Rossi’s only fear is fac­ing the un­known when he bows out

IN­TER­NA­TIONAL MO­TOR­SPORT

Business Day - Motor News - - MOTOR NEWS - Mar­ius Roberts

Who is the great­est sports­man of all time? How would you de­cide and is it even pos­si­ble when each sport is so dif­fer­ent, re­quir­ing a unique skill set? And would it even be fair to com­pare, when sport has evolved so much?

Hav­ing played var­i­ous sports at a pro­vin­cial level, I think there are a few fac­tors that all sports have in com­mon, giv­ing us a way to level the play­ing field and mak­ing our he­roes com­pa­ra­ble: in­flu­ence, evo­lu­tion and longevity. Based on these, my gen­er­a­tion has pro­duced three icons that can be called the great­est of all time in Roger Fed­erer, Kelly Slater and the man I got to meet at the week­end, Valentino Rossi.

I was in­vited by Mon­ster En­ergy to at­tend the MotoGP Catalunya — my first live MotoGP ex­pe­ri­ence — and have the in­cred­i­ble chance to ask Rossi a ques­tion at an in­for­mal round ta­ble chat. Now four wheels may very well be my thing, but when it comes to sheer ex­cite­ment and down­right crazi­ness, it’s im­pos­si­ble to not be a fan of things two wheeled.

The clout of Rossi is un­de­ni­able — even peo­ple who don’t fol­low the sport know his name. The magic of “The Doc­tor” was im­me­di­ately vis­i­ble on ar­rival at the track — it seemed ev­ery­one was wear­ing some­thing VR46.

Mer­chan­dis­ing is big busi­ness in sport and few do it bet­ter than Rossi. In fact he has the mer­chan­dis­ing rights for some other rid­ers and Ju­ven­tus Foot­ball Club, mak­ing him not just a great rider but also a clever busi­ness­man. In the pub­lic ar­eas the store ra­tio must be about three to one in Rossi’s favour and his are much big­ger and busier. As I walked through the pad­dock to meet the man af­ter Fri­day’s sec­ond free prac­tice ses­sion, it was only his garage that had a group­ing of fans ea­ger for a fleet­ing glimpse or per­haps a photo op­por­tu­nity.

I sat at the teams’ me­dia con­fer­ence and watched jour­nal­ists who have seen and heard it all hang­ing on his ev­ery word. They left and I was ush­ered to a ta­ble join­ing the seven other lucky ones for our in­ti­mate mo­ment with the man.

For a man whose life flashes by in a blur of tar­mac and armco bar­ri­ers at 340km/h, I asked him if there is any­thing he fears.

Rossi fears the un­known. The 39-year-old has been rac­ing since he was 16 and it’s this life-defin­ing rou­tine that gives him peace and sta­bil­ity, so the idea of wak­ing up on the day he hangs up his rac­ing leathers is un­set­tling. He’s be­mused — what will he do with all the free time? Very lit­tle chance of that, I sug­gested. He laughed.

I left the in­ter­view try­ing to de­fine that un­quan­tifi­able X-fac­tor that all top ath­letes seem to pos­sess and in the case of Rossi, Slater and Fed­erer it’s not just their ob­vi­ous nat­u­ral abil­ity and skills but it’s how they en­gage and how that leaves you feel­ing as a fan. There is some­thing to­tally gen­uine about his way — you can’t help but like him even if you are a sup­porter of his fiercest ri­val. He is revered.

On race day I found my­self stand­ing track­side be­low the grass bank be­tween turns 8 and 9 — closer to the ac­tion just isn’t pos­si­ble. “Vale! Vale! Vale!” … it’s a chant that you gen­uinely feel more than you ac­tu­ally hear.

There is noth­ing syn­the­sised about this ex­pe­ri­ence, just raw pas­sion as 90,000 fa­nat­i­cal fans wel­come the mod­ern glad­i­a­tors into the arena. Other sport­ing fans could learn a lot from the MotoGP fan.

There is no boo­ing, ev­ery rider is cheered and should a rider fall, it’s ap­plause en­cour­ag­ing them back to their feet. This is re­spect and ap­pre­ci­a­tion from an in­formed au­di­ence. It wasn’t a clas­sic MotoGP race — Jorge Lorenzo ran away with it, se­cur­ing back-to-back vic­to­ries for his Du­cati team. His team­mate next sea­son, Marc Mar­quez, fin­ished sec­ond to give lo­cal fans a Span­ish 1-2. Rossi fin­ished third.

The ex­pe­ri­ence was summed up as I headed home. Strangers were smil­ing at me at the air­port. I was no stranger — my Rossi T-shirt made me part of the tribe. Such is the in­flu­ence of the man.

One chance to pose a ques­tion to Valentino Rossi. Be­low: Pos­si­bly the best spec­ta­tor point at the Catalunya MotoGP. Bot­tom: ‘The Doc­tor’ has fans of all ages.

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