The sight of this racer would strike fear into the hearts of fellow racers, like a sabre tooth tiger would to a caveman. He is known for his truly exceptional riding finesse and consistency, his unwavering and endless attitude to win and his relentless pursuit of victory. People all over the world rave about his races, the way he decisively topples every one that ever tries to get ahead of him, the way he leaves nothing but dust in the face of gruelling competition. “The Doctor” is what he’s called, for the only medicine he has for his fellow racers was nothing but that of disappointment. He has been the the only person in the world to have won World Grand Prix championships in four different classes. By the age of 26, a total of SEVEN world championship tiles were to his name and credit. A modern day legend, one of the greatest personalities ever known: Valentino Rossi. We take at look at his humble beginnings, his struggle to the top and his legacy.
Born on the 16th of February, 1979 in the Italian town of Urbino, He was the son of Graziano Rossi, a former motorcycle racer. As a kid he was like any other, he liked the little toy cars his dad would buy for him. His dad, Graziano famously recalled how he once saw Valentino (who was just three years old at the time) making up a tiny circuit, in an industrial area, to ride his toy car around just so that he could go sideways around every turn. This craziness grew into a love, a love of speed and the thrills that come along with it. He grew older and so did his toy car, although his dad wanted him to have a minimoto, (those little 50 cc bikes no taller than 50cm), his mother, Stephania, was concerned about his safety and hence, Graziano bought him a go-kart. It was just a 60cc motor fixed to the go kart. Valentino soon fell in love with it, he would ride it around his neighborhood, exploring its limits, with a zest like no one else. When he was 5 years old, he wanted something faster, so his father replaced the 60cc with a 100cc national kart motor and this further fueled his thirst for speed. His father recognized this eagerness and decided to enter him into the regional go kart championships, but in order to do so Vale would require a junior cart license. In 1989, his father, unsuccessfully, tried to forge documents so that Vale could race 1 year before he was legally allowed to do so, the required age was 10 while Valentino was just 9.
In 1990 however, Valentino managed to win the Regional Kart Championships. After which in 1991, he decided to go along with motorcycles and took up minimoto racing in which he won several local and regional races. However, it wasn’t always a path of success at every turn for the little champ, there were times when Vale had decided to call it quits which inevitably would outrage his dad. He once recalled Graziano throwing the minimoto into the family car and saying that this sport weren’t for cowards. This relentless attitude of his father was one that laid the foundation that turned Vale into the true warrior that he is now. For the Graziano’s it was something built into their genes, it was in their blood, to never give up, to fight till the end, no matter what the outcome.
Valentino continued minimoto races in which he participated more for the fun of it. He continued to race karts in the mean time winning wherever it mattered. Then came the career changing decision, he grew up to a point where the 60cc kart was more like a toy, both Valentino and his dad looked into upgrading to a 100cc and pursuing the European championships which would have led him into the arena of Formula One. But the high cost of karts led to the decision to continue racing minimoto but this time a little more seriously.
During the years 1992 and 1993, Valentino actively raced in almost all the regional minimoto competitions Rossi soon began to be too big for the little minimoto he rode. It eventually became time to consider purchasing a real bike. He chose the Cagiva Mito, a two stroke, 125cc machine that produced 30hp. Not long after he acquired the bike, he entered it into a race in which he crashed twice within two laps around the same turn.
Soon he was in the grid of the Italian sport production championships. His results were not particularly consistent; it varied from race to race. However, he managed to secure a pole position at the championships final race at Misano, this ultimately led him to finish the race on the podium. Here is one character that is purely of a role model. He learns his lessons from the failures and mistakes he makes. Unfazed by his previous season, he enters the same championships in the following year, with a factory specification Cagiva Mito courtesy of his team manager Claudio Lusuardi, and managed to win the Italian Championship title.
In 1994, Aprilla used Valentino’s input to improve its RS125. This allowed him to gain valuble experience and knowledge of handling the fast new pace of motor racing. In 1995 he took part in the both the European and Italian championships with mixed results. Valentino then, in 1996, entered the world championships on an Aprilla RS125R, the bike he helped to improve. He did not have much luck this time around due to the elevated level of competition. He failed to finish in five of the seasons 15 races and crashed out several times, even then, despite all the odds, he managed to win the race at the Czech Republic. At the end of the season, Rossi stood at 9th position but the following season in 1997, he showed the world what he was really made of, learning from the 1996 championships, he dominated the season, winning 11 of the 15 races. By 1998, he entered the 250cc class with an Aprilla RS250 and concluded the season in second place, behind Loris Capriossi. In 1999 however, he won the same 250cc World Championship Title, collecting a total of 9 race wins and 5 Pole Positions.
