In The Paddock
It’s Night And Day For MotoGP’s Eternal Miss Havisham
Photo Courtesy of YamahaMotoGP
Sun, moon and… well, what else? (Apart from galaxies, black holes, planets, meteors, empty space…)
The night and day motifs on superstar Rossi’s helmet—they’ve been there since the 1990s—reflect, he has often explained, the two sides of his personality.
Never has the great man’s persona been quite as schizophrenic as right now, in a 25th season of giddy highs and plummeting lows for the old man of the grid.
I’m sorry, I won’t apologize for writing about Rossi for a second successive column.
Oh, it seems I just did apologize, but here goes anyway. For the great man has continued to seize the headlines, after confirming not just his new Petronas SRT contract for next year, but that he doesn’t rule out carrying on (and on and on) for 2022, as well.
The news was not unexpected. The peculiar circumstances of the 2020 season had got in the way of his plan of seeing how he went in the early rounds, with still time to make a decision before the summer break. Instead COVID rewrote the calendar and rendered the timing impossible.
But it is not so much the news but the combination of contradictions that keeps Valentino fascinating.
The Catalan GP weekend where he made the announcement was typical: a scintillating start and an ending deep in the dumps.
He arrived carrying the accolades as the savior of Italian racing: his VR46 ranch-academy turning out a whole generation of race-winning talent, proteges Morbidelli winning Misano 1, and Bagnaia close to winning Misano 2, and his brand name straddling the sport.
Then came formal confirmation at a cheery press conference that his seemingly never-ending career is not about to end. This was hand in hand with a fine front-row qualification. Next day he was running strongly, placed a threatening second and surely going to grab podium number 200.
Then a second race in a row showed that this tallest of tall poppies was feeling the breeze. He crashed.
It’s one thing being down with the kids. Not so easy keeping up with them.
There really are two sides to this extraordinary racer.
There is the tireless genius who radiates the joy of racing, still competitive after all these years, the longest-serving top-level grand prix rider in 70 years of history, and easily the oldest on the grid.
Then there is flawed Rossi, outrun by the youngsters who repeatedly deny him that long-awaited fresh podium, let alone a 90th class win. Still seven short of Agostini’s 122 wins in all classes, his chances of breaking that record are steadily dwindling.
There is the ageless craftsman, who can go as fast as anybody, with a unique understanding of tires, chassis and suspension. The breadth of his knowledge is unmatched.
But tiding pillion is the old dog who struggles to learn new tricks.
There is Yamaha’s indispensable ambassador, his image so strong and so inextricably linked with the marque that they daren’t jeopardize the relationship.
Then there’s the rider who won’t go away, who hogs a factory bike they might secretly prefer to give to somebody with a future rather than a past.
For the Petronas SRT team, he’s the man who nurtured one of the two riders who have given them race wins, fulfilling the aim to foster new talent and feed the factory team, and cementing the new squad’s status. But now he’s the man preventing them from finding and promoting another newcomer.
He is the Miss Havisham of MotoGP, even if he is still some distance from crouching over a cobweb-festooned wedding cake.
But he is also the Peter Pan—eternally youthful, and a shining light to the lost boys, who can be found circulating the dirt track at his VR46 Academy.
Sport must always refresh itself with new talent, which must always exceed the achievements of those who came before. This is the nature of evolution, and it is also why Valentino has beaten Marquez just 18 times in the 127 races since the young feller’s arrival in 2013.
By the same token, should Marquez prolong his own career in the same way as Rossi, it will happen to him, too. Perhaps even sooner. This is something to be borne in mind by riders who might feel inspired by Rossi’s remarks last weekend, that “maybe I can show other riders you don’t have to stop just because you are getting older.”
But then who is like Valentino? Who can pull off a feat that so many in the past have found impossible … to preserve not only the enjoyment of racing, but to do so at the level of intensity required at the very highest level? This is a very special trick.
Evolution go hang. Thank god Valentino’s not going yet.
Racing just wouldn’t be the same without him.CN
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