Bob McMurray: Missing MotoGP maestro
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If ever proof was needed that motor sport needed personalities, that fact came crashing home to me watching last weekend’s MotoGP from the Misano track in Italy.
The racing was excellent, as it always is, in all the disciplines, with the wet weather creating problems and the very best, the elite of the riders, raising their game above the plane good.
There was something missing for me though with the absence of Valentino Rossi, out of racing for who knows how long with a broken leg — in fact a broken tibia and fibula — sustained when he was riding his enduro motor bike.
Nothing like doing it properly, and the doctors’ prognosis is that the recovery may take well over a month, although Rossi hints that he will try for the next round at Aragon, giving him a recovery time half of the doctors’ estimate — and who could doubt that he will make it?
Rossi, at 38 years of age, consistently battles with the leading riders on the MotoGP grid, many of them being almost half his age but he still races just as hard as he ever did and just as successfully.
He is already a nine-time world champion and was well involved at the top of the 2017 championship, vying for a tenth title.
Much more than all of that is the aura Rossi brings to the sport with tens of thousands of devoted fans all over the world.
He has, almost singlehandedly, brought the sport of Grand Prix bike racing back into the consciousness of people all over the globe.
Valentino Rossi. Photo / AP
Love him or hate him — and there are as many of the latter as the former — he brings personality-plus to the sport, with his own brand and his own particular way of talking and relating to the hordes of fans who flock to the circuits, most of them dressed in yellow “VR46” T-shirts, a colour that Rossi seems to have made his own.
Formula 1, with all its well-known names, does not seem to have a comparable “personality”.
Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo, plus a decent helping of Max Verstappen, are currently the most internationally famous names and they do indeed polarise the sport’s fans into either supporters or critics, devotees or haters.
But they do not seem to engender the same sort of following, almost worship, that Rossi attracts, almost alone, in MotoGP.
It could be the nature of MotoGP — with riders battling each other, on very close terms and the top four, six or eight swapping positions almost from corner to corner, all of them visible in their particular styles — makes it easier for the fans to relate.
Rarely has that been the case in recent years of Formula 1, with drivers almost invisible in the car cockpits.
But in the recent past there have been heroes of the magnitude of Ayrton Senna or Michael Schumacher, who have had a similar international following to that of Rossi.
Lewis Hamilton is the undoubted star of the Formula 1 grid as far as social media, gossip magazines and the paparazzi are concerned but that social fame seems almost false, forced if you like. There is no “Rossi” feel about it.
A personality such as Rossi (aka “Vale” or “The Doctor”) as he is known, obviously cannot be manufactured; it is a natural outlook— and there the problem lies.
His persona — gangly, excitable, youthful despite his advancing years and with a way of speaking English that is as distinctive as his appearance, together with his huge talent — sets Rossi apart.
There is no one on the F1 grid, with the exception of Ricciardo, who can approach the natural charisma that Rossi possesses.
As good as they are on track, the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Valtteri Bottas and the rest — perhaps even Kimi Raikkonen — just do not cut it in the personality department.
The owners of Formula 1, Liberty Media, appear to have great plans in the pipeline to change the face of the sport.
I am sure that traditionalists (okay, fossils perhaps) like myself, will object to much of what is planned, but reluctantly I recognise that for the sport to prosper things have to move along with the times.
Formula 1 has always evolved. The very nature of the sport is to evolve race by race and season by season but in this “brave new age” of “E” sports and ecological awareness it is still all about the drivers, and it is the drivers who have always been, and must continue to be, the stars. They must also be seen to be the stars.
It is this area, apart from the changes needed to make the actual racing exciting again, of course, (that is a whole new subject) that will bring casual fans back to the sport.
Personalities, drivers who are the real stars, fun stars, drivers who interact with the fans and don’t dive back into their own little caves as soon as the race is done.
They are not above the sport and the sport is not above the fans.
Without the fans there will be none of the former.
I watch MotoGP avidly and will continue to, as I have since the days of Phil Read and Giacomo Agostini, but I firmly hope Rossi recovers well and gets back on track as soon as he is able.
Because, love him or hate him, he brings a whole new level of interest with him.