It may have only been a few television glimpses of number 46 in the Mugello sunshine on Sunday, but they were enough. Valentino Rossi in action at the magnificent Tuscan circuit the home of the Italian Grand Prix. A rider and venue carved into the very foundations of the last quarter of a century of Grand Prix racing.
Twenty-five years in which Rossi led the revolution at circuits throughout the World but it is Mugello that sums it all up. Massive passionate crowds packing the hillsides supporting a national hero and even an organised track invasion at the finish to celebrate in front of the podium.
Of course, it is about Rossi’s nine Grand Prix wins, including seven MotoGP™ victories in a row, 14 podium and seven pole positions at Mugello but it is so much more.
There was quite a melee Italian style round a desk in the press room overlooking pit lane in Mugello. Holding court sitting on the desk was a very young-looking fresh-faced teenager with long hair and already the Italian media were noting down every word he spoke. It was June 1995 at the Italian Grand Prix at Mugello, and I had absolutely no idea who he was.
I was told on enquiry he was Graziano Rossi’s son and honestly thought little more about it. Less than a year later Valentino had made his Grand Prix debut in Malaysia and less than six months later won the first of his 115 Grand Prix victories at Brno in the Czech Republic. The headlines soon changed, and the roles reversed – Three times Grand Prix winner Graziano Rossi was now Valentino Rossi’s dad.
Six years after that first meeting, I had organised a photoshoot on the London Eye big wheel overlooking the River Thames. Vale had won the opening three 500 Grand Prix of the 2001 season and was even big news in Britain. After a press conference in the pub next to the Eye I jumped into a taxi with Vale and his great mate Uccio on route to the BBC Studios at White City. They were like a couple of kids on their phones organising the end of School Prom but this was something special for Mugello. They had discovered there was a Rossi fan club in Hawaii, and they wanted to celebrate the fact.
It started off by planning to fly a couple of the fan club in for the race but typically the idea just exploded. By the race weekend in Mugello Rossi ‘s helmet and leathers were both in a Hawaiian flower design. The complete Honda pit crew wearing Hawaiian shirts, the NSR Honda’s fairing was resplendent in Hawaiian flower logo and to finish the theme a plastic swimming pool with a palm tree in the middle was positioned track side. The fans and media just could not get enough of it. This was a phenomenon of fun and self-promotion Grand Prix racing had never witnessed before. Others had tried but did not have the talent where it really mattered out on the track. This was just the start, and the Rossi juggernaut was on the road and building up to top speed.
Seven years later in 2010 not only Mugello but the whole of Italy shed tears. Rossi crashed in practice on a cold rear tyre at the Biondetti chicane and broke his leg. As the bright yellow medical helicopter took off to transport him to hospital, he acknowledged those tears with a wave from the stretcher. The television pictures of a young lady waving back with tears streaming down her face just summed up what this passionate nation felt about their hero. He returned just five and a half weeks later to finish fourth at the Sachsenring.
I honestly do not know if Valentino Rossi made his last appearance at Mugello on Sunday. Whatever happens those images of the number 46 racing between the green hills of Tuscany over the last quarter of a century will never be forgotten especially by anybody who was lucky enough to be there.