Happy 24th MotoGP birthday to Valentino Rossi!

MotoGP

Valentino Rossi contested his first GP 24 years ago today, so we’re looking back at his first race and wondering when he will ride his last

Valentino Rossi on his Aprillia MotoGP bike in 1996

Rossi aboard his Scuderia Carrizosa Aprilia RS125 in 1996

Aprilia

Today is Valentino Rossi’s 24th grand prix birthday, marking the anniversary of his world championship debut on 31 March 1996.

On that day he finished sixth in his debut world-class outing, at Shah Alam, Malaysia’s first grand prix circuit. Winner of the 125cc race was countryman Stefano Perugini.

Victory in the 250cc race went to Max Biaggi, the man that Rossi already loved to hate. The headline 500cc race wasn’t won by Mick Doohan, which was unusual. The tropical heat chunked Doohan’s rear tyre, so he limped home in sixth, some way behind winner Luca Cadalora.

Shah Alam was a great little racetrack, hacked out of the jungle to the south west of Kuala Lumpur city, on land since swallowed up by the urban sprawl. Paddock amenities were somewhat basic, so much so that Doohan used to drive back to his hotel when he needed a number two.

I have to admit I took little or no notice of Rossi that weekend. By then there were already plenty of teenagers venturing into GPs and there was no sign that the son of 1970s 250cc GP winner Graziano Rossi was anything special. He had only just scraped onto the 1996 125 grid by finishing third in the previous year’s 125cc European championship, behind winner Lucio Cecchinello and young Frenchman Frederic Petit. That series ran over 11 races, and Rossi hadn’t won a single one of them.

“I wish I’d taken my chance and run him over then!”

Rossi was lucky that his father was well connected in Italian racing. Two years earlier Graziano had convinced Aprilia race chief Carlo Pernat to back his boy. Pernat was impressed by the youngster’s riding, so signed him to a long-term contract.

In 1996 Aprilia paid Rossi his first real salary – 30 million Lira, about £12,000 – and gave his Scuderia Carrizosa team increasing technical support as the season went on. It was no coincidence that Rossi scored his first podium and first victory immediately after the midseason break, during which Aprilia gave him various engine and chassis upgrades.

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Rossi first stood on a podium at Austria’s A1-Ring – now Red Bull Ring – on August 4, chasing Honda riders Ivan Goi and Dirk Raudies over the finish line. The following weekend he took his first pole position and first victory, after a ferocious duel with Jorge Martinez at Brno. The veteran Spaniard – winner of 37 GPs and four world championships – was stunned by his teenager rival’s aggression

“After my win Martinez gave me his hand and said, ‘F**k, you were strong!’,” remembers Rossi.

In fact, Martinez wasn’t happy with Rossi’s riding, and not for the first time. Five months earlier the pair had been fighting for position in the closing stages of the Shah Alam race when Martinez clipped Rossi’s rear wheel and crashed. The old-timer had no doubt who was to blame.

“After the race Martinez came to see me in my box with a lot of anger,” Rossi remembers. “He wanted to kill me!”

Martinez was 33 years old at the time, more than twice the age of 16-year-old Rossi. He had made his grand prix debut in 1982, when he shared the paddock with the Rossi family: father Graziano, contesting his final GP season, mother Stefania and three-year-old Valentino, no doubt already making a nuisance of himself among the tents, caravans and campervans of the Continental Circus.

Valentino Rossi celebrates his first win

Rossi celebrates his first GP win at Brno, August 1996

Aprilia

Following his defeat at Brno, Martinez muttered to a journalist friend, “I wish I’d taken my chance and run him over then!”.

Thankfully he didn’t.

In more normal times Rossi would be spending his 24th GP birthday on an aeroplane, flying to Austin, USA, where he would contest his 405th grand prix this coming Sunday.

No one in the history of motor sport has contested so many grand prix races, not even in Formula 1, where drivers are looked after like kings and go to work inside survival cells, protected by deformable crash-protection structures, carbon/Zylon armour and much else. Despite all the advances in bike racing safety Rossi still goes to work wearing a helmet and a suit fashioned out of several dead kangaroos.

