Decline And Fall: Explaining Valentino Rossi's Final Year In MotoGP

Though there will still be two more races for Valentino Rossi after Emilia-Romagna round of MotoGP, Rossi's second home race feels like the grand finale to his career. Misano is just a few kilometers from Tavullia, where he grew up, and where he lives and trains. And it is a track where he has seen some success in recent years, winning races and finishing on the podium.

After Misano, we head to Portimão, which has only been on the calendar since last year, and to Valencia, historically one of Rossi's worst tracks, with mostly unhappy memories. So if there is to be a grand farewell for the most significant figure in motorcycle racing, and arguably, in all of motorsports, it is more likely to come at Misano, with Portimão and Valencia served up as an encore.

Everyone has to retire at some point, but it sometimes seemed that moment would never come for Valentino Rossi. The Italian kept defying the odds, snatching podiums, looking capable of winning races, and always in the running for the championship. Even after he celebrated his 40th birthday in 2019, a date by which most racers are long retired, he still scored two podiums, and finished just off the podium another four times.

Yet when Rossi did announce his retirement, after the summer break at the Styrian Grand Prix at Spielberg in Austria, nobody was surprised. Rossi's results were very different from the past couple of years. He had gone from vying for podiums to struggling to get into the top ten.

Going back and analyzing his results in recent years highlights what looks like a definitive break for Rossi. And the more you look at the races he missed in 2020, the more it becomes clear that the time he lost to Covid-19 accelerated the end of his career.

In 2015, Rossi was vying for the championship with Jorge Lorenzo all the way to the final race at Valencia. The next year, he finished second once again, this time behind Marc Marquez, though this time the gap was 49 points rather than 5. His form slipped a little after 2016, still scoring regular podiums and featuring in the championship. All the way up to a streak of six no scores, including being absent for two races with Covid-19. From that point on, his form collapsed.

Crunching the numbers makes the pattern even more clear. In 2015, Rossi was on the podium 15 times from 18 races, taking 4 victories. His average finishing position was 2.6, or basically a podium every race, while his average gap to the winner in the dry was 5.3 seconds. Four DNFs the following season basically put him out of contention for the title, but when he did finish races, he finished closer to the lead, the gap being 4.5 seconds in the dry. With 10 podiums, it was clear he was still competitive.

Season Average gap
all races
Average gap
dry races/no crashes
race position
Podiums DNFs Championship
2015 7.064 5.337 2.6 15 0 2
2016 6.155 4.482 2.9 10 4 2
2017 11.237 9.025 4.5 6 2 5
2018 14.992 7.112 6.5 5 0 3
2019 11.271 11.271 5.5 2 4 7
2020 9.246 9.246 7.4 1 5 15
2021 25.665 24.563 14.1 0 3 21

Rossi's form started to slip a little in the following three seasons, though some of that can be attributed to the performance of the Yamaha stagnating, while the Honda and Ducati leaped ahead. From 2017, Andrea Dovizioso and Ducati took over as the main challengers to the supremacy of Marc Marquez, while HRC found ever more speed out of the Honda RC213V, culminating in Marquez' spectacular 2019 season, where he never finished outside of the top two.

Between 2017 and 2019, Rossi's average finishing position fluctuated between 4th and 6th. His average gap to the winner in the dry was 9 seconds in 2017, 7.1 seconds in 2018, and 11.3 seconds in 2019. He scored 6 podiums in 2017, 5 podiums in 2018, and 2 podiums in 2019.

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One of the most tiresome cliches of sport is to quit while you’re on top. I’m so glad you didn’t fall into that ill-considered assumption, but many journalists have when discussing Rossi’s fortunes over the last year or so. We all know how the movie is supposed to end: it is a fan’s dream for great champions to leave the game while still winning, which will preserve their memory forever in the glow of success. Consequently, there’s been much cringing over Rossi’s flagging results. But I have to ask: how else was this supposed to end? Rossi has always maintained that he would race until he was no longer competitive. He would vie for the occasional win, or fight for the podium if that was his potential, or a top 6 or a top 10, as long as he was in the fight. And now, at long last, he’s met the moment where even that is not possible. It took over 20 years, covid, and riders young enough to be his children to do it. He’s wrung out every last drop out of his racing career. He dug so deep to remain competitive that he created an academy of young hungry riders to beat him silly and keep him sharp. I admire him for staying on until his decline and fall are complete. It must be hard for him to take, seeing the entire grid lining up in front of him on Sunday. He’s taken it with grace and distinction, and he’s left not one scrap of it on the table. That’s the way to end a great career. Screw these movie endings!

"How is it supposed to end?" is that we the fans did not want it to end but it had to at some point.

I'm looking forward to watching him in enduro car racing.  I've always liked auto racing, but haven't watched in a while.  He's going to bring an entirely new legion of motorcycle racing fans to autosport, as only a legend can.  

