– My racing career could have been a little more successful, but I am not sad, I have a good life, says Giovanni Bussei, an icon and a former Superbike racer.
The MAN, in capital letters. There hardly is a better word to describe him. With his bushy hair, huge, thick beard, blindingly bright blue eyes and brown poncho he seems to be more of a fairy-tale king visiting on his free day than a motorcycle racer.
Also his behaviour, gestures and calm sentences immediately reveal that he’s not a typical racer. He doesn’t come from the classical school of Italian motor sports and never was one of the guys hanging at the beachside and going to motorcycle races instead of school. With the hot vin brulé steaming above our heads I was watching his hard features and I was thinking about whether he knew how much he had contributed to motor sports.
Bussei’s career was just as much determined by money as anybody else’s in this sport, with one slight difference: in his case, it was not the lack of money that was causing problems rather than the fact that it turned out that his family belonged to the upper layers of Italian society.
On his mother’s side he belongs to the Agnelli family, the founders and owners of Fiat. Bussei’s great grandfather, Baron Carlo Nasi married the daughter of the founder, Giovanni Agnelli. With such a background, he could have become an urban snob, driving around in expensive sports cars. Precisely like his cousin.
– In my eyes, my family has nothing to do with aristocracy, none of us is a baron any longer and I have always seen myself as an absolutely regular person, Bussei says.
His parents never wanted him to race and he started riding on the road at 14 years old. Bussei’s racing career began at twenty-one, when he took his Honda 125 street bike to an Italian Championship race. He raced 125’s for two years with decent success and moved to 600cc class in 1994.
– In the first year I was second and a year later I became the Italian champion, Bussei remembers.
He stayed in the Italian series for a few years, but in 1997 and 1998 he entered the Supersport World Championship. There he managed some good results and even got paid to ride. Things were to change drastically by the end of the ’98 season, however.
– By then the teams found out who I was and what kind of family I came from. Suddenly it seemed impossible for me to get a seat in a team without bringing in a lot of money. I had started racing for fun, but I also realized that I was fast enough to get a bike without money. Therefore I decided in that I would never pay for a bike. Later, I refined this and expected to get paid at least as much as the worst paid mechanic, Bussei says.
As doors in the World Championshop closed in Bussei’s face, he looked at his options and changed to German PRO Superbike series and team Alpha Technik Suzuki.
– The people at Alpha Technik Suzuki were very fair. I got a salary and there were even some results-based bonuses, Bussei acknowledges.
– During the year came maybe the greatest race of my life. The World Championship racers arrived in Austria and I entered with a wild card. In the second race I was on the second place when I ran out of petrol on the last lap and managed to finish sixth, Bussei says.
After the race, the owner of Kawasaki Bertocchi team, Sergio Bertocchi, came straight to Bussei, and offered him a place in the team. He’d race the remainder of 99 and the complete 2000 season for Bertocchi.
– At the end of 2000 Aprilia requested me to test their motorcycle, ridden by Troy Corser, in Valencia. I was behind the pole position time by just half a second but, finally, the factory chose the Frenchman Laconi, without testing him. I do not understand their decision to this day, but I accept that life is sometimes like this, unpredictable, says Bussei, who found a bike for 2001 at NCR Ducati.
Although Bussei is modest and doesn’t boast about his former achievements, the legends about him are still very much alive.
– Once we were travelling to a race together with Rossi, he was still a kid then. In the night on the motorway he said that he could hardly see the middle of the road. I had an old Fiat lorry, it was tattered and battered, so I didn`t think much about it, I decided to show him the middle of the road and made the lorry hit the guard rail. He woke up immediately. And, in the evenings, I really blew the curfew for the depot dwellers with an empty exhaust fanfare, when I thought it was time to finally go to sleep, Bussei laughs.
– In 2003 I received another chance at the world championship with the Union Team’s Yamaha R1, but, unfortunately, they weren’t competitive. When Paolo Ciabatti from Ducati asked me to substitute Anthony Gobert in the American Championship, I didn`t hesitate. Union let me go and I felt great in the USA. I rode quite well on the Ducati motorcycle. Based on the last five races, I would have got a podium place in the whole championship. Ducati, however, didn’t offer me a chance for the next season, Bussei says.
Bussei returned to Europe and entered the World Championship in the Supersport category in 2004. For 2005, Sergio Bertocchi again requested Bussei to ride Superbikes, but it was inevitably drawing to an end, and even Bussei knew it.
– Somewhere mid-season I realized that my Superbike-career was on its last legs. I wasn`t sad, I simply accepted that someone up there really didn’t want me to do this at a really professional level and – with some luck – make a real career. Therefore, I officially retired at the end of 2005, Bussei says.
Bussei’s reference to the heaven might be surprising for many, but it is quite certain that more than a few guardian angels have been watching over him so far. His career might not have been as he would have liked it to be, but after having broken his neck twice, it is a miracle that he is still riding a motorcycle.
