Throwback to Misano: Rossi's home town heroics, 5 years on
When the Moto GP paddock returned from the annual summer break in August 2014, questions started to emerge on the subject of Valentino Rossi’s sell by date in the sport. After two horror years on the Ducati Desmosedici and just one win in 18 months, since returning to the solace of his beloved Yamaha M1, it wasn’t unfair to question whether the Doctor was ready to hang up his leathers.
Marquez mania had already set in, the Spanish ace winning the 2013 Moto GP World Championship title at the first time of asking at the age of 20. Marquez exhibited a riding style so aggressive and committed, he made Casey Stoner look like he was riding down the shops. With Marc winning the first 10 races of the 2014 season, the writing looked to be on the wall for Rossi as a new era commenced.
But, this is Valentino Rossi we are talking about. Tavullia’s favourite son’s scripts throughout his career, have been the work of a Tarantino or Spielberg. Winning first time out on the undesirable Yamaha at Welkom in 2004 or passing Casey Stoner down the corkscrew at Laguna Seca, the nine time world champion has always possessed this uncanny ability to turn the tables when his chips are down.
By mid-September in 2014, with a handful of races left in the season, Rossi desperately needed a win, to keep his place at the Moto GP top table. As the Moto GP circus arrived on the Adriatic coast for the San Marino GP at Misano, the customary homecoming carnival for Valentino was waiting. A young Rossi, cut his teeth on the country roads surrounding his Tavullia home and the Misano circuit, racing his friends on highly tuned scooters and three wheeled “ape cars”. They say every race is a home race for Valentino Rossi, so superior is his global appeal, compared to other riders but the grass banks of Misano and Mugello host an annual congregation that worship the Italian sporting god. If there were any race to remind the world he wasn’t going anywhere, Misano would be the one.
Torrential rain washed through the Misano circuit for the Friday free practice sessions. The resulting treacherous conditions created havoc on track for the riders in all three classes. By the end of the day, Misano circuit’s refuse collection was brimming with millions of euros worth of broken race bike parts. Fans who braved attending, to catch a glimpse of their heroes, could be found at the catering trucks, mixing Sambuca in their double espresso in an attempt to lift their spirits. For an old hand like Rossi though, this lack of preparation for a dry race on Sunday, suited him perfectly. Despite a switch from his old crew chief Jeremy Burgess, Rossi’s crew still knew how to dial in a gunpowder setting on a Sunday race day to create fireworks.
When the paddock drew open the curtains of their seaside hotels on Saturday, more familiar Adriatic sunshine was there to greet them. In the untimed, pre-qualifying, free practice four session, Rossi showed the first signs of the ace cards he was holding for Sundays race. Sporting his traditional home race AGV helmet, designed by great friend, Aldo Drudi, Rossi repeatedly posted rapid lap times with metronomic consistency. Since the inception of the FP4 session before qualifying, the timesheets have always been a reasonably accurate measure of who has solid race pace, so “The Doctor” was looking strong for Sunday.
Pole position would be claimed by arch enemy, Jorge Lorenzo, on the sister factory Yamaha. “The maniac”, Andrea Iannone, threw caution to the wind and rode his Pramac Ducati right on the very ragged edge, utilising the softer qualifying tyre that his “open” spec bike could take advantage of, to claim 2nd on the grid. Rossi, crucially, pipped the previously dominant Marquez to 3rd place, pushing the Spaniard back to very unfamiliar territory, on the second row of the grid.
Rossi’s strong pace over the weekend undoubtedly boosted the race day attendance, joining the die-hard devotees who hadn’t missed a minute of their man’s time on track, all weekend. His tribe of followers, so desperate to see their hero triumph again, packed the tribunes, dressed head to toe in VR46 merchandise. Spotting a Jorge Lorenzo t shirt in the sea of yellow, as tricky as an advanced version of Where is Waldo?
On most Grand Prix race days, Moto 3 and Moto 2 are often watched with great interest and admiration of the tenacious, hard riding youngsters, desperately trying to climb up the Grand Prix ladder. But, on this sunny September day, the junior classes were wished away. Misano’s capacity crowd, longed to see their man burst into view on his dark blue, Yamaha M1, with the famous bright yellow 46 on the fairing. As the clock ticked past 1.30pm local time, the Moto GP pack cruised out of pit lane and round the Misano circuit to take their spots on the grid. As Rossi passed the grass bank, running the length of the back straight, the gathering of Rossi worshipers went absolutely ballistic.
