“This will be my last half-season as a MotoGP rider.”
With this somber announcement, Valentino Rossi, arguably the best motorcycle racer of this generation, is set to hang up his leather overall overalls after 9 world titles, 115 grand prix wins, 235 podiums, 423 grand prix starts (and counting), and 26 seasons in the sport.
The 42-year old flamboyant Italian racer, whose career has been marked by some of the most spectacular and tightly fought battles the sport has ever seen, leaves behind a legacy of thrills and spills that have endeared many to the sport. Some say, MotoGP is even more exciting to watch than Formula One. With elbows and knees out, high-speed crashes, and split-second passes, it probably is. And we have Valentino Rossi, fondly called The Doctor, to thank for that.
To put his career in perspective, he is one of the sport’s greatest achievers. While his 9 titles are short of the record 15 held by Giacomo Agostini, putting him tied in third place with Mike Hailwood and Carlo Ubbiali, Rossi does enjoy an uncanny popularity with his huge global fanbase. The advent of global television, the Internet, and social media from the late 1990s onwards have all made Rossi a household name in motorcycling circles. To the generation that he grew up with, he is the Michael Jordan, the Tiger Woods, the Michael Schumacher, the Roger Federer and the Tom Brady of two wheels.
Rossi started his motorcycle racing career in an unorthodox way, through go-karts. Born in 1979, his protective mother was afraid of the inherent dangers of racing motorcycles even though his father was himself a motorcycle pilot.
Rossi began competing at the age of 3, and after winning the local karting championships, he eventually heeded the calling of motorbikes. And with the support of his father, Graziano, and his racing friends, Rossi eventually landed himself a 125cc ride and an overall title in the 1994 Italian Sport Production Championship. This started his meteoric rise in the sport.
After seeing the spectacular 1994 debut of a Japanese rider named Norifumi Abe, in the 500cc class, Rossi was completely hooked to become a grand prix rider himself. From go-karts to 125ccs, Rossi would soon find himself winning his first World Championship in 1997. In 1999, in his second year in the 250cc category, Rossi would bag his second World Championship. And in 2001, he would take another World Championship in the premier 500cc class, which has since been replaced by what we now know as MotoGP. Rossi remains the only rider in history to have won in all 4 categories.
His legendary skills on the track were not lost on the various manufacturers competing in the sport. Honda, Yamaha and Ducati have all employed Rossi in their factory teams over the last 26 years. Rossi also remains the only rider to have won back-to-back titles with two different manufacturers. He is the only rider to have more than 400 grand prix starts to his name. And he is also the rider with the most wins in the premier 500cc (now MotoGP) class at 89, while Agostini only has 68. Rossi also has the most podiums in the top category at 199. He also secured the most number of fastest laps in the premier class at 76. A total of 96 if we count the lower categories as well.
Rossi’s aggressive riding made his championship rivalries all the more engaging to follow through the years. Max Biaggi, Sete Gibernau, Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez are just some of the big names in the sport that Rossi crossed on his way to his nine championships. His race craft was stuff of legend as he would find a way past even in the most difficult of situations to secure a win. His legendary balls out overtake at the Laguna Seca’s corkscrew corner on Casey Stoner in the U.S. Grand Prix of 2008 will never be forgotten. Nor will the countless others that have marked his on the limit, no holds back racing style.
His pre-race rituals have become his trademark as well. Bending down and holding the right-side foot-peg of his bike as he bows head is Rossi’s way of talking to his bike, getting into the zone and focusing on what matters most, winning.
While his on-track moments have made him one of the greatest riders in the sport, his victory lap antics have also made him unforgettable. From strapping a sex doll at the back of his bike, to dressing up as a chicken, tying a monkey on his shoulder, to taking a leak in a portalet at the side of the track on his cool down lap, these moments all caught on TV have made a Rossi victory lap an event to look forward to.
During his heyday, Rossi even flirted with the idea of switching to Formula One. A private test with Ferrari in 2004 saw him impress Michael Schumacher. But perhaps the on-track fisticuffs of MotoGP were too much of a lure to keep him on two wheels.
With all his records, long video reels of unforgettable rivalries, comic victories, and that patented leg dangle while braking he pioneered in 2005, Valentino Rossi will forever be remembered as the rider who entertained us all. His skill and talent is only overshadowed by his passion for life. And with a few more races until the end of the year, people will surely make their way to the track, or their TV screens, to catch a legend at work in his office for one last time.
Number 46 should be retired in the MotoGP world as the man who carried it all throughout his racing career can never be replaced. By the end of the 2021 season, we will only have his highlight reels to look at and reminisce with. Such will be the void this scrawny Italian will leave behind in his wake. Even as we have seen in other sports that records are meant to be broken, we can be sure that legends will never be forgotten.
Motoring and motorsports are two of Mikko’s greatest passions. Combining more than twenty years of professional automotive photography and videography experience with years of touring car racing competition, and a deep understanding of the car industry, from both the manufacturers’ and consumers’ points of view, have given him a unique and insightful perspective in the motoring beat.