Happy Birthday, Valentino
What are you going to do on your 40th birthday? Or, given motorcycling’s ever-aging demographic, what did you do?
A bit of gentle sky-diving/white-water rafting, perhaps? Set off on a mammoth touring holiday? Polish your paintwork? Or down the pub with a few mates to get bladdered, to acknowledge the passing of an unwelcome landmark?
I can’t even remember my own, but I can take an educated guess at what Valentino Rossi did on Saturday, February 16: a hefty session in the gym, maybe a run, then a bunch of interminable laps at his Tavullia training ranch, keeping a gang of fast and hungry kids respectful by beating them. Under the guise of training them.
Okay. Maybe he took a day off. But the day after.
I know Rossi fans can be a touch over-eager to find offense in anything I say about the great man (which is in itself a temptation), but it really is impossible to carp about a career that has lasted so long and glittered so brightly, and is perpetuated by a man so determined not to pay attention to the strictures of time and ageing.
Many are the admirable attributes, not least sheer humanity. Far from the smiling cardboard cut-out that has been carefully cultivated and that many less knowledgeable fans may prefer to see, Vale’s years have revealed a Machiavellian character of much greater depth. He may, for example, be graceful in victory and able to smile generously in defeat, but under the surface there is a burning ego. He is a ruthless killer, and the smiles add a sinister but oddly reassuring edge.
It’s the same with his vendettas. At first his feud with Max Biaggi way back when had the playful overtones of a schoolyard rivalry, and it was similar with Sete Gibernau. But there’s a whole new dimension to his publicly repeated loathing of Marc Marquez. Not surprising really, since he came out well on top in the first two instances, and it’s the other way round with Marc.
Most compelling and admirable is the commitment that reinforces his vast natural skill: Valentino is still so blindingly fast that it takes the very best of the next generation to stop him adding to his tally of 115 GP wins.
These are riders who were barely out of nappies when the long-haired teenager celebrated his first victory at Brno in 1996. Marquez was three, Morbidelli two, and Vinales just over one on that sunny afternoon.
As they proceeded through childhood, they would have enjoyed his post-victory pantomimes. Some were witty (the dash to the lavatory in Spain; the speeding ticket at Mugello), others were painfully cheesy (Brno’s rock-breaking, and the human 10-pin bowling at Sepang), some were poignant (his “Wish You Were Here” helmet after Simoncelli’s death). But all were original.
Beyond the changes in hair color and “official” nicknames, beyond the publicity-aware antics, they would have joined every racing fan in being slack-jawed at not just his skill and daring, but the continuing commitment. He’s always been a Sunday rider. Meaning that no matter what his circumstances that weekend or even in general, come race day he’s at his best.
There’s hardly a rider currently racing against Valentino who wasn’t inspired by him. Though doubtless they didn’t necessarily expect to be racing against him when they grew up. Most of them consider themselves lucky to do so.
On his day, Valentino can still teach them lessons.
Those days have dwindled over the past couple of years. His win rate has slipped back from 43.6 percent at the end of 2010, when he left Yamaha for Ducati (his only real mis-step in a career now starting a 24th year) to a current 30.02 percent. Marquez sits on 37.6 percent, then Lorenzo 24.1).
He threatened to win at other races in 2017, and again last year, but he needed wet weather to accomplish his last victory, at Assen in 2017, with Marquez beaten back to third.
He hasn’t had much help from his Yamaha, which has been slipping backwards, but he still damn near won in Malaysia last year.
The all-time total of 122 GP wins, set by Giacomo Agostini, is tantalisingly close, and yet seems impossibly out of reach. Can Valentine really win seven more races to equal Ago, or eight more to beat him?
I don’t think he can, but I’ve made a fool of myself often enough by not heeding the dictum—never under-estimate Valentino Rossi.
The oldest premier-class champion was the first, 1949’s Les Graham (AJS), aged 37. Rossi is already three years older than that. The oldest champion in any class was German H-P “Happy” Muller, riding a 250 NSU in 1955. He was 45.
So, fan-baiting aside, there’s still time.
Here’s hoping, eh? CN