x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A Doctor of the track

His title hopes have waned recently but Rossi is still the biggest draw in MotoGP.

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Who do you think is sport's all-time best? Each week, we will profile a candidate, inviting you to decide who should top our list of 50. All participants will be entered into a draw for the weekly adidas prize and an end-of-contest Etihad Holidays four-day trip for two, including business class flights and accommodation, to a mystery location. We will reveal the full 50 at the end, but this week Desmond Kane looks at Valentino Rossi.

He recently donned a helmet with an image of his face etched on it, but Valentino Rossi continues to command vast bundles of affection, plaudits and payouts for wearing his heart on his sleeve. The most celebrated Rossi in Italian sport may be the footballer Paolo, who scored in Italy's 1982 World Cup final win over Germany in winding up as the tournament's top goalscorer. In the country's dominant sport that elevated position is hardly surprising, but the emergence of the Inter Milan fan Valentino has highlighted the chaotic charm of motorcycle racing.

Italy has, of course, always been comfortable with fast, flashy vehicles, and Rossi possesses the charisma to engage with the fans. He has won seven grand prix world championships, including four MotoGP titles. He has been marvellous and is a maverick, yet his ability has made for compulsive viewing. Rossi won his first world title as a teenager in the 125cc category in 1997 by snaring 11 out of the 15 races in the season, and claimed a second crown in the 250cc two years later with nine wins.

In 2001 the 500cc world championship fell his way as he represented Honda, before he progressed to capture successive MotoGP world titles in 2002 and 2003. He left Honda for Yamaha, but that did not deprive him of reclaiming the MotoGP championship in 2004 and 2005. At the same pace as Rossi attacks his competitors, one could continue to trot out a sequence of startling facts that leads to the conclusion that he is already a true great on the cusp of his 30th birthday. He is the youngest man to win world titles in all three classes, and wallows in some fervent following.

He is known as The Doctor, perhaps for his clinical awareness of how to dissect a race track. As befits a racer who holds the record for the longest run of successive podium finishes, Rossi has hardly been in need of doctor on any particular race day. Between Sept 2002 and April 2004, Rossi managed to get himself on to a podium in 23 straight races that included every outing in his 2003 world success.

He enjoyed nine wins that year, the most memorable being in the Australian GP at Phillip Island five years ago. Hampered by a penalty of 10 seconds for overtaking during a yellow flag after a crash involving the Ducati rider Troy Bayliss, Rossi managed to escape his competitors and erect a winning margin of 15 seconds that enabled him to revel in victory despite the time penalty. Born in Urbino in 1979, he is the son of a former motorcycle racer, who propelled him into the go-karts when Valentino was only five.

Apparently, Graziano failed when he tried to forge a young Valentino's application for a junior kart licence before he was allowed to ride them. He would possess a licence to print money courtesy of his adventure around some of the world's elite circuits. His vast fortune saw the Italian authorities investigate him for possible tax evasion, but his rivalry with a compatriot also proved taxing. Like most great artists, Rossi has faced fierce opposition.

In his first season in the 500cc category in 2000, Rossi faced his fellow Italian Max Biaggi for the first time as he finished the season second, while Biaggi wound up third behind the American Kenny Roberts Jnr. In 2001, Rossi claimed Biaggi stopped him from overtaking at Suzuka by elbowing him. Rossi passed Biaggi, and made an unsavoury gesture at his rival. Rossi felt he was unfairly berated by the media, who claimed Biaggi only used his arm to prevent a collision. After Rossi won in Barcelona, it is said they became embroiled in a fight before the Italian moved to Yamaha from Honda rather than the Italian manufacturer Ducati for a contract estimated to be worth $12million (Dh44m).

It was a move founded on a longing to prove winning stemmed from talent, rather than a machine. Biaggi and Sete Gibernau, who also engaged in some verbal sparring with Rossi, were riding Hondas, but it was Rossi who emerged victorious. The last two years have failed to bring Rossi any more world successes, despite some stirring moments. He held the championship lead entering the final race in Valencia in 2006, but crashed early on and Nicky Hayden managed to usurp him to win the MotoGP title.

Despite his altercations with Biaggi, Rossi's main rival is history and where this sport will judge him when he retires. He has tested Ferraris in F1 and is accomplished in rallying, but he has a contract with Yamaha until 2010. Rossi may be known as The Doctor, but it is the nickname of The GOAT, bestowed on him by his former teammate Colin Edwards, that is perhaps most pertinent. While Rossi represents world class talent, GOAT stands for Greatest Of All Time. Cast your vote and enter a draw for a weekly Dh500 adidas voucher and a dream trip with Etihad Holidays. If you think Redgrave is the all-time best, text G18 to 2337 Texts cost Dh5 and voting will end at midnight on Thursday August 14.

@Email:dkane@thenational.ae