Scrums of media, team personnel and Italy’s rich and famous were ushered off the grid just before the strike of 2pm. Rossi’s loyal Aussie mechanics, Brett and Alex, who have been by his side from his first day at school in the Grand Prix top class, peeled back the heated jackets from the Bridgestone tyres and exited stage left, over the wall into pit lane. 28 punishing laps of the Misano Circuit, lay ahead of Rossi and his first win at home since 2009.
When the flag dropped, Lorenzo dropped the hammer and scampered into the lead, with his 35 year old team mate, Rossi, in hot pursuit. Double World Champion elect, Marc Marquez, knew he could not afford to let the Movistar Yamahas get away from him and rode with brutal aggression in the opening corners to swiftly carve his way through the pack and tail the boys in blue. Marquez was clearly in mischievous mood, snapping at Rossi’s heels, diving underneath the Italian at the earliest opportunity. However, The Doctor was in no mood to have his assault on a homecoming victory thwarted by the Spanish upstart. With each attempt of a bold move from Marquez, Rossi landed a lightening quick counter punch, reclaiming his second position immediately. Each counter move landed by Rossi, sparked an eruption in the crowd that wouldn’t have been out of place at an Inter Milan football match. Despite the squabbling between the #46 and #93 bikes, Lorenzo on the #99 couldn’t profit and make a break away in the lead, previously a speciality of the Mallorcan, when given clear track. Rossi smelt blood and executed a perfect move up the inside at the tight, left hander, Quercia, picking Lorenzo’s pocket for the lead. When the Italian veteran is riding at his best, as he was on this historic day, his confidence under braking is clear for all to see. As Rossi took the lead into the heavy braking zone into Quercia, he appeared to have the utmost faith in the front tyre as he applied full pressure on the exotic carbon, Brembo brakes, plunging the Bridgestone front tyre into the tarmac. Releasing the brakes and tipping into the corner was so elegant and seamless, this was vintage Rossi rolling back the years.
Anticipating that Rossi may have the pace to make a break for it, Marquez inflicted a ruthless move on Lorenzo, barging his way through in brutal fashion, clearly desperate not to lose the tail of the #46 Yamaha. Marquez subjected Rossi to acute and relentless pressure for a further 5 laps. Form for the season so far, would have led one to believe that a Marquez pass for the lead was imminent but this was the day where the form book was tossed in the trash. On lap 11, at the Rio turn, in the first sector of the lap, the front end of Marquez’s Honda eventually cried enough and the Spaniard saw his victory chances evaporate in front of him as he slid along the hot, Misano tarmac. Initially unaware of his rival’s demise, Rossi’s army of admirers roared with delight as he burst into view, braking into Quercia, with no Marquez in tow.
The Italian seaside crowd was at fever pitch, could this be the day where Rossi cures his long victory drought, by spraying champagne from the top step of his home town podium? To do so, he would have to negotiate the longest 17 laps of his career, with an unrelenting Lorenzo, posing a constant threat, only a handful of seconds behind. On the packed banking next to the full commitment, Covone curve, the yellow army counted down the laps, praying for Rossi to make it to the chequered flag ahead of his nemesis, Jorge Lorenzo, denying the Mallorcan a 4th win in a row at Misano . On the final lap, Rossi coaxed his YZR-M1 round to the final corner, pointed his machine down the home straight and executed a perfect wheelie all the way to the flag, celebrating one of his greatest victories in fine style.
Without question, this majestic performance from the Italian legend, reinstated the belief that all of the speed and desire was still there to mount a challenge for a 10th world title. As we all know, the following season, Valentino Rossi fought a valiant campaign for the world championship in 2015. Sadly, Rossi would fall at the final hurdle, after a controversial tangle with Marc Marquez in Sepang, gifting the title to team mate, Jorge Lorenzo. We must never underestimate just how significant Rossi’s dream weekend, at home in Misano, was to setting him back on the path to the Moto GP elite where he always belonged. In 2019, the golden boy of Tavullia is reaching the sunset of his career but I have a feeling Valentino’s Hollywood script writers have just one more seaside sequel left before the film stops rolling on the blockbuster career of one of the greatest of all time.