Few athletes are capable of transcending their sport, but Valentino Rossi is unlike any that have come before him.
Over the course of his 25-year motorsport career, the Italian veteran has almost singlehandedly taken MotoGP from niche to the mainstream through his high-octane riding, charismatic personality and hilarious antics off the track.
On Sunday, the Doctor makes his last dance in MotoGP. Rossi’s retirement has been on the cards since August, yet his departure leaves a gaping hole in a sport that will struggle to fill that void in the years to come.
Valentino Rossi waves goodbye to MotoGP after an incredible 25-year career on Sunday
The 42-year-old Italian has smashed record after record throughout his time in motor racing
‘The guy deserves all the admiration he is getting,’ Ducati Lenovo’s Jack Miller tells Sportsmail. ‘What he has done for our sport has been phenomenal.
‘He has been racing in the world championship for as long as I’ve been on this planet so it’s pretty damn cool to see. He is the people’s favourite. Everybody looked at him as the person they wanted to be growing up.’
MotoGP’s record books are plastered with Rossi’s name. The Italian spearheaded the sport’s new era from its birth in 2002 and completely dominated throughout the noughties before Marc Marquez’s arrival onset saw a shift in MotoGP’s pecking order.
Twenty-six seasons in the premier class have heralded nine world championships, 115 victories and 235 podiums, all feats that put him head and shoulders above his contemporaries.
The Doctor has won nine championships, 115 races and 235 podiums throughout his career
Yet Rossi did not allow his superstardom to detract from what he could provide his sport. Miller’s first interaction with the Italian – as a young hopeful plying his trade in Moto3 – left an impression so vivid that it has helped carry him into MotoGP.
‘I went to the ranch [Rossi’s home in Tavullia] in 2013, he was an absolute legend, invited us around. I was an absolute nobody and he took us around there to go and ride.
‘To be able to ride with him and Nicky [Hayden, 2006 MotoGP world champion], two of my biggest heroes growing up, it was phenomenal, he’s been awesome to me.
‘He is an outgoing character, he is a fun guy to talk to, he’s never down, we can always have a laugh.
Despite his superstardom, Rossi had time for the sport’s youth, including Aussie Jack Miller
Rossi invited Miller to his Tavullia ranch in 2013 and provided invaluable insight into the sport
‘He is a good person and a good, happy, smiling person to be around. When you talk to him you never leave sad, or you never think “ah, what’s happened here”, he is always one of those guys who has got a really cheerful character that rubs off on everybody.’
But for all of Rossi’s joviality there was a fierce competitive spirit within him that has taken him to 26 campaigns at the top level.
There were enthralling rivalries along the way. Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo and Marquez have all shared intense battles with the wily Italian, all of whom have benefitted from going toe-to-toe with the sport’s biggest name.
Stoner’s incredible duel with Rossi at Laguna Seca in 2008 will live long in the memory and the Australian paid tribute to his ‘cunning’ former foe.
‘You know, me and Valentino have had some amazing battles, we had a fantastic rivalry,’ Stoner said last week at Portimao. ‘Some good points and bad points, some things went my way and other things really didn’t.
Rossi had his fair share of rivalries, too, including with Marc Marquez (L) and Jorge Lorenzo (C)
‘But there was one thing that was fantastic about racing Valentino, and it’s that I got to learn from him, whether it was on track or off the track with his media.
‘He was always very savvy, and very clever, very cunning. So I got to learn a heck of a lot. And I think also, my achievements in my career were validated all the more having raced against him in his era.’
It was Rossi’s rivalry with Marquez that really captured the public’s imagination. Marquez, 14 years Rossi’s junior, had the edge over the Doctor for the best part of a decade, winning the 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 titles.
The pair came to blows in Argentina in the second race of the 2018 season after the Spaniard brought Rossi down. It took them a year to reconcile over the incident.
‘He and I have been direct rivals in the past,’ Marquez said last month. ‘I don’t have a good relationship with him now, but he’s to be admired for what he’s done. I’m convinced that, even without him on the track in 2022, the yellow will not disappear from the stands.’
Former rival Casey Stoner labelled Rossi ‘cunning’ and said he helped his sporting legacy
The accolades and heated rivalries made up just a small part of Rossi’s genius, for his superstardom extended beyond the constraints of the race track.
A master in entertaining the crowd, Rossi bore shades of Diego Maradona and Muhammad Ali in mesmerizing the masses.
‘That is the kind of impact he has had on the sport and he showed a different side of the sport as well with his character and how he was able to connect with the fans,’ Miller reflects on Rossi’s relationship with his adoring fans.
Rossi is a showman at heart. Following his dramatic 1999 victory at Jerez in the 250cc ranks, he stopped his Aprilia motorcycle for an unexpected pit stop at a trackside portaloo.
Rossi’s genius extended far beyond the constraints of the track, and he has a cult following
It is estimated that his VR46 brand rakes in €20million (£17.11m) a year through merch sales
A year earlier, the Doctor sent the Italian media on a whirlwind tour through Italy searching for a mysterious farming company called ‘Osvaldo’, rumoured to be Rossi’s latest sponsor. The story was a ruse and he teased reporters by giving a pillion ride to a chicken following his 1998 win in Catalunya.
He is known for wearing flamboyant wigs after his victories and has humoured fans over the years with his eye-catching helmet designs.
Rossi debuts a new helmet design for every San Marino Grand Prix in Misano – the race closest to his hometown of Tavullia – which often carries a story about what is happening in his career or life at that point.
The sun or moon have featured in the past, but last year Rossi’s lid carried a design featuring a Viagra pill. The then-41-year-old said: ‘Two races in Misano and for an old man like Valentino, he needs all the energy possible!’
Rossi is the ultimate showmen and has delighted fans with his antics over the years
In 1999, Rossi was caught short after a race and had to use a portaloo at trackside
Last September, the famous blue pill made way for a pink ribbon – the 42-year-old is expecting a baby daughter.
Rossi’s antics have made him box office in MotoGP, with crowds flooded in fluorescent yellow in homage to the veteran.
According to Motor Sport Magazine, Rossi’s VR46 brand rakes in more than €20million (£17.11m) a year in merchandise sales, while he boasts more followers on Instagram (11.9m) than MotoGP’s official account (11.7m).
But it’s fair to say that, in 2021, Rossi’s influence off the track far exceeds his ability on it. At 42, it is remarkable that the veteran is still able to mix it with rivals half his age, but he is certainly no longer at the peak of his powers.
Last year, Rossi donned a helmet designed with a viagra pill to give him extra ‘energy’
The Doctor’s last victory dates back to 2017, his last pole in 2018 and most recent podium the following year. Rossi vacated his seat at Yamaha this year for Fabio Quartarato to move down to satellite team Petronas Yamaha SRT. The young Frenchman has gone on to win this year’s championship.
Rossi may be leaving MotoGP, but he isn’t waving goodbye to motorsport forever. The 42-year-old is rumoured to be swapping the bike for four-wheel racing next year, although it is not yet known where he will be moving to.
‘From one side is a bit sad because I know that from next year my life will change but from the other side is okay because anyway, it’s a long season, and it’s always very difficult, very tough,’ Rossi said last week.
‘I hope that I will have the chance to say “ciao” to my fans in a good way and to say thank you for the support.’
For Miller and the millions of MotoGP fans around the world, Sunday will not only bring the opportunity to say ‘ciao’, but ‘grazie’, too.
On Sunday, MotoGP fans will get the chance to say ‘grazie’ and ‘ciao’ to their sporting hero