It was an odd day today. The moment we heard that there would be an extra press conference to be held by Valentino Rossi, the work of a journalist goes into overdrive. Preparing a story for if he announced his retirement, worrying whether to write an alternative story, for if he had announced he would be switching to Ducati and racing in his own team, putting out feelers to see what people thought the announcement would be. Weighing rumors that he would be doing one thing or another.
The most remarkable thing about today's announcement was that nobody knew which way it was going to go. Normally, decisions of such import leak out; there were rumors that Jorge Lorenzo was going to retire for weeks before hand, Casey Stoner's retirement had been credibly reported at least three weeks before the announcement, and Dani Pedrosa's retirement had been telegraphed for a long time.
Even Rossi's decision to drop long-time crew chief Jeremy Burgess had been leaked to the press a week beforehand. (And in truth, the leak probably forced Rossi's hand, and into making an announcement before the Valencia race, instead of after it. Rossi got his revenge later, however, planting a false story with the same journalist a year or so later.)
Loose lips sink ships
But on Thursday at Spielberg, nothing. Literally. As far as we knew (and I do mean knew, rather than just speculated about) Rossi could have been announcing retirement, or a switch to his own team, or that he was to become a father, or he was having solar panels put in at the VR46 ranch. It was remarkable that he managed to keep it as secret as he did, a reprise of his switch from Honda to Yamaha, which the media only found out about at the press conference he held to announce the change.
Keeping a secret of that magnitude was remarkable back in 2003. To do so in the current age of hypermedia, where everyone is carrying an internet-connected device which they use to broadcast even the most trivial details of their lives is honestly astonishing. We knew that Valentino Rossi would be using the summer break to make a decision on his future. We had been expecting that he would make an announcement on his future after the summer break. We knew that he was disappointed at his recent results. But despite all this, we still tuned into the press conference not knowing what he was going to say.
A lot has been written about Valentino Rossi's retirement already, in an unimaginable number of languages in every form of media conceivable. Much, much more is still to come, as you might expect for a career spanning 26 seasons and over 400 Grand Prix. A mark of just how unique his career is was the fact that riders barely out of their teens and riders in their fifties were expressing their gratitude at having raced against Rossi. And both those age groups had to race just as hard to try to beat him. Even now, in what Rossi himself regards as a disappointing season, he is no easy mark: to pass Valentino Rossi, you have to work.
I will also have plenty to say about Valentino Rossi over the coming weeks and months (and probably years). But a few thoughts which immediately spring to mind. First, that it is hard to overstate just how enormous the impact is that Valentino Rossi has made on the sport. I do not like the label of the GOAT, the Greatest of all Time, for the simple reason that it is impossible to compare riders between different eras. How can you compare Geoff Duke's achievements in the 1950s to Mike Hailwood's achievements in the 1960s to Giacomo Agostini's in the 1970s, Kenny Roberts' in the 1970s, Freddie Spencer's in the 1980s, Mick Doohan's in the 1990s? The tracks, the bikes, the sport is different.
What you can say is that Valentino Rossi was the most important motorcycle racer of all time. Go anywhere in the world and mention the name Rossi, and people know who he is. I myself have experienced this: when trying to explain what I do for a living, mentioning MotoGP sometimes draws blank stares. Adding, "you know, Valentino Rossi?" and their faces light up with recognition.
In the press conference, parallels were drawn with Michael Jordan. Rossi modestly rejected such a comparison, though acknowledged the extent of his fame. "It's not good if I said 'yes, I am like Michael Jordan'! Maybe it's better you say, if you think so," Rossi said in the press conference. "But the feeling is great. The people recognize me everywhere, also in the most particular places in the world. When you go in, I don't know, Thailand and you see the 46 on the scooter. It's something special."
I don't think the comparison with Jordan does Rossi justice, however. Michael Jordan was the biggest star in one of the biggest sports on earth. Valentino Rossi entered a sport which was a relatively obscure niche, followed by a small but loyal group of fans. He leaves the sport a global giant, not as big as F1, for sure, but many times larger and more popular than when he entered. At the beginning of Valentino Rossi's career, circuits were lucky to get twenty or thirty thousand fans through the gates for a Grand Prix. Rossi's popularity, and the technical rule changes made to address Rossi's imminent retirement over the past decade, have turned Grand Prix into events where circuits are disappointed if they get less than 70,000 fans, and where crowds number more than 100,000 at multiple events.