With the VR|46 Academy now starting to bear excellent fruit in the premier class, his legacy lives on.  I would have liked to see one podium this year, even as I knew for years this day would eventually come.  As much as it pains me to see him leave, it tears open a 10 year old wound that will never recover, that makes all of this so painful.  Marco Simoncelli.  Saturday will be 10 years to the date of his death.  This knife or sword should be single edged, instead it's double edged and hurts 2X as bad.  Vale goes down as the greatest premier class rider in history, and only 2nd to Ago in totals.  Since 1949 those 2 names remain at the top of the list.  Vale's single biggest claim to fame is not the switch to Yamaha, nor the 7 premier class titles.  He was the last of the kings of the 500cc two stroke.  The nastiest motorcycles the sport has ever seen.  Ciao Vale.  

Highly flawed study and there are many strong arguments in the comments that pick it apart far better than I can. 

I started watching MotoGP on Sunday, June 14th, 2009 - Catalunya. I happened to be over at my dad's house - he had cable, I did not. And we happened to switch over to SPEED just in time for the race start. We knew nothing of MotoGP, except that one of our AMA riders had won it all a few years before. That race was spectacular enough to get us to immediately subscribe to the Video Pass. Since then, I've been to six GP's, and scarcely missed a practice session, let alone a race. My wife has become a total moto fanatic, and I'm raising my son that way as well.


The racing in all 3 classes has become entertainment enough to create fans, but back when we started, it was the magnetism of Valentino that sucked us all in. Were it not for him, we wouldn't be fans. Millions of people the world over can say the same. That is what separates him from the other, lesser champions with victories and titles galore. Forza Vale. 

It would be interesting to look at some other riders records after they announce they are retiring.

Dani Pedrosa comes to mind. Once he announced that he would retire he dropped down the order fairly significantly. As did Jorge Lorenzo. I seemed to remember something similar with Colin Edwards.

Seems like it's pretty hard to keep the sharpness required to finish in the top half of a MotoGP race when you can see that you're going to be leaving the paddock!

In Jorge's case the double vertebrae fracture he suffered at Assen caused the perfomance drop. I'd wager it was the moment he decided he was done with racing full time too. For the other guys I suspect the urge to get through the end of the final season without another trip to hospital. That certainly seems to be the case in Valentino looking at his recent lap 1 performance.

One thing I've noticed is how much he has aged in his face over the last couple of years...go look at a photo from 2019 or 18 and compare. He finally (it's not just me thank god) looks his age ! He's pushed himself very hard these last couple of years.

Interesting to look at the list of those races before and after his COVID absence, and note that the third-to-last race before his absence was Austria 1. Remember the look on his face when he saw how close he was to being sideswiped by a flying bike?

I completely agree with David's analysis but I wonder if that incident played a mental part, too. Not that there is any shame in doing so: given the magnitude of what happened that day, it would have affected anyone.

That crash , just before the break , was the turning point , it was a big one and he got up out of the kitty litter like an old man .

His lap times are similar , it's just everybody else got faster and while the " style " of riding changed his didn't - slightly odd as he was the first to change his riding to adapt to the new MotoGP era . 

He stopped being capable of winning races and made points on consistancy but even that eventually went away .

Time to leave and , if we are honest , something that should have happened a couple of years ago . 

Hopefully he will not be remembered as someone who overstayed their welcome . 

So long Valentino Rossi and thanks for all the races, the speed & the ridiculous antics in celebration! Osvaldo the chicken I will never forget!

Since 1996 I have watched Vale race and it has been amazing. Brno 1996 remains a distict impression. I don't recollect Vale from Eastern Creek in 1996, when Gazza McCoy won, memory not as good as it was.

More than once a taxi driver in a foreign land has said, " where are you from" I say Australia, "what brings you to my country?" Replying "MotoGp" gets a blank look, "motorcycle racing" says me. "What really!" is the response. Then I say " Valentino Rossi" and they know who and what I'm talking about. "Valentino! yes, very fast, very cool!"

Most exclusive club ever; Haruchika Aoki, Loris Capirossi, Kenny Roberts jnr, Nicky Hayden, Casey Stoner, Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Marquez, Joan Mir and one other, yet to be decided.

I wasn't a superfan when Rossi was winning everything on the Honda. Loved the early years with Yamaha. I was really hoping Valentino would do the business on the Ducati. Big disapointment there. Became a fan all over again as VR46 got older and had to push even harder to race with the young guns.

 One young Aussie racer & champion I helped a little spent time at Rossi's ranch. Returned an ever better racer & person :-)

Thanks V.R.46


Vale is a man, a very talented and special man, but mortal like all of us. He has excelled in this game, even to the very end when you consider how long he's been doing this and how competitive it is now. Perhaps a mild case of long Covid combined with his actual age explains his recent results. Anyway, no shame in any of it and lots to be proud of, so much and he's a veteran of the 500 days, what a legend. Now he continues the story with his academy which is already producing stars. Bottom line, there is nothing wrong here, just a natural progression.

