World champion Valentino Rossi turns the ripe old age of 30
This past February 18, perennial world champion Valentino Rossi turned the ripe old age of 30. The fact that this was an important milestone became apparent after a quick scan of the Internet; various web pages posted well-wishes from famous people both inside and outside the sport, including actors Daniel-Day Lewis and Tom Cruise, Rossi’s former teammate Colin Edwards and current teammate Jorge Lorenzo. The gist of the comments was easy enough to predict. People universally praised his skill, and Edwards jokingly recalled the one time he beat Rossi straight up during the first MotoGP return to Laguna Seca and Lorenzo issued a tacit plea that the Italian might finally slow down a bit.
That’s not likely to happen. The one time in his professional career when it seemed that Rossi was unable to sustain a certain level of competitiveness—in other words, beat everyone in sight—was during the 2007 season when it became clear he was working with an inferior tire. The Doctor was also in the midst of a certain level of career uncertainty; he was still harbouring hopes of a switch to four wheels, to Formula One and to Ferrari.
Rossi also delivered an uncharacteristically ragged 2006 season during which he crashed out in the season finale while he still had the chance to beat Nicky Hayden and claim the title. At that time, the Italian was gunning for his sixth consecutive premier class championship and this mistake appeared to hang over his head quite heavily. The following season, the aforementioned tire troubles prevented him from providing Casey Stoner with any kind of challenge, but Rossi also looked more error-prone and unsettled than usual. By the end of the season, Stoner was in another league and Rossi missed out on the title for a second year in a row—something that had never happened before in his career.
In fact, his march through the record books has been both steady and spectacular almost from the start. Rossi entered Grand Prix racing in 1996 with Aprilia in the 125cc class. The then-17-year-old started off a bit erratically—understandable for a 17-year-old Italian motorcycle racer—before settling in and determining how to fight for wins without crashing.
That initial victory came in his 11th start, his only win of the season. Rossi went on to finish ninth in his first professional motorcycle roadracing championship. Considering what was to follow, this was a fairly uninspired campaign—the speed was there, for sure, but there were some crucial pieces missing. The following season, though, the puzzle took shape and Rossi began to dominate GP racing in a way that few riders have ever done before. Riding again with Aprilia, the Doctor scored 11 wins (a record) from 15 starts and easily powered away to his first world championship.
In 1998, Rossi moved up to the 250cc class with Aprilia and made an immediate impact. Although he lost the championship to Loris Capirossi, he still managed to take five wins from 15 starts. This proved to be just a warm-up for the 1999 campaign during which Rossi scored nine wins to give Aprilia another title. To this day, Rossi is the most successful Aprilia GP rider of all time. (And the most successful Honda rider of all time.)
When he moved up to the premier class in 2000, Rossi spent another year “learning the ropes,” but still showed he was as fast and talented as anyone in the world, if not more so.
Then, the hammer came down. From 2001-05, Rossi buried the competition to take the premier class title five years in a row. Along the way, he won on a Honda 500cc four-cylinder two-stroke (2001), a Honda 990cc five-cylinder four-stroke (2002-03) and a Yamaha 990cc four-cylinder four-stroke (2004-05). Versatility, thy name is Rossi. Since then, he had that tough loss in 2006 and the even tougher season in 2007, when he finished only third in the title chase—his lowest placing since his very first 125cc season. But in 2008, he bounced back in fine style, reclaiming the championship for Yamaha—on yet another type of machine, the 800cc four-cylinder four-stroke—winning nine races and setting a new record for most points in a season with 373.
This is just one of the many records Rossi has claimed over the course of his career. Among the others: the most premier class Grand Prix wins (71), the most podiums in a single season (16 in 2003, 2005 and 2008) and the most fastest laps in a single season (12 in 2003). In numerous other categories—all-time wins, podiums, pole positions and fastest laps—the Italian is within shouting distance of the current respective record-holders.
But possibly his greatest achievement is his consistent competitiveness over his still ascendant career. In 210 career starts in all categories, Rossi has captured 97 wins—a strike rate of 46%. Looking at his success just in the premier class, the numbers are similar: 71 wins from 150 starts or 47%. (It seems like #46 really likes to stick with that number.)
All the smart money has Rossi continuing to race motorcycles until the end of 2010. At that point, his Yamaha contract will have expired and he will be an even riper 31 years of age. While this may seem a bit long in the tooth for a MotoGP rider, it’s the prime age for a World Rally Championship driver—and the Italian recently had his most successful WRC outing ever, finishing in 11th place in New Zealand against the best in the business.
But until the day comes when Rossi makes that switch, look for the “old man” to show all the young guns he has a few more tricks up his sleeve, many more thrilling rides to put in and a few more records to shatter along the way.
MotoGP’s biggest name turns 30 with more wins and records on the horizon