Valentino Rossi commenced his 26th grand prix season and his 22nd in the premier MotoGP class on March 28, thereby extending his record as the sport’s longest-serving rider. Rossi’s career also betters those of Formula 1’s most enduring drivers, Kimi Räikkönen and Rubens Barrichello. This is especially impressive because each time the seven-time MotoGP champion ventures out of the pitlane he’s protected not by an almost indestructible carbon-fibre safety cell but by a suit of kangaroo leather.
Rossi’s career statistics are breathtaking: 413 grand prix starts (before this season’s opening race), 115 victories and 235 podiums across the 125cc, 250cc and MotoGP classes. Those top-three results include 199 in MotoGP. Following his 199th, achieved at Jerez last July, he was frequently asked for his thoughts about the possibility of a 200th MotoGP podium.
The Italian has always found the media’s obsession with milestones tiresome because usually they’re not something that motivate him. “I’m not here for the 200th podium,” he opined on the eve of August’s Czech GP. “I’m here because I like to race motorcycles.”
That is all you need to know if you ever wonder what keeps him going after so many broken bones, bruises and concussions.
The 2021 season is significant because for the first time in 20 years Rossi isn’t part of an official manufacturer team. After 15 seasons with Yamaha the company relegated him to the independent Petronas Sepang Racing Team, where he rides a factory-spec YZR-M1, but without an army of Japanese engineers in his garage.
“Wins aren’t out of reach, at least when events work in his favour”
In theory this seems a negative. Most importantly in terms of electronics, because factory riders have many more electronics technicians working through their data, trying to make a difference. But we will have to wait and see if this really is a negative.
Surely Rossi can’t do any worse than last season, his poorest in grand prix racing, during which he took home an average of 4.7 points from each race, of a possible 25. Even if we discount the two races he missed when he was sick with Covid he only scored 5.5 per race, considerably worse than his rookie grand prix season in 1996, when he averaged 7.4 points aboard his 45bhp Aprilia 125.
If you believe in history repeating then his move to a non-factory team is rich in good omens. The last time Rossi rode for an independent squad – in 2001 – he won his first MotoGP title (this was the last time that the series was simply called the 500cc World Championship). And in 1997 he won his first world title, in the 125cc category, while riding for an independent outfit.
On both of those occasions the team structures were basically the same as his current set-up: an indie team equipped with factory bikes, furnished with some factory support and led by people who knew what they were doing and were able to go about their business free of the kind of politics that can encumber official manufacturer teams.
In 1997 his Aprilia team was a tiny affair, run by the urbane, cigar-chomping Giampiero Sacchi, who later led Jorge Lorenzo and Marco Simoncelli to world titles in the smaller classes. In 2001 his Honda team was led by Jeremy Burgess, the straight-talking Australian who had earlier guided Mick Doohan to five straight 500cc World Championships.
This year Rossi once again has an experienced paddock warrior looking after his interests. Dutchman Wilco Zeelenberg is a former 250cc grand prix winner who has a perfect understanding of what it takes to succeed at the highest level. Zeelenberg’s management style is avuncular yet robust and probably more effective than that employed by Yamaha’s factory team.
Rossi is fully aware of the fact that he’s no longer a title favourite and he’s happy with that. The 42-year-old is driven by his love of the game, the desire to train, the enthusiasm for working with his crew and the hope that every now and again he will finish the weekend on the podium.
“Races where I finish a long way behind are bad for everyone in my garage – we look at each other and we don’t have the words,” he said after his most recent podium last summer. “It’s like, maybe it’s time to stay at home. Like today is better! This is a hard game!”
Top-three results are certainly within Rossi’s grasp, especially if Yamaha finds its way out of the doldrums. The factory that won seven riders MotoGP titles between 2004, when Rossi joined Yamaha, and 2015, when Lorenzo won his third crown with the marque, hasn’t won a single title since, because its engineers have struggled to adapt the M1 to Michelin’s spec tyres, introduced in 2016. Surely Yamaha must crack the Michelin code soon. But there’s no guarantee of that.
Wins aren’t out of reach, at least when circumstances work in his favour. Rossi won his last MotoGP race at Assen in 2017, when a rain shower dampened the track, convincing the title contenders that this was a day to take home some points rather than risk everything in pursuit of maximum points. Rossi had no such qualms to take his 89th premier-class victory, 0.063secs ahead of Danilo Petrucci.
Of one thing there is no doubt – he still has the fight in him.
Mat Oxley has covered motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner
Follow Mat on Twitter @matoxley