Valentino Rossi could barely contain his delight after he claimed a stunning third place in yesterday’s American MotoGP race.
Just 50 days after suffering a compound break of his right tibia, the Italian produced a heroic display to thrill a sun-drenched crowd of just over 51,000 fans in California.
Sixth at the end of the first lap and struggling to find confidence with his soft compound Bridgestone rear tyre, the 31-year-old quickly disposed of Monster Yamaha Tech 3 rider Ben Spies to seize fifth on the second lap.
Rossi then produced a brilliant display to fend off a hard charging Nicky Hayden and Spies, who was finding some momentum in sixth after his early grip issues.
Stuck in fifth place for the opening 11 laps, it looked unlikely that Rossi would feature in a battle for the podium as he had done so in such thrilling fashion at the Sachsenring a week earlier.
But when Dani Pedrosa crashed out of the lead on lap 12, the Fiat Yamaha rider got a second wind and immediately began to hunt down Andrea Dovizioso’s factory Honda RC212V machine.
The nine-times world champion harassed Dovizioso until he made his clinical attack on lap 27 to snatch third.
Dovizioso was galvanised by Rossi’s hard charge but he was unable to threaten in the closing stages, Rossi holding on for one of the hardest earned podiums of his illustrious career.
Physically drained after 32 punishing laps, a jubilant Rossi said: “The start of the race was very hard for me because I had a lot of pain and I was far from the podium.
"At the beginning of the race there was some confusion. There was a few battles and overtakes but I had to stay quiet, out of the battle and I needed some laps for take a good rhythm.
"But then I saw Pedrosa in the gravel and I just had to try to catch Dovizioso. I just pushed as hard as I could for a few laps and that brought me closer to him and then I couldn't give up, somehow I caught him and it was a great feeling to pass him to take third.”
Rossi had lost out in a terrific rostrum fight with Aussie Casey Stoner in Germany last week. Stoner had denied Rossi a dream podium on his return from injury with a daring last corner overtake at the Sachsenring.
But Rossi was in no mood to be ambushed late on again and he said: “It was another great battle with Dovizioso over the last laps and after last week when Casey beat me, I tried not to make the same mistake again and I make a good last lap, better than seven days ago.
"The podium was the maximum target for this weekend and I’m very happy to be back. It is a great result for us and so important. Coming back on the podium in such a short time after Mugello, I’m so happy.
"The race was difficult, but also the weekend was very difficult for us. In every practice I struggled quite a lot. This track is very demanding, so I have to suffer, but this morning we found a quite good setting and the warm-up was not so bad.”
Rossi now has the short summer break to build up strength in his recovering right leg before he returns to action in Brno on August 15.
It will be in the Czech Republic next month that Rossi’s big money switch to Ducati is confirmed and he said he was looking forward to a rest before continuing his rehabilitation.
He added: “It will be a very important period because I have another two weeks to work on the leg and on the shoulder. But also I can work on my body in general to be in Brno in a better shape.
"I like that track a lot. It is always very good for the M1, so we try to improve the result.”