We arrived by taxi at the track for the Saturday qualifying session and we were late. We had been held up by some poor planning, by breakfast at the hotel, and by the line of traffic that had begun at least three kilometres from the main entrance to the Circuit de Catalunya. Breakfast had been wolfed down at the hotel on the beachfront of Barcelona. In retrospect, we should have just grabbed some croissants and headed out earlier.
The Circuit de Catalunya is forty-five kilometres out of Barcelona proper, and sits in the foothills between the Catalan capital and Girona, and it seemed to us that the entirety of Spain had decided on the same itinerary as us – qualifying on Saturday, a tour of the paddocks, and the main races on Sunday. We got out of the luxury sedan provided by the hotel and walked the freeway to the main gate and found ourselves run-walking in childish excitement to just get into the stands.
Security queues held us up, but it was no matter. The sheer number of fans for the 2016 MotoGP weekend in Catalunya, and the obsession that the Spanish have for the sport, had us in awe. There were thousands and thousands of people who had arrived on bikes. The sound of the machines ran like a base undertone throughout the Circuit complex, every now and then punctuated with the scream of an unencumbered monster GP bike hitting 320 kilometres per hour down the main straight. Even in the parking lot, it was heaven.
When we finally got through security and found our seats, we began to sense an undertone of strange stillness, of sadness. Luis Salom, we learnt, a Moto 2 rider, had perished in the Friday afternoon practice session, inexplicably failing to make one of the last turns of the Circuit, and sliding at high speed into a barrier wall, his heartbeat ceasing on the helicopter flight before even reaching the hospital. He was twenty-four years old.
We could feel the sadness of his death hanging over the Circuit – there was something awkward about being there, about celebrating this arena of racing at the very limit of human endeavour, when that limit had already been crossed. I made a comment then to my friend who had joined me in Spain to see the main race and to see Rossi, our hero, that in our world – today’s world – the gladiators are not meant to die.
That discomfort had to pass however. We had to see qualifying, as did the crowds around us, and we shuffled along through the retail stands Valentino Rossi caps, Marc Marquez caps, Lorenzo shirts and caps, Honda Repsol colours, Yamaha colours, Ducati colours and the paddock girls, geared up in heels and make-up and the gaudy unashamed in-your- face marketing that somehow makes the whole image even more alluring, not less. In some ways, I told my friend, it is like walking through a market in Jerusalem – so many conflicting ideas and views of the world vying for our attention. One must just pick one’s hero.
Of heroes, for us – as for most – there was and remains only the one. Rossi. His very name evokes meaning – meaning that is decoupled from the naming of the man himself. He is a brand, yes, but he has now transcended even that status. He is now an idea. Of the man Valentino Rossi, we can say this: he is a phenomenon, he has changed the way racing is executed at the highest level of the sport, he is a joker, he is a clown, he is a businessman, he is a beautiful man, and he is nine-times world champion. Of the idea – of the idea we call Valentino Rossi – we can say far more. But to do so would first require that I explain why I love the motorcycle racer called Rossi.
There are two things I particularly love about Valentino Rossi. The first is the way he races against his rivals, usually Marquez or Lorenzo through the 2015 and 2016 seasons. He races from behind to beat them through wiliness and through courage and by hook or by crook. He is unrelenting and for this many despise him. He races to win and he does so without a doubt in his head that he deserves to win, not because he is better than them – because truth be told he is not – but because he is more realised than they are, as a man and as a human being.
You can see this in the way he rides I challenge anyone to deny this. He is racing in a higher state of self-realisation than any of his competitors. He does not arrive at this arena of human courage with the youth and fearlessness of Marquez, nor with the precision and coldness of Lorenzo, nor with the flourish and gusto of Dovizioso – he arrives not for his career, nor even his fans, nor even for himself. This is not what he does, this is who he is. And this is truer in his case, than in any other, regardless of the sport.
The second thing I love about Rossi are his brief interviews post-race, and there have been many. In these brief flourishes with journalists waiting by the pits, he embodies the very essence of the Italian man: he gesticulates, he pontificates, he shrugs, he smiles. But behind his eyes is a childish spirit, a primordial joy, a lack of adulthood really, in which one can see – only just see that is – that for him, this whole thing, this whole journey, all his wins and his entire career, and the crowds and the fans, are to him surprising and to some extent – well – funny. He is amazed, to this very day that he gets to do this: to race motorcycles and to be adored for it. His joy is palpable, and it is innocent and it is that of a child. And in this he is unique.
