With the news of Valentino Rossi’s retirement from MotoGP racing at the end of 2021 to turn his hand to the world of team management and a dose of car racing, Motorsport Week decided to look back on how he became a household name and arguably the series’ most prolific champion and masthead.
The impending retirement of Rossi at the end of the 2021 MotoGP world championship season well and truly signifies the end of an era, with the great Italian the last rider to have competed during the noughties currently still racing.
Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo both ended their respective full-time careers at the end of the ’18 and ’19 terms respectively, though the former will return to competition in a wild-card appearance with employer KTM in Austria, while Andrea Dovizioso looks increasingly likely to miss out on a return having left Ducati at the end of ’20.
It’s fair to say though that the exit of Rossi will likely have a far more reaching impact than the three previously mentioned grand prix aces combined, having built up a fanbase the likes of motorcycle racing-and arguably motorsport in general-had never seen before or since.
His open, passionate and electrifying personality was the key to building up his incredibly loyal and powerful fan following since making his premier class debut with Honda way back in 2000.
It has become a common sight to see the vast majority of grandstands at MotoGP events filled by individuals donning Rossi shirts and caps, with the customary bright yellow smoke that represents Rossi’s brand having filled the air at most major race circuits at some point across the past two decades.
Of course to truly conquer the fans hearts on a more long term basis success is important, and Rossi was more than up for the challenge of obliging.
The fresh-faced 21 year-old swung into action straight away as he guided his Honda NSR500 to two wins en-route to a remarkable second overall in the riders championship behind only Suzuki’s Kenny Roberts Jr, though he would put things right the following year.
He would decimate the competition at the dawn of the MotoGP era-the old 500cc moniker having been dropped at the end of his first title campaign in 2001-scoring a grand total of 32 victories with Honda before shocking the world with news that he would defect to Yamaha for ’04.
A further four titles would follow across the next seven campaigns, while his win tally would swell to a monstrous 80-shattering Giacomo Agostini’s record 68 premier class wins in the process-before electing to switch manufacturers once again as he joined Ducati for the ’11 campaign.
One of the key secrets to his undeniable success was his ability to adapt to whatever conditions the track threw at him as well as how the machine underneath him needed, affording him an almost sixth sense as to how to plan ahead throughout the race and squeeze out every ounce of potential from he and the bike-a talent that many have struggled to match.
As is expected when fighting for the ultimate prize in motorsport, rivalries between Rossi and his chief competition were a frequent occurrence throughout the purple patch of his career and beyond, giving him the opportunity to further enhance his standing with the fans but also exercise mind games to try and further drill home an advantage on his foes.
Rossi is infamous for using the press to inflict psychological damage on his rivals, his open personality attracting fans while simultaneously going against the generally more reserved personalities of some of his bigger rivals such as Max Biaggi, Sete Gibernau and Jorge Lorenzo.
Rossi believed Gibernau and his Pons Honda squad had reported him for laying rubber down in his starting spot ahead of the ’04 Qatar GP, causing him to be dropped to the back of the grid as a result before crashing out of the encounter while trying to recover.
Sensing his opportunity, Rossi elected to not hide his feelings regarding the Spaniard as he elected to not make eye contact with his rival in the following press conference, painting him as the villain in the saga while also inflicting the infamous curse that Gibernau would never score another win-one that would ultimately come true.
He arguably finished off Gibernau with the pair’s well-documented crash at Jerez the following year, a broken nine-time premier class race winner looking defeated on the rostrum as he drifted into mediocrity and ultimately retirement over the next couple of seasons.
While his popularity has never waned across his 25-year career in motorcycle grand prix racing-and he has steadfastly remained the sports masthead despite having failed to match his earlier success throughout the 2010s- it’s fair to say Rossi met his match in terms of mind games with the arrival of Marc Marquez to MotoGP in ’13.
The Honda man stunned the world as he roared to the title in his rookie year before doubling up in ’14, though he found himself unable to compete the following season as his RC213-V slipped behind Yamaha’s M1 in the competitive order.
This allowed Rossi-who had since switched back to the Japanese manufacturer following his tough Ducati tenure- and team-mate Lorenzo to battle between themselves for supremacy, though Marquez was keen to not be forgotten.
Rossi believed that Marquez had purposefully tried to help Lorenzo as he battled him hard throughout that year’s Australian GP at Phillip Island before racing off to pass the Mallorcan for the win on the final lap, accusations that Marquez firmly refuted as Rossi tried to discredit him in the hope he would back off in future.
Enraged by Rossi’s attempts to bury him in the press, Marquez made it clear in subsequent races that he simply didn’t care about Rossi’s title hopes and was out for himself, things coming to a head in Malaysia where the two collided while battling-earning Rossi a back-of-the-grid start for the season finale at Valencia.
He fought back to fourth, though with Lorenzo winning-closely followed by Marquez-Rossi ultimately lost out on an opportunity to secure an eighth premier class world title by just five points.
This was the first time his media mind games had backfired on him, his competitiveness dropping significantly over the next half decade as his last win remains way back in ’17 at Assen, while he has only achieved two top three championship results across the past six terms.
This includes the current ’21 campaign where it will take a miracle to make up enough ground to make a final championship rostrum even remotely possible.
This is ultimately a moot point though thanks to the tribal following and blistering success he had crafted for himself throughout his career, his standing strengthened even further by his determination to never give up and by following his heart to continue racing motorcycles at the top level of grand prix competition despite having rocketed well into his 40s.
He has given himself a passage to continue to give the fans what they want even though he will finally call it a day on his MotoGP career at the conclusion of the current season, with his VR46 team making its premier class bow along with the riders he has tasked to continue Italy’s long-standing stature in the series.
He has remained easily the sports most popular rider despite his decline in from over the past few campaigns-especially his home races at Misano and Mugello where the fans fall into a frenzy whenever The Doctor flies past-but he even possesses many supporters in places you wouldn’t expect such as Spain, considering his history with the likes of Marquez and Gibernau over the years.
While his successes will likely be surpassed by the force of nature that is Marquez at the current rate the 28-year old is going, it’s hard to believe he will even get near the level of Rossi in the popularity stakes-ensuring the legacy of the nine-time grand prix motorcycle world champion will remain in the grandstands long after he hangs up his helmet.
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