MotoGP returns to Austria this weekend for the first time in almost two decades and happily, for the first time in what feels like almost as long, I’ve found myself preparing for it as I’ll be heading out to Spielberg to work for Red Bull commentating on the circuit PA.

As I spent time this week dusting off old notes and writing new ones there was one particular stat that caught my attention. On the results sheets from the last occasion Grand Prix motorcycle racing visited what was then known as the A1-Ring back in 1997, a youngster by the name of Valentino Rossi finished second in the 125cc race. It was just one of just four races he failed to win in what was only his second season at World Championship level; a record that would be unthinkable in a modern-day Moto3 series made up primarily of riders born after that race.

All of the new generation, to a lesser or greater degree, owe something to a man whose contribution to the global success of our sport is unquantifiable. In countries lacking a national hero, like Argentina, South Africa, Belgium or even the UK, he has been adopted as one of their own. As well as his superstar status in Italy he is, albeit perhaps belatedly, fostering a new generation of homegrown stars through the VR Riders Academy, whilst in Japan, Australia, the USA or Spain he remains just as popular despite his ongoing battles with a string of their own champions. Even within the paddock, every reporter, engineer, physiotherapist or pot washer owes a debt of gratitude to Rossi, a modern-day sporting phenomenon whose legacy will continue to inspire and sustain the industry for decades after his retirement.

At the weekend I was at Brands Hatch for the seventh round of the MCE British Superbike Championship, when Barry Sheene was remembered on the 40th anniversary of his first 500cc World Championship success, which he sealed at Anderstorp on 25th July 1976 and celebrated two weeks later in winning the ‘Hutchinson 100’ race at Brands. Sheene’s brother in law (and legend in his own right) Paul Smart was joined by his son Scott for an anti-clockwise lap of the track – as was custom in the ‘Hutch 100′ era – Paul on his own 1972 Suzuki TR750 and Scott on a 1975 XR14 RG500, the bike on which his uncle won his first 500cc race. Barry’s sister Maggie waved them off anti-clockwise around the circuit, choking up alongside other family members as the bikes disappeared around the equally iconic Clearways corner.

All around the packed bankings, millions of hairs on thousands of necks stood on end as fathers, and no doubt grandfathers, shared their memories of the great man with their children and grandchildren to the rattle of two-stroke nostalgia. From pit-lane misty-eyed racers, ex-racers, mechanics, team managers and officials stood side by side; each with their own individual account of how their love of motorcycles was either initiated or enriched by the seventies’ coolest playboy. First-hand tales, second-hand legend and grainy television footage and photographs perpetuate a legacy that if anything becomes more appealing over time, continuing to intrigue and inspire the next generation of motorcycle racing enthusiasts. At a time when many Britons feel their country is losing its identity, this was a moment to be proud.

In many ways, and mostly for the better, the modern incarnation of our sport is barely recognisable from the sepia photographs in Sunday’s race programme. You only had to look to the starting grid for the day’s second Superbike race to see James Ellison inhaling extra oxygen from a small cannister “because it helps with recovery and increases oxygen supply to red blood cells,” as he explained to a confused tweeter later that evening. The image was about as far removed as you could imagine from those iconic shots of a pre-race Sheene, sucking from a cigarette through a purpose-drilled hole in his helmet, or taking a post-race a slug of liquor from a hip flask in parc femé.

Rossi, a lifelong disciple of the majority of Sheene’s best traits, is a rare maverick cast in a similar mould and, like Sheene, there will never be another. I honestly thought he’d be retired by the time I ever commentated on another MotoGP race. So whatever happens this weekend, it will be nice to have another story for the grandkids.

Photo by KTM/Platzer

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