Way back in 1996 a lanky wild-haired kid followed in his father's footsteps and made his first faltering foray into international motorcycle racing. Ten races into his first season, at Spielberg in Austria, he took his first podium. Next race, at Brno, he was on the tiop step. Valentino Rossi had arrived, and motorcycle racing would never be the same.
In the glory days before MotoGP, when racers were allowed, encouraged even, to have personalities and to be individuals rather than corporate drones, Rossi still stood out. Righ from the beginning he had a clear idea of the value of his image, but more than that he was also clearly having immense fun while doing something at which he was unfeasibly talented.
That first season he finished ninth, the lowest he would finish in any world championship class until 2020 when he contracted Covid-19 and was sidelined for most of the season.
1997 saw him win the 125cc world championship in pretty emphatic style, winning nine out of the thirteen races on the calendar and being on the podium for another two.
Bigger and better things beckoned, and 1998 saw Rossi finish a close second behind his arch rival and close friend Loris Capirossi, while 1999 saw him taking the title, with nine wins and two additional podiums. Both his 125 and 250 championships had been riding Aprilias, and the small, agile and phenomenally well put together Italian bikes clearly suited him very well. The chemistry within the team was obvious, and it was obvious that it would take something big pretty special to break up the dream team.
By big, of course, I mean twice the size. And by pretty special I mean a Honda NSR500. About as special as it gets, and almost certainly the ultimate development of two stroke racing motorcycles. As the millennium dawned, Rossi took his place in the blue riband class - 500cc Grand Prix racing. And, following his established patterm finished his first championship in second place - just - behind Suzuki's Kenny Roberts Junior.
2001 saw the pattern continue. Rossi won eleven out of the sixteen races on tha calendar, taking podiums in another two and winning the last 500cc world title ever by a comfortable margin.
Environmental pressures meant that two strokes were considered dead-end technology and economic realities meant the factories were less and less keen on spending vast amounts of R&D budget on vanity projects with no real application to their consumer products. So the beautiful, sewing-machine precise 500s were consigned to the history books, replaced for 2002 by heavier, brutally powerful 1000cc four strokes. It would prove to be a difficult transition - Rossi only managed to win eleven races that season, with two other podiums, to make himself the first ever MotoGP champion.
2003 was an equally, possibly even more, dominant season. The Honda/Rossi partnership was devastatingly effective, and Honda's ability to make the best bike on the grid (so much so that commentators referred to the "Honda Lane" on long straights as the RC-V seemed so much faster than everything else) meant that only a very brave or utterly foolish rider would move away from them. Nobody has ever questioned Rossi's courage, but a lot questioned his sanity when he announced at the tnd of the season that he was moving to Yamaha. The Yamaha of 2003 was not a particularly good motorbike. Carlos Checa was the highest Yamaha rider in the championship, and he was a distant seventh. Whatever happened in 2004, nobody would be able to say that Rossi was only getting results because he was on the best bike. That was probably a big reason for his move - by this stage in his career Rossi was one of the best known faces in Italy. Actually, probably in Europe and maybe even the world. Mention motorbike racing to anyone at any time this century and the chances are they will mention Rossi. So he didn't have to worry about the money - endorsements and sponsorship paid way more than race results - and he could afford to take a risk. And actually he did have something to prove. How often do you hear someone say that a rider (or driver) is only winning because they have the best bike or car? Rossi was out to prove a point.
And the first race of 2004 he proved that point in style. The underpowered, ill handling Yamaha shone. Rossi's ability to communicate with his technical team, his understandimng of what the bike was doing and, crucially, his ability to ride around problems meant that the bike was far better developed than it ever had been and was able to give him what he needed. Eight wins, two second places and two fourth places saw him lift the title again. And to prove it wasn't a fluke he repeated it in 2005, 2008 and 2009.
From fairly early in MotoGP the whispers had been circulating about how great it would be to see Rossi and Ducati together. Everyone wanted to see the ultimate Italian team, and in 2011 the dream became a reality. Unfortunately it coincided with Ducati producing a string of the worst race bikes they had ever made. The problem was (in my opinion) that they were making bikes designed for the new generation of riders coming through - riders who had never needed the finesse required to stop a 500cc two stroke launching them into a low-earth orbit and who had only raced top-class bikes loaded with electronics. Traction control and anti-wheelie cleverness made it a valid approach to ride a MotoGP bike with a binary approach to throttle control - fully open or shut - and Rossi came from the previous generation. The 2011 Ducati simply didn't work for him and the rigidity of the team meant that his undoubted talent at bike development was wasted.
Three years in the comparative wilderness followed, before Rossi rejoined Yamaha in 2014 and repaid their loyalty with a second place in the 2014 and 2015 championships. 2015 saw a titanic fight with his teammate Jorge Lorenzo, losing the championship by just five points in the last race of the season, while 2016 saw him again placed second behind newcomer Marc Marquez, crucially beating Lorenzo as the top Yamaha rider. There was no doubt, though, that at 37 years old Rossi was approaching the twilight of his career as a top flight racer, and he won his last race at Assen in 2017 before a broken leg ahead of the Misano round - his first ever serious injury - effectively put paid to his season. Since then, while there have been, without a doubt, obvious flashes of brilliance and while, even when he is in his seventies Valentino Rossi will still be faster than almost anyone on almost any bike, the results haven't come.
Valentino has brought us some of the best moments in motorcycle racing ever - his championship celebrations were the stuff of legends and his accidental lapses into post-watershed comments during post race interviews always made for entertaining viewing. But more than that, his sheer talent was simply staggering. I remember watching one rain-soaked British GP (has there been one that isn't wet?) where, at one point, the only thing he had on the ground was his knee. Both wheels and lost grip and weren't even touching the ground and yet somehow he gathered it all back together and just fired the thing off down the track. He stayed true to himself, he has remained a character - maybe the only one in that paddock after the demise of his friend and protege Marco Simoncelli - and, whatever he does next, he will be sorely missed.
Race starts: 423
Titles: 9 (1 each 125, 250 and 500cc, 6 MotoGP)
Podiums:235 (15 in 125, 21 in 250, 23 in 500 and 176 in MotoGP) Getting on for two thirds of all Rossi's race starts ended on the podium.
Of those podiums, 155 were wins (12 in 125, 14 in 250, 13 in 500 and 76 in MotoGP.) That's better than a quarter of all races entered.
Where it all started - the 1996 Aprilia 125
1999's 250cc Aprilia
Bigger things - the 2001 500cc Honda NSR
2002 Honda RC-V - MotoGP is here
Back with Yamaha and proving a point, again, in 2005...
The Ducati Dream Team pairing proved to be less of a dream and more of a nightmare... (2012)
2016, back on the Yamaha on the way to second place in the championship. Compare lean angles to the earlier (2005) Yamaha shot to see how things have moved on...