Mat Oxley

Rossi: The greatest ever?

There were groans of despair all along the pitlane when Valentino Rossi recently announced that he may stay in MotoGP for another four or five seasons. But if the MotoGP king’s young rivals were downcast at the news, there were squeals of delight from the offices of series rights-holder Dorna.

Rarely has one man carried a sport like Rossi carries MotoGP. Such is the Italian’s mainstream appeal that sponsorship finders shudder whenever mention is made of his retirement. “When he goes, it will be like a desert round here,” says one MotoGP money man. Another suggests his exit will hurt the series more than would Ferrari quitting Formula 1.

Rossi’s pop star profile isn’t in question, neither is his spell-binding talent – the only question that remains is whether he is the greatest bike racer of all time.

Of course, it’s a pointless argument, and the man himself knows it. All Rossi will admit is that he’s somewhere in motorcycle racing’s all-time top three, along with 1960s and ’70s aces Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini. “I am on the podium of history,” he says. “But it is impossible to say if I am better than Ago or Mike.” (Incidentally, I take issue with his top three. I’d ask Ago to step down and invite King Kenny Roberts, the Californian cowboy who ruled bike racing in the late ’70s, to take his place.)

Rossi recently became the second rider in history to achieve 100 Grand Prix victories. Over the past nine years the 30-year-old has won seven MotoGP world titles, an astonishing feat in a sport that tends to chew up and spit out even its greatest exponents.

Rossi is remarkable because he is the complete racer – a very rare breed. His talent is sublime, but that’s just the start of it.

His high-voltage intelligence is what allows him to use his natural talent to such devastating effect. Engineers who work with him are amazed at his ability to analyse machine behaviour. “When Valentino comes into the pits he’s like a computer,” says Jerry Burgess, his crew chief since 2000. “He gives you a list of six or eight things he wants looking at, like a download. He’s more analytical than the rest of them and he has the ability to process information so fast and accurately. Whether the little electric pulses in his brain fire a bit better than yours or mine, I don’t know.”

Rossi also has bravery in abundance, an important requirement on two wheels. He has never missed a Grand Prix since his debut in 1996; that’s 226 consecutive World Championship races, some of them ridden with a broken bone or two.

Last, but not least, there is something of the good, old-fashioned race track maniac about Rossi. Over the years he has made some very heavy passes. “On track, Valentino’s pretty vicious,” affirms MotoGP rival Colin Edwards.

As a fellow Yamaha rider, Edwards is allowed to inspect Rossi’s data, to gaze in wonder at the curves and squiggles that reveal his genius in meticulous detail. The ride that most impressed Edwards was Rossi’s walking-on-water victory in the rain-lashed 2005 British Grand Prix at Donington.

“I locked the front a couple of times and nearly crashed and it scared the shit out of me,” says the Texan, who knows as well as anyone that locking the front tyre is the easiest way to crash a motorcycle. “After the race I looked at his data and it was scary. The guy was locking the front on a track that was slicker than snot; every other corner he had it locked. I asked him, ‘was your front locked?’; he said, ‘oh yeah, a couple of times’. I looked at the computer and it was, like, a couple of times? F***, it was every corner, this guy’s crazy!”

Rossi has several good years left in him but even he knows that one day his time will be up. He likens young rivals Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner to circling sharks. “They look at me with some blood flowing and they think, ‘Okay, now is the time’,” he says.

“If I am not strong, they will eat me in one bite.”