What hasn’t been written about the greatest of all time (GOAT) motorcycle racer to have graced our planet? We can start with the stats: 9 world titles, 89 wins, 199 podiums and over 400 Grands Prix successfully contested. Wow and wow…
The numbers sort of say it all, Valentino Rossi is beyond greatness, like a Tom Brady (quarterback) of the Grand Prix world.
If there were a knighthood for racing greatness, Vale would have multiple taps on his shoulder. Yet, somehow the stats can’t convey the personality of Mr. Valentino Rossi. Brady maybe be great in football parlance, yet he lacks the persona of this amazing, flamboyant Italian racer. That’s what makes Vale so special, so unique, in a world where riders are driven to perform at the absolute limit, this man always knew how to clown around and have fun, despite the intense pressures of racing at the highest level.
As the motoring editor for FHM magazine, I happened to be covering the 2004 Welkom MotoGP Grand Prix in South Africa. This race, perhaps more than all the others, has remained etched in my memory, as well as that of fans and enthusiasts around the globe, for one simple reason. The reigning champ was leaving the ‘house of Honda’ with two successive titles in hand and moving to Yamaha, which had not won a title in 12 years. Kind of like Brady moving from the dominant Patriots football team to Tampa Bay, who were near the bottom of the national football league.
A Bold Move
It seemed insane that #46 would give up another successful year at Honda and risk it all at a new team, yet Rossi, not unlike Brady, had a self-belief second to none, that he could somehow pull off a miracle on a machine that was sub-par. At the time it was believed that not even Rossi, ‘King Midas’ of MotoGP at the time, could reverse Yamaha’s losing ways. Instead, the ‘Doctor’ as he is affectionately known, rode a masterpiece race, and imposed himself on the first attempt in what would later become an incredible ride towards the 2004 title for Yamaha.
Davide Brivio, Yamaha boss at the time explained how Rossi had already targeted that success many months before the race. “Rossi, in September of the previous year, during the negotiations for the move to Yamaha, told us ‘look, I want to win in the first race’. And we told him ‘in short, this year we have not even made a podium, it is a bit difficult’. And I remember him telling me ‘but in your opinion, I come from Honda to Yamaha and I don’t win the first race?‘“.
The team boss felt the pressure from his new signing and the rest is history… Rossi went on to win the next two titles for Yamaha in 2004 and 2005 and then, three years later delivered another two (2008 and 2009) for the marque to take him to seven titles in the premier class.
Brilliant in an F1 Car Too
What makes Rossi even more unique is that his talent is not just limited to two wheels. He has driven both Formula One and Rally cars and showed impressive speed and skill in both. He was slightly slower (1.7 secs ) than the legendary Michael Schumacher in a Ferrari at Valencia and then at Fiorano in 2006. In 2010 Stefano Domenicali, the team principal of the Ferrari Formula One team, reflecting on Rossi’s last F1 test run said: “Vale would have been an excellent Formula 1 driver, but he chose a different road.” Rossi also competed in three world championship rally events – placing 11th overall in the Rally of New Zealand in 2006 – pretty darn impressive for a bike rider…
Like Brady, Rossi was excellent at whatever racing formula he chose to apply himself, be it two or four wheeled. Yet at the same time he carried a certain class, an air of greatness, that saw him rise head and shoulders above all others in the sport of motorcycle grand prix racing.
So the curtain is finally about to fall on this incredible act known as Valentino Rossi. The man who came, saw and conquered, has announced his retirement after a lackluster season so far in 2021.
It was time. A little overdue perhaps, but the memories, oh the memories he leaves with us. Some of the fiercest duels witnessed in the sport of motorcycle racing. The playful joker in the paddock, who grew horns on the racetrack and delighted us with some epic scenes which was like watching a knight fighting dragons. Ones I can’t forget are Rossi breaking the spirit of Sete Gibernau in Spain in 2005 with a last gasp final corner overtake to crack the Spaniard in front of his home crowd. Then the jaw-dropping pass on Casey Stoner on the dirt in the corkscrew at Laguna Seca, or giving a beating to Jorge Lorenzo at Catalunya, and finally overcoming a 10 second race penalty to win the title from Biaggi in 2003 at Philip Island. These are a handful of the memories that made us leap out of our armchairs and yell with joy. That was Rossi, Rossi the great! Brady will soldier on in 2022 and might even win another Superbowl, but Vale will not leave the garage next year where he will run his VR46 team of riders. The legend lives on…