A sporting icon rides into retirement on Sunday at the Valencia MotoGP where nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi’s name will grace the grid for the very last time.
The charismatic Italian, 42, bows out with his place assured as one of the true greats of his or any other sport.
For much of a career spanning three decades he was the master of the art of eking out every last unit of energy from his 157kg (25stone) metal charge to spellbinding effect.
He claimed his first world title in 1997, a year after making his 125cc debut, following up with the 250cc championship in 1999.
Graduating to the premier class he was runner-up in his first season in 2000 before taking the final world title raced in the 500cc format a year later with Honda.
He added six more in the new MotoGP class in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2009, the first two with Honda, the rest with Yamaha.
He leaves his stage with 115 victories including a record 89 in MotoGP, 235 podiums (199 in the top flight), also a record, and the longest career of any rider in the sport’s premier class.
Inevitably for a man in his forties competing against riders half his age Rossi’s fortunes have waned in recent years.
For 2021, he vacated his seat at Yamaha’s main table to join their satellite SRT team in a straight swop with Fabio Quartararo, the Frenchman who wrapped up the world championship at Rossi’s local track of Misano last month.
Rossi’s last race victory dates back to 2017, his last pole in 2018 and most recent podium the following year.
Last season he finished 15th in the standings, unprecedented for a rider who had not finished outside the top 10 at any level since his debut in 1996. He approaches Sunday’s finale in 20th.
Turn the clock back to the first decade of the century and the two-wheeled swashbuckling showman they call ‘The Doctor’ was getting all the exercise he needed climbing to the top of podiums.
Then along came Spaniard Marc Marquez, who won the world titles in 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 to displace Rossi as the sport’s brightest star.
Along the way his relentless will to win has produced some long-running feuds.
“He’s a great guy but it is better to be in his camp," French rider Johann Zarco observed.
Rossi had strained relations with compatriot Max Biaggi, who he edged for the 2001 title.
Then came intense rivalry with Spaniard Jorge Lorenzo, his teammate at Yamaha.
Rossi did not win the class again, but finished second in three straight seasons. Lorenzo overtook Rossi in the final race in 2015.
Most of all, there was Marquez, 14 years his junior. In 2014 and 2016, the Spaniard finished clear of runner-up Rossi.
Relations with his Honda rival came to a head in 2018. After Rossi won the season opener, Marquez brought the Italian down during the second race in Argentina.
The two riders did not reconcile until a year later.
Rossi’s yellow army
Talkative, funny and charming, Rossi knows how to make himself popular with his antics.
He has stopped his motorcycle on the edge of the track for a “pee break," attracted attention with a “Viagra" helmet and worn flamboyant wigs after his victories.
The number of fans at races wearing his favourite colour, bright yellow, or waving flags with his race number, 46, testifies to his ability to build his image.
Despite the arrival of wrinkles, Rossi still looks like a pixie with the same smiling face and sparkling blue eyes.
The brown curls, which at one time gave way to a shaved head, have returned. His English is still embellished with Italian expressions.
As for his future, he has been building his legacy at his “VR46 Academy", and his VR46 team will make its debut in MotoGP next year as a Ducati satellite.
He is also planning to try his luck on four wheels in GT Racing, and is soon to become a father, with his partner Francesca Novello expecting a baby girl.
His is a retirement in name only.
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