Where did that come from? Charisma. Rossi knew how to win, but he also knew how to toy with his rivals to lend the process of an air of excitement. Watching Rossi race in his prime, the outcome was never in doubt. But unlike Mick Doohan who went before him, he left you in suspense about the result until the end of the race.
Only occasionally did he show his hand. At Phillip Island 2003, he was handed a ten-second penalty for overtaking under a yellow flag. At the time, he was leading the race by a few seconds. To win, he needed to cross the line over 10 seconds ahead of Loris Capirossi, in second behind him. He slashed nearly eight tenths off his pace, lap times dropping from low 1'32s into 1'31s, and going on to cross the line over 15 seconds ahead of Capirossi. He gained 11 seconds on Capirossi in the space of 13 laps.
Part of Rossi's charisma and charm was his understanding of narrative. He knew that racing was a story, and if you could cast the right characters, tell the right story, you would entice more people into loving the sport. So he didn't just play with his rivals during the races, but he built them up, turned them into heroes and villains (but mostly villains), to bring the crowd onto his side. Max Biaggi, Sete Gibernau, Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo, even Marc Marquez, he cast them in a particular light, made them black and white, turned them into caricatures that fans could hate.
Or even, that fans could root for against him. The vast majority of fans loved him – hence the swathes of yellow at every race – but even for those who didn't, fans of other riders, or fans who hated the fact Rossi was so popular, it was Valentino Rossi who played the central role. Love him or hate him, he was the pillar on which MotoGP was built, the axis around which MotoGP revolved.
What was remarkable about Rossi's press conference was the humility of the man at the center of it. Relatively speaking, of course, but for a man who is arguably the greatest motorcycle racer of several generations, and one of the greatest and most famous sportspeople of this or any age, he remained almost a little surprised and embarrassed by the attention being paid him. He has used his fame as a blunt instrument in the past, but he was also almost uncomfortable to be so firmly in the spotlights.
Why is he retiring? Simply, because he isn't winning any longer, and he understands that he isn't likely to return to winning any time soon. And it really is about winning, and not taking part – the Olympic ideal is a Socratic form, which is very different in the real world. Rossi let slip how he felt about competition in a reply about his plan to race GT3 next year. "I don’t know my level. I mean it's not the same as motorcycles. But you never race just for fun if you are a real rider or driver. You race to be strong, to win and to try to have a good result." Winning is everything. And winning wasn't happening for Rossi in MotoGP any longer.
As I said before, I'm sure I will be writing more about Valentino Rossi over the following months, but for now, it's time to move on.
Rossi's extraordinary (in every sense of the word) press conference overshadowed the other two press conferences of the day. The first, the standard pre-event press conference held every Thursday, and the second, a special press conference held for Dani Pedrosa. At the first, Cal Crutchlow – a rider with the kind of charm and charisma that might not have rivaled that of Rossi, but certainly saw him playing in a similar league – managed to capture at least some of the attention previously focused on Rossi. Despite being a substitute rider, the vast majority of the questions in the press conference were all aimed at Cal Crutchlow.
That, in itself, is a problem, one that the loss of Valentino Rossi only underlines. The current crop of MotoGP riders is the most talented group ever assembled, with at its head, the best motorcycle racer the world has ever seen. But Marc Marquez may be a better racer than Valentino Rossi – if you object to this characterization, I refer you to the fact that in his eight seasons in the class, Marc Marquez has finished ahead of Rossi in all but two, and one of those was 2020, which he missed through injury – he is no match for his charisma. Marc Marquez is charming, witty, and entertaining. But he does not capture the imagination of non-racing fans the way that Valentino Rossi does. Then again, nobody does.
But the current crop of riders is also more risk averse, afraid of expressing an opinion or creating controversy, at risk of fines and punishment by the factories that employ them and by the series in which they race. A case in point was Fabio Quartararo, when asked about the dangers of the Red Bull Ring. "I have no idea what to say," the Frenchman replied, shying away from upsetting sponsors, despite racing with the backing of a rival energy drink brand. "I don't want to answer something that I don't want to say, so I prefer to say nothing."
