“The Doctor” hangs up the leathers after 25 years of Grand Prix racing
I tuned in to NBC Sports Sunday to watch the final MotoGP race of the season, taking place at the famed Valencia track in Spain. It was a fantastic race, with Ducati taking a first-ever sweep of the podium as Francesco Bagnaia took the checkered flag, with Jorge Martin and Jack Miller rounding out the all-Italian brand winners circle. But what I followed was the number 46 of Valentino Rossi, the legendary veteran in his final race as a competitor. It was a bittersweet moment, watching Rossi cross the finish line one last time, taking a respectable top 10 finish for the Petronas SRT Yamaha team. The day and the race was all about him, and deservedly so.
Before a roaring crowd of 75,000 race fans, a great many wearing and waving the Vale yellow, Rossi started his 432rd career race from 10th on the grid and more or less held position throughout, gaining then dropping a position before grabbing his original spot and finishing where he began, a solid 10th place at the flag. A mural of his face had been painted on the side of the trackside media tower, Rossi banners were seen all around the race circuit, and a giant screen showed race fans from around the world sending visual greetings and well-wishes to the retiring champion the entirety of the race. Even Bagnaia declared, “This race victory is a present to Valentino,” himself a graduate of Rossi’s VR46 rider academy, and sporting a “46” commemorative helmet during the race.
Vale yellow was everywhere to be seen around the Valencia track during The Doctor’s final race. Photo by Petronas SRT.
Rossi, 42 years old now and twice the age of some of his on-track competitors, was honored from around the world by the likes of movie stars Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves, tennis stars Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and Rossi’s own hero, Ronaldo, a Brazilian soccer striker, who waved the checkered flag as Rossi crossed the finish line. The stands were a sea of yellow, fireworks were set off around the track, and Rossi was mobbed by his team and fellow riders after taking a final solo “lap of honour” around the circuit. Later that evening, Rossi was honored as a “MotoGP Legend” in a formal dinner and presentation, a fitting end to an illustrious career of world Grand Prix racing.
“I was motivated and focused as if I was fighting for the championship, because the last race is the last race, it’s very important,” Rossi stated after his last lap. “There was a lot of pressure but I was able to get into the top 10 so that means I’m ending my long career among the top 10 riders in the world!” he joked. “We imagine this moment for a long time but you never know how we’re going to feel, if you’re going to be able to stay focused on the race, if you’re going to be sad. But it was a great weekend.”
Rossi’s “Yellow Army”. Photo by Petronas SRT.
Valentino Rossi’s race career nestles him among the greatest the sport has ever seen, ranking right up there with Giacomo Agostini and Mike Hailwood among others. First bursting on the GP scene in 1996 as a 17-year old rookie, he took a 6th place finish at Sepang on an Aprilia RS125, he podiumed at the Austrian GP, then took his first win the Czech GP two weeks later. By 1997, Rossi won 11 races of the 15 in the 125cc class, snagging the championship in his just 2nd year. He jumped to the 250cc class next, and by 1999 won that championship as well. In 2000 Rossi made the move to the premier class, and clinched the championship a year later in the then 500cc class. By 2002, the series was retooled into the MotoGP World Championship, and Rossi continued his winning ways, taking five championships in a row until losing to Nicky Hayden in 2006 and Casey Stoner in 2007.
Number 46 took titles again in 2008 and 2009, then several season seconds in 2010, 2014-2016. Rossi won races occasionally in the subsequent race seasons, finishing third overall in 2018, taking several individual race podiums but never winning a race again. Rossi was facing the sunset of a long, fabled racing career when he joined up with the Petronas SRT satellite team for the 2021 season, riding teammate with another VR46 academy grad Franco Morbidelli.
An emotional farewell, for all of us. Photo by SkySports.
It’s been an incredible run.
Rossi’s is a true #RIDELIFE story, having grown up racing dirt bikes then street, riding dirt and flat track in his off-seasons, and launching the VR46 Riders Academy six years ago. Rossi may not race on-track anymore in MotoGP, but will continue to be a presence in the paddock, bringing his VR46 team to Ducati in the 2022 season. He will be missed on the track however, by those of us who watched, followed and cheered for “The Doctor” across his fantastic race career.
Grazie, Vale! Blessings on your future endeavors.
*photos by Getty Images, SkySports and Petronas SRT
Rossi and his fans earlier this season. Photo by Getty Images.