In The Paddock
I have seen the future. And there are some surprises. One of them concerns Valentino Rossi. He is still in it.
This didn’t necessarily seem likely in the run up to racing’s resumption at Misano. The web was rife with rumors that he was to announce his retirement. Not a new theme. Now aged 41, and with a grand prix career in its 25th year, some have thought this due—and becoming overdue—for a couple of years now.
A couple of years ago, I myself described him as a “bed-blocker” hindering Yamaha from finding and fostering new talent. His waning results—his last win way back in 2017 and only two podiums last year—were pretty marginal for a top factory rider. I was shot down in flames, by his ever-loyal fans, and by his continuing (if rather spasmodic) ability to run up front.
So, when I kept getting emails from far and wide asking if he really was going to retire, I held my fire.
It did seem possible. Especially given the big scare in Austria, almost decapitated by the flying bikes of Zarco and Morbidelli. Plus, the tide of pesky youngsters—second-year sensation Quartararo, Suzuki upstarts Rins and Mir, and rookie winner Binder among others—continually thwarting his ambitions of adding one more podium to make a round 200.
I resisted the temptation to predict his departure. Been wrong-footed too many times. “Never rule out Rossi,” said I.
On Thursday before Misano, asked directly, his cackling laughter proved the wisdom of this caution. On Friday, he underlined his disdain with fastest time. And on Sunday, though displaced from a strong almost race-long second, he looked safe in third, until narrowly denied by Mir’s last-lap attack.
The significance was that two of the three pesky youths ahead of him, first-time winner Morbidelli and returned injury new boy Bagnaia, aged 25 and 23, respectively, were his own proteges. At the same time, a growing Italian flavor in all three classes came from more of the same—fellows and/or graduates of the VR46 Academy taking control.
Spain brought its riders to the forefront of grand prix racing by a concerted effort, coordinated between major sponsors, track owners, race promoters and sundry luminaries, and orchestrated by Dorna. It took time, manpower, and plenty of money.
Italy’s renaissance, by contrast, has been a one-man show. Rossi heads a tight-knit gang that does everything to make racers, both off-track and with incredibly thorough and hugely competitive riding training.
So even when he’s getting beaten, Rossi is still winning.
And will continue to do so. Both Bagnaia and Morbidelli are very much the real thing, and both gave full credit to Rossi. First-time winner Morbidelli combined humility and pride. “Thanking him is not enough,” he said. “To race against him is a blessing. I want to beat him because I want to show him he made a good choice in believing in me.”
How exactly do you teach someone to win a GP?
Not overnight, and it requires a mix of basic ingredients. Oddly, natural talent isn’t top of the list. Or at least so I’ve been told over the years by several people who did master the art.
Although obviously a certain proficiency with the controls, speed of reaction times and level of motor skills is required, race-winning potential is something that can be developed by application. Effort and determination are the key to serious success. Not so much “go fast,” but “learn to go fast, then never give up.”
Rossi’s tuition system is just exemplary. The VR46 Academy was founded in 2013, having grown up from a gang of locals (the area is a hotbed of motorcycle racing talent) playing on dirt bikes. Rossi and his gang of astute cohorts formalized the whole thing, built a splendid permanent dirt track, then added to almost daily riding such other aspects as English lessons and legal contract support to develop fully rounded professional riders. With Rossi’s own talent-spotting ability plus the inspiration of riding with the great man, day in day out (a process that keeps Valentino sharp, as well) he has polished a new generation.
Misano’s MotoGP podium pair of Morbidelli and Bagnaia confirm the conveyor belt up through the smaller classes, where there are plenty more of his pupils already winning races. At Misano, Marini and Bezzecchi took the top two places in Moto2; while two 2020 Moto3 winners Vietti and Foggia are also members of a gang that includes nearly all fast Italians.
Other national groups and federations are working on the business. Such enterprises as the Asia Talent Cup and several Northern Hemisphere equivalents supplement the Red Bull Rookies, with varying degrees of progress. But prepare to hear the Italian anthem many more times for the immediate future. CN
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