MotoGP legend Rossi remains the leader of the pack
After 23 years of racing, with 115 Grand Prix victories under his belt, the Italian rider shows no signs of easing off the throttle as he nears 40, his place in motorcycle history assured, writes Adam Wheeler
Is there a better case for the rejuvenating effects of adrenalin than MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi? Around a sinuous circuit in Valencia last weekend – where riders must shed 125mph in four seconds at Turn 1 – the Italian concluded his 23rd year of motorcycle grand prix racing. Rather than sliding back into the pack as he turns 40 in February, Rossi is just as relevant as the first days and seasons when his character, colours, antics and style made a global impression for motorcycle racing and boosted the profile of MotoGP to new levels. In Malaysia three weeks ago he came within five laps of his 116th Grand Prix victory and first of 2018 in what was his 382nd start (he has missed the top step of the podium in only two of his 23 seasons) after a spellbinding performance that dazzled his mainly much younger rivals. At season’s end, he has now finished in the top three of a world championship classification 18 times.
More than his enduring competitiveness in a 19-race series that runs from February to late November is the fact that Rossi is the world’s most popular bike racer, evidenced by the predominance of his trademark neon yellow branding at almost all circuits, the rapt media attention at every race (even after “only” five podium finishes in 2018), as well as six million Instagram followers – only two million fewer than F1’s Lewis Hamilton and almost double that of the current MotoGP champion Marc Márquez. Rossi’s cultivation of his image and business empire is perhaps unparalleled in motorsport. The sun-moon and animal logos, the race number 46, the livery, the eternally happy-go-lucky TV demeanour, the licensing empire that sees copious Rossi merchandise at each race (dwarfing those of his adversaries), his race teams in the Moto3 and Moto2 support categories and the VR46 Academy have only helped to add to his appeal and profile – even when the trophies have become scarce.
The academy has involved the nurture of Italy’s most promising riders; two of them, Franco Morbidelli and Pecco Bagnaia, will be on the grid beside Rossi in 2019 in the premier class.
For his MotoGP rivals, Rossi pivots from being an admirable peer to an enviable institution. Fellow Italian and Ducati rider Andrea Dovizioso, runnerup in MotoGP for the past two years, says: “He won a lot of titles but when he did it he played with his rivals. He was on a different level and that was something big. Then there’s his character and his way to win, to speak to the media, to live… people love that.”
Nowhere is this adoration more tangible than in the hills around Mugello, south of Bologna, home to the Grand Prix d’Italia and Rossi’s spiritual home (although the round at Misano is nearer his house).
Fans at Mugello, clad in yellow in support of their hero, take position high above the Borgo San Lorenzo and Materassi curves in their thousands to form a bright, brilliant and noisy cascade. Ask a teenage girl with yellow face paint “Why Rossi?” and a stream of giggly broken English ensues: “He’s been my idol since I was four. From my brother and my father, I love motorcycles. He is very funny.”
A 20-something man, barely able to contain his adoration, remarks: “He is a wonderful person, with lots of emotion. We have grown up with him and he races for all of us. He is the elite of Italian sport.” A pensioner adds: “I’m from Tavullia [Rossi’s home town], so I’m in the fan club.”
It’s not just the Italians. “He’s just a character,” says the tallest of a group of 46-liveried South Africans. “He’s passed through the generations. When I was 14 my dad said ‘Watch this one, he’s special’ and from that moment he was the one I followed.”
A French father of four Rossi T-shirtwearing kids explains: “He is just part of MotoGP and the Mugello experience for the kids. He is fun, and with ‘The Doctor’ nickname and the colours he is like a cartoon. He has become such a part of MotoGP it is hard to imagine it
A NEED FOR SPEEDTop: Rossi (in yellow) with Lord March and John Surtees at Goodwood Festival of Speed 2015 – Rossi was the undisputed star of the event; Rossi tested a Formula 1 Ferrari in 2010 and was straight on the pace despite a lack of car racing experience; left, battling reigning MotoGP champion Marc Márquez
TRACK VETERAN Valentino Rossi, left, is always spectacular to watch. Right: Rossi celebrates in 1997, the year of his first world championship title