sports

Valentino Rossi magic is like foreign travel… just a hazy memory


25 years after his grand-prix debut, Valentino Rossi is still on the MotoGP grid (LLUIS GENE/AFP)

As I look out of my hotel window, a schooner boat slices a barely visible line through the tiny diamonds dancing off the waters of the Persian Gulf.

Closer to shore, a group of paddleboarders are braving the transition from balancing on their knees to two feet, for what looks like the first time.

As I write, one has managed to fall in while squatting like a scrummaging rugby player and not actually paddling, an achievement in itself.

High-rise hotels line the almost white-blue bay to the right, palm trees sweep along the beach below, and the whole scene feels so impossibly, exotically unreal, quarantined as we have all essentially been in our own lives for much of the past year.

I struggled for five minutes to open the curtains this morning, before I thought to look for a button that would do the job for me; I poured water on, instead of into, the coffee machine. Not since the days before budget airlines has travel felt so, well, foreign.

I’m in Qatar for the first round of the MotoGP season, reflecting on the fact it was right before that boom in low-cost travel Valentino Rossi began his career.

Valentino Rossi of Italy and Petronas Yamaha SRT at the starting grid ahead of the MotoGP in Doha, Qatar (Steve Wobser/Getty)

The nine-time world champion, now 42, made his grand-prix debut on March 31, 1996. One month later, easyJet began operating international flights and the world suddenly became more accessible, in what now feels like a hazy dream.

Within a few short years the Italian had amassed as many wins as the airline had flight routes, and from even further afield. Here we are, 25 years on, feeling like we have almost come full circle. Valentino Rossi is still lining up on the MotoGP grid, even as easy international travel seems like a fading memory, but whether either can return to the huge boom of before is debatable.

Rossi’s last MotoGP win was at Assen in 2017. There was much talk of potential retirement before a one-year contract was signed with Petronas Yamaha, an extension now seemingly dependant on a top-five finish in the championship.

Given Rossi finished 15th last year in his worst season yet, it’s a big ask. Win or not, simply having Rossi on the grid is a huge draw, and the lack of a dominant rider for the opening weekend is what should make it so thrilling.

The Italian’s long-time rival, Honda’s Marc Marquez would be the Ryanair of this travel analogy, coming later and challenging for the dominant place in history, except for the fact both riders are, of course, luxury airliners.

Rossi’s last win was in 2017 at Assen, Netherlands (Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty)

Marquez would have been the name on everyone’s lips this weekend, but the eight-time world champion has opted to continue his recovery from a brutal crash at Jerez last year and subsequent complications, planning instead to return later in the campaign.

His absence is no longer the novelty it was last season, lasting as it has for eight months already, but familiarity doesn’t ease the pressure any on his rivals. Rather, with his return looming in potentially a few races’ time, it is a weekend to take as many points as possible as a buffer against the Spaniard’s comeback, as much as it is a race against each other.

Of course, we have no idea how Marquez will return, when he does. I have heard it said that for every one month off the bike, it takes two to get back to previous form. This was laughed off by my Dutch Eurosport colleagues who suggested that, with Marquez, it should take no more than a couple of laps.

In the meantime, we have a new defending world champion in the form of Joan Mir, of Suzuki, who openly admits he has to find a pure speed that surpasses his rivals as well as a consistency and intelligence to undermine them.

It is an unusually thrilling situation, for fans at least, for the incumbent not to start the following season as favourite. That title arguably belongs to Australian Jack Miller, whose single MotoGP win in 2016 belies his talent to the uninitiated, and his potential for this season. The Ducati rider smashed the Qatar lap record in testing and looks like their best bet for a title shot since Casey Stoner in 2007.

All of which is hilariously premature of course, and not factoring in the very real threat of last year’s runner-up, Italian Franco Morbidelli.

After the most unpredictable season in modern times in 2020, only a fool would try to indulge in anything other than fanciful guesswork ahead of this year.

Out of 22 riders on the grid, more than half could win on any given weekend, the rest could finish on the podium.

We are looking at the most competitive grid we have seen in a long time. The backdrop of the ongoing pandemic only feeds into that uncertainty.

How will the world look by the time we have crowned a new world champion?

It feels like a period of transition either way but at least with MotoGP, wherever the journey takes us next, it looks certain to be a lot of fun.

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