Silverstone marked the 200th race of the MotoGP era, a period of racing dominated by one name – Valentino Rossi. He became the face of the sport itself with his masterful racecraft and larger-than-life personality. Now a veteran with his finest days behind him, he languishes behind the leading pack of Marquez, Lorenzo and Pedrosa, three riders that would once have been mere mortals in his presence.
Rossi is a man who has always craved victory. “It is like a drug… it only lasts for three or four hours and then the next day, you need more,” he once explained. He had an insatiable thirst for winning and a unique way of approaching his riding. It was personal and it was gripping viewing. His charisma brought fans in droves and the drama of his duels kept the racing world watching. For a decade, Rossi was untouchable.
There were always rivalries. He thrived on them, even created them out of nothing. In the late nineties, hostilities developed between him and the established Italian superstar of the day, Max Biaggi. Rossi was flamboyant with a sense of humour, whereas Biaggi was reserved and at times frosty. Both were worshipped and compared to each other by the national media, leading to simmering tension between the riders despite racing in different classes. It was inevitable that the two would clash.
Rossi did more than just stir the pot – he upended it. After taking victory in front of a raucous home crowd at Mugello in 1997, Rossi paraded around the circuit on his in-lap with an inflatable likeness of Claudia Schiffer sitting provocatively on his handlebars, referencing the rumours of Biaggi dating supermodel Naomi Campbell. It was pure cheek. The media went into frenzy and his nemesis quietly stewed.
The two first met on the track at the turn of the century, but 2001 was the year that came to define the feud. The season-opener at Suzuka was a frenetic affair that saw Biaggi barge Rossi off the circuit with his elbow as the pair swept onto the main straight. It was a dangerous high-speed move that incensed Rossi, who replied by overtaking the Roman Emperor on the next lap whilst angrily flicking him off. The Catalan Grand Prix was also marred with controversy when the two came to blows after the race before the podium presentation, sending the sensationalist media once again into meltdown. It was spectacular theatre.
It was not only Biaggi that felt the wrath of a Rossi rivalry – Sete Gibernau, Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo all locked horns with the Italian too. After a complaint from Gibernau’s Honda team sent Rossi to the back of the grid for ‘cleaning’ his starting spot, Rossi saw red. He swore the Spaniard would never win another race. He kept his word, holding his nerve in several thrilling and occasionally brutal battles – Jerez 2005 is the most famous of all, where Rossi desperately lunged up the inside on the last corner sending Gibernau into the gravel.
Rossi became famous for the psychological pressure he applied to his opponents. He would often ride up the rear of rivals until they cracked and made a mistake, sometimes even letting his sparring partners pass so that he could do so. What truly made Rossi a hero was his ability to find gaps to pass that simply weren’t there, even if it meant risking his entire race to pull off the manoeuvre. In 2008 he went through the dirt on the inside of the legendary Corkscrew to pass Stoner, colliding with him in the process. He overtook Lorenzo in front of his adoring home crowd on the very last corner of Catalunya in 2009. No one had ever even considered passing there – just when all hope was lost, he somehow found a way to win.
The days of challenging for the championship are over. Rossi has since mellowed. He no longer seeks motivation by locking horns with another rider – instead, he races because he likes it. There is no doubt he can challenge anyone on the grid in a one-on-one battle, but Lorenzo, Marquez and Pedrosa are still youthful with screws slightly loose. Their raw pace is that of young men who do not consider the hazards of racing. Through maturity and injury, his desperation to win has diminished. In his prime, he was invincible, but things change.
Characteristic of his 2013 campaign, at Silverstone he again finished about ten seconds behind the trio of championship hopefuls. Once a different species to his peers, he is now a mere mortal once more.
Image Source: Popmonkey