Back in those days the 500cc class was the Ultimate in World Championship Motorcycle Racing and his win in the 250cc class was rewarded by being given a ride on a Honda NSR500, the bike considered to be amongst the greatest in the world at its time. On the track there was nothing that could beat the superior and powerful four cylinder 500cc two stroke bike. The team manager of Honda was convinced that the pairing of Rossi and his team would bring nothing but success. The young Rossi, having conquered the 125 and 250 world championships decided it was time to move into more competitive arenas and hence he made the switch into 500cc. Like all his previous attempts at the championships it took a little of experience that needed to bring out the true element of this fighter, in his first year of the 500cc championships, it took him about 9 races to actually score a win. The following season, in 2001, things turned out the way similar to his previous endeavours, the experience gained in the first year was put to full use and he went on to dominate and win the championships with a total of 11 races. He even outpaced the famous Max Biaggi who was widely regarded as his arch rival.
The year 2002 saw the introduction of the 990cc four stroke class with Honda soon becoming the dominant force with its lethal machine combined with an even potent rider. MotoGP as it was called was inaugurated the same year with Rossi winning the first race, despite his lack of experience riding 1000cc monster machines. He eventually went on to win 8 of the 9 races of the season.The following season in 2003, he managed to win all of the 9 races with 9 pole positions. This earned him his third consecutive World Championship title. One of the memorable races of that season was the Australlian GP held at Phillip Island race track. Rossi, who was given a ten second penalty for overtaking during a yellow flag, pulled away from the rest of the racers and managed to win with an amazing 15 seconds lead. This crucial time gap was enough to give him an undisputed win even with the penalty. The end of the season followed with changes that defied the course of his future.
The media and sports fans speculated that it was the motorcycle he used at the time, the Honda RC211V , that supposedly led him to success, and not his talent. Rossi was all ears to the new skepticism that had risen about him. His contract with Honda was to expire by the end of the year and he needed to decide the team he would want to ride with for the next season. He had given a lot to Honda, a 500cc world championship, and the 2003 MotoGP championships. Hence, he finally decided it was time to move on. There were rumors at the time about him joining forces with Ducati which sent waves of frenzy across the Italian media as they found it to be too hard to believe. Ultimately, Rossi signed a two year contract with Honda’s arch-rival, Yamaha. He was reportedly paid in excess of 12 Million US$. No other manufacturer was agreeable to pay anything even close to what was decided by Yamaha.
At the time, the Yamaha YZR-M1 was one of the most inferior bikes on the race track with much fewer wins than that of Honda. It was time. The 2004 season was an opportunity for Rossi to silence his critics, to show what a difference a superior rider can bring to an inferior machine. He could finally prove that he was the winner and not the bike that he rode. And to prove: he did… He managed to win 8 races of the season eventually winning his 6th World Championship Title. His 7th Title was won in the following season in 2005. In 2006 however, his bike was plagued with technical problems and could not perform as expected in the first half of the season. He eventually finished the season in 2nd place behind Nicky Hayden. Sadly it was quite the same for the 2007 season with him facing a fever, faulty tires and technical difficulties and crashes. He finally won the 2008, 800cc championship which was his eighth world championship title.
There were several supposed secrets to his success, the most contemplated ones of which was his superstitious attitude when he approached his bike. He usually starts this ritual when he comes close to the machine. He would initially bend down and touch his boots and then proceed over to the bike to crouch and touch its right side foot peg with a bow signifying respect for the machine. He supposedly does this in order to be in the right state of mind for the race. He also always gets on and off the bike in the same way, swinging his right leg over the front of the bike.
But most of all it was his sheer talent and love for the sport coupled with the respect and support of his family, friends and fans that have led him to being the man of substance that he is. A true fighter none the less, outperforming all expectations in the toughest and the most demanding of times has been his forte. His respect for the machine is something that’s truly unique. For all the fans of the sport that exist as of now, he has been nothing short of a legend. His status as a racer is second to none and best of all, he is just 30 years old at the time of this writing.. it means that there is gonna be a hell lot more medicines coming from this Italian “Doctor”.
– Arun S. Thampi