In The Paddock
Do you remember where you were on March 31, 1996? Maybe crawling around on all fours, a grown-up wiping up behind you. Or not yet born. Or telling feeble jokes to fellow primary-school pupils.
I remember where I was. Sweating it up at the steamy old Shah Alam circuit outside Kuala Lumpur, reporting on the opening round of that year’s World Championship.
Rossi remembers, too. He was riding in his first GP. He finished sixth. The race was won by Stefano Perugini (remember him?), the 500cc race by the similarly long-retired Luca Cadalora. Later that year, Rossi would take the first of a total of 115 grand prix wins; in 1997 his first World Championship.
It was impossible even then not to notice him. Still a teenager who apparently modeled his image on Prince Valiant, Rossi was everywhere, like—as the saying goes—a rash.
Ever since then, he has been through a series of image changes and hair colors, and a procession of variously hilarious or painfully cheesy victory pantomimes and costume dramas. All the way to the more austere and certainly more authoritative figure of today.
Massively charming and ruthlessly cynical in equal measure. And heroically successful.
Sunday in Australia marked his 400th GP, one among so many records. Including the highest number of 500/MotoGP wins, podiums and points. Only Agostini has more premier-class titles, and more any-class wins.
Rossi’s career has spanned the technical eras. He cut his teeth on two-strokes, bikes that many (to an extent including the rider) still regard as “real racing bikes.” From 125cc singles, he moved to 250cc twins, then won the last-ever two-stroke 500cc World Championship, on the Honda NSR that for years afterwards he would name as his favorite bike. Fittingly, he then won the first-ever four-stroke MotoGP title.
Feeling under-appreciated, he turned his back on Honda, |determined to prove that it was the rider that made the difference. It was good timing. Underdogs Yamaha were about to introduce the cross-plane crankshaft. Together they humbled Honda.
When he switched to Ducati, again feeling undervalued, as Yamaha’s attention turned towards Jorge Lorenzo, it didn’t work. By then he was such a legend that it neither dented his image nor his career prospects, as he returned to Yamaha.
How to put this number of 400 starts into proportion?
Well, if you blink 400 times, it will take you around 25 minutes. More realistically, how about 400 times of waking up and going to work? With weekends and holidays, the average working year is around 230 days. Thus Rossi’s 400-race workload would take most of two years.
But a race weekend lasts three days. Rossi’s been waking up and going to work for more than five years. As a GP racer.
Amazing. What stress, and for so long. And he still hasn’t had enough.
In this time, Valentino has amassed a personal fortune, thanks to the careful monetization of his popularity.
More altruistically, he’s founded a still-growing racing academy for young Italian riders, that has so far yielded a slew of GP winners and two World Champions (Franco Morbidelli and Pecco Bagnaia).
He’s also put his name and management skills into running successful teams in Moto2 and Moto3.
Even more amazing, riders at his level are usually more interested in themselves.
He celebrated the milestone well at Phillip Island, sweeping around the outside into the daunting first corner and leading for three laps. But it was not the best way, because it didn’t last. He slumped to eighth, a position that is becoming all too familiar. At a favorite track where he won five times straight between 2001 and 2005, and again in 2014.
It’s now over two years since his last win. His premier-class average has dropped to 26.25. Marquez’s stands at 44 percent. In Rossi’s last championship year of 2009, his was better—46.1 percent. This figure alone puts his stature into proportion, compared with the new upstart.
There’s life-affirming joy in that he’s not only stayed dedicated and motivated for 72 races more than any other rider, but that he continues to believe in himself so strongly that he blames fading results on bike setup rather than the rising tide of youth. That’s why he’s changed his crew chief again for next year.
But there’s another feeling, too, reflecting respect for his dignity and fear that he might get hurt. A wish that he might take a different reading of the writing on the wall.
His original crew chief, Jerry Burgess, blunt as ever, said it best, at the Australian GP.
“Maybe he’s been around a bit too long.” CN