Triple 500cc world champion Wayne Rainey got his first close-up look at the 2017 MotoGP grid in Austin.

Rainey spent his entire grand prix career with Yamaha and, after the race, the MotoAmerica president was asked for his thoughts on factory riders Valentino Rossi and Maverick Vinales - first and second in the world championship...

Maverick Vinales, Austin MotoGP (pic: Gold&Goose).
'I'm a fan of Vinales'
Maverick Vinales arrived in Austin after a perfect start to his Yamaha career with victories in the opening two rounds, a feat not achieved by a Yamaha rider since Rainey himself in 1990.

During practice and qualifying at COTA, Vinales was the only rider capable of matching reigning champion Marc Marquez - at a circuit where the Honda rider had never lost - setting up the prospect of a thrilling head-to-head duel.

Instead, the 22-year-old's victory hopes ended in a shower of sparks when he slid off on lap two. Vinales struggled to explain the accident and Rainey also saw no obvious mistake.

"I'm sure today was not in the cards and it was a strange - it didn't look like he was really offline, didn't really hit any bumps, it just looked like it washed out," Rainey said. "They might have a better understanding... I would have thought for him to have made a mistake, everybody would have seen the mistake. But I didn't really see a mistake."

Rainey had met Vinales for the first time on Saturday and was impressed by the youngster.

"He was very respectful to me, he was a gentleman. To me that was really cool because my championships were all finished before he was born," said Rainey, title winner in 1990, 1991 and 1992. "I'm a fan of him. I think he's going to be good for the sport."

In terms of Vinales' strengths as a rider and competitor, Rainey highlighted:

"He's very confident, very strong. He controls his emotions, from what I can tell, both on and off the track. I think he rides within himself, but he's very aggressive at the same time. He knows what he wants from bike; I think he understands the current electronics and what he needs the bike to do to exploit his technique.

"So I think he's the future and with him and Marquez racing each other - you know it kind of reminds me of another time when Americans used to be able to do that! I enjoy it, even though those guys are Spanish, they are going to be racing each other and it's great for the fans."

Vinales is starting his third MotoGP season, after two years (and one win) with Suzuki. Rainey was also in his third season in 1990, when - like Vinales - his unbeaten start came to an end at round three. He went on to be world champion.

"1990 was my third year," Rainey recalled. "My second year I raced for the championship and it did go down to the last race. Third year I won the championship with three races to go.

"Saying that, what's changed between then and now - besides the character of the bike - is that the depth of the teams' equipment is stronger. But one thing that hasn't changed is you've still got three or four riders that can do it, every time."

Valentino Rossi celebrates second, Austin MotoGP (pic: Gold&Goose).
'The real Valentino comes out on Sunday'
While Marquez and Vinales have each fallen, Valentino Rossi has fought his way to the podium in all three rounds and now leads the world championship.

The 38-year-old frequently defies his practice form and rises to the occasion on race day, something Rainey believes is no coincidence.

"Valentino is the wily old guy that looks like he knows he doesn't have to practice, qualify, develop the bike... on Sunday he gets to race and that's what everything is for. So personally, of course he's trying hard in all these other sessions, but I think the real Valentino comes out on Sunday."

That is something Rainey can relate to.

With Rossi competing in his 22nd grand prix season, many - like Rainey - are in awe of how the Italian finds the motivation to endure the effort and sacrifice needed to fight at the top of MotoGP.

Rainey believes it's a combination of Rossi's sheer enjoyment, plus new challenges offered by the regulation changes, which have kept the premier-class evolving since the four-stroke era began in 2002.

"I was just talking to Valentino today. I think he really enjoys his riding, he enjoys competition, he enjoys the effort. And that's everything. For me, I didn't enjoy it so much," Rainey revealed.

"When I do look back, I think how could I have changed that? Maybe one way would have been, if four-strokes would have come around sooner. The two-stroke thing was kinda done by the time I finished; they didn't really change much after that.

"So to ride the same thing over and over again, just change tyre [brands] and not really... I was an American living in Europe, I was 33 years old. I was just waiting on Sundays most of the time, because I knew my motivation was good on race day. It wasn't quite the same on Friday and Saturday.

"Many times we won races that we shouldn't of. And I loved that part! But racing does take a lot out of you."

Rossi has been chasing a tenth world title since 2009, finishing runner-up for the past three seasons.

By Peter McLaren, from an interview by Steve English

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