The Grin Is What Carried Us

The first season I kept up with MotoGP in real time was 2003. Before then, I read race reports on the Old Internet or flipped through whatever year’s Motocourse was still on the shelves at my local Barnes & Noble during my dad’s Sunday bagel run1 because I was a car kid more into F1 and NASCAR, plus we didn’t have TV access — or if we did, I didn’t know when because ESPN increasingly used its Walt Disney money to invest in mainstream sports during daylight hours while its niche coverage retreated to insomniac timeslots or got sold off to other stations entirely. I understood the gist of that world by the time our cable package added Speed Channel, in other words, but it was mostly by accident.

My knowledge of the characters in the wake of Mick Doohan’s retirement was limited, though I knew enough to recognize Valentino Rossi was the man to beat as the double and defending world champ. But in addition to Max Biaggi getting a top-shelf Honda RC211V and the competitiveness of the new Ducatis, the prospect of 2002’s top World Superbike men, Colin Edwards and Troy Bayliss, both leveling up, plus AMA champ Nicky Hayden joining Honda from a bidding war and 250cc champ Marco Melandri graduating within the grand prix paddock, meant that on paper, the 2003 MotoGP grid was tantalizingly flush.

In practice, going into the Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island that October 19th, there was no doubt left: Valentino Rossi was undisputed champion for a third time running and, as Mat Oxley has since detailed, rounding out the best season of his career.

– – – – –

Much will be made of Rossi’s final ride in front of his home crowd at Misano this coming weekend, and in the coming weeks where his career will end on a downbeat note; indeed, Oxley himself is putting out a book detailing every single one of Vale’s world championship rides. I haven’t read a page of it yet (unless he’s reusing material from race reports, in which case I’ve read most of it), but I’d hazard a guess that only the most weirdly bitter fans could deny Rossi belongs in the same pantheon as generation-defining mononyms like Serena, LeBron, Messi, Tiger, maybe Federer or Kobe, athletes who mastered both sides of the grainy pre-streaming era and the 4K post-content divide. Put it another way: When I was in college, I met a guy sophomore year who liked bikes but only knew motocross, yet he did drop one name from MotoGP. The year after when I studied abroad, I was boarding a plane in Milan once and overheard these four Italian kids maybe a little younger than me talking bikes; I explicitly remember understanding only a fraction of the discussion, but it was clear who it was revolving around. Riders have fan clubs at some tracks, but only one rider has a fan club every track. In each case, the name is the same. Even at his peak, Marc Marquez has been too much of a company man to ever have a chance at the popular vote Valentino owns.

As the cover of Oxley’s book implies, Rossi will go down in history as a Yamaha rider. Well, naturally: Of his 115 career victories spanning three classes and six different types of bike, 56 of them came on a Yam. He won four titles with the brand. He’s ridden for them all but two years since a dormroom Zuck fired up The Facebook. He’s done more for the brand than any underpaid 23-year-old Too Online intern could ever possibly hope for. He’ll retire with them, and he’ll have an open invite to make appearances at dinners and special events for Yamaha for the rest of his life. Even with a tax evasion case to his credit, he will be forever rich thanks to whatever untold millions Hamamatsu has paid out. Without Yamaha, his myth looks a lot more like Doohan’s or Marquez’s and much less like Eddie Lawson’s, like his own. Without his Welkom win and subsequent title in 2004, he is merely a great among greats rather than a forever idol.

If you took a poll to see what his greatest season was, 2004 would likely be the overwhelming choice. You might have a few nostalgic ballots cast for 2001, when he triumphed in the final year of the all-500cc grid. You’d have a few for 2008, when he bounced back on the 800s, and maybe a few for 2015, when he strained against the limits of his body and bike to fail at a 10th title. As for his greatest race, Welkom ‘04 would win in a landslide. You’d have plenty of votes for Laguna Seca ‘08 when he outdueled Casey Stoner at the Corkscrew and Barcelona ‘09 when he nicked ahead of Jorge Lorenzo at the last gasp, maybe a few here and there for various Mugello home wins or flipping Biaggi off at Suzuka in ‘01 or one of his late career triumphs.

All of these answers are understandable, and wrong.

– – – – –

You’d be forgiven for thinking the Phillip Island grid was MotoGP’s noisiest place to be that October Sunday. Ink buckets and uncountable URLs were grappling with the question of what it meant for Valentino Rossi that he had rejected Honda’s last offer a few weeks before and now seemed set for a sensational switch to Yamaha, probably, for 2004 — but all concerned parties remained mum while journalists turned over every stone looking for answers on the contract details being sorted amid secret motorhome meetings in the small hours.

In this brief purgatory between the yawning inevitability of Valentino’s dominant Honda years and the ascendent pop star of what followed lies the finest 27 laps and 42 minutes of his career. Rossi gets bogged down at the start (as he was often wont to do in those days) and drops to sixth before picking off the guys ahead, but the crucial moment is his pass on Melandri under yellow flags triggered by Troy Bayliss’ fall on lap 4.

What transpires thereafter is a poetic performance, a myth-making thing that can only properly be described in broken fragments and electric verse, like the steady unplucking of bird feathers or lava flowing into a small village: He takes the lead a lap later just as (you couldn’t make it up, not with Valentino) the sun breaks through the clouds, and he’s more or less worked his way free of the chasing squabble by the time stewards issue a 10-second penalty for the pass under yellow on lap 12 — that is, he doesn’t know he’s been docked this colossal amount of time (10 seconds is a death sentence in 2021, but even in ‘03, it was usually insurmountable) until halfway through the race. At that point, he’s 3.565 seconds up on the chasing pack after 13 laps and needs 6.435 seconds in the final 14 laps for the win.

The greatest race of Valentino Rossi’s career is one you see almost none of. Such is the fight behind that cameras focus on those duels in the grand prix’s back half. With commentary muted, you eventually come to forget Valentino’s there. By the time it’s over, he’s not only pulled back the 10-second deficit, he’s also added a further five-second cushion to remind you and everyone else where he really stands: apart.

– – – – –

MotoGP has been fixated on its children a lot lately, eager to cast out old guys2 and lock in new-what-next pubescent promise like Pedro Acosta or David Alonso to years-long deals in an effort to keep them from the competition while the public grows ever more uneasy about the human toll required to reach the top. I couldn’t tell you exactly where that youth fixation started, but it might be with Valentino — the kid who would be king, who embraced celebrity and was embraced back like none before or since, showman, rock star, prankster, master of mindgames, supreme godhead, a gift to those who looked for one. I don’t know what I was looking for in 2003, exactly, but I know what I found there tape-delayed on TV in the margins of my days. That’s how I choose to remember Valentino — in the first year of my devoted fandom, effortlessly bodying an entire generation of rivals and resetting the bar for all who dared to follow, a giant yellow “46” emblazoned across his bike blessed by glistening sunshine after the rains, at peace with the immediate present, sharing what the joy of this life could feel like, glowing inspiration, youthful and imperious, radiant and unending. Eventually it’s enough to let the words run out; your grin will carry the rest.

1 A dozen poppy seed at Manhattan Bagel, as good as Pineville, NC could offer then (or now?)
2 RIP Reinhold Roth, gone just this past week

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