Just when you thought Valentino Rossi's contract negotiations for next season couldn't get any more complicated, Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo (pictured) has now invited the Italian to drive Michael Schumacher's world championship winning Formula One machine for "a serious test, not a joke" - in what is interpreted as a move by Marlboro to tempt the five-times world champion towards Ducati next season.

24-year-old Rossi is widely rumoured to be leaving Honda, with whom he's won all his premier-class titles, at the end of the season. While Ducati appeared the early favourites to grab him from HRC's grasp, given his desire to ride for an Italian team and that they already have a race winning machine, Yamaha have since emerged as favourites to clinch Vale's signature with a ten million dollar 'do what you like' deal.

But now comes the announcement of a Ferrari test offer - suggesting Ducati and Marlboro haven't given up hope just yet, since the once-in-a-lifetime chance is something Rossi wouldn't be able to accept if he stayed put: Honda have their own rival F1 team, while Yamaha are unlikely to agree since their current sponsors (Fortuna and Gauloises) won't want a rival cigarette brand getting such massive publicity.

Crash.net has previously reported that Marlboro would use their F1 links to try and tempt the Italian, and that now appears to have been proved correct with di Montezemolo's announcement. The theory being that Rossi would ride for Ducati, perhaps go down in history as taking the Bologna based company's first MotoGP world championship, then make the move to F1 if he proved quick enough during testing.

Marlboro already have the undisputed king of the four-wheeled world, Michael Schumacher, on their books and signing Rossi at Ducati would give them the German's equivalent on two-wheels - while also bringing Rossi's fun loving and fan friendly image to contrast with the ultra-professional, but arguably dull, Schumacher.

Meanwhile, further rumours suggest another major Ferrari sponsor, Vodaphone, may also be behind the latest deal - raising the possibility of a new Vodaphone backed Ducati team in 2004.

"If it is possible (to give Rossi a test) I think the effort would be well worth it," di Montezemolo told Italian radio station Anch'io Sport on announcing the offer, then added it would be "a serious test, not a joke" to see if any future F1 move by Rossi is realistic.

"It has always been very difficult to pass from two to four-wheels and it's only got harder," he warned of just such a career change. "Today, F1 is totally different from the past, and has a frightening difficulty. But Valentino is a great champion and the symbol of Italian motorsport passion."

Ferrari have previously given Rossi's arch-rival, Max Biaggi, an F1 test - at which the then Marlboro backed Roman performed admirably, while Mick Doohan once crashed a Winflied Williams, a drive also made possible due to mutual sponsorship... something Rossi doesn't have at present.

F1 outings, for non-drivers, just don't happen without commercial links between the parties - hence the talk of future Marlboro/Ducati and possibly Vodaphone connections with Rossi.

Honda are aware of Rossi's four-wheel interests (particularly rallying) and were said to have offered the London based superstar a pre-season test with their own BAR Honda F1 team - but it never occurred.

Meanwhile, Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone has said he'd love to have a character such as Rossi in his championship.

Rossi is expected to announce whom he will be riding for in 2004 within the next week and, while the Ferrari offer is certain to swing the balance slightly, the #46 has previously gone on record as saying he isn't particularly interested in a sport (such as F1) where people 'can only see his head'.

However, will the chance to work for two of Italy's greatest legends, Ducati and Ferrari, prove too much for the patriotic Rossi?

John Surtees is the only person to win both the 500cc (now MotoGP) and F1 world championships, completing the dream double with Ferrari in 1964.



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