Valentino Rossi: the swansong of 'The Doctor'
Lorenzo gets into the slipstream behind Rossi, he can and will pass him. He makes his move down the back straight, getting alongside and will pass him now…
…Oh, dear…Rossi comes back through the outside breaking as late as a human can possibly dare and gets back in front of Lorenzo…
One lap to go and this time Lorenzo will overtake Rossi down the straight, this time. Rossi tries on successive corners to re-take the lead but Lorenzo is holding his ground resolutely. Rossi is running out of corners now, Lorenzo looks set to take the flag, but no…
…Rossi comes back down the outside but Lorenzo refuses to relinquish the lead and darts back in front. Their wheels are nearly glued together as they approach the last corner and Whoa, Valentino Rossi comes down the inside on the last corner of the race and takes the chequered flag of the Catalunya GP of 2009. What a race!
I have watched motorsports since I remember switching on the television. Ever since I was three, both the Formula 1 and the MotoGP races became an integral part of my weekends. I remember crying when on odd Sundays when both the sports were on break. It was agony.
Sixteen years, many seasons, many more races and racers have come and gone and I have seen them all. To this day though, there is one name that has withstood the tides of time and my amnesia to evoke a warm feeling every time I think of the bikes screaming down the back straight. Valentino Rossi: the Doctor.
Nobody made me a Rossi fan. Back then my dad was mad about Max Biaggi and Rossi was the only one who would keep his legendary compatriot in check. I loved the way he would shatter records and humiliate opponents with his superiority. I shook in happiness when he would wait for the entire race behind the leader and then all of a sudden spring forth to win in the last lap. I loved how he did it all with that infectious smile on his face.
I loved Valentino Rossi.
His rivals came and went. From Lorris Capirossi, Biaggi, Sete Gibenau, Nicky Hayden and more recently Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo, the Doctor has raced with and beaten two generations of riders. His international racing career began on the Aprillia RS125s in 1994 but it was 1996 before this association finally bore fruit. The Czech Republic Grand Prix was the first to witness the magic that Valentino Rossi has since produced on the track.
The very next year the first race became the first title, his first world championship on the 125s. It took two seasons for him to beat Capirossi to the title, taking the reign as the best as Capirossi’s name faded unceremoniously from memory.
The Doctor had been born. His talent was prodigious, his pace unbeatable and his technique unmatched. Many former racers had seen what the public saw later. One of the greatest men ever to twist a throttle had burst onto the stage.
Even today as in years before. The lower classes are just a means to an end. You can win all you like in the 125s and 250s but the real mettle lay in the 500cc class, with the big boys of motorcycle racing. Being a multiple World Champion in the lower classes, the step-up to the premier class was inevitable.
He signed with Repsol Honda and his first season was hard and many feared that he had not been able to step up his game, but in 2001 he was crowned the best motorcycle racer in the world in the premier class of the 500 ccs. It would be the world’s last glimpse at these machines as the MotoGP 990 cc era was ushered in. The fear that racers would not adapt was proven right as many riders struggled to quickly make the transition.
Valentino Rossi did not care.
Astride his Honda he stormed to two consecutive world championships winning a total of 20 wins in two years to become a triple world champion. Yet the racing community refused to be satisfied. Rossi’s ability was continuously placed under the shadow of the world beater that Honda’s bike was. He was average they said, he was winning only because of his machine they said.
Taking such accusations to heart, in a hugely shocking career move, Rossi shifted to mid-table strugglers Yamaha. People were appalled. Many said he was throwing away the legacy he had threatened to build.
Rossi once again, did not care.
His first season at Yamaha saw him ward off the immense Gibenau to snatch his fourth straight World Championship and in the next year he made it an easy but unbelievable fifth straight title. The legacy had been born. 46 had become the most famous number in motorsports history. The man had become a legend.
From Mugello to Marina beach, riders of even little enthusiasm had heard his name. In the streets of Chennai’s old town of Pudupet, where everything automotive could be bought or sold, the VR46 stickers became the rage. When Yamaha did eventually come down here with their ‘big’ bikes, the blue and white of the Fiat Yamaha was the fastest selling. Rossi had single handedly turned the global fortunes of Yamaha. Everybody wanted to buy a Yamaha, everybody wanted to be Rossi. Yamaha, once destined for mid-table mediocrity had become the world’s most desirable sport bike manufacturer and it was all thanks to Rossi.
This magnificent rise to super-stardom coincided with the dip in performance. The edge of the Yamaha had been blunted as Ducati regained their long lost top position from the Japanese. The Italian bike manufacturer, with its rider unfriendly ergonomics stormed to the championship. Ducati had compromised all that to win and win they did. Rossi had begun putting immense pressure on Yamaha and they responded in some style. Switching to Bridgestone tires and hiring young star Lorenzo to help in its development, both the 08 and 09 seasons Rossi showed the world why he is the greatest. It was back to business as usual as he added an astonishing two more titles to his ever growing list of honors.
In the season of 2010 Rossi hurt his shoulder in training and even though he did race, he was beaten, complaining of acute shoulder pain. He braved on, but in Mugello a horrific crash in practice saw him fracture his tibia. He was out of the championship; most said his season and maybe his career was over. He did come back, not fully healed but primed and ready. In a marvellous display of class, with his unhealed injuries he collected 5 podiums in a row including a win to shoot back up to third, his ‘worst’ performance in a decade.
With the injury and his growing age, his fiery Italian blood craved for Ducati and he followed his heart. It was announced he was signing with Ducati Corse to replace Honda bound Stoner. This would mark the worst period of his career. It was a combination of him not being at his peak and the fact that Ducati had fielded its worst vehicle in years that saw him go two seasons without a win.
It was clear as day that he simply could not compete with that vehicle any more, yet he still showed flashes of brilliance in the wet where everybody had an issue with pace. The 2012 season drew to a close it was obvious that the Ducati experiment had failed. It put me off watching for a while. Over the years being a fan of the sport and a fan of the rider had overlapped and now was horribly tangled. So when Rossi stopped performing I did not feel like watching the races. It made me sad to see him finish in 7th or 8th. He was Rossi, I complained. He does not finish in those lowly positions.
He wanted to come back home to the Yamaha M1 which bore him to unparalleled greatness. They fulfilled his wish announcing the reigniting of the Lorenzo -Rossi partnership. Notice how I say Lorenzo-Rossi, it will be so. Lorenzo is undoubtedly the best rider in the circuit and however hard the pill is to swallow; Rossi will have to play second fiddle. Gone are the days where he would toy with opponents, bamboozling the best with his sublime skill. He knows now that he has to work harder, put in more effort at every corner. At 33, he is not young and the reactions have slowed. He will no more be able to throw the bike into and out of corners with the audacity of yore. He would have to be more measured.
But Rossi will not care. The 2013 season will be his last great season. I cannot predict how much he will achieve but I do know, he will not settle for anything but his utmost. It is said that every champion has one great fight left in him. This year will be that fight for ‘The Doctor’.
I will as usual, sit on Sundays and tune into Moto GP to watch the races. I will look out for the youngsters Stefan Bradl, Andrea Ianone and Maverick Vinales.
I will follow the exploits of the dominating Spaniards Lorenzo and Pedrosa. I will watch the mid-pack dogfight that at times is more interesting than the battle for the lead.
Above them all though, I will watch the swansong of Valentino Rossi.