Is Valentino Rossi ready to hang up his helmet?

09th January 2019
Michael Scott

Do you recall why Valentino is called The Doctor? It’s not, as many imagine, because he was awarded a doctorate in 2005 (in “Communications and Publicity”, since you ask, and boy how he has earned it since). By then he’d already been The Doctor for some time. That might even have given the University of Urbino the idea for the award.


It was all part of his promotional genius, and because he was tired of his previous inventions: “Rossifumi” when racing a crop of talented Japanese in 125cc; and a spell as “Valentinik”. Passing through Bologna airport there was an announcement paging Doctor Rossi (Rossi being a common name in Italy.)

It took his fancy.

Now, coming up for two decades later, The Doctor is having trouble with his patience (pardon the pun). At the time of writing, one week after team-mate Maverick Vinales ended Yamahas longest-ever 25-race win drought and a day after his own chances ended in a crash, he is setting worryingly bad records of his own.

As Vinales dominated Phillip Island (Marquez, by the way, eliminated by another rider’s crash), Rossi dropped to a disconsolate sixth. This at a favourite track where he claimed six of his 89 premier-class victories, and two of his seven championships.

Worse, or perhaps better and worse, would follow next time, at the Malaysian GP at Sepang. This was cruel, for fate dangled victory almost within his grasp. Then, under the relentless pressure of deadly enemy Marc Marquez, the youngster who seeks to supplant him as Greatest of All Time, he crashed. He had led every lap, until there were just four to go.

He doubtless remembered, as he picked himself up, that he is 39 years old, five-times new champion Marquez still just 25.


Rossi had two bad years with Ducati in 2011 and 2012, with a single second place. Those aside, eight races is the longest time that he has not even stood on the top-three podium.

Astonishingly, and this is a tribute to his consistency, he is still looking pretty good for third in the championship. This is the only thing looking good. As the year has worn on, Valentino’s easy charm has been increasingly stretched, his cheerfulness in the face of adversity likewise. And there have been times when he has looked every one of his almost 40 years.

So it was unsurprising when rumours surfaced at Sepang that The Doctor is thinking of abandoning his practice. At the first race of this year he renewed with Yamaha, for 2019 and 2020. Now it seems that if Yamaha don’t come up with something to match class leaders Honda and Ducati and the resurgent Suzuki for next year, he might quit at the end of it.

The problem is technical. Firstly, Yamaha have not adapted as well as the others to the dumbed-down control electronic software of 2016. Secondly, they are victims of an older rule freezing engine development for successful teams. This has led to a deadly double whammy: if you make a design blunder, not only are you stuck with it for the year, but you can’t use the software to overcome it.


Yamaha’s error is a lack of crankshaft inertia, coupled with a higher state of engine tune. This makes crucial mid-corner throttle response abrupt. This nullifies the Yamaha’s strong point, high corner speed, and triggers excessive wheelspin, which spoils acceleration and punishes the rear tyre.

This is exactly why Valentino, who is 10 cmtaller and a tad heavier than Vinales, suffered in the later laps of the Australian and several other races last year.

At the same time, his non-physical stature, along with his wealth, has grown exponentially. He is The Godfather of Italian racing. Under his auspices, a new wave of talent has sprung up to challenge the Spanish domination. It includes 2017 and 2018 Moto2 champions, Franco Morbidelli and Pecco Bagnaia, and the narrowly defeated Moto3 candidate this year, Marco Bezzecchi.

These are names you will hear a lot in the coming years, along with many, many others. All are part of the VR46 stable. All ride and train with him at his dedicated ranch close to his home in Tavullia. More than that, his organisation gives them valuable career tutelage, in everything from learning English to negotiating contracts.

Rossi now has a role much bigger than that of racer. How much longer will it be before he decides that it is even more important than risking all in a vain attempt to stem the tide of youth?

Photography courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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