You can spot them a mile away – the devotee, the fanatic, the supporter, the fan. The sunny yellow separates them from the others. The 46 emblazoned across their cap, the t-shirt, or their jacket. It is there on the flag they wave or drape reverentially across their shoulders. They love and adore him. Some criticize him, others just his team – but mostly they worship him and wait – race after race – for the victory that has eluded him the past two seasons. They forgive his mistakes and wait for the Vale magic to shine once again.
There are those that criticize his claim to legend-hood, but can’t deny him his place in racing history. For he is Valentino Rossi – nine-time Grand Prix World Champion with seven championships wins in the premier class. I know it sounds like fan-speak, but Valentino Rossi has defined modern-day MotoGP racing.
And chances are I am finally going to see him. I can’t wait.
I am in a cab on my way to the Valencia circuit. “MotoGP?” the taxi driver asks, smiling at me through the rear-view mirror. I nod. We talk in broken English – bouncing about names, bound together by a common love for the motorsport. “Lorenzo?” I ask the driver.
“No, no. Pedrosa,” he says with a grin and a thumbs-up. “You?”
“Vale,” I reply. He smiles. “Aaah. Bad Ducati. It’s Ducati, yes?” he says.
“Yes. Next year, Yamaha,” I say with grin.
“Vale good on Yamaha. He will win,” he replies.
We smile at each other and watch the road. It’s a companionable silence.
The circuit comes up and I jump out of the taxi and scamper in, making my way to the Paddock. I will spend the next two days living a dream – rubbing shoulders with the teams and fans while listening to the roar of motorcycles in their garages and on the circuit. But I also spend a lot of time waiting to catch a glimpse of the man himself.
The first time is outside the Ducati racing box. The sun is out, casting shadows across the gigantic Ducati trailers. The Vale yellow stands out sharp against the red and white. A group of children – tiny and eager – press up against the barricade that cordons off the area. Young women fix their hair and adjust their camera settings. Men – big and burly, some greying – wait, clasping Vale posters and postcards. A technician comes out of the box. It’s past Qualifying and Vale hasn’t done too well. He is placed 11th on the grid and teammate Nicky Hayden is 7th.
“Valeeeeee,” a fan screams. A team member, standing outside, grins and gestures. Patience, he is coming. The technician soaps down a fairing from Vale’s bike, air-drying it carefully. The crowd around me grows. There are groups around all the boxes – people waiting for their heroes, the matadors of the circuit. But, here, time ceases. We wait for Vale – however long it may take.
The door bangs open and Nicky Hayden clomps out. He isn’t happy. “Nickkkyyy,” someone screams from the crowd. He stops for a moment, smiles for the camera, signs a few autographs and chats for a minute, before waving to us and disappearing.
The crowd waits. And waits. We smile at each other – language is a barrier, but that doesn’t stop us. We are united here.
Then, he comes out. The sun shines on his face as he looks at the people – his fans. They scream and wave at him. He comes towards us and takes his time. His disappointment with the bike’s performance is not evident. He doesn’t look disheartened – even if he is, he doesn’t show it.
He signs autographs. He chats with the children; impervious to the camera clicks that resound around him. He poses for photographs. He moves down the line, greeting everyone, taking his time, unhurried and patient. He leaves after a while. We move on. But all of us have a smile. We saw him.
It is a different story the next day. It’s Sunday – the final race of the season and Vale’s last with the Ducati. He will move to Yamaha next year – to the team we have associated him with for most of his career. He has 4 Championship wins on the M1, 3 on the Honda. But we, the fans, want him back on the Yamaha. We want him back at the front, and on the podium.
It’s cold, wet and rainy. But, there is a crowd outside his massive black motorhome. He stops quickly for photographs and then disappears inside. The crowd moves, running towards Jorge Lorenzo, but quickly returns. We all want another glimpse, another moment, and yet another photograph. A team member whizzes past on a scooty, clasping a huge bowl covered with foil. It’s salad. An excited mutter goes up and then quietens as he disappears only to return with two more dishes.
“Valeeeee,” shouts a fan.
The team member smiles. It’s Vale’s lunch time. “What is it?” another fan shouts in Italian. “Pasta,” he says. We laugh, cheery despite the big blobs of rain.
I want to wait but it’s time to find a good spot for the race. I know though that Vale will be out soon. He will pause for us. He will take time out for us. That’s just the way he is.
For that one moment, Vale will be ours.
This is part 2 of a series of three articles on the final MotoGP race of the season, at the Circuit de la Comunitat Valenciana Ricardo Tormo.
All photographs © Riding Fast And Flying Low