Riding out on the warm-up lap having qualified in a highly respectable 10th place, the Italian was greeted by a standing ovation from beneath an ocean of yellow flags – his signature color rippling along the 76,226-person crowd in the grandstands under bright blue skies.
After a 26 year career, with 432 Grand Prix starts, 115 wins, 235 podiums and 65 poles across all three classes of the world championship, it was a fittingly vibrant setting for one of sport’s most charismatic personalities to take his final bow.
“It’s a sad moment, it’s difficult because it’s the end of my career, but on the other side I’m very happy, I always enjoy a lot, and it’s a long, long time, a long career, with a lot of great results, so it was a good journey,” Rossi told CNN Sport ahead of the race.
“Riding motorcycles and racing in MotoGP is always my first passion, from when I was a child. If I think of this moment, two or three years ago, I was desperate, but now I’m ready, it’s the time. It’s enough.”
The 42-year-old said he had to persuade his family and friends that the time had come for him to step off his storied Yamaha YZR M1. “It was difficult, especially with my mother, my father and my close friends, to say to them I would stop at the end of the season, because everybody said, ‘No, you have to continue. You have to continue,’ but I was ready, and I convinced them.”
Rossi conceded that finally relinquishing his dream of a 10th world title rankled just a little. “It’s shame because 10 is a great number, it’s like that you close a circle, and I was a lot of times very close to the 10th one, and I think I deserved the 10th one for my speed and for my career, but unfortunately it’s like this, but I cannot complain with nine championships.”
Perhaps the most famous of those ‘nearly’ moments came under a shroud of controversy, after the infamous 2015 clash with Marc Márquez at the Malaysia MotoGP in Sepang, when the Italian was censured after appearing to aim a kick at the Spaniard, knocking him into the gravel during a fractious battle.
Penalized with a points deduction and a back of the grid start in the final race of the season, he was unable to claim the title from Jorge Lorenzo. Even six years on, Rossi has not forgiven his younger rival.
“2015 was a very bad moment, maybe the worst moment of my career,” he told CNN. “All the season I had a great fight with Jorge Lorenzo, who was my teammate in Yamaha, and at the end unfortunately another rider decided that I don’t have to win the championship, so Marc Márquez decided that I don’t have to become world champion, for the 10th time.”
Márquez has always denied that he had any intention of scuppering Rossi’s title bid, but the Italian remains unconvinced, and hatchets remain unburied.
“From that moment, it was not the same. For me, it changed a lot the feeling that I have with MotoGP, and also it was very bad for MotoGP because it was not able to manage this situation, and from that moment we don’t have any relationship,” Rossi continued. Asked by CNN if he had a message for the Catalan, he roared with laughter. “No,” he answered flatly, “I don’t have a message.”
Rossi did not name Márquez in his list of major rivalries, picking instead three others from his illustrious career. “I had great rivalries, I enjoy always a lot, I think the best ones are with Max Biaggi, with the 500 and in MotoGP, and also with [Casey] Stoner because he was very fast and was a great talent, and with Jorge Lorenzo. These three I enjoy a lot, sometimes I won, sometimes I lose, but it was always a great fight.”
Rossi’s impact on MotoGP is impossible to quantify, in part because he has been an ever-present in the premier class since the MotoGP brand was created, in 2002. “Imagine, that I was here in the first race of MotoGP because before the name was not MotoGP, so from the beginning of MotoGP, you have Valentino Rossi,” the Italian laughed.
Now, as the sport finally parts ways with its most celebrated competitor, Rossi sees a bright future ahead for it without him, not least with a new crop of Italian talent on the grid.
A bright future
“For the future, we have a lot of very fast Italian riders that can fight for the championship, like [Pecco] Bagnaia, like [Francesco] Morbidelli, and I will cheer for them,” he told CNN.
In a career full of joyful moments and great successes, Rossi also harked back to one of MotoGP’s most tragic moments, the death of Marco Simoncelli during the Malaysia Grand Prix 10 years ago. He admitted that he often still thinks of his fallen compatriot.
“MotoGP lost a great rider, but I lost a great friend because we always trained together and we stay a lot together during the normal life,” Rossi told CNN. “The memory of Marco is still very light, not just for me, but for all the paddock because he was a very funny guy. It’s already 10 years, but it looks a lot less because a lot of times I dream about Marco, and it’s like sometimes we met.”
The sense of occasion as Rossi finally took his place on the grid in Valencia was palpable, even if he was starting from the fourth row. Curiously, the date of the race lent the occasion an extra note of stunning symmetry: 11/14/21 – add those numbers together and they come to, you guessed it, 46: Rossi’s iconic racing number.
With stars ranging from Tom Cruise, Chris Hemsworth, Keanu Reeves, and the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Andrea Pirlo recording tributes to Rossi, social media was also abuzz with anticipation.
In the event, the race itself was a tightly fought one, with Jorge Martin holding an early lead, before being hauled in by fellow Ducati rider and Rossi protégé, Pecco Bagnaia. The young Italian was sporting a specially designed helmet for the race, emblazoned with the number 46, and the words ‘Che Spettacolo!’, or ‘What a Show!’
Perhaps fittingly, Bagnaia took that number across the line to victory, ahead of a historic first ever Ducati podium lockout, ensuring the Bologna outfit added the team title to the constructor’s title it had already clinched.
“It was incredible, incredible,” Bagnaia told the official MotoGP channel after the race. “The only way possible to celebrate [Rossi] was to win with his helmet, so there was Vale with me, on the top of the podium, so I’m so happy.”
Rossi held his 10th place, underscoring the fact that, even at 42, he can still more than hold his own in a premier class race.
Close friend and Brazilian soccer legend Ronaldo waved the checkered flag as the Italian crossed the line. A swarm of fans and riders surrounded him under a cloud of yellow smoke after the flag, before he returned to a guard of honor in the packed and applauding paddock, eventually standing on the saddle of his Yamaha amid the throng to wave at his now former colleagues.
Two new chapters
Rossi will not be stepping away from racing just yet, however. “I will race with cars next year, with GT cars in some endurance championships in Europe,” he told CNN. “And you have also a very good championship in America that is called IMSA, and maybe one time, I will come to race in the US.”
“I always drive racing cars, because it’s my great passion. I started with a go kart so I have some good experience, and it’s fun to drive cars. And also because if you are a bit more older, it’s not so bad because it’s more easy physically, and I like to stay on the track, I like to be a driver, so we will see. I don’t know my potential, we need to wait for next year.”
The other great new challenge awaiting the Italian is fatherhood; his partner – former model Francesca Sofia Novello – is expecting their first child.
“It’s fantastic, you know,” he told CNN. “It’s the first time, when I know the news I was very happy because I think it’s the right moment, and I think it’s a new chapter of life, and I think it will be very funny.”