21 Years at the Top | A Look into the Legend of Valentino Rossi
'The Doctor' won his first World Championship in 1997, and went on to take the world
We’ve teamed up with Dainese to shine a spotlight on luminaries from across the world of action sports and adventure. Here, we look at the career of a man who Dainese have kitted for over 20 years, and who needs no introduction - Valentino Rossi.
Valentino Rossi first won on his home track at Mugello in 1997, when he was 18 years old and en route to the 125cc World Championship win, his first World Champs success.
In the world of moto, Mugello is the one.
There’s the race track. The 180-degree final corner which has seen some of the most famous overtakes in the history of MotoGP. There’s the speed. The racecourse holds the record for the fastest recorded speed in the sport - Ducati's Andrea Dovizioso riding at 221.5mph (or 356.4km/h) earlier this year. Then there’s the fans. The thousands, hundreds of thousands of fans who pack in to watch the spectacle on race day, most of whom are dressed in Valentino’s yellow, waving his flags and chanting his name.
There are few people who could turn up to a race track more than two decades after their first victory there and still find themselves in contention for a win. There are few people still competing at all by the time their maiden victory is old enough to buy an alcoholic drink in the United States. But then again, there are few people like Valentino Rossi - the nine time MotoGP world champion, and as far as many are concerned, the greatest rider of all time.
Even now, 21 years after Rossi won for the first time in Mugello (just his fourth career win), two and a half hours from his hometown of Tavullia, Italy, tucked away in the Tuscan hills, Valentino is still the man that the fans turn out to see.
The 2018 race took place on 3 June, and the crowd was littered with t-shirts bearing his name, number and adopted moniker of ‘The Doctor’. Yellow flares were set off in the crowd. Vale is the people’s champion.
But you’ve got to ride hard to earn all of that appreciation. And it doesn’t come easy.
Rossi’s first win at Mugello in 1997 would give fans in attendance an idea of Rossi’s character. He showed not only his racing skill, but his charisma, confidence and passion as he beat rival Max Biaggi into first place. In 1999 Rossi became the first rider to win both the 125cc and 250cc classes at Mugello. In 2002, having moved up to 500cc two years earlier, Rossi became the first to win all three classes at the race track. In 2008 Valentino Rossi became the first rider in MotoGP history to win his home event for seven years in a row.
"Valentino has more podium finishes than anyone else in the history of the sport"
In 2018, amazingly, Valentino claimed pole position at Mugello again, his first pole since 2016 and the 55th pole position of his premier class career. Though he would go on to finish third in the main event, the achievement, and the fact that at the time of writing he’s a mere 27 points off Marc Márquez in the 2018 MotoGP rankings, a full 16 years and nine World Championships after debuting in the 500cc class, shows Vale’s ability to adapt to the times.
Over the years Rossi has moved from Honda, where he won multiple World Championships, to Yamaha, where he won multiple more, yet arguably, it’s Valentino’s personality more than his superhuman skill set that have seen him become the fan’s favourite he is today.
Valentino is known for crowd pleasing, and in particular, for his outspoken nature and unorthodox celebrations. At the Catalan Grand Prix in 1998, Rossi celebrated by giving a ride to a guy in a giant chicken outfit, confusing a lot of people along the way. Rossi famously stopped to use a portaloo on the slow down lap after winning at Jerez in 1999, doing the same in 2009 a decade later after the MotoGP race. There was the mining celebration in 2003 at Brno. And more recently, when he won in Argentina in 2015 he stuck on a Maradona shirt for the podium, much to the delight of the locals. The man knows how to please a crowd, and it’s because of this, as well as his talents, that his #46 brand is just as revered and iconic as Maradona’s #10 jersey in many parts of the world.
Through it all - the engine configurations, the rule changes, the teams, the eras, the numerous heated rivalries, there have been some consistencies, of course. The man. The personality. The brand. The number 46 - and the Dainese leathers.
Dainese are opening the doors to their archive, the DAR (Dainese Archivio), opposite their headquarters at the end of July. It’s effectively a museum showcasing the 46 years of evolution in motorcycle leathers, helmets (helmet brand AGV are a sister company of Dainese) and more, from the old-fashioned tech to the D-Air technology now in the suits. It really brings a perspective to the length and success of Valentino Rossi’s success.
“When I was watching racing as a kid, all the best riders wore Dainese so when I wanted to race it was the suit that I wanted too,” said Rossi at the opening of the Dainese Archive. "It’s been 20 years now.
“Many years ago these suits were very forward-thinking. They were maybe 10 years ahead. I loved it. I knew I’d be safe. Dainese had been working on the airbag for several years but I was sceptical. Putting air into an altered suit was very strange to me at the time but now it is so important.”
Amongst the displays in the DAR is also probably the most iconic helmet Rossi ever wore, and one which brings us back, of course, to Mugello.
Long ago Rossi teamed up with friend and designer Aldo Drudi to make a new custom helmet design each year for his home grand prix. In 2008, the race which would be the last of his seven back-to-back wins at Mugello, they were at a loss as to what the graphic should be. Aldo and Valentino were discussing the course, and Vale pulled a funny face as he described how the famous Casanova Savelli corner in Mugello made him feel on the bike. Aldo told him to make the face again, took a picture, then put it on a helmet. The rest is history, and the helmet is now available to view in the Dainese Archive.
The 2008 face helmet, and the fact that Rossi went on to win the race while wearing it, is just one of many perfect examples that sum up the man. He talks the talk, and he walks the walk. More than the talent, it’s the passion and the playful, charismatic way in which he engages with the sport that has earned Rossi his hundreds, then thousands, now millions of supporters around the world.
The fact Rossi continues to provide such a gripping narrative in MotoGP, forming such a bitter rivalry with the new champ Marc Márquez, shows how relevant Rossi still is at the top level all these years later, despite having so much going on off the race course now as well.
As recently as April, after a clash in Argentina which caused Vale to crash, Rossi went as far as saying: "[Márquez] has destroyed our sport. He doesn't have any respect for his rivals."
Not only is Rossi still at the right end of the points rankings, he’s as controversial as ever, and he’s still the headline story too.
These days Valentino is much more than one of the leading riders on the MotoGP circuit. The VR46 company once built to supply Rossi merchandise now work with the likes of Juventus Football Club too. The Sky Racing Team by VR46 boast some of the best racers in Moto2 and Moto3, and the riders have regular access to Rossi at his famous practise ranch.
The man is a walking legacy. A man who has provided inspiration for thousands, not just within his sport, but far outside it as well.
BMX legend, 14-time X-Games gold medallist and renowned MotoGP fan Jamie Bestwick was once asked if he had now tasted enough success after winning a fifth Dew Cup in 2010. His answer: “Does Valentino Rossi stop striving for success?”
The question, of course, is a rhetorical one.
Valentino Rossi is currently right at the top of the all-time standings for 500cc MotoGP modern race wins, with 89 victories, and second in the all time overall win standings with 115 race wins, behind only Giacomo Agostini.
He has the most podium finishes in the history of the sport - and arguably most impressive of all is that 21 years after his first win, he's not done yet.
Stay tuned to our Dainese Luminaries hub for more from the world of ambition and adventure.
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