MotoGP: Rossi reborn

Valentino Rossi of Italy and Movistar Yamaha MotoGP looks on during the press conference pre-event during the 2014 MotoGP Red Bull U.S. Indianapolis Grand Prix.

Mirco Lazzari gp/Bongarts/Getty Images

Valentino Rossi qualified fifth today in Indianapolis and that’s O.K.

Almost unthinkable a handful of years ago, these days Valentino Rossi — the man many considered the greatest motorcycle racer of all time — is merely an awfully good motorbike rider. He puts up a fight, he races to the podium with regularity, but he is undeniably mortal.

And most peculiar of all, he seems to be loving every minute of it.

Rossi was frustrated beyond the point of exasperation during his Ducati days when he was clearly hindered by his equipment. But now that he’s back with Yamaha, he seems to have happily accepted that his skills are not what they once were, or at least that time has passed him by ever so slightly — cutting-edge race technology now a minor shift away from his ultimate comfort zone — and that’s simply his lot in life.

Rossi’s post-GOAT seasons have inarguably damaged his career numbers and arguably tainted his legacy along with them. However, they have also erased any questions concerning Rossi’s genuine love for racing.

That attribute may be considered a given in a top-level racer, but it’s not. I’ve found that those who love to race turn out to be good racers. Those who love to win are great racers. And those who live to beat other people make the best racers.

You strip a legend of his inherent superiority, whether by age or injury or both, and they suddenly find racing much less enjoyable than they did before.

Elite-level motorcycle road racing is not like the NFL or the NBA where one-time greats such as Jerry Rice and Shaquille O’Neal can gracefully transition from MVP-caliber to role players. Kenny Roberts, Eddie Lawson, Kevin Schwantz, and Giacomo Agostini got out almost as soon as they realized their skills were on a downward slope. And it’s hard to imagine that Wayne Rainey or Mick Doohan would have continued racing after their days as title contenders had faded away if injury had not forced them out before that day came.

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But Rossi — a transcendent talent who dominated the two-wheeled world for years — has shown to have had the spirit of a dedicated club racer hidden away in a body blessed with once-in-a-lifetime talent.

He’s only won a single race these last four seasons. It’s been longer than that since he’s been on pole. The smile that once masked a merciless competitor is now the genuine smile of a born-again decent rider.

Or perhaps Rossi has also been gifted with an unprecedented degree of delusional confidence (a key ingredient for any truly outstanding rider) and he still fully expects to recapture his former glory. Whatever actual decline he suffered during his time at Ducati was obfuscated by the equipment’s ineptitude. The bike was clearly to blame, but that also made it difficult to accurately judge Rossi — who may have actually been subtly on the way down during his 2010 season year with Yamaha — however, injury made that difficult to access. He’d grown accustomed to that underdog status so the lack of results upon his return to Yamaha were not quite as harsh as they might have otherwise been.

Either way, he’s still one of the better riders in the paddock. But instead of the odds-on favorite for any race or championship in which he’s entered, he’s now only an occasional contender for the win and a highly-circumstantial title threat. He’s widely viewed as the second best racer on his own team — a long way to fall for a living legend with more than 100 Grand Prix victories and nine world championships to his name.

But Rossi is not just plodding along to pick up some career milestone — he’s as enthusiastic as ever and energized about the prospect of another two years with Yamaha. Sometimes it’s hard for fans to watch an athlete who is a shadow of his former self. But in this case, if Rossi can live with it — and live well — I guess the rest of us should be able to as well.

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