MotoGP’s G.O.A.T., the one and only Valentino Rossi, calls time on a brilliant two-wheeled career at this weekend’s Valencia Grand Prix.
This story appears in the Oct./Nov. 2021 Great Cars Issue of RACER magazine alongside other great features including a look back on the short, but memorable exploits of cars such as the Brabham BT46B “Fan Car” and the Indy 500’s whispering turbines, plus an interview with 2021 NTT IndyCar Series champ Alex Palou.
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On the eve of the 2021 San Marino Grand Prix at Italy’s Misano circuit, Valentino Rossi, nine-time Motorcycle Grand Prix World Champion with 115 race wins, 65 poles and a legitimate claim to be the greatest two-wheeled racer of all time, spoke to Italian TV. The nation had been shocked and stunned by the notion that its MotoGP megastar was actually calling time on his career and now, some six weeks after he’d made his bombshell announcement, Vale, VR46, “The Doctor” was ready to explain his reasoning.
“It was the 2019 Grand Prix at Mugello, and I thought I would stop,” Rossi said of his initial thoughts of retirement. “I don’t mean retire right away, but I thought that the moment would come soon. Then COVID changed things, and for once I took a step back. I got out of the bubble I was living in and I realized there was more to life than GPs. I thought about a future untethered from the rhythms imposed by races, the pressure, my constant hunger for performance and wins.
‘It’s like I woke up from a dream – or maybe a nightmare. Trying to win was so important that it was like I was in a parallel universe. It was always pressure – that feeling where you don’t feel good, but you miss it when you don’t feel it. It’s beautiful and ugly at the same time, sweet and bitter, but it brings out the best in you, what you don’t know you have.
“I would have loved to keep going,” he added, “but I’m not competitive enough. I wish I could have been faster this past year.”
The initial announcement had been made on Aug. 5, a curtain-raiser to the standard Thursday press conference for the Styrian Grand Prix at Austria’s Red Bull Ring. The curtain would fall, after 26 years of this beautiful and ugly pressure, at the 2021 season-ending grand prix in Valencia, Spain, Nov. 14, But before that, Rossi would wrestle and cajole his Petronas Yamaha SRT YZR-M1 until the very last lap.
Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli, home of the San Marino Grand Prix, is a six-mile ride from Valentino Rossi’s Tavullia base, traversing the Strada Panoramica Adriatica where he first learned how to ride a motorcycle. It’s ground zero for the 42-year old’s massive fanbase – the yellow-clad hordes with their billowing smoke flares. They’d seen his recent struggles, listened to his reasons for stopping, but they could be sad later. For now, they still had their man Vale to cheer on, and who cared that he qualified 23rd and finished 17th?
Well, Valentino Rossi did…
“I’ve always said that I’d continue as long as I had fun, because if there is the pleasure of fighting for important positions, you can bear the sacrifices, too,” he explained. “I gave everything; I never gave up, not a single day. But for me, ‘having fun’ means fighting for the first five positions, and on good days for the podium, or the victory. I need to be in the fight, to make good overtakes. Those were the requirements I always set for myself, so when they were missing, I knew it was time to stop.
“I didn’t want to stop with the doubt that I could do one more season, or two. I wanted to quit when I was sure. And so I did. I’m not going to leave the MotoGP world, even if I’m not going to every race. Yes, I’m stopping being a MotoGP rider, but not being a racer. I feel like a rider, and I want to be a rider forever.”
In 1993, Kevin Schwantz won the 500cc Motorcycle World Championship on a Suzuki RGV500, on top of the world after six seasons of chasing the prize. But after a crash-infested 1994 and a lackluster start to ’95, the Texan knew the time had come to hang up his helmet. Mind made up on the flight home from the Japanese GP, he quit immediately. And while Rossi’s is a more measured exit, Schwantz understands what the Italian is going through.
