The history of MotoGP can be linked to one person: Valentino Rossi. Rossi is not only the only current MotoGP rider who’s been with the class since its inception in 2002, he’s by far the most prolific. He has more poles (45), he’s won more MotoGP races (66), and he has more MotoGP World Championships (six) than any other rider.
“When you start to become...
“When you start to become old, you have to start to think to the young riders,” says Rossi. “And sincerely, now for me is fun, no, because I am more open to give some advice to the young riders and I have my brother (Luca Marini is Rossi’s stepbrother, in blue shirt with Rossi at San Marino in 2009) that races, but also have a lot of good friends of the young Italian riders, so is good.”
But mere numbers don’t tell the story. His impact on MotoGP has been outsized. What he’s done for MotoGP is unparalleled. His immense popularity brought grand prix to the masses in a way not seen since the days of Barry Sheene. He, along with Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, has drastically improved race track safety. Most importantly, he’s an Ezpeleta confidante which gives him greater power than any other. That influence was seen in the advent of the control tire era, though he’d later come to regret it. He’s been a champion of young riders, notably his close friend the late Marco Simoncelli. His elaborate victory productions, which we haven’t seen for more than two years, have been mimicked by others, notably Jorge Lorenzo. And, despite the fact that he’ll be 34 when the lights go out for the 2013 season-opener in Qatar, he shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, it’s just the opposite. His desire to return to the top of podium sent him back to Yamaha, the factory where he earned the bulk of his MotoGP titles before his “me or Jorge” ultimatum cost him his seat and sent him into an almost interrupted two-year exile from the podium.
Said Honda Racing Corporation’s media and marketing manager Livio Suppo of Rossi’s biggest contribution to MotoGP, “Sure, the ability to promote the sport outside the specialized people when you see that in Italy we have four, five, six million sometimes, people watching TV, of course they are not all motorcyclists. Valentino, especially in Italy, but not only in Italy — I think in many countries — is known by my mother and by the mother of the motorcyclists and this has been a big plus. To promote our sport outside the normal arena.”
Ezpeleta echoes the point. “Worldwide, he has become an icon for everybody,” he said. “And the majority of the (viewers) they are outside Italy. He’s not an Italian icon, he’s a worldwide icon and everybody knows him and his personality and everything, and it’s the impact of him. But the good thing of that is he increased the popularity of MotoGP and I think many people who were coming just because of his personality, now they have become already very big MotoGP fans.”
Ezpeleta, more than anyone, knows how valuable Rossi is to MotoGP. Having run the championship since the early 90s, the Spaniard has watched Rossi rise through the ranks with a powerful combination of talent and charisma, something rarely found in racing these days. It’s that mix that has made him a star worldwide, though without the talent all the personality in the world isn’t going to elevate the sport. “Since he started in 125 (in 1996) we realized he was not just a fantastic rider, which is my opinion is the most important thing — he’s a very, very good rider — but also his personality and everything has been very important for that,” Ezpeleta said. “Since the beginning, since he was very young in 125 he was starting to do things special and the way he approached everything. And then also, well, during all this time we were collaborating a lot in trying to do different things, he has been very good, especially for us, but also for him.”
Rossi’s influence in MotoGP extends even to the adoption of control tires, the results of which weren’t quite what he expected. “I was in favor and I think that, anyway, is a good thing for MotoGP. I have to say that I have a lot of problems that I don’t expect with the mono tire, because for sure when you go to the mono tire the tire manufacturer is not interested to spend any money to develop the tires and sometimes is worse than in the past. Because the scenario change a lot from, for example, 2008 to 2009 to 2010, the quality of the tire is always more difficult.”
And also for Yamaha. When Rossi went to Honda he was expected to win on a bike that had won six of the previous seven 500cc World Championships. First he won the final 500cc World Championship in 2001 and then he took the first two MotoGP crowns before Honda drove him into the waiting arms of Yamaha; Honda always believed it was the machine, Rossi thought otherwise. Then he proved it, starting with an unexpected victory in his first race on the Gauloises Yamaha at Welkom, South Africa in 2004. Not only did Rossi vanquish rival Max Biaggi, but he used it as a springboard to his fourth consecutive world championship. Rossi stayed with Yamaha through an injury-wracked 2010 campaign when he became part of what was expected to be a dream pairing: an Italian icon on an iconic Italian motorcycle.
“We built a new bike, we tried...
“We built a new bike, we tried a new technology,” Ducati team manager Vito Guareschi said of Rossi’s time on the Ducati Desmosedici. “We understand many new things. Maybe for us we need more time, but for Valentino the career is necessary to take a result and for this reason I think he change family.”
The results were nightmarish. To the very end Rossi said that the problems he found when he first rode the bike hadn’t been resolved, even though Ducati ordered up more than one new aluminum perimeter chassis. What no one on the team understood is why things didn’t improve. They had a wealth of knowledge from working for other brands and winning titles. But somewhere above and beyond the 40 people at the circuit, things weren’t happening. When they started to chew over in their own minds the reasons that things don’t happen, they got more frustrated. From Rossi and the team’s point of view, it was very difficult to fathom. As much as he complained and told them what was wrong, nothing ever got fixed.
“Obviously, Valentino’s been in MotoGP since the get-go and a lot of the others probably haven’t,” said Rossi’s long-serving crew chief Jeremy Burgess. “I guess his longevity in the sport is not only in MotoGP, but in grand prix racing in general is something unique in itself. Not many have been at the level that he is and with the following that he’s got before. So in that area he is unique.” That he could be at the pinnacle of the sport for so long says something about his motivation. Burgess believes part of the answer is that he’s been “relatively accident-free. He obviously thrives the sort of competition and he enjoys it very much.”