Editor's Blog: Valentino Rossi, MotoGP's First Rockstar, At 40

I do not make a habit of marking the birthdays of motorcycle racers, but Valentino Rossi's 40th is worthy of an exception to my self-imposed rule. His 40th birthday is clearly a milestone, though any birthday can hardly be regarded as an achievement. To reach his 40th birthday, all Rossi had to do was keep living.

But of course, the fuss being made of Valentino Rossi's 40th birthday is not because of the age he has reached. It is because he reaches the age of 40 a few months after having finished third in the 2018 MotoGP championship, racking up five podiums and a pole position along the way. It is because the media, his fans, and Rossi himself regard that as a disappointing season.

It is because he enters his 24th season of Grand Prix racing, and his 20th in the premier class, the first year of a two-year contract which will see him racing until the age of 41 at least. It is because he is one of the leading favorites to wrestle the MotoGP crown from reigning champion Marc Márquez (15 years younger), along with Jorge Lorenzo (9 years younger), Andrea Dovizioso (8 years younger), Maverick Viñales (16 years younger).

And he will race against, and be expected to beat, Franco Morbidelli (16 years younger) and Pecco Bagnaia (18 years younger), two riders who enter MotoGP thanks in large part to the tutelage and support they have received from the VR46 Riders Academy, the scheme set up by Rossi to nurture young talent where the Italian motorcycling federation FMI were falling so woefully short.

Age is just a number

What makes this such a remarkable achievement is that Valentino Rossi is still competitive at what is, for a motorcycle racer, an advanced age. Few have been so competitive at that age, and even fewer have managed to keep winning for so long. Back in the 1950s, '60s, '70s, it was more common for riders to be competitive well into their thirties, but then again, they often did not start competing until much later in life. In the modern era, Troy Bayliss won a MotoGP race at age 35, and WorldSBK title at age 37, but Bayliss didn't start racing seriously until he was in his late teens.

By contrast, Rossi has been riding motorcycles since he was two and a half, and racing them since the age of ten. Three years later, he committed to racing motorcycles full time, dropping the karts he had previously been racing. Three years after that, he became Italian champion and was competing in the European 125cc championships. The next year, he was racing in Grand Prix, winning his first race at Brno in his rookie season.

The gap between that first Grand Prix victory and the last (at Assen in 2017) is nearly 21 years (20 years and 311 days to be precise). His nearest rival in that respect is Loris Capirossi, who won Grand Prix just over 17 years apart. But if the Yamaha M1 is competitive in 2019, there is no reason Rossi will not be able to extend his winning career even further.

Burning ambition

Of all the truly awe-inspiring things which Valentino Rossi has achieved in his career, this, for me, is what sets him apart. Yes, the 9 world championships are incredible, as are the 115 Grand Prix victories, or the total of 6073 points from 383 starts, an average of nearly 16 points a race, the equivalent to finishing third in every single race he has started. The fact that he has raced against 35 different Grand Prix champions, a number which will increase to 37 with the arrival of Joan Mir and Pecco Bagnaia on the grid in 2019, puts into perspective just how long he has been competitive, and the level of competition he has faced.

Above all, the blind ambition which drives him to do whatever it takes to put himself in a position to win races at the age of 40 is what truly sets him apart. To line up on the grid against Márquez, Lorenzo, Viñales, Dovizioso et al and have an honest chance of beating them is not easy even for young, hungry talents at their physical peak. To do it at age 40 is truly remarkable, for the sacrifices Rossi has to make, and for his willingness and ability to learn and adapt.

When Rossi entered the premier class, he barely had to train: the first flush of youth, combined with an outrageous abundance of talent and the enjoyment in riding and racing was enough to allow him to win races, and championships. From around 2006, with Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner, a new generation entered the class, riders who had grown up knowing that if they made it to MotoGP, Valentino Rossi was the rider they would have to beat. Rossi was the benchmark for them, and they worked harder than the generation which came before in an attempt to beat him.

Beaten two years in a row, by Nicky Hayden in 2006 and Casey Stoner in 2007, Valentino Rossi altered his approach, taking his preparation more seriously, working more methodically, and beat the newcomers, along with Jorge Lorenzo, to win another couple of titles. A shoulder injury in 2010, and a failed switch to Ducati for 2011 and 2012, put Rossi's career back a long way.

