It could only happen to The Doctor. Minutes after a hug on the Phillip Island starting grid with former crew chief Jerry Burgess and watched by 15 times World Champion Giacomo Agostini, Valentino Rossi led the opening laps of the Pramac Australian Grand Prix on his historic 400th Grand Prix appearance. The forty-year-old Italian heading the way over riders half his age round the legendary 4.448 kms cliff top circuit as he chased his 116th Grand Prix win and 235th podium finish. It was the world of dreams and throughout the globe, his legion of loyal fans held their breath, surely even their hero could not pull this one off.
In the end even the nine times World Champion finally had to succumb to the youthful pack headed by Marc Marquez round the magnificent circuit where Vale had produced some of his greatest performances. At the end of 27 frantic laps as the rain clouds gathered he finally finished in eighth place after a typical 120.096 kms battle with the youngsters that saw him just 1.3 seconds behind local hero Jack Miller in third place.
There were so many glimpses of The Doctor at his very best as he fought with the likes of Mir, Dovizioso, Bagnaia, Iannone and Aleix Espargaro. It brought back the memories of one of the greatest ever Grand Prix riders pitting his amazing talent with surely the very best motorcycle racing circuit in the World. Memories of that first 500cc win at Phillip Island in 2001 that brought him his first premier class title. The bright yellow number 46 Honda involved in the closest-ever 500cc Grand Prix finish with just three seconds separating the first eight riders across the line as Rossi became the youngest ever rider at the time to win World titles in three classes.
I will never forget his tribute to the late Barry Sheene, his father Graziano’s great friend after he won the Island race in 2003 despite starting with a ten second penalty after a yellow flag infringement. On his slow down lap he had a huge flag over his shoulder, made from the bed sheet of his hotel sporting the legendary Sheene number 7 motif.
Like it or not time is running out for The Doctor to win that 116th Grand Prix but as the MotoGP™ show moves onto the heat and humidity of Sepang in Malaysia for the penultimate round of the Championship on Sunday, just cast your minds back 12 months and the race last year. Rossi had already witnessed his step-brother Luca Marini win his first Moto2™ Grand Prix and his teammate Pecco Bagnaia riding for Rossi’s Sky Racing Team VR46 clinch the World title. With four laps remaining of the MotoGP™ race Rossi led Marc Marquez as they flashed across the line. At the first corner, Rossi went down in a shower of sparks in front of the jam-packed sea of yellow Rossi grandstand. His big chance had gone.
On Sunday it may be a different story – keep dreaming.