By Tom Doughty
On August 5th, 2021, Italian MotoGP rider Valentino Rossi announced that the 2021 MotoGP season would be his last. The legacy that the 42-year-old, nine-time world champion leaves is immense – for many he simply is MotoGP. The outpouring of tributes from across the motorsport world, including from his historical rivals – Max Biaggi, Jorge Lorenzo, and Casey Stoney – demonstrates how impressive his career in motorbike racing has been. At the height of his dominant period in 2006, he nearly switched from riding in MotoGP to Formula 1, displaying the sheer talent Rossi showed in racing. His decision to ultimately stay in the MotoGP paddock only helped the sport grow, and his legacy along with it.
At 42-years-old, Rossi is an outlier due to his age on the current MotoGP grid. Most riders are in their twenties and name Rossi as their idol and inspiration for becoming motorbike riders. The fact that a rider such as Fabio Quartararo at the age of 22 is racing against his idol twenty years older than him is remarkable, especially considering the competitiveness of the 2021 season. In most free practice and qualifying sessions, often the top 15 riders are within one second of each other. It’s due to the high calibre in the quality of the field that Rossi has announced his retirement. His 2020 and 2021 seasons have seen him languishing towards the rear of the pack on the SRT Petronas Yamaha.
Whilst going forward he will no longer be racing on the track, he will still be a significant presence in the paddock, managing his own MotoGP team, Aramco VR46. Rossi’s VR46 rider’s academy has been instrumental in scouting and training talented young Italian riders and is one of the best legacies he provides for the sport. Even in the current 2021 season, both Franco Morbidelli and Francesco Bagnaia are graduates from the VR46 academy, showing the success of his programme and the impact Rossi has had in cultivating Italian talent under his mentorship and training. With Rossi already having created VR46 teams in the lower-spec Moto2 and Moto3 classes, he has been an incredible influence in creating the next generation of talented Italian riders. In what is a traditionally Spanish-dominated sport.
With 2021 being Rossi’s last season, what does the future of MotoGP hold?
The last couple of seasons has seen a changing of the guard, with older riders such as Andrea Dovizioso, Dani Pedrosa, and Jorge Lorenzo retiring for a newer generation of talent on the track. The 2020 season was one of the most competitive in recent memory, particularly due to dominant eight-time world champion Marc Marquez injuring himself at the first race in Jerez resulting in him opting out of the season to focus on his recovery. This allowed for the younger rookies to battle it out, with Joan Mir showing fantastic consistency to claim the 2020 MotoGP title for Suzuki.
2021 has seen Yamaha’s Fabio Quartararo perform fantastically, and at the time of writing he leads the championship – it’s Fabio’s to lose.
MotoGP races tend to produce lots of surprise victories. In the 2020 season alone there were nine different race winners, with both factory and private teams in with a shot of the podium.
For British fans of MotoGP, one thing that is notable is the current lack of British talent. Currently, there is John McPhee in Moto3 and both Sam Lowes and Jake Dixon in Moto2, however, neither three have shown enough consistency in order to be promoted to a MotoGP ride. This is likely for a number of reasons; the main one being that despite the popularity of motorbike racing in the UK (as seen with British Superbikes and the Isle of Man TT) it is simply not as popular as Formula 1.
In stark contrast, MotoGP is very popular in countries such as Spain and Italy, where, as a sport, it is second only to football in popularity. MotoGP is also particularly popular in countries with a big motorbike/scooter culture, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and other Southeast Asian nations. Even in France, the current success of French riders Fabio Quartararo and Johann Zarco (at time of publication first and second in the championship respectively) has seen MotoGP’s popularity improve in the country.
Rossi’s success, coupled with his VR46 academy has meant the next generation of Italian MotoGP talent is likely to continue to flourish. In contrast to Britain, Italy has in Valentino Rossi a MotoGP legend, with the likes of which only Spain’s Marc Marquez is likely to pass in the near future in championship title wins. Whilst his racing career has not been without controversy (his alleged bust-up with rival Max Biaggi, as well as his contentious clash with Marc Marquez in Malaysia 2015 spring to mind), he leaves behind a legacy that forever changed how fans enjoy MotoGP. Whilst his retirement signals the end of an era for his on-track racing, the influence he has had on encouraging both the current and future MotoGP stars to take up motorbike racing will last for generations to come.
Grazie Vale, it’s been a pleasure watching you race.