Adapt, adapt, adapt

This is the point where other riders would have given up, accepted their time had passed, and moved on to other things. But not Rossi. His boundless ambition, his voracious appetite for victory, what he refers to as "the taste" of winning pushed him on, drove him to find ways to be faster, to match and try to surpass the young upstarts who come to usurp him.

From paddock wild child who loved to party, Rossi transformed himself into a serious athlete, who lived for his sport, trained hard, and lived a more restrained and moderate life. It was the only way he could remain competitive, as the young riders entering the class pluck the fruits (and suffer the burden) of an ever-increasing professionalization of the sport, an ever-closer focus on training, diet, physical conditioning, riding technique, even the mental side of the sport.

This has also meant a major change to his riding style. Rossi has studied his rivals closely, learning their secrets and trying to apply it to his own riding. That is a hard thing to do: "Your style is your style, and you can't really change it much," Bradley Smith told us at the Sepang test. Rossi has done this continuously and constantly, starting from early in his Grand Prix career. When MotoGP switched from 500cc two strokes to 990cc four strokes, Rossi was one of the few riders to understand the advantages of riding the four strokes differently.

"Watching him from the outside, he was the only one who was doing something different," veteran crew chief Gilles Bigot told me last year. "Everybody was riding his bike in a normal way, like a 500. Just shifting in the same place. He was riding different gears, different way of braking. At that time, for the engine brake was a bit different. It was more difficult. It was more mechanical than electronic. So it was difficult. Everybody was trying to come around and the bikes were sliding around. So he was trying to brake straight, and then entering the corner. He was trying techniques that no one was trying."

Italian savior

That early lesson stayed with Rossi, and fired a continuing willingness to learn and adapt. At the dirt track ranch he had built behind his house in Tavullia, Italy, he has worked at altering his style, trying new approaches he sees in his rivals. On a track with both left and right handers, and on bikes with a front brake as well, Rossi works relentlessly on body position, limb placement, braking technique, understanding what happens when grip runs out, both front and rear.

In 2013, Rossi saw a chance to help both himself, and Italian motorcycling. With the Italian federation consistently failing to promote and nurture talent, Rossi founded the VR46 Riders Academy, bringing young Italian racers into a structured environment and giving them all the tools they needed to succeed. The Academy riders live together in apartments in Pesaro, they train and prepare together at the ranch and at the Academy, are given help with their diets, and trained in the PR aspect of the sport, learning English to help them with the media. "Valentino saved Italian motorcycling," one Italian team manager told me privately recently.

But the Academy has also helped Rossi save himself, and extend his career. Training with youngsters in their late teens and early twenties has rejuvenated the Italian veteran, helping him keep the fire of his ambition burning, and sharpening the edges of his racecraft. Training and racing at the ranch is at full speed and full intensity, as you would expect when you put a bunch of young racers on the track. Rossi uses that intensity to push himself to limits he might otherwise stay more comfortably away from, were he training on his own.

How long will Valentino Rossi keep racing? There are no signs of him slowing down, and as long as he is competitive, he will want to keep racing. Surrounded by youngsters at his Academy, he keeps both his ambition and is talent alive. His ambition burns as fiercely as ever, and that keeps him changing, learning, and above all, focused. Eyes on the prize, and for Rossi, doing that will give him a fighting chance of getting his hands on the prize as well.

Greatest or most important?

There can be no doubt that Valentino Rossi's legacy as a motorcycle racer is firmly cemented in history. The GOAT, Greatest Of All Time? That is a hard judgment to make. From my perspective, both Casey Stoner and Marc Márquez are more talented than Rossi, and Jorge Lorenzo's dedication and ability have allowed him to beat Rossi to the title three times, twice on the same bike. But there is no doubt that Rossi's fame, his impact on the sport globally, his longevity, the impact of the VR46 Riders Academy, his unparalleled popularity, and his record mark him out as by far the most significant motorcycle racer who ever lived.

Valentino Rossi will be remembered for many decades after he retires from racing. The fact that he is still such a long way from retiring at the age off 40, that he is still capable of winning races, and perhaps even championships, marks him out as truly unique. We are living in a golden age of motorcycle racing, and MotoGP in particular. Valentino Rossi helped put much of the shine and the glitter into that golden age. For that, and so many other things, I salute him.

Valentino Rossi's 40th birthday is being widely celebrated around the motorcycling world. The official MotoGP.com website has a lot of great content, including plenty of free video, to celebrate Rossi's birthday. You should also read Mat Oxley's blog looking back at his memories of Rossi, a rider he has worked with for nearly all of his career.


