The MotoGP tribute that does a legend a disservice
For a long time, at least, Valentino Rossi’s exploits in MotoGP will continue to be hailed. His nine world titles and 115 Grand Prix victories remain the benchmark for which modern culture aspires.
Although his final season last year ended with more of a whimper than a blow, Rossi’s legend is immortal. Thanks to its VR46 Academy, the best Italian talents of Francesco Bagnaia, Franco Morbidelli, Luca Marini and Marco Bezzecchi carry on its legacy in the premier class in 2022, while the “yellow army” can support its VR46 Ducati team.
Dorna Sports has already rolled out the red carpet for his retirement, making him an official MotoGP legend ahead of his final outing at Valencia last year, while all nine of his award-winning bikes were assembled for his viewing pleasure and immense fresco painted on the race control building of the Ricardo Tormo circuit.
But as he carves out a new career in motor racing, with client team Audi Team WRT in the GT World Challenge Europe, MotoGP has not finished throwing the honors at Rossi.
At Mugello on Saturday – the scene of seven consecutive MotoGP victories for Rossi on home soil between 2002 and 2008 – MotoGP will retire its famous #46 from competition in a move that raised eyebrows when it was announced at the Grand French prices.
It was something that was immediately called into question as the idea of retiring his racing number, usually reserved for deceased riders, was rejected by Rossi himself several years ago.
“About my number, I was thinking – my first impression is that I don’t like 46 to be retired,” Rossi said when asked about it in 2016. “I’d rather he stay and if another driver wants to take what number they can.
Rossi continues to use number 46 in GTWCE, but MotoGP will retire the number this weekend in his honor
Photo by: SRO
MotoGP has an earlier form when it comes to benching the number of notable riders at the end of their careers. 1993 500cc World Champion Kevin Schwantz’s #34 was the first to be retired, while in the years that followed numbers like Daijiro Kato’s #74, Marco Simoncelli’s #58 and °69 by Nicky Hayden were all removed out of respect after their tragic deaths. .
It’s very good and made for emotional moments for the loved ones of these runners. But by removing a number, you remove the only avenue where a driver can truly be honored: on the track.
Unsurprisingly, when asked about Rossi’s number retirement at Le Mans, most drivers felt it was inevitable and correct.
The association with a number can be cemented by the heroism of someone who has worn it during their career. But that shouldn’t somehow equate to ownership. It would be like stopping all guitarists from using Fender Stratocasters because that’s what Jimi Hendrix played.
“I mean, it was inevitable, I think,” said Ducati’s Jack Miller. “Number 46 can be retired for sure. My number won’t be taken down, I can almost guarantee that, because I’m not Valentino Rossi. So I don’t need to worry.
Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaro added: “The 46 has to be dropped 100%, that’s for sure. He was the best in history, so that’s fine. But for the young riders coming in, if we start taking out a lot of numbers, it will become a nightmare.
Rossi protege Bagnaia thinks removing #46 makes sense because “I don’t think anyone will choose 46, it’s too much of a responsibility”.
This last point is relevant – but also highlights why runners shouldn’t be barred from running a legendary number. If a dazzling young rider making his way through the junior ranks wants to clinch the MotoGP title with the #46, then why not? On the contrary, it would show the confidence that the runner has in his abilities. But it would also make a fantastic story if they managed to get these legendary numbers back to the top of the world – something that hasn’t been done since 2009.
Preventing other riders from using #46 is a decision Rossi himself has previously called on MotoGP not to make.
Photo by: Gold and Goose/ Motorsport pictures
In some cases, a number identified with a legend may even have a second wind with another for a new generation. Famously, in basketball, Lebron James used the #23 when he started playing in the NBA. #23 was once made famous by Michael Jordan, whom James idolized growing up, and he chose to wear this number as a tribute to his hero. James went on to be considered a basketball legend just as much as Jordan, who was happy for the first at #23 because he felt he never owned the number.
Perhaps the clearest comparison to this in motorsport is in NASCAR, where rookie Chase Elliott was given the huge mandate to drive Hendrick Motorsports’ #24 Chevrolet after Jeff Gordon’s retirement at the end of 2015. He only drove with No 24 for two years before changing to No 9, the number he used to win the Cup title in 2020, and No 24 is now used by William Byron, who emulated Gordon in winning Rookie of the Year in 2018.
NASCAR is arguably the other motorsport division where drivers are most clearly associated with numbers, although the honor of driving the #27 Ferrari in Formula 1 after the death of Gilles Villeneuve may have been greater. than any other. Seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr’s No. 3 was unofficially retired after his death in the 2001 Daytona 500 and his replacement at Richard Childress Racing, Kevin Harvick, instead drove the No. 29 for the duration of his time with the team. But RCR brought the No. 3 back to Austin Dillon, the team owner’s grandson, to drive in 2014 and he took it to victory at the Daytona 500 in 2018.
MORE: How Earnhardt’s death changed American motorsport
Given that Valentino Rossi inherited the number 46 from his Grand Prix-winning father Graziano, there’s perhaps reason to think that if anyone should own a number, then it’s Rossi. But it’s tenuous at best.
Certainly, the association with a number can be cemented by the heroism of someone who has worn it during their career. But that shouldn’t somehow equate to ownership. It would be like stopping all guitarists from using Fender Stratocasters because that’s what Jimi Hendrix used to play.
We now return to the original question raised when MotoGP first announced Rossi’s number retirement ceremony at Mugello. Why, if he never wanted this to happen, is it happening?
Cynically, just look at the predicted attendance figure for this weekend’s Italian GP released by the Florence prefecture of a measly 20-30,000 for the entire event. The first Italian GP to be held with a full crowd since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic unfortunately came too late for Rossi’s career finale, but it’s not as if partisan representation was lacking being given four of the seven wins so far in 2022 have gone to Italian riders (three for Enea Bastianini, one for Francesco Bagnaia – both on Ducatis).
In other motorsport categories, famous numbers associated with legends are still used – such as the #3 used by the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Photo by: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP/ Motorsport pictures
High ticket prices may be partly to blame for the lower than expected turnout, with a two-day grandstand ticket to the Materassi Grandstand coming in at €240. By contrast, an equivalent three-day grandstand ticket for the following week’s Catalunya GP in Barcelona costs €90. This is ultimately the reality of the post-COVID era we live in and highlights the financial misery caused by the pandemic.
But if you have a product worth buying, people will find a way. This was made very clear when Formula 1 raced in Miami, where a general admission weekend ticket cost over $400. Still, the Miami circuit was packed on race day.
Overall attendance figures were weaker than expected in 2022. While 225,000 people showed up for the weekend at Le Mans, boosted by decent ticket prices and strong French representation, weekend figures de Jerez were down from 151,513 in 2019 (the last “normal” year) to 123,101 in 2022. Just under 45,000 showed up for race day in Portimao, and no figures have was released for the uncrowded Austin race. In 2019, Mugello welcomed 139,329 people throughout the weekend.
So it’s hard to look past Rossi’s number retirement ceremony – which will take place on the main straight ahead of qualifying on Saturday at Mugello – as a way of trying to salvage a desperate situation by using a draw. . MotoGP apparently hasn’t figured out how to move on.
Is Rossi’s tribute a cynical gesture to attract fans?
Photo by: Gold and Goose/ Motorsport pictures