Joan Mir was a little braver, though he too was careful with his phrasing when asked about the section from Turn 2 to Turn 3, where the horrific crash of Johann Zarco and Franco Morbidelli took place last year. "In that corner, we know what can happen, and it's important to have a bit of respect for that corner, and to try to avoid maneuvers – we cannot say that we cannot overtake there, but it's important that we all know that it's dangerous, not only for us, also for the people who are making the corner," the reigning world champion replied. "Apart from that, I think it's really dangerous, yes, but the safety measures are not here yet, but I hope that next year we will have news about this and we will race."
Only Cal Crutchlow felt comfortable enough to speak freely. "You know my thoughts on this corner, on this circuit. I don't think it's safe in most of the track, let alone in Turn 2 and Turn 3," the Englishman said. "I didn't attend many Safety Commissions last year, but I attended this one, and they said that they were going to change the circuit or the layout. Obviously, I haven't been keeping up to date with the situation, but they said they haven't changed it for one reason or another, which seems a little strange."
The contrast between Crutchlow and a demure Dani Pedrosa was stark. But while Pedrosa may have been quieter during his special press conference, that didn't mean he wasn't worth listening to. The Spanish veteran gave a fascinating account of just why KTM had asked him to take to the track and race after spending two and a half years as a test rider.
It was precisely because of his success that he needed to race again, he explained. "I've done a lot of work these years without racing, because we've been working a lot on basic things," Pedrosa said. "After that, it's been proved and now we are working more on details. So to get more in line with the problems and the race team's needs are, we need to also get a little bit more the feeling and complaints they face on a race weekend."
Those issues are problems that only appear once you start having to race against other riders and try to overtake them, Pedrosa explained, and that was all down to technologies introduced largely after he had retired. "Mostly things are coming from battles due to aerodynamics, rear ride height device, start device, and all these new technologies. That is a bit hard to replicate, so that's the point where we think, OK, maybe it's interesting to do one race, and then see how those problems are, and then we can look at the future with that experience. Because I think since the time that I stopped until now, that's been developed more and more, so the gap then of my last memory of racing is a bit big now, and that's why."
To gain a better understanding of what is needed in a MotoGP race, of just how hard it is to overtake a bike using the ride height device to get better acceleration, to find a way to outbrake them, Dani Pedrosa needs to race. What position he will find himself in is open to question. It is unlikely he will be battling at the front. But he should be able to find riders to fight with, and riders to learn from.
The long, slow path
Several riders complained of the length of the summer break, but Marc Marquez was enthusiastic about the five weeks he had been away from racing. "One of the best things during this summer break is that I've come back to my normal life, that is training on motorbikes combined with the gym and cycling and these kind of things," the Repsol Honda rider said.
He had even been back on an MX bike, though only in a very limited way. "It's true that I trained some, not real motocross, more like flat motocross, no big jumps, and with the CBR600." The training had exposed the slow process of his healing arm and shoulder, the relics of the crash at Jerez and many surgeries to fix it. "I would like to train even more but also I was trying to manage pain in the arm," Marquez said, "because what I realized – I came back from holidays and was not bad and I expected it was a big step, but then when I started to stress again, some pain arrived. Then I tried to control but it's true that personally I feel better and this will help in MotoGP. It's also true that I don’t feel like normal, 100%, but I believe that it will be better than the last race in Assen."
The pain was worse than he had hoped, Marquez said, but still very manageable. "For me it's more like muscle pain," the Repsol Honda rider told us. "When I say muscle pain, already the doctors said to me that this arm needs to readapt to what I need and what I need means on the bike. One thing is training in the gym but then when I take the bike the muscles I used before are different now and need to re-adapt. This arm has been opened in three different areas so those muscles need to re-adapt and especially also the shoulder."
Marquez is optimistic for this weekend, however. "The shoulder now, this kind of limitation that now is under control, now before Austria 1 can say I feel really good. Tomorrow I believe that In will feel really good. But then I need to understand how is Saturday, Sunday and Austria 2. Then let's see. But it's normal. I've had another check. Everything is going well. The bone is still not 100% but is going in a good way. I feel like it's annoying to say this to you again but it's my real situation and I must approach in the best way." It is a long process, and Marquez is still not there. But that doesn't mean he won't be competitive, as he proved in the last couple of races before the break.
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