Gathering the background information for detailed articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.

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Total votes: 41
Total votes: 22

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Comments

A qualified compliment David, but deserved nevertheless.

I have seen VR race here in the U.S. at Laguna, COTA, and Indy, and and was blown away each time. But when I was fortunate enough to get to Mugello 2017 my eyes were opened. Then I really understood.

I have rooted for him and against him, but it was never in doubt that he was the star of the show. 

Total votes: 19

Great write up. A lot of us around here are older folks. It is amazing what goes on as we age. Hard work replaces natural vigor, Vale's reinventing and adaptation has been a joy to watch. His style has changed a lot. He is still growing. It is inspiring.

He will get plenty of criticism. The GOAT consideration is one I don't find important or satisfying. Despite yellow cult preoccupations we have to ignore, Rossi the man and racer has been quite a treat. He defined an era. After he is done racing himself he will continue to do so. Before Petronas/SIC popped up I thought it would be his team that jump started Yamaha's transformation. He really is a remarkable force.

One addendum I think is important is the relevance of his friendship with Simoncelli. It is a delicate matter, but he and friend Edwards were the poor guys that Marco's bike careened under. They were joined in a terrible traumatizing loss. I don't know just how Colin worked with this. He was very expressive at the time and had full appreciation of the gravity of it. If left out of awareness such things fester and haunt.

Valentino Rossi started the VR46 academy in continuation of his relationship with Marco. This can be seen as a transmutation of traumatic loss. Sublimation has been noted as the highest of human defenses. When Bagnaia triumphs in a near future Rossi will be a part of that. And so will Simoncelli. Vale is an imperfect man, and some of his behavior with a new rival a handful of years ago was arrogantly petulant. Somewhat similar middle fingered passes etc with Biaggi many years earlier was something I openly enjoyed. We can see the whole of the guy and be quite impressed. I am looking forward to seeing what he can do. Hoping for one more hard fought win before he hangs up his leathers. And I think I am going to get it.

Total votes: 64

First rockstar ? Anyway I suppose I should read the article first.

Scroll scroll scroll scroll scroll scroll

Total votes: 23

Whilst making no comparisons and totally agreeing with the Bazza rock star tag, may I also throw in Bill Ivy, Mike Hailwood (to a point) and most definitely ‘Lucky’ Luccinelli, still AFAIK!

Total votes: 16

" all Rossi had to do was keep living. " for Racers surviving is an acheivement! a big acheivement.

Thanks for mentioning the Ducati years, some pretend they never happened.  the Ducati years proving there are some bikes nobody can win on. can't think of any smart alecky comment so I'll leave it at that.

Total votes: 13

and a perspective that has a wide angle lens attached to it. Motoshrink is right rolling into that perspective the MS58 tragedy and I do believe VR stays involved in the foundation, possibly financially; as we’ve recently seen with the opening of Casa Simoncelli out of the darkness great light can emerge. To acknowledge Motoshrink again, Rossi hasn’t defined an era, he’s defined several. I was at an unsettled Donington in 2000 when he won a great scrap with KRJR and McWill 99. However, what stood out most that day for me was the really low attendance, as the Doohan years combined with generic bikes that were relating less and less to the market created an apathy that resulted in WSBK capturing the imagination (and the revenues), for a time. The BSB finale at the same track between Neil Hodgson & Chris Walker that year pulled in over double the GP attendance but Rossi’s win meant that he became known beyond the Grand Prix die-hards who had loved his antics in the smaller classes. He lit up a series at its twilight that then brought the four strokes and the rest we know is history. Rossi is like the sun, you bask in his warmth, you worry that when the sun goes in, it will be a bit chillier and you hope it’ll be sunny in the morning. You worry that a large part of Valenteenies will leave when he does, though if they can’t see just how good this show is then yes, get yourselves gone. You remember the villain, we laughed but then saw at times he didn’t cope well with robust minds that stood up for themselves but good and bad, we’ve seen it. We dream (ok I do..) that there’s a small, closed-off section of a factory in Iwata already building a ‘Frankenstein’ so that he can light up WSBK for one season only, finishing with a unique as well as unapproachable combination of records and titles-Rossi at Imola, enough said. And then we can rock up in forests around the world to see him taking on the best rallying can offer, whilst presiding over his VR46 MotoGP team getting the factory set up and becoming the force it once was. A daydream for balmy summer days.

