What a day, eh?
We knew that news of Valentino Rossi’s future would be imminent once action resumed following the summer break, and to be honest no one within the paddock really expected that news to be anything other than the announcement of his retirement.
But it still landed like a bombshell when we got an email giving us a heads up on a revised schedule for the Thursday of the Styrian Grand Prix.
Confirming only that there’d be an ‘exceptional press conference’ hosted not by Rossi’s own VR46 squad or his current Petronas Yamaha team but by MotoGP itself, it hinted at what was to come – yet no one knew for sure what the news would be.
It’s hard to keep a secret in the paddock, but Rossi’s camp did in fact manage to keep us all guessing right up to the point where he sat down on a stool in front of the world’s eyes and said that he wouldn’t be here next year.
In fact, wandering the paddock before the announcement was made (like most of the small number of journalists actually present at the Red Bull Ring in these COVID times, I headed straight to the paddock to see what I could find out), no one knew exactly what news was coming. The possibility that he’d race on, potentially with his own VR46 team, was still very real.
I spoke to some senior people from the Petronas team, and I’m pretty sure that they were telling me the truth when they said they hadn’t got a clue.
I bumped into a couple of MotoGP riders, including championship leader and Yamaha rider Fabio Quartararo, and it was him asking me what Rossi was going to announce rather than the other way around!
But there’s one overall belief from everyone I spoke to; were he to announce retirement, like he eventually did a few hours later, all would fully support him in that decision.
I’ve always said that there are two types of racer; the ones who do it for the love of competition, and the ones with a huge love of racing. Rossi is very definitely the latter.
Yet everyone knows that there’s been no fun in running around closer to the back than the front for him. He’s a racer, sure, but he’s also a winner, and while he’s put on a brave face of late, it’s not hard to see that finishing outside the points makes him miserable.
And perhaps that’s why today’s official send-off, when he sat down with us to announce the news, didn’t feel like a sombre occasion, but rather the contented decision of a man who’s already at peace with the decision that he’s made.
He won’t be racing in MotoGP next year, but he’s still going to find a way to be a racer in the car world.
He won’t be a part of his own VR46 Ducati team alongside his brother Luca, but he’ll still be in the background and in the garage on occasion, making sure the beautiful project he’s grown from the ground up continues to be a success.
And while lots has been written today on his impact on the sport, his history and his legacy, there’s perhaps one thing that highlights just how important he has been to MotoGP than anything else: the reaction of his fellow riders when the news was announced.
Jack Miller and Joan Mir turned up at the press conference to stand quietly at the back and pay their regards. Quartararo talked about queuing for hours outside Rossi’s hospitality as a kid just to catch a glimpse of him.
Social media is awash tonight with photos of beaming kids standing next to their sporting hero – except most of those kids are now grand prix stars in their own rights.
Maybe best of all, though, is how apparent it was that despite his superstardom, his role as motorcycle racing’s only breakout star of maybe the past 50 years, he’s still just a pretty normal bloke underneath it all.
His first two actions post-press conference? Coming over to the few journalists in attendance to shake our hands and thank us for coming, followed by a big group hug with the loyal little group who have travelled with him all the way from gangly kid with a funky haircut in 125s to the legend he is today.
Not many people will ever leave behind a legacy like Valentino Rossi’s.