So the first shoe has dropped. Valentino Rossi is to remain at Yamaha for two more seasons, signing on to compete for 2017 and 2018. The signing of Rossi will have major repercussions for the rest of the MotoGP rider market, and has made it all a little more unpredictable.
That Rossi would renew his contract with Yamaha is hardly a surprise. The Italian has a long and storied history with the Japanese manufacturer, from his triumphant and daring switch to Yamaha at the start of the 2004 season, in which he won both a memorable first race on the YZR-M1, going on to become champion, through a total of four world titles and a seemingly endless string of wins.
Rossi was welcomed back into the fold, suitably chastened, after his failed adventure with Ducati, and after a slow start, returned to being competitive in 2014, and especially in 2015.
Even the bitter aftermath of the 2015 season, when Rossi lost the title to his Movistar Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo could not sour the relationship.
When Yamaha awarded its MotoGP merchandise contract to Rossi’s VR46 Racing Apparel business, and then signed a long-term support deal with Rossi’s VR46 Riders Academy, it was obvious that Rossi would stay with Yamaha, though it was uncertain that he would still be racing.
Rossi repeated publicly that he wanted to take the first few races of 2016 before making a decision, but it was clear that the decision would be continuing with the Movistar Yamaha team and retirement.
No doubt Rossi could have ridden elsewhere if he had chosen to – though the doors at Honda were almost certainly closed to him, after his defection at the end of 2003 – but realistically, Rossi’s future was tied to Yamaha.
When he retires, Rossi will continue as a figurehead for Yamaha, in much the same mold as Giacomo Agostini. The press release from Yamaha states as much, Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis saying “When Vale returned home in 2013 it was ‘a decision for life’.”
That is worth a lot more to both Yamaha and Rossi in the long run. Though financial details of the deal were not released – they never are, the world of MotoGP salaries being one which is shrouded in secrecy and myth – the money part of the equation was most certainly not an issue.
Rossi has been racing for glory and the chance to win another title for the past few years, rather than financial compensation. Ironically, the most financially valuable of the four MotoGP aliens is probably on the lowest salary.
What is a surprise is the timing of Rossi’s announcement. The general expectation was that Rossi would stay on at Yamaha for another two years, but that the announcement would come some time in May or June.
Instead, the deal has been announced ahead of the first race of the season. The question everyone is asking now is, why the hurry?
If the second day of practice for the 2016 MotoGP season taught us anything, it taught us that everything is still wide open.
Yesterday, the Movistar Yamahas were clearly a cut above the rest during FP1. During the two free practice sessions on Friday, the top of the timesheets looked a little different.
In FP2, it was a wild mixture of Ducatis, Hondas, and Maverick Viñales on the Suzuki GSX-RR. In FP3, when the stakes were raised with direct entry to Q2 on the table, Jorge Lorenzo put his Yamaha M1 back into contention, but his previous clear superiority from Thursday was gone.
The reason? There isn’t a single cause you can put your finger on. In FP2, the Movistar Yamaha riders spent their time working on tire choice, and especially the tricky task of figuring out which front tire to use in the race.
That differs depending on which bike you happen to be riding: the Hondas are trying to make the hard front work, with different success, the Yamahas have abandoned the hard for the medium, and may even race with the soft, while the Ducatis are caught in a similar dilemma.
The Hondas – at least, the factory bikes – made a big step forward with electronics, and that made the competitive. Or rather, it was a step backwards, reverting to the settings Marc Márquez had tried in the test.
“Yesterday, we changed a small thing that we expected normally would not be a big difference on the bike on riding, but this time was a big difference with these electronics,” Marc Márquez explained. Dropping that change made a massive difference, and Márquez was competitive in both sessions on Friday.
The one constant through all three sessions of free practice has been Andrea Iannone: third fastest on Thursday, fastest in both FP2 and FP3 on Friday. “A perfect day,” was how he described Friday. He was far from complacent, however. “Just because I am first, it doesn’t mean we are completely ready.”
Bikes are on track, and the roar of racing four strokes is filling the desert skies in Qatar. We can check our moral compasses at the door, sit back and once again revel in the glory of Grand Prix racing.
