I think it's safe to say there will never be another rider quite like Valentino Rossi.
Few athletes can say their impact was such that it changed their sport, but Rossi was (and still is) a true original. I remember well those early days of watching him dominate on his Aprilia, but more than that, it was the way he did it - with a big smile on his face, and a sense of the absurd that hadn't been seen in MotoGP since ... well, ever.
Back in 1999, MotoGP had a Mick Doohan-sized hole it needed to fill. The five-time world champion had been forced into retirement due to injury, leaving behind a gaggle of eager young (and not so young) riders desperate to assume his crown. While Biaggi, Criville, Capirossi and Roberts fought amongst themselves, the real heir-apparent was a 20-year-old Italian who’d go on to win that year’s 250cc world title.
It was Rossi who brought some much needed spark and colour to the MotoGP paddock. We tend to forget that it was he who normalized the post-win antics we’re so familiar with today: the blow-up doll, the guardian angel, the giant chicken outfit, the chain gang, the speeding ticket, the infamous toilet break. Whether he was wiping the floor with the opposition or dragging a recalcitrant Ducati to a lonely 10th place, his wonderful sense of humour was always on display,
Some will call Valentino Rossi the greatest of all time. For me, it’s a moniker that will always be subjective. To compare riders across different generations is a fool’s errand, but Rossi has as great a claim to the title as any rider who’s ever thrown a leg over a bike. At his best, he was unbeatable, a rider of singular natural talent whose incredible raw pace and brilliant tactical know-how put paid to many a rival's championship aspirations.
There were many great rides - Phillip Island 2003, Laguna Seca, 2008, just to name a couple - but perhaps my favourite was his tooth-and-nail battle with Max Biaggi at Welkom in 2004, a race he affectionately refers to as his ‘masterpiece.’ Having dominated the previous three seasons on a Honda, he astonished everyone by making a surprise switch to Yamaha for the 2004 season. It was a risk, to say the least. Whilst reasonably competitive, the four-stroke era had seen Yamaha consistently outclassed by Honda’s superior machinery. Many felt it would take Rossi time to return to his winning ways; perhaps a season or two, maybe longer. Some called him stupid. Crazy, even. After all, what rider in his right mind would willingly give up the fastest bike in the paddock off the back of three consecutive world championships? From the outside, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for his rivals to swoop in and take the spoils while he adjusted to his new bike.
But this is Valentino Rossi we're talking about.
A miraculous pole position was followed by one of the most tense head-to-head battles of recent memory. In his entire career, there was never a clearer demonstration of Valentino’s enormous talent, but even more so, the sheer determination that propelled him to nine world titles. If you ever want to see a bike picked up by the scruff of its neck and dragged to victory by one the greatest riders of all time, I urge you to go watch that race.
Thanks for the memories, Valentino.