So those are my two reasons for loving Valentino Rossi. But, like most heroes – like Achilles, like Spiderman, like John F. Kennedy – there are faults, there are on occasion moments of hubris; and in Rossi’s case, there is the problem for my friend and I on that particular weekend at the Circuit de Catalunya that Rossi had not won a race for some time.
We watch qualifying from an air-conditioned lunch spot that sits three or four stories up across the racetrack from the main stand on the main straight. The riders are breaking 320 kilometres per hour as they pass us, so most of the qualifying is watched on a TV set-up as the bikes blast by behind us like rockets. Intermittently, we go onto the balcony above the track and watch the speed of the machines and the men on the machines as they pass. Just to see the sheer speed of it. It is horrifying and beautiful to see, a flash of colour, and the sound – the sound is awesome.
One sees the bike and the man on the bike in that moment as one thing, for if one didn’t – if one separated the two in one’s mind – the danger of it, the proximity to death, would be too much to bear. I want to tell my friend this thought, I want to convey to him this idea, but I balk at the moment I am about to utter it. Because it cannot be said. Not then, not while the spectacle of this all is actually taking place. Perhaps later.
Rossi, as it happens, qualifies poorly. At least not too badly, but by no means is he in pole position. Marquez is phenomenal. Marquez may be taking risks, but they are not risks that are visible to us, even in the TV slow motion shots. He appears to be impenetrable. And then there is Lorenzo. Our fear is that if Lorenzo gets out in front on the main straight and is the last to break on the right-hand corner at the end of the straight and he takes the lead, the other riders will never see the front of him again. It would be awful, I comment to my friend, to travel all the way to Catalunya to see such a thing. He nods his agreement. It would be awful, he says. Or for that matter, if Marquez gets out in front, I say. Yes, he says, but it would take a miracle for Rossi to win. He is tempering my expectations. Managing them to the extent he can. Why, I wonder, would I expect Rossi to win in Catalunya just because we have travelled to see him. It is illogical. We are not regular fans. We are connoisseurs of the sport. But still, if only Rossi would just win – why not on this one day, for us?
That night we go out and we imbibe in the spirit of Barcelona and we take responsibility for ourselves and for the moment and for the occasion. We do not over-indulge because we wish to reach the Circuit the next day fresh and in full essence and in connection to the track and to the possibility of a Valentino Rossi win. We watch Moto 3 from the stands at the last corner before the main straight – the battle between the fledgling racers whose careers in this division will either end after a few seasons, or will lead them to Moto 2, and then possibly on to the pinnacle of the sport, the sharp end. Where Rossi lives and battles.
There are crashes, as there always are in Moto 3, and as we walk along the track to the main stands to our luncheon we hear the voice of Brad Binder and his complaint at the riding style of his competitors and of the disappointment in his loss. We miss most of Moto 2, although we catch the start – the revving of the machines as the riders wait for the red lights to count down, and we see that very moment of clarity that exists at the interstice between stillness and movement, before these monsters of noise leap into action. It is surreal.
The balcony from which we watch the start of the main race is too packed to really make out the riders. I find myself jostling for position and I give up and go inside and join my friend in front of the TV. Rossi at turn one is down to fifth or sixth, I cannot recall exactly, but he is at least still in the mix. I am between two worlds: on the one hand, there is the comfort of the Dorna executive lounge, the canapes and the detail one can see of the race on the TV screen; and on the other there is the immediacy and reality of what is taking place just metres away on the balcony I flurry between both, in a schizophrenic daze, anxious as time is moving forward, the laps and the experience tumbling away, too fast. The crowd roars, I rush outside, there is a sea of green vr46 flags – Rossi’s race number for the past decade – waving wildly on the main grandstand opposite. Rossi has made it past two riders into third place. I am now pumping my fists into the air, screaming Rossi’s name with the rest of the balcony. He takes second position breaking late and dangerously and finally passes Marquez in a gladiatorial battle that goes on for several laps. He takes first position and is able to hold it.
I am standing now at the edge of the door to the balcony, on my toes, peering over the sea of spectators to catch a glimpse of Rossi’s blue Yamaha take the final right-hander into the main straight to take victory. The commentators on the TV are going wild and the crowd outside is going wild and it is beautiful. We are jumping up and down like children, even the German man travelling on his own whose conversation over lunch has been dry. For some reason I hug him.