If it was 20 years ago today that Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play, then they would have been able to provide the musical backdrop to a remarkable racing era that is still continuing, long after their last fanfare died away. It was the realisation that Valentino Rossi is presently undertaking his 20th season of Grand Prix racing that prompted the thought. And that he has been winning races every year from his first to the most recent. Except during his two years with a deadbeat Ducati.
This gives him easily the longest career of (almost) continuous race wins. This alone, at least in one sense, makes him clearly the Greatest Of All Time. Yet goat curry is a dish of many parts.
Giacomo Agostini has more GP wins – 122 to 112; a figure Rossi will find hard to match, given his 37 years of age and the strength of the younger guys. But not impossible. His record for wins-per-season in his heyday is eleven (2001, ’02 and ‘05); but his season average over the last three years is less than three.
Angel Nieto has a longer career, and 13 championships to Rossi’s nine, all in the bottom two classes, but representing active grand prix competition for fully 22 years.
Ah, but Nieto’s winning career spanned just 16 years (Agostini’s but 11). Rossi’s is up to 19, and still counting.
It’s all games with statistics, but it’s a good time to celebrate Valentino, all the other GOATS, and everything he and they have meant, not just to racing but to all of us as fans.
It was impossible not to notice Valentino when he turned up to play in a Japanese-dominated 125 class in 1997. He had such fun with them that he adopted the nickname Rossifumi. Won his first race at Brno, won the title next year.
Rossi was in your face from the start: long Prince Valiant hair, cackling laugh, and ubiquitous. He spent plenty of time in the press room. It was only later he learned that journalists (especially Italians) value a good story more than a convenient friendship.
He’d already adopted a more wary approach by the time one writer particularly annoyed him, picking on his dad’s eccentric habit of sleeping in his car at racetracks. The article mentioned the word “gypsy”. Rossi was outraged, refused to speak to him again, and not long afterwards that reporter lost his job.
This was an early indication of his growing power. It hasn’t stopped growing, and now reaches far beyond his native Italy. Rossi is a worldwide force, and the size and strength of the marketing side of his VR46 brand is testimony to that, and to his commercial acumen.
So what happened to the carefree teenager? Well, he passed through the phases of dyeing his hair all colours of the rainbow, and introducing slapstick pantomime performances to celebrate each race win, as he powered through 250s to join the big guys and win the last 500cc two-stroke titles.
Now the funster started to show a different side: a vicious skill with mind games that meant most of his competitors were beaten before the green light. With scornful humour he made a laughing stock of Max Biaggi, and quite took Sete Gibernau to pieces. Marco Melandri recalled to me how they had been firm friends until he made the mistake of beating him five times in 2005 and ’06 on a 500. Unforgivable, and unforgiven.
To the world at large, it only made him more of a hero. Everybody loves a winner. And when the disastrous Ducati dream turned badly wrong, they loved him even though he wasn’t winning.
Looking back over the years, Rossi has been a subject of this column far more than any other rider. Quite rightly, you might think.
So here’s another one, as the increasingly grizzled veteran embarks on year 20.
By MICHAEL SCOTT