“What’s funny is that I met Valentino in 1989,” says Schwantz. “We went to watch him race pocket bikes on this little go-kart track near Misano. So we get there and Valentino is wearing a Kevin Schwantz helmet. It was an endurance race on this tight little track and Valentino was visibly faster than all the other little kids out there. It was exaggerated. He was just light years faster than everybody else out there. I said something like, ‘Wow, to see somebody that much better than the average Joe out there – I think he’s going to be good one day.’ Yeah, maybe ‘good’ wasn’t the right word…
“You know, he’s somebody who will be hugely missed, but watching him ride around and finishing where he’s finishing now just isn’t Valentino Rossi. He needs to pull the plug. It’s a decision I’m glad he made because when you’re up front and racing, it’s different. You’ve got something that you’re really motivated to do. When you’re running around in the back, it’s just a whole lot easier for silly little things to happen that can really get you hurt.”
For Rossi, the only rider in history to win MotoGP, 500cc, 250cc and 125cc world championships, but whose last grand prix win was back in the 2017 Dutch TT at Assen, motorcycle racing’s ultimate level is an entirely different world from the one he joined in 2000, the penultimate year in its gnarly 500cc guise.
“I grew up dreaming about 500s,” said Rossi. “The first race I remember on TV was Assen ’86. The 500s were the bikes of the great riders. Schwantz, [Mick] Doohan, [Freddie] Spencer, [Wayne] Rainey, they were the top.
“Today’s MotoGP is almost another sport. It’s completely changed in the way not only of riding and managing the tires, but also in how you prepare for it. It’s truly another world, where you can’t do without extreme technology.”
So how will history, and MotoGP history in particular, remember Valentino Rossi?
“This sport is going to miss him dearly of course,” says Schwantz. “I mean, where do you get the next Rossi? And amazingly, I believe that the sport did not change him one bit. All day, every day, he has time for anybody and everybody. At these MotoGP races, every time he goes in and out of the garage, he’s signing autographs for five minutes. He always gives himself five extra minutes for that. Valentino has never forgotten his fans. He comes out of the garage and smiles and signs autographs and just goes on with his life like it’s as normal as it is for anybody out there.
“I think that’s it. He’s never changed. Not even a little bit. I remember, I was walking through the paddock at COTA two years ago and Valentino went to leave his garage on the back of a scooter and he spotted me. I was with my family and he stopped, and there must have been 1,500 people around us by the time we quit talking. But that’s just him. A genuinely good man. An incredible rider, yes, but just a great human being, too. Yeah, where do you even find the next Valentino?”
FOUR ON THE FLOOR
After a decade-long 500cc Grand Prix career stretching from 1986 to ’95, during which he won 25 GPs and the ’93 world championship with Suzuki, Kevin Schwantz hung up his battered leathers and looked to auto racing. His four-wheeled sojourn included 18 NASCAR Xfinity Series starts from 1997 to ’99, two top-10 finishes being the highlights.
“You know, when you stop riding you’ve got to do something,” Schwantz muses. “You can’t just go sit at home. You’re used to a lifestyle that’s got you busy 365 days a year. You can try and get away from the racing, but you can’t. What I did was choose cars because I felt safer in them. I knew they would get my mind off of motorcycles. That’s why I quit! I had to distract myself with something and that’s what car racing did for me. And whatever Valentino [Rossi] gets in, I’m sure he’ll be competitive.”
Rossi has already raced in GT sports cars and rally cars, and even tested with the Ferrari F1 team back in 2004 and ’06. Going forward, he’ll be taking a deeper dive into sports car racing.
“So, I’m going to go from rider to driver,” said Rossi when he announced his MotoGP retirement. “I’m going to race cars. I love rallies a lot, but I realize I have a better feeling for asphalt, so I’m going to go racing on the track.
“The truth is that I am almost as passionate about cars as I am about motorcycles. In fact, as a child I dreamed of being a Formula 1 driver. When I was 10-years old, I raced both karts and mini-bikes, and my idea, when I was 13, was to race cars. So now that is what I will do.”