He may have missed out on his 10th World Championship by a whisker, but Valentino Rossi's brilliance is unquestioned. But is he the greatest racer of all time?
t’s the oldest argument among fans of any sport: who is the greatest of all time? Is Pele the greatest footballer, is Muhammad Ali the greatest boxer, is Michael Schumacher the greatest in a racing car?
Some say it is the most futile of arguments. How can you compare Schumacher with Fangio, Ali with Tyson or Pele with Ronaldo? But we can’t help doing it, can we?
Which brings us to motorcycle racing – and whether Valentino Rossi is the greatest bike racer who has ever lived.
Fans have been hailing him as the greatest of all time (a tribute now abbreviated to the ugly acronym GOAT) for many years, specifically since he won five consecutive premier-class titles, a feat matched only by Giacomo Agostini and Mick Doohan. Before that run of 500cc two-stroke and MotoGP four-stroke titles, which stretched from 2001 to 2005, he had already triumphed in the 125 and 250 classes and since then he has won two further MotoGP titles. Now, after his doldrum years at Ducati, he is winning again and challenging for a tenth world title, at the age of 36.
If there were any doubters, most have surely been swayed by this stunning return to form: racing and beating riders who were schoolkids or even toddlers when he was winning his first world championships. When Rossi made his GP debut on 31st March 1996, Marc Marquez had just celebrated his third birthday.
Rossi has now been winning GPs for 18 years and premier-class GPs for 15 years, a time span that comfortably eclipses the sport’s most evergreen heroes. The other longest-lasting careers belong to Agostini, Phil Read and Alex Barros, whose first and final premier-class victories covered a mere 11 seasons.
Of course, Rossi is too modest to claim that he is the GOAT. All he will say is that he’s somewhere in motorcycle racing’s all-time top three, along with 1960s and 1970s aces Agostini and Mike Hailwood.
“I am on the podium of history,” he grins. “But it is impossible to say if I am better than Ago or Mike.”
Many people might take issue with Rossi’s top three. I would ask Ago to step down and invite King Kenny Roberts, the Californian cowboy who ruled the late 1970s and changed the sport forever, to take his place.
That’s the problem with this argument. Numbers aren’t enough. Agostini is still the most successful rider of all time with 122 GP wins and 15 world titles to his name, but for much of that time he was the only factory rider on the grid, riding an 80bhp MV Agusta against a bunch of skint privateers on 50bhp Nortons. The disparity of machinery was such that he often won races by a whole lap, not the tenths of a second that have been the norm for Rossi, who has raced in the most competitive era of all time, with bikes separated by mere hundredths per lap.
And yet Agostini did twice beat Mike the Bike and Honda’s mighty RC181 to the 500 world title, which does complicate the claims of the huge number of fans who insist that Hailwood is unquestionably the greatest ever. But if you want to continue with this argument you need to consider the relative merits of the MV and the Honda, because machinery is always a major part of the equation in motor sport.
And if we return to straightforward numbers, Rossi has won more victories than anyone in the category that really matters – the premier class. He has 84 wins (at the time of writing) to Ago’s 68 and Doohan’s 54. And he’s done that on 500cc two-strokes, and 990cc, 800cc and 1000cc four-strokes; a huge range of machinery during an era when technical development (especially electronics) has demanded radical changes in riding technique.
Rossi recently became only the second rider after Ago to achieve 110 GP victories, an astonishing feat in a sport that has a nasty habit of chewing up and spitting out even its greatest exponents. And he is the only rider in history to have won consecutive premier-class GPs on different brands of machinery.
So why is Rossi so remarkable? Of course he is the complete racer, and his talent is sublime. But that’s just the start of it. What has allowed him to exploit his natural talent over such a long time are his love of racing and his high-voltage intelligence. Engineers who work with him are amazed at his ability to analyse machine behaviour.
“When Valentino comes into the pits he’s like a computer,” said Jerry Burgess, his crew chief from 2000 to 2013. “He gives you a list of six or eight things he wants looking at, like a download. He’s more analytical than the rest of them and he has the ability to process information so fast and so accurately. Whether the little electric pulses in his brain fire a bit better than yours or mine, I don’t know.”
Rossi also has bravery in abundance, an important requirement on two wheels. He has missed just four races since his GP debut in 1996, since when he has contested 320 or so races, some of them with a broken bone or two. Then again, his longevity can be attributed to all kinds of advances: safer bikes, safer tracks and safer riding gear. Let us not forget that the three greats who preceded his reign at the top of the class of kings all retired hurt: Mick Doohan, Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey.
Last, but not least, there is something of the good, old-fashioned racetrack maniac about Rossi. Over the years he has made some very heavy passes. “On track, Valentino’s pretty vicious,” affirmed his former MotoGP rival Colin Edwards.
During his years as Rossi’s Yamaha team-mate, Edwards was able to inspect Rossi’s data, to gaze in wonder at the curves and squiggles that revealed the Italian’s genius in meticulous detail. The ride that most impressed Edwards was Rossi’s walking-on-water victory in the rain-lashed 2005 British GP at Donington.
“I locked the front a couple of times and nearly crashed and it scared the shit out of me,” says the Texan. “After the race I looked at his data and it was scary. The guy was locking the front on a track that was slicker than snot; he had it locked at every other corner. I asked him, was your front locked? He said, oh yeah, a couple of times. I looked at the computer and it was, like, a couple of times? Fuck, it was every corner. This guy’s crazy!”
Leaving aside talent (or the skill to ride like a lunatic and yet maintain control while others are crashing all around you), there’s one thing about Rossi that’s beyond argument: he is the most famous motorcycle racer of all time, just like Ali is the most famous boxer of all time.
Rarely has one man carried a sport like Rossi carries MotoGP. Such is the Italian’s mainstream appeal that sponsorship finders shudder whenever mention is made of his retirement. “When he goes, it will be like a desert round here,” says one MotoGP money man. Another suggests his exit will hurt the series more than would Ferrari quitting Formula 1.
So, a final question. Do I think Rossi is the greatest of all time? It obviously doesn’t matter what I think, but for the record my answer is yes. It is his return to form after his years in the wilderness that made up my mind, and elevated him beyond Hailwood, with Roberts in third place.
Words: Mat Oxley Pictures: Gold and Goose, Yamaha, 2SNAP