The sun might still be in the sky, but if you’re sat in the right position, on the right porch, you can still bask in the sunset and the twilight for quite a time before la Luna rises, which can also be pretty bright too.

Total votes: 22

I think any conversations about GOAT should revolve around highlights.   On any given weekend, Marq does something (whether a crash save or a fast lap) that makes the highlight reel.   For me Rossi is king and Marq is coming for him.  

For contrary, Pedrosa is super talented and yet he rarely does anything that warrants a highlight mention.  Same with many of the other ultra talented riders.  

IMO

Total votes: 17

For me, it's hard to give anyone other than Kenny Roberts that title. He, virtually single-handledly, transformed GP bike racing into a serious, professional sport. All of what MotoGP is today, the money, the sponsors, the professionalism of the sport, the seriousness and the dedication that riders bring to it, that all started with KR.

Total votes: 23

I am going to be 44 this season.  i spend my weekends driving up and down the East Coast competing against all ages, but mostly 17 year olds, in a great little club series on lightweight twins.  They keep me young and I learn a lot from those I race with and againt.  I support one of the young riders with genuine promise in ways I'm able to.  

Valentino Rossi was a revelation to me years ago and the inspirstion of the tremendous life I  am lucky to lead, so to me, he is the GOAT.  

 

 

Total votes: 16

Great article. One of the things I appreciate about it is the focus on Rossi’s mental determination and fortitude. A few people have tried to tell me that Rossi’s most amazing feat is his ability, at age 40, to physically keep up with younger riders.  As a fitness trainer who’s in his 40’s I disagree. There are many studies that prove we don’t have to give up much physical strength or stamina into our 40’s, 50’s, even 60’s. You can find online calculators based on some of these studies that calculate how little speed you should lose as a competitive runner as you age, and it’s not much. The same can be said for strength. I can bench press more now than when I was a high performance athlete in my early 20’s. The very little that you do lose as you reach middle age (if you keep working at it) I believe can be compensated for with more experience and wisdom in most cases.  No matter how little you lose in speed a 100 meter sprinter will be slower at age 40 than at age 20 because that particular sport measures physical speed and nothing else.  Motorcycle racing is way more complicated and Rossi has all kinds of age related benefits as he gets older that can compensate for a slight lose in physical ability. 

What’s most impressive to me is that day in, day out, for all these years he still wants to do it, and works so hard to do it competitively. It’s his mental stamina and strength that IMO should have diminished by now, but they haven’t. Honestly, he’s not my favourite rider, but I must give him credit for his ability to still push himself as hard as he does when he has absolutely no need to.

Total votes: 4

Apologies for being late with this!

It was written and posted elsewhere on the day, but “life” got in the way of me doing more - - 

“ I’m not gonna get into the hype and go overboard cos it’s Valentino’s birthday! 
Naturally I wish him a very Happy Birthday on this special day but I feel so sorry for him that he’s not going to be able to celebrate like the rest of us can! 
Later on he’ll be with his closest friends who will shield him from unwanted intrusion, but he’s not going to be able to even walk from his house to a bar for a quiet drink without being besieged!
Today Tavullia will be absolutely mobbed with people wanting to catch sight of their hero and he’ll handle it with grace and dignity!
He’ll stand for the seemingly endless “selfies” and he’ll try to sign everything they push in front of him! 

The “Haters” can say what they want but Jean and I have been privileged to see the man away from the cameras!
One Mugello we got to spend a few hours in his company (along with 50+ others!) so when the idiots on various FB pages start with all their bullshit we were always able to sit back in the sure and certain knowledge that they hadn’t a feckin clue what they were on about! 

Will he continue racing after this contract is up? 
Very possibly!
Until now I’ve only ever said this to a few people. Last year at Mugello we were dining with the Fan Club and one of our friends came to sit with us. Talk of retirement (Vale’s) came up and Jean asked him outright! The answer came, “Maybe he will continue to 46!” before he quickly added, “Who knows? Only Valentino will decide!”
The way it was said led us to believe it was something that had been talked about amongst senior Fan Club members! 

Personally I’d rather he stopped now cos he’s cost us a small fortune over the years! 😉
We always said that he’s a man who has transcended his sport and Love him or Hate him MotoGP won’t be the same without him! 
He’s made an indelible mark on motorcycle racing history and he'll leave an incredible legacy behind him in the shape of the Academy, but until that day arrives I’ll content myself with simply saying, Buon compleanno campione!”

Total votes: 2