Brazilian F1 driver Rubens Barrichello holds the record for the most F1 starts – 322 races between 1993 and 2011 – which at the end of this year would’ve put him one hundred races behind Rossi, if the 2020 season had gone ahead as usual. No other bike racer comes close – Loris Capirossi rode 328 GPs before he quit at the end of 2011 and Andrea Dovizioso has so far contested 313 GPs.

But these aren’t normal times. Rossi is locked down at his home on a hillside outside Tavullia, waiting for life to return to normal, while a few miles up the road Italy has become a warzone.

It’s not easy to imagine how someone who has possibly pumped more adrenaline through his veins than any other human being is coping with life under lockdown.

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He’s not the only one, of course. “This stop is making me understand so much about life,” fellow Italian Dovizioso told GPone.com a few days ago. “I like the busy life of a rider, but sometimes it’s too much, and I am realising that you risk losing other important things.”

All racers are junkies, to a greater or lesser extent. They live for that heady cocktail of adrenaline, noradrenaline and endorphins that floods through their bodies each time they go racing, each time they ride a bike and each time they even think about riding a bike. It’s like you turbocharged your brain and your heart, and it feels good; most of all when you get a good result, for which you are rewarded with a hit of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that looks after pleasure and happiness.

If racers miss one fix, they’re burning up inside, like they’re going cold turkey. But what happens if they (it’s the older riders we’re talking about here) stay at home for longer and drift into the rhythm of their everyday lives, made comfortable by millions in the bank, a career well ridden and a towering reputation to lean back on?

As Dovizioso said: given time to think, you may realise that the racer’s buzzing, peripatetic lifestyle isn’t all you thought it was. Once you stand far enough back you see that it’s a kind of madness – a hamster running in a wheel, an engine bouncing off the rev-limiter.

Valentino Rossi during 2020 MotoGP testing

Rossi testing in Sepang, February 2020

Yamaha

In more normal times, Rossi would be looking forward to racing at Austin, while also pondering his future: should he continue racing into 2021 or pack it in this November?

Riders who have recently decided to pack it in usually fall into one of two categories. They’re either crawling up the wall, still a slave to their biochemistry, or they can’t believe how it sweet it is to live without that constant trickle of nervous energy dribbling through your system.

We don’t yet know how Rossi will be when he eases out of the fast lane and into the slow lane of life. But I do know how former World Superbike champions Colin Edwards and Troy Bayliss felt when they pulled in the clutch and snuck themselves into cruise mode.

A few weeks after Edwards had retired, halfway through the 2014 MotoGP season, I had a chat with him during the British GP at Silverstone. While his former rivals were getting ready for morning practice Edwards was sat in a hospitality unit, slowly supping on a cappuccino, already looking forward to a long and lazy lunch.

“I don’t feel any of the usual nervousness,” he told me. “There’s no pressure – just show up, relax, have a glass of wine with lunch. It’s cool.”

Bayliss found himself at the opposite extreme when he retired at the end of 2008. Two years later I visited the three-times WSB champ at his Gold Coast home and found him still climbing up the wall.

“I still have heaps of issues about stopping,” he said. “It’s so hard, really hard. Originally I promised Kim [Mrs Bayliss] that I was going to stop at the end of 2006. I managed to scam another couple more years and that was it really; plus it was the perfect time for the kids to come back to Australia. As a family, we can see that everything is good. The problem is me. I can’t help it, I want to win races, it’s built in.

“The biggest thing I miss is winning. But the bad thing is that the feeling only lasts for a day or two and then you want another one. It’s like a bad drug – the feeling doesn’t last for long. Of course, I miss the whole thing too – from Thursday to Sunday you’re nervous and edgy because you’ve been training hard for the race and there’s so much pressure to go fast. Then you finally win and you’re happy for a few hours – you have dinner and a couple of beers – then the next morning you’re thinking the next race is in a couple of weeks… better get ready.”

Once these strange days are over Rossi will decide whether he wants to continue racing into 2021 or not. I think we can guess his decision, but of course only he knows how he will feel once this is all over.

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