On the morning of the 31st of March 1996 at the Shah Alam Circuit in Malaysia, a 16-year-old Valentino Rossi would start his first ever race at world championship level. Little did anyone know, he would go on to become one of the most successful racers the world had ever seen. Since those first 101.645km, Valentino Rossi has experienced intoxicating highs, devastating lows and everything between, he has built an empire including VR46 Merchandise, and the VR46 Riders Academy, along with other areas.
In both the 125cc and 250cc classes Rossi took one year to learn the bike and the tracks, and in his second year in each class he won the world title. When Rossi made the step up to 500cc, he did so as 2-time world champion, with a lot of expectations on his shoulders. “The 2001 and 2004 titles were not only the most hard-fought, but also the most significant among those I have won”, taken from Rossi’s autobiography, this statement was published in 2006, however it is perhaps still true. Both the 2001 and 2004 titles were won at Philip Island, by two incredible manoeuvres, the only difference being Biaggi was the opponent in 2001 and Gibernau in 2004. Rossi has had many rivals over the years, and out lived all of them in his racing career, and continues to fight at the front consistently.
“I love beating my opponents on the last lap. It’s the most exciting way to win a race.” Perhaps this is still the driving force behind Rossi’s desire to race, the thrill of the battle and the satisfaction of winning over racers much younger than him. Rossi has achieved many of his goals over the years, such as becoming the last ever 500cc world champion, winning 9 world championships and having the longest winning career of all time. Rossi has always had the belief in himself, which could arguably be the key to his vast success, when Honda thought their bike was what allowed Rossi to bask in the glory of winning, he showed them he could take an underdeveloped motorcycle and win on it. Welkom 2002, in my opinion, was the most important win of Rossi’s career, as when he first went to Yamaha and told them he needed a motorcycle that would win in Welkom they were all at a loss. However, with the hard work that both team and rider put in they showed that the rider is as important, if not more important than the motorcycle. Davide Brivio even said “You’re the only reason we can’t beat Honda, as long as you race for them, we’re not going to beat them.” The fundamental differences in Honda and Yamaha’s approach to racing was the key to prolonged success of Rossi and Yamaha.
Valentino Rossi has touched the lives of millions of people around the world, inspiring thousands of little boys and girls to try their hand at motorcycling, whether that be racing, or on the road. He has captivated millions and set the world of motorcycle racing on fire, with his extravagant celebrations and his willingness to give his time to his adoring fans, Rossi has become a household name and a worldwide favourite. I spoke to a number of MotoGP fans about Valentino Rossi and how they felt he had affected them and the world of MotoGP.
Liv Ellis had this to say, “I loved that he was a joker in his younger years, but he now takes a more serious role. Perhaps too serious at times, for example Malaysia 2015, but he has pulled it back in recent and seems to be back the normal and relaxed Valentino. I hate the fuss around the “will he get his 10th title this year?” because to me it gives off the “Valentino is MotoGP” impression, which is not true. I understand it’s exciting that he may win a 10th title, however, he’s not the only rider out there racing.
"Also, his retirement is another big topic, and to be honest, I think when he retires it will be interesting. While he continues to race it is clear there will only be one seat at Yamaha, with Maverick’s recent signing he will likely stay for a few seasons at least. I have a huge amount of respect for Rossi’s achievements. He is who sparked my interest in MotoGP, growing up hearing my father talking about him. I think the incident in Malaysia helped me to look more towards other riders, as the typical Rossi fans who think he does no wrong put me off a little bit. So all in all everything that Rossi has done has helped me expand as a MotoGP fan, and I love him for that.”
Rossi was a firm believer in the importance of man over machine, not only in the rider, but in the team he has around him. Jeremy Burgess had been Rossi’s crew chief for his whole 500cc career, and when Rossi initially asked him to move from Honda to Yamaha with him, he agreed, never believing for one second that Rossi would ever make the step. When it came down to the signing of contracts, Burgess declined, he told Rossi he could not leave Honda. Rossi was 24 years old, and a bold career move at 24 years old is a much easier decision to make than a bold career move at 50 years old. However after much deliberation it turned out that Burgess would move to Yamaha, and enjoy the glory with Rossi.
“I can now freely admit that, had it not been for the exceptional group we put together at Yamaha between the end of 2003 and the beginning of 2004, I might have given up racing before my twenty-fifth birthday.” Rossi truly values the team he has around him, as evidenced by the fact that most of his mechanics are recognisable as “Valentino Rossi’s mechanic” as they have been with him for a number of years, wherever he went they followed. At the end of the 2013 season, it was announced that Rossi and Burgess would split after 14 seasons working together, “I think that next year Jeremy (Burgess) will not be my chief mechanic. It was a very difficult decision for me because I have a great history with Jeremy. He is not just my chief mechanic, he is like part of the family. My ‘father’ for racing. I decided that next year I need to change something to try to find new motivation and a new boost – to improve my level, my speed. I think that this is our last race together with Jeremy.” Silvano Galbusera would be named as Burgess’ replacement, and he would go on to breathe a new lease of life into the VR46 camp.
Rossi has been a source of inspiration for young riders all over the world, more so in his home country of Italy than anywhere else. The VR46 Riders Academy is a structure established in 2013 to help find and bring forward the next great motorcycling talents of Italy. Franco Morbidelli, 2017 Moto2 World Champion, is one of the talents under the VR46 Riders Academy, along with Francesco Bagnaia, Lorenzo Baldassari, Marco Bezzecchi, Dennis Foggia and many others. These riders get to train with Rossi, learn from him and use him as a point of information, this is undoubtedly one of the most useful resources for these young riders. However, Rossi’s influence does not begin and end in Italy, Marc Marquez was perhaps one of Rossi’s biggest fans growing up, and the two had a flourishing relationship, and enjoyed racing together when Marquez stepped up to the premier class. A number of other riders including Maverick Viñales, Sam Lowes and Alex Lowes, are pictured with Rossi as children/adolescents, showing not only how far these riders have come to be racing with their idol, but it also shows how determined Rossi is to maintain his position at the top and continue to win races and fight for the championship.
If Valentino Rossi had never found his love for motorcycles, what would the world of MotoGP look like? Perhaps talents like Viñales, Marquez, Morbidelli and Bagnaia would not be racing perhaps they would be in the grand stand, watching a wealth of other riders storm the track. Perhaps the current riding style would never have come to exist, and perhaps MotoGP would not be as popular as it is now. Hundreds of thousands of people may not ever have found the passion that sets their soul on fire, many MotoGP fans have Valentino Rossi to thank for drawing their attention to the sport...So, what if he had never tried it?