When Valentino Rossi climbs off his Yamaha YZR-M1 MotoGP bike for the last time at November’s Valencia Grand Prix he will have completed 26 world championship seasons, contested 433 grands prix, 373 of them in the premier class, scored 115 grand prix victories and won nine world championship titles.
The numbers are quite literally mindboggling. Any sportsperson in any field who achieves that kind of success and longevity is someone very special indeed, but to do so in such a dangerous game is nothing short of a miracle.
The 42-year-old Italian is MotoGP’s Croesus, but all the money in the world couldn’t stop him from doing what he loves – racing wheel-to-wheel at 220mph – until this year’s grim results (mostly outside the top 10) told him it’s time to stop.
What makes Rossi unlike most racers is that he doesn’t only win hearts on the track. From the moment the 16-year-old former minimoto champ came skipping into the grand prix paddock in the spring of 1996 it was obvious he was different.
He was always having the time of his life, whether he was dancing with his Aprilia 125 or getting up to mischief in the paddock. On Sunday evenings he liked to visit the media centre to spend an hour or so chatting and joking with journalists. This wasn’t normal.
His post-race theatrics wooed fans like they’d never been wooed before – disappearing into a marshal’s trackside Portaloo to celebrate victory in the 250cc Spanish GP at Jerez in 1999 was a favourite.
Therefore it was no surprise that the world fell in love with him. And not only petrolheads – mums, dads, grannies and grandpas were all seduced by the Valentino Rossi charisma.
The world championships seemed liked they’d never stop coming: 125cc in 1997, 250 in 1999, 500 in 2001, then MotoGP in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2009. For a while he really was bigger than the sport.
But time waits for no man. Talented, determined youngsters like Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez – sharks, circling for the kill, he called them – arrived to steal his glory. Rossi failed to win another world title and won his last race at Assen in 2017.
Next year he will be boss of his own VR46 team, which will contest the MotoGP and Moto2 championships, backed by Saudi oil company Aramco. He will also race cars, most likely in the Super GT series. He is particularly keen to do the Le Mans 24 Hours, too.