Vale, they cried. Vale! Vale.
Vale, they sang. They chanted.
They waved that sun-shiny flag. They set off fireworks. They waited for him to come to them.
Vale, they said, Vale.
The sun was out, shining bright. The winners were on the podium. The crowd gathered on the circuit.
Cal Crutchlow! Dani Pedrosa! Jorge Lorenzo! The names read out.
But the crowd sang Vale.
It didn’t matter that Valentino Rossi had crashed out, a gigantic DNF next to his name on the board.
It didn’t matter that Valentino Rossi hadn’t finished the race.
Vale, they shouted. Vale!
Mugello. People say you haven’t seen a MotoGP race until you have seen one in Mugello. The revving of motorcycles. The horns. The chants. The sea of yellow. The Tuscan hills. The winding circuit. The crowds jostling for space near the Yamaha garage. The long, patient wait for the man himself. His special helmet. The sun. Or the rain. The gates that open up after the race. The people that gather on the track. The signs that blow gently in the wind. The flags that scream ‘The Doctor’ or ‘58’. Mugello: the ultimate playground. Words never seem to describe Mugello. For it is place to be seen. It is a place to be felt.
I counted down the days to Mugello and on race weekend walked down past the iconic, massive red helmet at the gate and towards the Paddock. I stopped, every minute to just take it all in. I grinned at every person who passed me by. They shared my excitement. They knew exactly how I felt. We all felt the same.
Vale was having a better start to the weekend ending the Friday practice session second, behind his teammate Jorge Lorenzo. Saturday ended in disappointment as he slipped to start the race from the 3rd row on the grid.
But, it is Vale. The smile was still firmly in its place. He paused outside his garage, chatting with fans, signing autographs, caps, helmets and t-shirts. He posed for photographs and continued on his way, only to stop once again as fans shouted, “Vale!”
Finally, Sunday was upon us. The Paddock was packed. People rushed into hospitality tents to grab bottles of water or a quick coffee before going back out. Riders whizzed by on little scooters. A man swung Vale’s riding suit over his shoulder and walked towards the Yamaha garage. The fans lined up.
They picked fights with the security staff, wanting to get just a little closer. They leaned over balconies. They waited. A man walked in with his wife, a t-shirt held closely to his chest. He was escorted towards the garage and asked to wait. He was nervous. You could see it. But he smiled and waited. Vale came out. The man waited, watching the rider come closer and closer.
His smile was as sunshiny as Vale Yellow. The meeting lasted a handful of minutes. Vale moved on. But the man, turned, tears in his eyes, and hugged his wife for a long time. He had met Vale.
“Vale!” an Italian journalist said later, sitting on a table at the media centre looking out on to the starting grid. Vale was standing at the box giving interviews. The race would start in a couple of hours. “He makes people believe anything is possible!”
At that moment, Vale turned to face the main grandstand. He stretched his arms out as if to hug his fans and the crowd roared.
Soon, it was race time. The grid girls were gone. The team back in their garages. The riders alone at the start-finish line, watching the lights turn red. I tried to ignore the nervous tension in the media centre, and peered through the glass, forgetting to breathe.
They were off, zipping down the first corner. Rossi was climbing up the grid by the second corner, ahead of Alvaro Bautista. Then, it happened. Bautista touched Vale and the two went flying towards the protective barriers. Vale was down three corners into the first lap.
Screams and shouts went up in the media centre. At the back, a commentator screamed in Italian. I couldn’t believe it. This was supposed to be the race; it was to be the comeback.
It wasn’t to be. The race ended and Vale was not on the podium. Everyone wanted him there. I scrambled past the desks in the media centre and ran down the stairs, through the paddock to the gates behind the podium.
I couldn’t get through. But I stood on my toes and looked over the gates. The people were out on the circuit. They waved the flags, whistled, shouted and cheered. Champagne popped, but they screamed Vale.
Then, suddenly, he came.
“Oh my God. That’s Vale,” a man standing next to me, shouted.
He went out to the podium and smiled at his fans. He stood there and told them that he would try for a better result in Barcelona. And the fans cheered. They screamed. They clapped.
After all, he was their Vale. Their Valentino Rossi. And anything was possible.