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