It would be fair to say that Sunday at Misano turned into a perfect Italian fairy story. After being forced to sit through two renditions of the Spanish national anthem after the Moto3 and Moto2 races, the Italian fans were finally able to bellow along with Il Canto degli Italiani, or the Song of the Italians, at the end of the MotoGP race. Valentino Rossi took his eighty-first victory in MotoGP in front of a crowd awash with yellow #46 banners, at the track just a few miles from his home. It was Rossi's first victory since Assen last year, and his first victory at Misano since 2009.
But the happy ending to the fairy tale was Rossi's win was no fluke, and came with no asterisk attached. There were no riders out through injury, as there were at Assen in 2013. Rossi came to Misano determined to score a good result. His team worked perfectly to give him a competitive bike, improving an already strong set up. The Italian dominated practice, qualified on the front row, and got a strong start. He then chased down his teammate Jorge Lorenzo, beat up Marc Marquez, and drew the Repsol Honda rider into making a mistake.
This was the Valentino Rossi of old, the man that many (myself included) feared had disappeared. He had not. A shoulder injury, two years on the Ducati, and then a year to adapt to the Yamaha had merely left him working out how to go fast again, and get back to winning ways. That Rossi was prepared to suffer through the Ducati years, then put in the long, hard hours of work adapting his style to the new realities of MotoGP, changing his approach, learning new skills and putting them to use on track speaks of the hunger Rossi still has for success. Valentino Rossi is unquestionably one of the most talented riders ever to have swung his leg over a motorcycle. But he owed this victory to far more than his talent. Dedication, hard work, ambition, mental toughness: these were the keys to his win at Misano.
The win had been hanging in the air since Saturday. Rossi was quickest out of the gate in the dry, posting a blistering race simulation in FP4. Though he has yet to fully get to grips with the new qualifying format, Rossi still managed to get on the front row, crucial at a track which is as narrow as Misano. Rossi was clearly on a mission at Misano, but when he saw Marc Marquez was struggling, along with the other Hondas, it spurred him on further. Rossi's demeanor was like that of a shark smelling blood in the water. The Italian circled menacingly, waiting for the right moment to strike.
The moment came on lap 4, after Rossi had reeled Jorge Lorenzo in from his attempt to escape from the front. It was no clean kill, however, Lorenzo putting up a gritty fight when Rossi made his move at Turn 8. The pair swapped places through Quercia and Tramonto, Lorenzo finally running wide and letting both Rossi and then also Marc Marquez through.
Rossi and Marquez pushed clear of Lorenzo, Marquez harrying Rossi whenever he could. But Marquez looked on the every edge of control as he hounded the Italian, like a crash waiting to happen. When he went down, it seemed almost inevitable. He cut across the inside of Turn 4, touched the kerb and lost the front. "I go too much inside on the corner, touch the kerb inside. On that corner it is not possible and then I lose the front," Marquez said afterwards.
So was he pushed or did he jump? Marc Marquez believed he made a simple error, from wanting to win too much. "My mentality was always to fight for the victory at every race," Marquez said. "I didn't want to manage [my points] advantage with lower positions but manage it on the side of still taking some risks." It was clear that Marquez was riding at the limit throughout, though Marquez himself said he had only really been pushing for the first three or four laps. After that, he said, he 'cooled down' and just matched Rossi's pace. He didn't look to be riding within himself, the front pushing all the way around the track. Jorge Lorenzo's team manager and former racer Wilco Zeelenberg concurred, Marquez was pulling out all the stops to try to beat Rossi.
Had he been lured into a mistake? The most likely explanation is that Rossi was simply pushing as hard as he could, and that Marquez had been too eager to try to beat him. On Saturday, Marquez did not have the race pace to match the Yamahas, but they found something in the morning. Clearly, though, not enough.
To say that Rossi's win was popular with the crowd would be like suggesting that deserts have a tendency to be sandy. The maximum noise limit on a MotoGP bike is 130 dB/A, which is as loud as a jet taking off. For the first couple of laps after Rossi took the lead from Lorenzo, you could barely hear the bikes over the roar of the crowd. The hands on his special Misano helmet were to symbolically help him at the circuit; on Sunday, Rossi surfed a wave of noise around the circuit, grown men and women screaming like teenagers.
Those men and women in their thirties probably were teenagers when Rossi took his first win. This is the Movistar Yamaha's 15th season in the premier class, and his nineteenth in Grand Prix racing. To still be racing after such a long time is an achievement in itself. To be competitive at the very highest level is truly remarkable.
Behind Rossi's sympathetic smile is a razor-sharp will to win. That desire is what drives him forward, forcing him to put in the hours of training to be this good. His willingness and ability to change his style marks him out as special, to be able to still be competitive to the point of victory after so many years at the very highest level are a sign of true greatness.
Not just competitive, but improving even. After the race, Rossi said he was riding better than he ever had. "I think now I am the best Valentino of my career. I don't feel that I'm slower than when I won ten or eleven races in a season. The bigger problem is that my rivals are stronger. They are younger and are the next generation. They are more professional and more focused." Marc Marquez, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa are all making their marks in the record books. To be able to beat them is the sign of a great rider.
