As the dust settles and the yellow-flare smoke is borne away, it’s time for a last appreciation of motorcycle racing’s GOAT – the Greatest Of All Time. But who can this be? Is it really Valentino Rossi?
Both Giacomo Agostini (15) and Angel Nieto (13) won more championships than his (and Mike Hailwood’s) nine; Mick Doohan as many consecutive premier-class championships. Marc Marquez is just one title short. And John Surtees won on motorcycles and then also in Formula 1.
Can he eclipse Hailwood? In a shorter career he won 76 races to Rossi’s 115. But Mike did something The Doctor definitely won’t – coming out of retirement to win on the Isle of Man.
Is it even possible to compare different eras? Different tracks. Different riding techniques. And hugely different technology… Today’s 250cc Moto3 bikes for teenagers are more powerful than the 500cc Norton singles on which the likes of Geoff Duke made history.
Although the human qualities – not just skill, but even more the courage, determination and dedication – are just the same. There are two aspects where Valentino is unrivalled.
Firstly, the length of his career. His first GP win, the 125 race at Brno, was in his debut season of 1996. The 115th was at Assen in 2017. Twenty years and 311 days later. The next-longest winning career, just over 17 years, belongs to compatriot and erstwhile rival Loris Capirossi.
Secondly, he is of our time. He is our GOAT. And the fans who packed the stands at the final GP at Valencia couldn’t have cared less about any predecessors or successors. They loved Valentino, right there and right now.
Rightly so. From mischievous kid with unruly hair to the polished but (believe it) still mischievous elder statesman of today, Rossi has taken much from racing. His net worth was most recently valued at $160 million, short of the billions of the likes of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, and the 300-500 million said to have accrued by Lewis Hamilton. But he is hugely the best-rewarded man on two wheels.
Vale has repaid this many times over. His combination of impish charm and devastating competitiveness gave motorcycle racing an icon that transcended not only the sport but also national boundaries. He brought in a whole new audience, from Australia to the USA. You might even say to Zambia and Zululand, so wide was his reach. “Say MotoGP anywhere in the world,” noted GP winner Cal Crutchlow, “and people will reply: ‘Valentino Rossi’.”
Rossi has repaid also in detail. His training ranch close to home in Tavullia, founded in 2013, has educated the pick of Italy’s young racing talent, training virtually daily on a high-quality dirt-track of almost a mile… racing against Valentino, a childhood hero to all his pupils.
The results have slowed a slump in the nation’s racing results, suffering recently from a generation of well-schooled Spanish riders. Spain had been closing, but at the end of 2021 Italy had slowed the flow, now with 850 race wins to Spain’s 669.
His alumni have won two world championships – Franco Morbidelli and Pecco Bagnaia, both in Moto2. The same two were premier-class runners-up in 2020 and 2021. Others are merely race winners: including Marco Bezzecchi, Nico Antonelli, Andrea Migno and Rossi’s half-brother Luca Marini.
Rossi is astute. The benefits went both ways. Training with crazy iconoclastic kids worked for him too. According to Davide Brivio, who brokered Rossi’s classic switch from Honda to Yamaha in 2004: “The ranch keeps him young.”
The list of racing achievements is long. Highlights include that switch from Honda, where he felt unappreciated, to Yamaha, to prove that “it’s the rider not the bike that makes the difference”. He rescued Yamaha’s waning fortunes, and joined a select company (with Geoff Duke, Eddie Lawson and Giacomo Agostini) to win premier titles on two different makes.
Rossi’s appeal was his charm, but also that he reserved it for his fans. He was a smiling killer to any rivals who were fast enough. His campaign against Max Biaggi was legendary; likewise against Sete Gibernau, and later Jorge Lorenzo. You beat Rossi at your peril.
His last seasons were disappointing – his waning ability to adapt to new techniques versus a tide of young pups, finding new ways to get the best out of the latest technology. But his last race at Valencia, was a joy.
Protégé Bagnaia gave him a qualifying tow in qualifying; and in the race he fought to a top-ten, escorted over the line by friend and pupil Morbidelli in 11th. And on the slow-down lap, all his fellow riders stopped alongside him at the second corner, to join the ecstatic crowd’s final tribute.
Rossi was one of few who didn’t shed a tear. It was over, but now his new life began, as team owner and manager (and, by the way, a new father).
What would he miss? “The biggest thing … riding my MotoGP bike.”