Long time reader of the great comments here, first time poster.

I started watching on and off in 2011 and the Ducati years for Rossi were fascinating times. To date my favourite rider is Stoner, and my most admired rider is Marquez. Because I wasn't a fan before 2011 I never grew up thinking that Rossi was a god. Actually I intially thought he was an overhyped sensation exposed bare by the Ducati he thought he could fix. However, since his return to Yamaha I found myself secretly wishing to see him win, and hoping he could pull off another championship.

Sadly my belief is that he hasn't been good enough to win his 10th, and the 2015 effort was going to yeild the same result regardless of what happened with Marquez. But every time he has been in the hunt for a race victory it makes me feel a bit excited - and I'm not even a fan of his!

Interestingly I now feel the same way about Marquez. Seeing him win again is excellent, even though I have bets with my wife about who I think/want to win. Marquez is never top of my list (top of hers though). Yet when he does win it is great to see. So it must be something about these characters that tear up the 'rule' book, then face massive adversity, and then come back to win again, that makes for such compelling watching.

Rossi will probably never be matched by anyone ever again for what he did to raise the sport up. But that is probably because the sport has already been raised and so that position has been disestablished. So I think he will hold a unique place in the history of our sport.

It's very true. Even though Marquez has won just about everything there is to win I find myself willing him on more since his injury.

I remember Rossi in the 125's and 250's but other than another very good rider and a funny guy I didn't think too much. Wait for the 500's and see how he does. So many good riders stepped up to the 500's and stepped straight into the orthopedic wards or just swam around somewhere in the back half of the field. Differences in bikes could be severe too.

Then I remember a line of riders coming out of a turn, cannot for the life of me remember where. Three riders...Criville, Biaggi and can't remember the other. They exited the turn almost in unison, 20cm between front and rear wheels like a demonstration display, the bikes seemingly on rails. These where the professionals, total control of the bikes, total control of the risk, physical and mental skills honed to the n'th degree....then about a full bike length further back was this crazy guy on a bright yellow Honda busting all sorts of shapes as he attempted to show the world that he was just as fast. He faded as the race went on or crashed...can't remember. I thought right then...this is the guy to watch...not because I thought he would win a lot but because he was entertaining to watch. By mid season it became apparent he might win quite a bit too. Roll on to the next year, the last year of the 500's and he wins 11 out of 16 races.

These early years after his rookie season of 2000, 2001-2005, with the greatest respect to his rivals, there was nobody who came near his talent. Yes in 2002 the Honda 4 stroke was the best bike by a good margin, Biaggi liked to point that out but it didn't help him much in 2003 and neither did it help him when Rossi jumped on the Yamaha for 2004 instead. Gibernau was a top rider. However, it did seem he was operating at 99.99% 100% of the time while Rossi was clowning around somewhat. Back then he just had so much left in his back pocket for when another rider pushed him. He had to dig for it too when Stoner and Lorenzo came along. I think those two and Pedrosa where the first riders who came close and in some ways out performed him with some regularity. In other ways he still had something over them and managed another two titles.

Another memory jumps back into my head, 2002 Ukawa. Can't remember what happened to Rossi, i think he had a trip off track. His team mate Ukawa is on for an easy win but Rossi is climbing back through the field and closing in. Last lap and Rossi doesn't stand a chance, he knows it too but overtakes Okawa going to into a tight right (memory fade) regardless. He came from...pfff...10 bike lengths or more (maybe it was 5) and to get past he has to completely screw the turn up. He didn't just squeeze past, no attempt of a block pass on his team mate....he just flew past, Okawa must have been shaking his head or laughing. He never stood a chance of making the pass stick and somehow managed to remain on track. I think he did it just to entertain even though it was least that's how I saw it at the time.

It's all so long ago now and memory is selective. Rossi broke his leg in his 11th season of top class. The previous 10 had bagged him his 7 titles. The comparison with Marquez is obvious. Marc is one championship shy and one year short after this season. The history is there to be read but if you want to know the feeling of Rossi's early career, how his talent was viewed etc...think of Marquez. They both operate(d) on an entirely different level to their rivals.

Too bad Uccio got him spun up at what was it, Valencia 2015. At that point the flkyaways were already taking a toll on his sleeping, etc. He looked beat..

Thanks for the write-up David! Excellant as always. I agree that covid certainly had an impact, I think part of his digression is due to the change in tire manufactures. It seems, for whatever reasons, that he could never get the Michelin tires to work for him. Whether it was his riding style, or bike set-up, he's said many times that they don't work for him. I had the opportunity to see him race live a few times, and he always seemed to bring much joy to the sport. He will be missed!