Goodbye yellow merch road


MotoGP will be less yellow from next year, but how will the departure of its only mainstream superstar affect the championship in general?

Valentino Rossi merchandise stall at Misano

One of dozens of Rossi merch stalls at Misano last month


Over the past two decades, since Valentino Rossi graduated to the premier class aboard his bright yellow Honda NSR500 in 2000, yellow has been the unofficial colour of MotoGP.

But not for much longer.

Pretty much wherever you go – from Silverstone to Sachsenring to Sepang – yellow VR46 merch is everywhere in the grandstands. More than 20 million Euros of it every year, according to VR46’s accountants.

Rossi chose bright yellow because it’s his favourite colour. And bright yellow is an interesting colour. For many centuries the brightest yellow paint and dye available to artists and fashionistas was Indian yellow, first created in India (obvs) from the urine of cattle fed on nothing but mango leaves. Once the urine had been boiled down in pots the concentrate was worked into a foul-smelling paste that gave that spectacular sunshine yellow colour in dyes and oil paints, which features heavily in the works of Vincent Van Gogh and JMW Turner.

I wonder if this was the subliminal message in Rossi’s cow-themed 2021 Muuuugello GP helmet?

Valentino Rossi cow helmet at Mugello 2021

Did Rossi’s 2021 Muuuugello helmet carry a subliminal message?

Petronas SRT

Of course, the 20 million Euro question is how many MotoGP fans will wear Rossi merch next year and beyond? And then there’s the much bigger 200 million Euro (or more) question of how many fans will drift away from MotoGP once their messiah has departed?

Even Dorna would have to admit that Rossi has played a huge part in building MotoGP into the show that it is today – much, much, much bigger than any other rider and bigger than any company or corporation. How would Dorna have managed without him? And how much money has he earned for Dorna, Bridgepoint and everyone else involved in MotoGP (journalists included)? Many, many, many millions, without a doubt.

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Rossi transformed MotoGP from niche to mainstream because his persona attracts people who wouldn’t otherwise bother watching motorcycles going around in circles.

“Sincerely, I don’t know why, but I was able to bring a lot of people close to motorcycle racing – I switched on the emotions of normal people,” he said while announcing his retirement in August.

Other sportspeople have pulled off the same trick, but not many. I’m no boxing fan but years back I used to watch Muhammad Ali fight when I could. I’m no football fan but I liked to watch Maradona play.

I watched Ali and Maradona not because I loved their chosen sports but because I loved them as individuals – they both fascinated me, for very different reasons, so I wanted to see them do what they did and I wanted to see how they reacted to victory and defeat.

Do I watch either sport now? No, just a few World Cup football matches every four years.

MotoGP management has been terrified of Rossi quitting bikes for more than a decade. When he looked set to move to Formula 1 in 2007 one paddock sponsorship consultant told me, “It will be like a desert around here once he’s gone”.

Valentino Rossi in front of a stand full of VR46 fans at Misano

The Rossi fan club acknowledge its hero following his final race on Italian asphalt, at Misano last month

Petronas SRT

Rossi was so huge that for many years he was essentially bigger than MotoGP itself – for many millions, Rossi was MotoGP. And his superstar profile didn’t only make him extremely rich, it brought money pouring into all corners of the paddock, because companies wanted to be involved, whether they were sponsoring him or someone else.

It was the same in the days of Barry Sheene, the only other motorcycle racer that’s transcended the sport to attract fans who wouldn’t otherwise have bothered.

Some of Sheene’s contemporaries complained that the twice 500cc world champion took too much start money and prize money from race promoters, because he knew he could always ask for more because he was always the star attraction. These were the days when riders were paid on Sunday evenings, with brown envelopes stuffed full of cash taken at the circuit gates during the weekend.

However, Sheene’s more astute rivals understood that however much he took home they also did well out of his popstar profile, because if he hadn’t been there the crowd would’ve been much, much smaller and the gate money much, much less.

And so it’s been with Rossi.

Even now, when Rossi’s star has been very much on the wane over the past three seasons, the 42-year-old is still by far the most popular rider on the MotoGP grid. There is no exact science to measuring rider popularity, so we will have to use the vaguely unscientific method of comparing their followers on social media. Rossi currently has 5.5 million followers on Twitter, while the rest of the 2021 full-time grid – all 20 of them – have 4.9 million followers between them.

Luca Marini with Grazie Vale motorbike

Rossi’s brother Luca Marini at Misano – VR46 teams aren’t the only outfits that have benefitted from Rossi’s presence

Sky VR46

Dorna will at least be relieved that Rossi kept on riding past his prime. He has not been a central player in the championship since the end of the 2018 season, which he finished in third place behind Marc Márquez and Andrea Dovizioso, so at least his final departure won’t be as starkly felt as it would’ve been a few years ago.

Some of his fans have found other riders to support as his results have slumped. Others will no longer bother turning on their TVs or turning up at racetracks, dressed head to toe in VR46 merch and armed with yellow smoke flares.

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Will MotoGP be a desert once he’s gone? Of course not. Hopefully in 2022 we will once again gape in awe at the antics of a fully fit Márquez, skidding the front tyre into corners and saving crash after crash with his elbows, while battling the new generation: Fabio Quartararo, Joan Mir, Pecco Bagnaia, Brad Binder, Jorge Martin and the rest.

No true fan would turn away from that.

To be honest, I’m looking forward to walking into pit lane in Qatar next March for the start of the first post-Rossi season.

Rossi’s presence in grand prix racing has mostly been a delight. It’s been a wonderful quarter of a century – more than half my professional life – but I’m ready to move on and see what post-Rossi MotoGP looks like. And how yellow it will be.