As a motorbike racer, Valentino Rossi is quite possibly the greatest we’ve ever known; as a sportsman, he sits comfortably alongside the peak of the world’s finest. Yet having swapped his leathers for Nomex, and his Yamaha for an Audi R8, the question was, how would British fans of the nine-time world champion react to seeing their hero race four wheels instead of two?

The answer was clear, well before the gates to Brands Hatch opened at 7.00am on Sunday morning: A long and growing line of mostly yellow-clad fans were waiting to stream into the venue and claim their spots, by the fence, or for those lucky enough to have been selected in the ballot, in the queue for the morning’s autograph session.

Fans lining-up ahead of the race down the pitlane to form the autograph queue
The first race winners of the day!

There have been some incredible days at the world-famous Kent circuit, but not since the 1986 British Grand Prix (famously won by Nigel Mansell) have I seen such adoration for one man. And don’t forget, this is not MotoGP, or F1, or even BSB or BTCC; Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe Powered by AWS is a high-profile championship, featuring some outstanding drivers, teams and machinery, but in austerity-hit 2022, with full broadcast coverage, a crowd approaching upwards of 10,000 would be considered a good result: On Sunday, gate receipts were more than doubled.

One of thousands of very happy fans!

All weekend, security around Rossi, and access to him was tight, but not because he expected special attention; simply that he and the WRT squad needed the space to do their job. And before we forget, it’s important to remember that whilst even the youngest drivers on the grid are already seasoned professionals, the Italian only has a small number of car races on his CV, plus despite having previously lived in London, he’d never raced here before. The pressure must have been huge: Not only on Rossi and the crew but also on his teammate Frederic Vervisch. Everybody knew that a legion of fans and media had descended on Brands Hatch, desperately wanting to see their hero shine: Nobody left disappointed.

Launching past the fans on the banking by Paddock Hill bend
Rising out of 'Surtees', the corner named after another motorcycle racing great who swapped two wheels for four.

Despite his lack of experience in the car and of the track (this was his debut outing with both), as each session passed, Rossi looked ever more accomplished. Of course, there was once a time when a seat in Formula 1 with Ferrari beckoned. He’s also shown himself to be rapid in NASCAR machinery and inch perfect when rallying, so versatility was never going to be a problem. Nevertheless, the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit is almost unrivalled in its demands, so pitched against some of the finest professionals of the genre, it’s a big ask to turn-up here for the first time and do yourself justice.

Carrying speed on the rise up towards Hailwood's
Thrilling the fans with a tight line into Druids

It was also a big ask to sit and smile through countless autographs and selfies, plus interviews in the pitlane, during the drivers’ parade and on the grid; not to mention the desire to acknowledge the thousands more who shouted, waved, and cheered every single time he came into view. Yet he did all with the care and attention that makes him stand out as not only an exceptional racer but equally a remarkable man. Never was this more evident than when I spoke to other drivers during the autograph session. Most appeared resigned to being onlookers as the queue snaked by, yet there was only praise for the man who had newly joined their ranks. As one put it: “Before and during the race, my only focus is on winning. But on any other day, I’ll happily stand for hours with these guys (pointing to the fans), just for a chance to shake his hand.”

The autograph session
'Doctor, Doctor': Circuit owner (and former junior doctor), Jonathan Palmer talks to 'The Doctor' on the grid

Out on track, it wasn’t the weekend the Audis had hoped for. There was a time when the R8 was unbeatable here, but recently, it’s been the spark-spitting Mercedes-AMG GT that has seemed more likely. Or at least it was until the AF Corse Ferrari 488 of Silver Cup drivers Ulysse De Pauw & Pierre-Alexandre Jean lapped faster than all the Pro-pairings to claim pole position for Race 1; going on to hold firm and take Maranello’s first sprint win in the championship since 2015.

De Pauw & Jean converted pole to win Race 1 in the AF Corse Ferrari 488 GT3
Whilst Boguslavskiy & Marciello did likewise in Race 2

Race 2 went more to form. The Mercedes-AMG of Raffaele Marciello & Timur Boguslavskiy, lapping perfectly to ease to a controlled win. But what of Rossi and Vervisch? Race 1 appeared to be a frustrating affair, Rossi taking the first stint but hampered by a safety car period after a first corner shunt on the opening lap. Then despite places gained, the Audi seemingly becoming stuck to the tail of the McLaren of Oli Wilkinson & Rob Bell. They were, of course, cheered as they crossed the line in P13, but this was nothing to the roar the #46 car would later receive.

Preparing to make his Brands Hatch race debut on the grid
And the cars being lined-up in the pitlane, ahead of Race 2

The afternoon’s second race saw Vervisch start, make progress and deliver a succession of solid laps before handing over to Rossi. Initially, the Italian found himself in space and able to hunt-down the sole Lamborghini (which he duly lapped), yet all the while, a four-car train behind edged ever closer until exiting Druids, they were right on his tail. For a moment, hearts sank. It looked like the chasing pack might swallow the WRT car and spit it out in a frenzy of passes. . . . only they didn’t. Rossi held firm, for lap after lap, and the crowd, as one, came alive. Then the Audi’s pace hastened, the gap widened, then widened further still, and as Rossi‘s drive became ever more measured, the hunters lost sight of their prey.

Vervisch shares advice on the grid
Vervisch gets down to business at the start of Race 2

What had started with a grid position of P17 for Race 1 ended with a top-ten finish in P8. The crowd cheered, marshals waved flags and fellow photographers lowered their lenses to applaud a truly remarkable man and an exceptional debut drive.

Keeping ahead of teammates Jean-Baptiste Simmenauer & Christopher Mies
Widening the gap!

But the story doesn’t end here. I left the media centre just after 7pm. Making my way along the pit exit, I saw two women with a group of children, the youngest shouting loudly that she wanted a photo. A minute later, a blacked-out Mercedes left the pitlane and approached the group. One of the mothers ran towards it waving wildly as the V-Class came to a halt. A few seconds later, Valentino Rossi emerged, put his arm around his young fans and his assistant, having been handed the mother’s phone, dutifully took the shot that will forever mean so much to everyone in it. It would have been easy to simply drive on-by, but this is a true hero; a legend, and the story isn’t over yet.

It was a brilliant display of raw talent from one of the world's greatest showmen
Stopping to give fans a precious memento of a truly fantastic weekend