The fog of testing is lifting, exposing the reality which lies beneath. We don’t need speculation any longer. We have actual timesheets.
Conclusions from Day One of 2016? We learned a lot.
Some of it confirmed what we already knew: the Yamahas are quick, especially Jorge Lorenzo; Maverick Viñales can be competitive; Hector Barbera is going to surprise a few people; the Hondas are still juggling the electronics in search of the right set up; there is a clear elite group in Moto2, which includes Sam Lowes and Alex Rins; the rookie group in Moto3 is exceptional this year.
Some of it surprised: MotoGP silly season is already in high gear, with reports that Johann Zarco has already signed for Suzuki, and talk about Tech 3 for next year; Zarco’s poor times in testing were anything but representative; Livio Loi is in deadly form at Qatar, opening up a gap which shouldn’t really be possible in Moto3; the rubber left on the track by the different tire brands is affecting Moto2 far more than MotoGP, instead of the other way round, as it was last year.
There is good news and bad news for MotoGP fans. The good news is that the 2016 season is just a few hours away from kicking off, with the Moto3 bikes the first to go out at 6pm, shortly after the sun sets in Qatar.
The good news is that the season opener takes place at the Losail International Circuit, a first class facility featuring a fantastic track, with a good mixture of fast and slow curves, and a serious test of both rider and machine.
The good news is that with the switch to spec electronics and the unified software, the racing is set to get closer among the factories, and put more control in the hands of the rider.
The best news is that the MotoGP field has never been so strong, so deep in talent, and feature such a broad range of competitive machinery, that Moto2 looks like being much more of a contest this year than it was in previous seasons, and that Moto3 features some spectacularly talent rookies, up against fiercely competitive established riders.
The racing this year is set to be outstanding in all three Grand Prix classes.
The bad news, though, is really bad. Of immediate importance to MotoGP fans is that it has rained on and off in the Gulf region for the past couple of weeks, and rained all day on Wednesday.
The fact that Qatar is a night race means that if it rains at any time, the track will be immediately closed, the floodlights causing dazzling reflections from any water on the surface, making it impossible to ride.
The current forecast is for it to stay dry until Tuesday, but whether such forecasts can be trusted remains to be seen.
The worst news is that the opening race of the season is in Qatar. The first race of the year will be held in front of a tiny crowd (more fans will often turn up at a European track on a Thursday, when there is no on-track action, than on race day in Qatar), at a track surrounded by desert, where sand and dust tends to blow in and cover the track, causing severe tire wear and making the track treacherous if a rider gets off line.
Beside the track sits the Lusail Sports Arena, part of a massive expansion of sporting facilities which have cost the lives of over 1200 migrant workers already, and are set to cost the lives of more.
You see these migrant workers packed into buses as you drive to the track, on their way to work long hours for little pay, which all too often they do not receive. They cannot leave, as under the country’s Kafala system, the employers take away their passports, making travel or complaint impossible.
The work done by the teams at the Losail International Circuit provides valuable insight into how the first week of racing will play out in the GP paddock. As such, MotoGP fans will want to count this show as part of their 2016 season buildup.
We think you will enjoy the insights that David, Neil, Steve, and Tony share about the progress of the Michelin tires, Casey Stoner’s role in the Ducati garage, the development of the Aprilia RS-GP and its unique crankshaft, and of course the continued mind games between Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez. It’s all very intriguing.
As always, be sure to follow the Paddock Pass Podcast on Facebook, Twitter and subscribe to the show on iTunes and SoundCloud – we even have an RSS feed for you. If you like the show, we would really appreciate you giving it a review on iTunes. Thanks for listening!
Ducati’s MotoGP test plan has suffered a blow, after the Bologna factory wrongly interpreted the testing rules in booking the Losail Circuit in Qatar for a private test on Sunday and Monday.
The plan for the private test had been to have Casey Stoner test the Ducati Desmosedici GP (or GP16, as everyone else calls it) at Qatar on Sunday and Monday, after the official IRTA test had finished at the track.
The benefits for Ducati would have been that Stoner would have been testing on a relatively clean track under broadly similar conditions as the other MotoGP riders, allowing a good back-to-back comparison of the feedback between the factory riders and Stoner.