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.
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."
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.
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