Luca Marini steps out of GOAT brother Valentino Rossi's shadow to make a name for himself in MotoGP

There's a simple, perfectly reasonable explanation for how VR46 Ducati rider Luca Marini began on his journey to MotoGP.

"We were lucky because at my age, a lot of families [in Italy] wanted their kids to try pocket bikes," Marini told ESPN. "It was a period around 2000 when [MotoGP] was a very important sport in the world, and especially in Italy, because of Vale."

The "Vale" that Marini is referring to is Valentino Rossi, a nine-time motorcycle grand prix world champion almost universally considered to be the greatest of all time. He also happens to be Marini's half-brother.

Rossi was 18 years old when his mother had Marini. It was August of 1997, and Rossi was mere weeks away from winning the first of those nine titles.

Such was his gusto, his charisma, that his superhuman accomplishments on track yielded a surreal celebrity status off it. Rossi alluded to not being able to venture outside of his Milan home without being mobbed by adoring fans, eventually leaving Italy for a more anonymous life in London in 2000, before returning to his home country later in the decade and sharing a home with his little brother.

"He was just my brother, and I never thought about how he was famous, popular and important for our sport," Marini said. "This is something that occurred to me as I started to arrive in the world championship. When I was at home watching the races and Monday he would come back home ... I just saw my brother come back from work, this was very normal."

Alessio "Uccio" Salucci witnessed Rossi's duality first hand. He is Rossi's childhood friend, his assistant and confidante, and now the team principal at Rossi's eponymous VR46 Ducati outfit. He's known Marini "since he was in [the womb]," and considering the enormous shadow Rossi's legend casts, he jokes that "Luca chose the worst sport" to compete in.

First, there's the pressure. Sharing a bloodline with the greatest rider the sport has ever seen creates an expectation to deliver on a par with the greatest rider the sport has ever seen.

"It's impossible to make any comparisons with Vale," Marini said. "Not just for me, for everybody: for Marc Marquez, for Alex Rins, for Pecco Bagnaia, for Fabio Quartararo. It's impossible. It's a completely different history, it's a different era, different bikes. It's a completely different world."

Then, there are the accusations. Marini only got his seat in MotoGP because he's Rossi's brother. Marini insists it doesn't bother him, that his critics are free to believe what they want to believe, but Salucci is more forceful in countering that notion.

"[Marini] fought for the championship in Moto2, he lost in the last race to Enea Bastianini," he told ESPN. "You don't fight for the championship in Moto2 just because you are the brother of Valentino. You fight for the title in Moto2 and you ride like this in MotoGP because you are a very good rider."

Despite his legendary genes, despite his successes in junior categories, Marini is surprised he's made it this far. While his half-brother was on his way to racking up the second-most wins in motorcycle grand prix racing history, Marini found joy in simply riding bikes.

He smiles as he recalls his mother's passion for motorcycles, explaining that it's she who perhaps most inspired him to ride. He is quite serious, though, in affirming that he embarked on a life on two wheels on his own accord.

It wasn't until 2019, in his sixth season racing professionally in junior categories, that he first believed that he could even reach the sport's pinnacle.

"I never believed much in myself, I didn't know I could achieve these kinds of results and arrive in MotoGP," Marini said. "Now I believe a lot in myself and I've improved my self knowledge, and I'm really satisfied about my personal growth as a human and as a rider."

It's illustrative that he notes his development both as a person and as a racer. In MotoGP, where it's disconcertingly common for riders to rush back from broken bones, consequences be damned, Marini's self reflection is unique.

This is a sport that demands unimaginable bravery, and that kind of courage breeds extraordinary confidence in oneself, and such incredible confidence in oneself yields larger-than-life personalities -- take Marini's brother, for example. Marini himself is reserved, he's soft spoken, he's contemplative.

And from a riding perspective, that may have held him back in his younger days. Marini developed within Rossi's VR46 Academy, which he set up to help young Italian riders and has produced reigning world champion Bagnaia as well as fellow MotoGP regulars Marco Bezzecchi and Franco Morbidelli.

Despite riding alongside some of the world's brightest talents, Marini kept to himself. It was only once he established himself at VR46, and Rossi's famed ranch, where the legend would train on dirt-track bikes alongside his contemporaries and academy riders alike, that he began to blossom on the bike.

"When I was really young, I didn't understand this very well," Marini said. "I was really shy and it was just, 'Okay, let's ride my bike on my own, on my lines, don't bother anybody, just stay on my own.' But growing up, I started to understand a little bit better, especially at the ranch.

"It was a great opportunity for me to see up close riders who were stronger than me in that moment, to try to improve myself, watching them, sneaking some hidden secrets from them. It was important for my growth. I was lucky, like the other riders of the VR46 Academy, because we shared very important knowledge, taking a lot of experience from Vale or Marco Simoncelli or other riders who were training with us."

Marini has a lifetime's worth of education from arguably the best the sport has ever seen. Salucci has witnessed it, little brother soaking up every lesson from his elder like a sponge.

"When I look at Luca working with the mechanics and the engineers, I see the face of Vale: same questions, always wanting everything to be perfect, working for 10 hours inside the [pit] box," Salucci said. "Luca has watched Vale for many, many years, he's learned from Vale, and he is a very clever guy."

And the 25-year-old Marini is only getting better.

In his debut season in MotoGP, his best finish was fifth. Last year, his second in the class, he recorded a pair of fourth-place finishes. He set the fastest time at two of this past winter's three preseason tests. He finished third in the Saturday Sprint race in this season's second round at Argentina, and followed that up with a second-place finish at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin earlier this month.

"I'm surprised every time I look at the time sheets and see my name on top, or quite high in the classification of a practice or a race in MotoGP," Marini said. "It's just incredible."

He should get used to it. The kid brother of motorcycle grand prix racing's GOAT is beginning to make a name for himself.