Archive - Jun 30, 2009 - Race Story
Numbers are funny things. On their own, they are meaningless, just abstract inventions, a way of keeping track, of measuring and quantifying objects. There is no intrinsic difference between the numbers 1, 4, 7, 12, 666 and 26017 other than their size. Yet stop someone on the street and ask them about those numbers and you will hear a host of opinions on those numbers, their meaning and whether they are good or bad, depending on who and where you happened to have stopped.
In most countries, the number 7 is greeted with enthusiasm, being considered lucky almost everywhere round the world. In Europe and America, the number 4 will barely register, but stay in a hotel in Asia, and you'll notice that there's no 4th floor, nor 14th or 24th for that matter. For the number 4 is considered very bad luck in Asia, as it sounds like the word for "death" in Chinese, Korean and Japanese. The number 666 will be greeted with fear in the more religious parts of the American Deep South, but go unnoticed in Cambodia. As for 26017, it will almost certainly be met with blank stares, unless the person you should stop to ask happens to be a mathematician, and immediately recognizes it as a prime number, a class of numbers math geeks tend to get terrifically excited about.
As these numbers attach themselves to events, their significance is magnified. One cold, dark winter night a few years ago, the entire world got caught up in a fit of festive abandon celebrating one number being replaced with another. Convention dictates that a new year begins on January 1st, and on that day 9 years ago, the most significant digit of the number used to designate years was incremented, increasing from 1999 to 2000. The 48 hour period spanning that moment saw very few major climatic, social or historical changes, yet almost the entire population of the planet attached a huge significance to that change, speaking endlessly of a new century, a new age and a new era.
That sense of anticipation, of foreboding almost, hung over Valentino Rossi at Assen. Thirteen days previously, the Italian had taken the 99th victory of his career, and speculation about the 100th had started literally seconds after he had crossed the line at Barcelona. He was getting used to it, for the storm had been brewing for a while.
Victory at Jerez had put him in line to take his 100th win at Mugello, if he could just win at Le Mans first. But a disastrous flag-to-flag race put paid to that plan. Another flag-to-flag race at Mugello saw his seven-year winning streak there dashed by the rain. Since then, talk of 100 victories abated a little, until Rossi crossed the line to take victory number 99 at Catalunya.
The manner of Rossi's victory at Barcelona helped mitigate some of the pressure. The breathtaking last lap and final corner pass over his team mate and title rival Jorge Lorenzo had the fans and followers full of the excitement of that race, rather than its significance as a stepping stone for Rossi's century. Even the questions at the pre-race press conference focused more on whether Assen would see a repeat of that blood-curdling last lap than on whether Rossi expected to take his 100th win here.
Rossi downplayed both possibilities. When asked about his 100th victory, he said his focus was on the championship, not winning a particular race. And he concurred with Jorge Lorenzo, who pointed out that Barcelona had been the exception rather than the rule, and that this was the first race since the switch to the 800cc formula that had come down to the last lap.