The time-honored and essential aspect of new competitors ascending the vaunted steps of athleticism to dethrone the established heroes has always been, and will remain, the crux of sport. MotoGP is no different. Over the years we have seen numerous riders emerge from anonymity and climb to greatness. Once arrived, they might be blessed with longevity at the zenith of racing or fall prey to any number of physical or mechanical consequences, cutting short their reign. Eventually however, regardless of accomplishments, all succumb to the cruel laws of nature and time.
More so than any other season of MotoGP in recent memory, 2012 possesses a dynamic example of the natural ebb and flow of racing careers. Front and center in this equation is Valentino Rossi. It’s hard to believe that Rossi, the unofficial world ambassador of the sport, the prodigal son, the eternal adolescent, at age 33 is now one of the elders of the premiere class. By no means is this to suggest Rossi is done. Far from it. If ever there was a man I would put money on (and I’m not a betting man) it’s Vale. The Italian has several more good years — and several possible titles–within his grasp. But there’s no getting around the fact that Vale is closer to the end of his career than the beginning.
What makes the notion of Rossi’s eventual departure from the sport significant is the fact that he has had such a tremendous impact on the way the world looks at racers and racing. He elevated the sport and rewrote the definition of what a champion can be. Rossi managed to do the impossible; mix gregarious charisma and mischief with supreme mastery of a motorcycle while understanding (by virtue of entertaining us with his post-win shenanigans) that it’s all about the show.
The annals of racing are filled with a plethora of colorful, larger-than-life heroes: Agostini, Roberts, Schwantz, Spencer, Rainey, Doohan, Lawson, Sheene, et al. But it’s safe to say none have had the impact or influence Valentino has. When Rossi does decide to make his curtain call, how will it affect the sport? Rest assured this has crossed the minds of MotoGP rightsholders Dorna and its television affiliates around the world. They were given a hint of MotoGP sans Rossi when he missed several races in 2010 due to a famously broken leg. Television viewership of MotoGP dropped dramatically worldwide during The Doctor’s forced hiatus. In terms of popularity Rossi remains the Elvis Presley of motorcycle racing. Despite the past two seasons aboard the irascible Ducati, resulting in Valentino struggling mid-pack, the man still garners the most press, the most interest, the most gossip, and by far the largest share of fans. Despite his place in the standings, his autograph is still the one to get.
The thought of a Rossi retirement is so profound because many of us watched his ascension from the 125cc class, which began in 1996 (winning the title in 1997), up through the 250cc ranks (winning in 1999) and into the premiere class where he amassed an astonishing seven world titles. It seems like only yesterday that the Rossi/Biaggi feud was in full swing, or the famous on-track confrontations and off-track declarations with Sete Gibernau were unfolding. Think about it: Rossi has been dazzling us now for seventeen seasons in MotoGP. There are a lot of spectators out there who only know MotoGP with Rossi in the mix. In fact, this past July at the Laguna Seca round I was struck by how much the grid has changed since the series returned in 2005. The only players who were still in there were Rossi, Colin Edwards, and Nicky Hayden. The rest of the field was new. Ebb and flow.
None of the current crew of front runners–though displaying enormous talent and drive–have shown the kind of facility at embracing the show biz element Rossi waltzes through so effortlessly. There was an all too brief flirtation with a possible Rossi rival in terms of charisma when Marco Simoncelli burst onto the scene. On-track he infamously ruffled feathers, serving notice that he wasn’t afraid to mix it up with the sport’s established legends. Off-track he was a cheery, approachable guy who seemed genuinely happy just to be part of the circus. Sadly, “Super Sic” was taken from us much too soon.
Certainly I could wax on about the other riders who make up the grid and play guessing games about who may do what in the coming years. There are a host of riders lining themselves up for a very real shot at super stardom. I am certain they have all been inspired to some degree by Rossi — yet at the same time have the man firmly in their crosshairs. The continuing musical chairs of MotoGP will no doubt produce evolving combinations of riders and equipment. Some will prove less than advantageous, while others will blossom unexpectedly. This is what makes racing so fascinating, the coming together of elements; talent, opportunity, equipment, luck. You never know which rider is going to find a rhythm and harmony with bike and crew and threaten for the title. It’s all part of the ebb and flow.
At the end of his illustrious twenty-one year career, Loris Capirossi commented that he was racing against riders who were born the year he entered his first GP. It makes me think of all the riders we haven’t even heard from yet. The unknowns. The young rookies getting their first experiences of speed, their first forays into racing, acquiring the dream to be world champion. Consider all the future champions out there around the world, just now cutting their teeth, who will one day be the new titans of MotoGP.
I was fortunate to have been invited to attend the 25th anniversary celebration for World Superbike in Monza earlier this year. It was somewhat surreal. At the official dinner the tables were seated with the legends of the sport, all retired now; Fogarty, Bayliss, Chili, Merkel, Polen, Corser, Slight, etc. Once adversaries on the track, they were all cheerfully engaged in recollections about the good ole days. At the WSBK event that weekend I sat with these racing legends as they watched the current crop of riders go at it on track. They were watching the new stars of a sport they used to dominate. And to think, each of these champions had once been a rookie. Ebb and flow.
The Rossi era has been an amazing spectacle. And it’s not over. I am certain The Doctor will pull some rabbits out of his hat yet. There’s no way he’ll allow himself to simply fade away amidst a scorecard of mid-pack finishes. But his career is definitely winding down. What makes this all very different is the fact that Valentino ushered stardom into a new realm. This is why I believe it will be harder to deal with his eventual departure than any of the other greats that have gone before. And to think, long before Valentino won his championships, long before the number 46 became an iconic symbol, he was once a kid, eager to enter his first race. Ebb and flow.