Valentino Rossi: ‘I switched on the emotions of normal people’

MotoGP

Nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi today announced his retirement, after an unforgettable 26 years of GP racing. MotoGP may never be the same again

Valentino Rossi alongside a helmet with his face at Mugello in 2008

Rossi at Mugello in 2008, on his way to his eighth world title

Yamaha

At the end of the day the sun goes down. Valentino Rossi has been riding through the twilight of his career for the last few seasons, so it’s no surprise that today he announced that his sun will finally dip below the horizon at Valencia in November.

And so will end the career of arguably the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, arguably the greatest motor sportsperson of all time and undoubtedly one of the greatest sportspeople of all time.

Rossi’s sun has shone for quarter of a century over the sport of motorcycle grand prix racing, which hasn’t even been going three-quarters of a century.

He has lasted longer than any other motorcycle GP rider and longer than any Formula 1 driver, despite the fact that he goes to work protected by a cowhide suit and impact-absorbent padding, instead of a carbon-fibre safety shell with inbuilt oxygen supply.

Rossi is bike racing’s Maradona, Pele and Muhammad Ali all rolled into one

It is impossible to overestimate the effect Rossi has had on motorcycling. For some years he was even bigger than the sport itself, transcending its boundaries, loved by mums, kids and grannies, as much as by petrolheads.

Some sportspersons dazzle with what they do on the track and on the pitch, others throw their light much further than that. The way they walk, the way they talk, gets inside people. That’s when sport becomes special – when it makes people laugh, makes them cry and fills their dreams, both night and day.

Few have done that better than Rossi. He has millions of mothers, millions of fathers, millions of brothers and sisters, millions of grannies and grandads.

“Sincerely, I don’t know why,” he laughed during today’s media conference at Red Bull Ring, arranged specifically for his announcement. “I was able to bring a lot of people close to motorcycle racing – I switched on the emotions of normal people.”

The fact that Diego Maradona, another sportsman who became more than just that, turned up at Misano in 2008 to kiss Rossi’s hand on the grid, like a cardinal paying homage to the Pope, tells you all you need to know.

Valentino Rossi beats Max Biaggi in South Africa 2004

Rossi’s career is full memories – here he beats Honda’s Max Biaggi in his first race with Yamaha

Yamaha

Rossi is bike racing’s Maradona, Pele and Muhammad Ali all rolled into one, so he will leave a huge VR46-shaped hole in the sport, which may never be filled.

His racing achievements may or may not be bettered. Rossi hasn’t won as many grands prix as Giacomo Agostini won during the 1960s and 1970s, but he’s won more premier-class races than his countryman. And surely victories in the premier category count for more than victories in the minor classes, which makes him statistically the strongest rider in history.

A total of 115 victories across all three classes (89 in MotoGP and 500cc), 235 podiums (a tantalising 199 in the big class), 96 fastest laps and 65 pole positions. They’re big numbers but probably not as big as the joy he gave to people and also to himself.

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“I’ve had a very long career and fortunately I won a lot of races, with some victories that are unforgettable – pure joy! Sometimes I laughed for one week and other times after ten days I was still laughing!”

Today Rossi rated his 2001, 2004 and 2008 MotoGP titles as his best. His only real disappointments are not winning with Ducati and not winning a tenth world title.

There is no doubt that this is the correct time for him to leave the MotoGP grid and turn his attentions to car racing and his VR46 empire.

Saudi Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al Saud, whose oil business will back the VR46 MotoGP team for the next few seasons, made no secret of the fact that he wanted Rossi to race in his colours in 2022. But Rossi has only ever done what he wants to do. And although part of him wants to continue racing, he knows the game is up.

Honda of Valentino Rossi in 2000

With Honda in 2000, when he won his first race in the class of kings

Honda

“It’s a difficult decision but in the end in all sports it’s results that make the difference, so I think it’s the right direction… I can’t complain about my career,” he said.

During 2020 there was still hope. He scored one podium and came very close to scoring more, so he still went into race weekends hoping for a prosecco shower on Sunday afternoon, the closure that every racer craves. This year he has scored just one top-ten result – tenth at Mugello – so he’s lost that hope.

He may be riding faster than ever but he’s not fast enough, and there comes a time when a rider can no longer bear looking at the result sheets, remembering where he used to be.

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We will all miss him but not nearly as much as if we would’ve done if he had retired five years ago. During these last few seasons he’s not really been part of the show, so in some ways he has slid gracefully towards his retirement ever since his last victory in 2017.

The enormity of Rossi’s career really hits home when you stand it alongside your own life. I was 36-years-old when I watched Rossi make his GP debut at Shah Alam, Malaysia, in March 1996. I’m now 62. That’s pretty much a lifetime.

I’m happy he is retiring, not least because during the last five years I’ve been writing the ultimate (I would say that) Rossi book, which will be published at the end of this year. We thought maybe he would retire at the end of 2019, or 2020, or 2021. Now, finally, I will get paid.

Thanks for the memories, Valentino, and thanks for the joy you’ve given so many people. It’s been epic and a privilege to watch the story unfold from close quarters.