbike, that’s being on bicycles and scooters. If I was on a motorbike, I don’t think I would be here right now!”

So while we may not see Albon or Norris directly following in their hero’s footsteps by jumping onto a MotoGP bike anytime soon, the impact Valentino Rossi had on their careers and their apporach to racing is clear.

At a time when F1 has been screaming out for more character and personality in its drivers, Albon and Norris have been quick to make their mark. They’re prolific on social media, they’re engaging and fun off-track – and still seriously quick on it, being the standout rookies in the Class of ’19 so far.

In their own ways, they’ve brought a bit of Valentino Rossi to F1.

One wonders what celebrations they may have up their sleeves should either end up hitting the top step of the podium...

 

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