Why we suddenly aged with Valentino Rossi’s retirement
- “The Doctor” is gone after 26 seasons, 435 Grands Prix, 115 wins and 235 podiums
When Valentino Rossi started racing motorcycles in 1996, Michael Schumacher was yet to win a race—let alone a championship—with Ferrari, new MotoGP champion Fabio Quartararo was not even born and technology giant Google hadn’t been founded.
Till the time Rossi was racing, we still belonged to a certain generation. So when the Italian rider retired on Sunday, all of a sudden, we grew older, perhaps by a generation.
After 26 seasons, nine world championships, 435 Grands Prix, 115 wins, 235 podiums, “The Doctor” finally hung his racing leathers and retired the famous number 46 which he had donned throughout his career after the Valencia Grand Prix. There were 75,000 in yellow thanking their hero when Rossi took an emotional lap of honour.
The 42-year-old could be the most influential character in not just MotoGP but all of motorsport, given how he has raised its profile. That his style, flamboyance, celebration and his reach went way beyond his sport was evident on Sunday with Roger Federer, the Brazilian phenomenon Ronaldo and Tom Cruise paying tributes. Rossi was inducted into the MotoGP Hall of Fame on Monday.
“I always think of this day like a nightmare, because it’s the end of a long career. But in the end I enjoyed it a lot so I have to thank everyone who has worked with me, the whole paddock, the other riders… it was an unforgettable day. It was a long career, and always a pleasure,” said Rossi.
17-year-old gets noticed
It was in March 1996 that a lithe, diminutive 17-year-old finished a brilliant sixth after starting 13th in his first ever 125cc race at the Malaysian Grand Prix at Shah Alam. Racing for Aprilia, Rossi took his first career victory at the Czech GP in Brno. He won 11 of 15 races in the same category next season to clinch the 125cc championship in 1997.
Promoted to 250cc in 1998, Rossi finished second with five wins but the momentum spurred him to win the 1999 title in the feeder category, catapulting him into 500cc, the premier class, in 2000.
Having switched to Honda, Rossi finished an incredible second in his debut season in the premier class behind Kenny Roberts Jr. before winning his first title in 2001 ahead of long-time rival Max Biaggi, thus beginning a golden run where he clinched five consecutive championships.
Asked by this correspondent earlier this year about his greatest rivals, Rossi had said in a video interview: “I’ll say three names. The biggest battles I did were with Max Biaggi, Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner,” “With Biaggi it was a long, long battle but I remember 2001 very well—the last year with 500cc, 2-stroke engines; that year is one of the best of my career.”
In 2002, the sport was renamed MotoGP with the 500cc bikes replaced by the much powerful 990cc four-stroke motorcycles with Rossi taking both that year’s and 2003 titles with Honda.
Rossi made a landmark move in 2004 when he left Honda to their Japanese rivals Yamaha, a massive gamble for the reigning world champion as the latter had not won a world title in 12 years. But Rossi lay to rest all questions by comfortably winning the championship, thereby achieving what no rider had since Eddie Lawson—back-to-back titles with different machines. The American had won in 1988 with Yamaha and 1989 with Honda.
Rossi continued his dominance next season too to seal his fifth consecutive premier class title before losing a close championship battle to the late Nicky Hayden in 2006. Stoner took the 2007 title riding a much faster Ducati before Rossi regained the title in 2008 and kept it in 2009, winning the last of his seven premier class championships.
Looking for more success, he moved to Italian manufacturer Ducati in 2011 but after two unfruitful years returned to Yahama in 2013. He would stay with them till the end of his career.
However, Rossi’s return to Yamaha wasn’t as productive as his first stint, especially after the emergence of Spaniards Lorenzo and Marc Marquez, who between them shared nine titles from 2010 to 2019.
Rossi finished runner-up thrice from 2014 to 2016, coming closest to an eighth premier class—which could have put him level with all-time record holder Giacomo Agostini—and 10th overall title in 2015 when he lost the championship to Lorenzo by just five points.
Rossi earned his final win in 2017 in the Dutch TT from fourth on the grid in Assen and tasted the bubbly for the final time in Jerez early last year.
After months of speculation about his future, Rossi confirmed that he would return in 2021 but in his final year he would race for the satellite Yahama team, Sepang Racing Team, making way for eventual champion Quartararo. “For me the biggest motivation is that I like to ride the MotoGP bike. I like this life, I like to work with top level guys. For this reason I continue,” Rossi had said in April.
However, it won’t be the last time we will be seeing Rossi in the paddock as the legendary rider will bring his VR46 team with Ducati to MotoGP in 2022.
Asked about what kind of legacy he would like to leave behind in the interview, Rossi had said: “I hope to be remembered as a great rider.”