For Jorge Lorenzo, a gamble on the harder front tire did not pay off. Lorenzo told the press conference that they had switched to the harder front based on data from last year, when he set the fastest lap of the race using that tire. With the championship out of reach, they could afford to take more risk and gamble, but the tire had not given him the grip he had been expecting. He had been fast on Saturday and during the warm up, and had been confident of getting his first win of the season. "I'm very happy to see that Yamahas are first and second, but for my part I am disappointed because I expected to fight for a win," Lorenzo said after the race. He had been unable to stay with his Movistar Yamaha teammate, however. "Valentino deserved the win," he said. Rossi had proved that Misano was the best chance of a Yamaha win this season. But Lorenzo had hoped that it would be him doing the winning, not Rossi.
Why were the Yamahas stronger at Misano than the Hondas? On paper, Misano looks much more like a Honda circuit, with hard braking zones followed by hard acceleration spots. But something about the combination of slippery surface and corner exits gave Yamaha an advantage in acceleration, something they do not have at many tracks. The Yamahas could get much better traction on corner exit, while the Hondas would start to spin the rear tire, killing drive out of corners.
A lack of rear drive was one problem for Dani Pedrosa, but he had more than just traction problems. When asked if he was struggling with grip at the front or the rear, Pedrosa's answer was simple: "both". The Repsol Honda rider had got a strong start, but got caught behind the Ducatis of Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone, as well as the Yamaha of Pol Espargaro. His pace was good, but it took him too long to get past the Ducatis, and by the time he did, he was out of touch with the leaders. Marquez crashing out put him back on the podium, but even so, he had to survive a very strong challenge from Andrea Dovizioso in the final laps.
That challenge from Dovizioso was remarkable. The Italian finished just five seconds off the winner, Rossi, the closest they have been for a very long time. Dovizioso's results are a sign of the increasing competitiveness of the Ducati, but his position at Misano was much more about the Italian's determination in front of his home crowd. Throughout the race, he saw a podium within his grasp, and that spurred him on to greater heights. He took more risks than normal, riding over the limit in the last ten laps especially, when he saw that he could catch Pedrosa. He was surprised to find that he still had enough physical energy to challenge in those last laps. Normally, riding with the intensity needed to be competitive on the Ducati sucks the energy out of him, but Dovizioso found new inspiration at Misano. He pushed harder during the last ten laps to close Pedrosa down and try to attack him for the final podium slot. He got close, but not close enough to try to make a pass.
It was an incredible ride by Dovizioso, sparked no doubt by riding at a track so close to his home, and in front of his friends and family. It is also a sign of how much progress Ducati have made this year, even throughout the season. The new upgrades brought have all been a small step forward, but together, they have created a much better package. With another step to come at Aragon in two weeks time, Dovizioso was cautious. He was not certain that the new parts would make the difference they were hoping for. The results at Silverstone and Misano had come from his riding, more than the bike, he said. "The last two races, I make something special."
Andrea Iannone – in reality the second factory Ducati rider, Cal Crutchlow having been left by the wayside by Ducati Corse – could not match the pace of Dovizioso, but still managed to come home in fifth. A lack of power meant he could not keep up the factory bike, but he was still closer to the front than he had been all year. The test which the Ducati riders had at Misano had helped a little, but the fact that track conditions were so very different from three weeks ago meant they had not had the benefit they may have wanted.
A Rossi win, and two Ducatis in the top five. It was a dream weekend for Italy, indeed, made even better by Enea Bastianini having another strong race in Moto3, along with Andrea Migno, who replaced Arthur Sissis at Mahindra. Rossi showed the Italian fans he can take the fight to the Spaniards, and take advantage when they falter, while the youngsters showed that there is a new generation coming through with the potential to be competitive once they reach the highest level. It was a happy crowd that flooded the track and the paddock after the MotoGP race at Misano.
But a victory for Rossi is not just a victory for Italy. Valentino Rossi transcends not just national loyalties, but the sport. In countries where MotoGP never features in sports programs, a win by Rossi warrants a couple of minutes on TV. In all honesty, after the first ten laps, all of the excitement had gone out of the race, and Rossi was just managing the gap. But it was Rossi managing the gap, and his fame and beloved status means that fans are willing to forgive him. It doesn't matter that much how he wins, only that he is capable of winning.
Spanish journalist Mela Chercoles has labeled Rossi as being "Patrimonio de la humanidad," the status given to Unesco World Heritage sites such as the city of Venice, or Stonehenge, or Yellowstone national park. It is an exaggeration, but only by a little. Valentino Rossi transcends the sport, and has done for many years. Living in a country where MotoGP is a niche sport, when people ask what I do, I tell them I write about motorcycle racing: "you know, the one with Valentino Rossi in." Their eyes light up as they recognize the name, and they invariably smile at the mention of the icon of motorcycle racing. The race at Misano showed exactly why Rossi reached that status in the first place.
The arguments may rage over who is the greatest of all time, and who had more talent, but when it comes to the motorcycle racer who had the biggest impact on the sport, and spread interest in the sport among the general public, Valentino Rossi has no peer. That's why a win for Rossi is a win for the sport.