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Valentino Rossi: The end of an era for motorsport legend

By Victoria TurnerBBC Sport
Valentino Rossi at Misano
Valentino Rossi's last home race in Misano was an emotional moment for the Italian and his fans

It is the end of an era.

After 432 grand prix starts, 115 race wins and nine world titles, Valentino Rossi - the most successful motorbike racer of his generation - is bringing down the curtain on his glittering MotoGP career.

In August, the 42-year-old announced this season would be his last, meaning Sunday's finale in Valencia will mark his farewell.

In 26 years, Rossi has become a global phenomenon, transcending the sport itself and, with it, amassing cult-like status with fans around the world.

As MotoGP commentator Nick Harris observes, he is "someone who has changed the sport and brought it to places it had never been to before - without a doubt there has never been anyone like Valentino Rossi in 73 years of grand prix racing".

To many, Rossi is truly one of the motorsport greats, up there with Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, Giacomo Agostini, Mike Hailwood and Mick Doohan.

But why? Let names such as Max Biaggi, Fabio Quartararo and Lewis Hamilton fill you in.

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World titles to world domination

First, just look at the stats.

Rossi's incredible record shows he is still the only rider in history to win World Championships in 125cc, 250cc, 500cc and MotoGP.

His first title in the premier class came in 2001 at the age of 22, the first of five successive championships - on the Honda and then with Yamaha. His final two championships came in 2008 and 2009.

Rossi with his fans
No MotoGP round would be complete without Rossi's "Yellow Army" who have followed him for more than 20 years

He is the only rider to have started 400 or more races in the sport's history, and has 89 victories in the premier class - no-one in the history of grand prix racing has ever come close to that.

One man who knows what it's like to work with Rossi is his former mechanic, Alex Briggs. He was with Rossi from 2000, when he made his debut in the 500cc class, until 2020.

"It is like you are comparing people with computers, it is like he has a bigger hard drive and bigger memory than the rest of the guys," Briggs told BBC Sport.

"He was very good at understanding a race - if he was in third or fourth he knew in his mind that he could win, but then he got so good that it was too easy for him for a while. He would drop back like a kitten plays with a mouse - he would play with some of the other guys.

"I think he could have probably ridden a wooden motorcycle around the track for a few years and still would have won."

Rossi at Donington Park in 1997
Rossi was known for his wild podium antics and he started young - one of the earliest was dressing up as Robin Hood after a win at Donington Park in 1997

A global phenomenon - movie stars to chain gangs

On and off the track Rossi has always been larger than life. He became famous worldwide for his unique celebrations - from wearing a Robin Hood outfit on the podium, to pretending he was in charge of a chain gang and even running to a portable toilet on a slow-down lap.

Rossi in a Portaloo
Rossi recreating his most famous celebration when he visited a portable toilet after a race

"He was different to anything we had ever seen before," Harris told BBC Sport. "He was cheeky, charismatic, fun-loving and understood exactly what he had to do and it just took off.

"I have been involved in F1 with the likes of Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna and the rollercoaster Rossi produced was even bigger than them - it was extraordinary."

The 'cult of Rossi' is worldwide - in Tokyo you will find shops dedicated to the Italian, in the Caribbean you will see Rossi merchandise sold on the beach. In China you will see his race number, 46, in car back windows - and even in a small village in Cheshire you will find Rossi flags flying high in back gardens.

"When he found out there was a Rossi fan club in Hawaii, he flew some people over and had a paddling pool in the paddock garage with palm trees," said Harris. "The whole crew, his leathers and the bike had palm trees on them in Hawaiian colours. That's the effect he had."

His hometown of Tavullia has become a place of pilgrimage for many fans - more than 20,000 visit each year, from Europe, Asia and South America.

Brad Pitt meeting Valentino Rossi
Even Oscar winner Brad Pitt got starstruck when he met his idol

Even Hollywood A-listers can't resist his charms. Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Daniel Day-Lewis are huge fans, as is seven-time Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton.

"One of the biggest highlights of my career was the day we spent together riding and swapping vehicles. It was so cool to do it with somebody I had watched and admired for such a long time," Hamilton told BBC Sport.

"Vale has an incredibly long career, and he was always pushing and never giving up. He has shown he is a great team player, humble with his approach and always smiling and positive.

"I think there is a lot to take away from the great leader that he is. It's beautiful to see he has achieved everything he wanted."

