Valentino will be waiting for the red light to go out on the Losail track on March 8th. Once he lets go of the clutch, he'll officially begin his 25th season in the World Championship. Another record that he can be proud of, even if his pride will probably be tempered by a hint of regret due to his advancing age.
Motorcycling is for the young, but exceptions exist, and the Doctor is proof of this,.one month after turning 41. Another season awaits him, with the same objective that every rider has, no one excluded, when he starts: to win the world title.
The question is whether achieving it is a dream or a possibility, with all the difficulties connected to it. There have been some riders over 40 who have won in the past, but you have to really sort through the now dusty archives to find them.
German rider, Hermann Paul Müller, holds the record for seniority, winning the title when he was almost 46 years old (45 and 331 days, to be precise) with NSU. But it was 1955, the pioneering era of motorcycling, when riders were very different from those we know now. Forget professionals and all-round athletes. Back then, they looked like somewhat crazy heroes, and courage was much more important than telemetry, which was only seen in science-fi flicks.
The same can be said of Fergus Anderson or Nello Pagani, the first two world championships in the 500 and 125, respectively in 1949, the first year of the World Championship. It's not a coincidence that many of these records belong to that era, including Fergus Anderson's, who was also a 45-year-old champion in the 350. We're talking about more than half a century ago, and too much water has passed under several bridges.
In those years, there were no baby prodigies, the ones Rossi has to deal with now. Based on recent history, his venture seems doomed to fail.
The last records of seniority, if that's what we want to call them, were last seen in the 1980s. Eugenio Lazzarini (another Italian) graduated champion in the 50 class in 1980 at 35, and Stefan Dörflinger (Swiss) 5 years later in the 80 class at 36. If we really want to consider the numbers, Rolf Biland became champion in 1994, having already passed the big four-oh, but in the Sidecar, a class that wasn't exactly the same level of competition as today's MotoGP.
We can say that things started to change in the 1990s, with Loris Capirossi who inaugurated the category of "baby riders". He won the title in the 125 when he was 17 years and 165 days old, and his record remains undefeated. Valentino himself was part of that generation, with his first championship won at 17. Pedrosa, however, holds the youth record in the 250, with the title won when he was 19 years and 18 days old.
In recent years, the Marquez family has accelerated things: Alex is the youngest Moto3 champion (18 years and 200 days old), while Marc is the youngest in the Moto2 (19 years and 254 days old) and in the MotoGP (20 years and 266 days old).
So it's no coincidence that, in the new classes (in hte Moto3, Moto2, and MotoGP), the records of seniority do not belong to old riders. In the Moto3 (where the maximum age is 28 years, by regulation), the oldest champion was Cortese at 22, and Elias at 27 in the Moto2, in the first year of the championship. And in the MotoGP? The record already belonged to Valentino, when he was not yet 31 years old.
Now the Doctor has to face opponents who could be the age of what his children would be if he had any, metaphors aside. Fabio Quartararo, the last promise, hasn't turned 21 yet. He's 20 years younger than the Doctor.
Yet, however difficult it is, no rider can think of not being able to win the championship when he gets on his bike. History shows us that Valentino is facing an (almost) impossible challenge but, on the other hand, records are made to be broken, and everyone needs a motivation to give it their all, especially for those who have filled tons of rooms with trophies.
In his career Rossi has changed several times to adapt to the new generations and also thought about a new upgrade in 2020. David Munoz, chief technician of the new generation is now part if his garage, while the Riders Academy rookies are essential for training. Even Yamaha seems to be on the right track after a few, not so happy, years.
The track will tell us rest, since the Doctor has to first reach a victory (which he hasn't had in two years), then he'll be able to think in bigger terms. Going back to being the best at the age of 40 would be the last of his milestones. Not giving it a shot would be a shame.