The first realization occurred in February 2003. Bussei had a spill in Valencia during pre-season testing, when the brakes of his Yamaha failed. He left the track on his own feet. In the night he started felt so bad, however, that he asked to be taken to hospital.
After the X-ray, the head physician was immediately brought to him. After examining the X-ray pictures he asked if Bussei knew that he had broken his neck earlier.
He hadn’t even suspected this, but the picture became slowly clear and he realized that the injury might have been the result of his crash during the 2001 Misano race. Bussei didn’t see a doctor after the crash, so a few hours later, he started the second race with a broken neck and finished the race on the points, fourteenth.
But this is not the end. Ten years after his broken neck, in 2011, he went riding bikes with some friends. He prefers to ride his old Harley XR1000 in the forest at demonic speeds, however, on that day it didn’t work that well.
– I made a slight mistake. It was not a big crash, but I heard a crack. Then I knew I had broken my neck again. I was in hospital for a week and the largest distance I could cover was the toilet, says Bussei.
He knew that he would be unable to spend a year doing nothing. When he was looking into different choices, he found the Halo Vest: a special brace is drilled into the skull and the rods are fastened to a vest, thereby relieving the strain on the vertebra. This would be the solution.
Giovanni asked his doctors to drill his skull without anaesthetics, which also he finds were excessive. First he could only take a walk, first just a few kilometres a day, but at the end of the second month he went travelling and skiing.
– I was allowed to ski; I just had to be careful to avoid falling. But I have to say, after that crash I started to respect my life more than ever before. I realized I’m not Superman, I had just had really good luck, Bussei says.
After removing the Halo Vest, he went to a check-up to the doctor who had earlier only allowed him to go to the toilet. The doctor remarked – without asking him about the scars on his skull – how solifly he was standing on his feet despite the fact that his neck had been broken recently.
Encouraged by this he entered the Supermoto World Championship four months later.
– I has started Supermoto already in 2006, after finishing Superbike. I wanted to try my skills in a class where the motorcycle is less important and the focus is on the racer. The asphalt parts went well, but I was suffering on the gravel. It was really hard; I worked for years in order to improve, Bussei tells.
The endless learning process took the now forty-five year old Italian to winning races last year.
– There was a small problem already the beginning of the season. I fell and my wrist was absolutely crushed, see, Bussei says as he started to unwind the broad white plaster stopping halfway.
– It is very ugly, I won`t take it off more than this. I need several operations before the season, but I didn’t want to have it operated during the season. Even so I had to skip two races. I still came third in the championship this way. I like supermoto racing; I have my own small team, two motorcycles and a mechanic. It is good with us two, we don’t need anyone else, Bussei says.
It is not by chance that he had received the nickname “Outlaw racer”, as his unorthodox visions have helped changed the sport.
– In Supermoto circles many people didn’t understand that on the asphalt portions of the track there is no faster way than putting your knee down, like in road racing. I am not good at dangling my leg anyway, so I adopted this style, Bussei says.
He adds he didn’t want to convince anyone of the superiority of his method. During the years, however, other racers saw that Bussei had a point and started adopting his style.
Bussei is driven by the same fanaticism as all motorcycle racers: going around a track as fast as possible and winning everyone, regardless of the circumstances and excluding the disturbing factors of the world.
He could perhaps travel in his private airplane, but he still modestly pushes his motorcycle, a two-stroke Honda 500 prepared for ice racing, out of a silver Fiat lorry in the Italian Alps before the Snow Quake race.
– I don’t like luxury; I have always hated hotels, airplanes and pompousness. I sleep in a car, mostly also with the family, and try to travel to places where you don’t need to fly. I regularly drive to the races too. I don’t have a separate truck for this purpose and I always use the public showers. If there is no hot water, I shower in cold water, Bussei says.
There was a problem with the Honda and it wouldn’t start before the practice session. Giovanni finally received a few minutes track time in the qualification and won the Snow Quake grand final in the evening. One was able to see in all his movements that he is playing in a different league. Still, the days, when he considered himself above all a racer, are over.
– Today I mainly consider myself to be a father. During the day I take care of the business matters and racing is only a hobby for me, Bussei says.
The family man has two sons, they are not racing and there’s no pressure to do so. At least not yet.
– I don’t want them to start too early, therefore we have an unspoken rule: young boys ride a bicycle and motorbikes are only for big boys. We don’t really even talk about motorcycles at home, Bussei says.
I finally asked about his fringed leather suit, which reminds of the legends the old west.
– It was not my idea. My friend, Michele Lupi thought of it. At that time he worked as editor in chief of the Rolling Stone magazine and I sometimes worked for him. After I had returned from the United States, he thought it would look real great if I used such gear, Bussei says.
He remembers hating the idea at first, as he felt it made him look like a clown. His mind was changed as he realized a lot of people remembered him because of the fringed suit.
Regarding the flowers on his helmet, the story is completely different.
– I had a sister called Margherita, who died very young. I commemorate her through the flowers painted on my helmet, this way she is always with me.