Rossi's rivals - the greatest battles of a generation

Rossi has made it on to the podium 235 times since making his debut in 1996. His final podium came in 2020, a third place in Jerez.

The 2000s were no doubt the Rossi glory years but this past decade has seen the rise of other superstars - most notably Spaniard Marc Marquez, winner of six titles between 2013 and 2019.

Only the best of the best can say that they have gone head-to-head with Rossi and for those who have, it has sparked some of the biggest rivalries in the sport's history.

Six-time world champion Max Biaggi was 'The Doctor's' first true rival. Both Italian, both passionate, both wanted to win.

"We had a lot of championships together and we were rivals. We were the same nationality and that makes the rivalry very true," Biaggi told BBC Sport.

"On track with him you never knew how it could go - he was good from the start, not so many weak points but it was always nice to race against riders who have that talent.

"He can adapt very easily and do more than one style. He was very strong on brakes but also in the wet he was fast. He was not the cleanest of riders because his style wasn't the cleanest - still he was able to have great results over the past 20 years."

Biaggi and Rossi out on track
The Biaggi and Rossi era was epic especially when the title was on the line

They clashed in 2001 at the opening round in Suzuka, while in Catalunya the same year they had an altercation on the steps leading up to the podium. But for Biaggi, his greatest battle against his countryman came at Phillip Island in Australia in 2001 - a Rossi win that handed him his first premier class title.

"I remember in Australia where he won by 00.1s. Wow - there was almost nothing [between us] and the race was fantastic. I didn't expect to be overtaken on the last lap and I was able to get second by a small margin," he said.

"Those kind of races created a lot of adrenaline and a positive feeling, even on a bad day it was great - we were fighting on the track in front of thousands of people and they were there to see a great battle."

Harris said: "He was brave and fearless - one of the greatest races ever was in 2008 in Laguna Seca where he beat [Australian two-time MotoGP champion] Casey Stoner and took him at the corkscrew. No-one who was there could ever forget that move. He was prepared to take enormous risks."

Stoner ended up crashing and Rossi won the race and eventually the title.

Rossi at Laguna Seca 2008
Rossi kissing the track at the Corkscrew after his win in Laguna Seca - fans can buy sand from that section of track from his gift shop in his hometown

In 2009, it was the turn of Rossi's Yamaha team-mate, Jorge Lorenzo. The stage was the Catalunya GP, and the championship was on the line - it all came down to the last corner, where Rossi made his move and took the win by less than a tenth of a second.

His biggest rival over recent years has been Honda's Marquez. Things came to a head at the 2015 Malaysian GP, where Rossi was penalised for appearing to kick Marquez off his bike.

But with Rossi's longevity and his epic battles on tarmac, he has inspired the next generation of motorbiking superstars, none more so than 2021 MotoGP champion Fabio Quartararo.

"Valentino was and is my idol," said the Frenchman. "When I was six I saw one of his races and he was overtaking on the last corner in Jerez in 2005, and that was the moment I wanted to be there, fighting with MotoGP riders.

"He is amazing because normally people stop racing at 35 or 36 and I thought I would never have the chance to ride with Vale - but he was still riding when I signed my MotoGP contract and I said at least I had the chance to ride with him."

Four wheels the future?

So what is next for the rider who loves Batman movies, Bob Marley and eating pizza with mayonnaise?

He will probably not dwell on his final season in MotoGP with the Petronas Yamaha satellite team. He experienced his worst start ever to the season, his best finish eighth at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. A 10th title has eluded him, leaving him feeling "a little bit sad", but there is plenty to keep Rossi busy during his retirement.

He will still be in the MotoGP paddock in 2022, as his VR46 racing team will be venturing into the premier class. He also runs his VR46 ranch in his hometown which is an academy for up-and-coming racers - and he will become a dad for the first time too.

Fabio Quartararo and Valentino Rossi
"Misano was a pretty special race because I won my title and he had his last race in Italy and it was something really special and I spent a really nice moment with him" - 2021 champion Fabio Quartararo

But based on his comments at a recent media conference, it looks like Rossi could be turning his attention to four wheels.

"I love to race with cars, so I think I will race with cars from next year, but it is not decided yet.

"I feel I am a rider or a driver all life long."

Link to original article:

 

https://www.bbc.com/sport/motorsport/59250378

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