The legal oddity that riders’ contracts are out of sync with the MotoGP season creates an uncomfortable truce among the factories.
When riders sign with a factory, their contracts run from January 1st to December 31st. But for the factories and teams, the new season starts on the Tuesday after the last race of the year, at Valencia.
This is a particular problem for the 2017 season, with so many riders changing factories. Traditionally, there has been a gentlemen’s agreement among the factories to allow the riders to test with their new team, despite still being under contract to the old one.
So in previous years, the likes of Valentino Rossi (twice) and Casey Stoner have lapped Valencia aboard their new steeds dressed in plain leathers.
The plain leathers are just one side of the compromise. As a rule, the riders switching factories are not allowed to speak to the media, or only allowed to speak in the most general of terms, avoiding direct comparison between their new bikes and their old bikes.
The riders continue to perform PR duties for their old factories up until the end of the contract deadline.
Practicalities & Contracts
Why the discrepancy between contracts and season? In part, because it makes for simple financial budgeting, placing contracts inside of fiscal years instead of having to figure out how much of a contract falls in each year.
More importantly, however, it is so that the teams and factories can actually benefit from the results of their riders from that season. When Valentino Rossi left Yamaha to join Ducati at the end of the 2010 season, Yamaha had won the team and manufacturers’ title, along with Jorge Lorenzo’s riders’ championship.
Yamaha needed promotional material to celebrate both the team and the manufacturers’ title, which included shooting and publishing photographs with Valentino Rossi directly after the end of the season. That material was then used in promotional materials for the rest of the year.
If Rossi’s contract had ended on the Sunday night after the final race, they would not have been able to do that. As a Ducati rider, there would have been complicated issues over image rights, and Rossi could not have appeared at sponsor events to celebrate Yamaha’s success.
The Gentlemen’s Agreement, Applies Only to Gentlemen
Despite the awkwardness of the formal contract situation, factories tend to be lenient when riders leave for pastures new. This is only in part down to magnanimity: there is a healthy dose of self interest involved too.
Factories are caught in a form of prisoner’s dilemma: they know that if they refuse a departing rider permission to test with their new factory, there is a very good chance that the other factory will do exactly the same to them at some point in the future.
So when factories do refuse permission to test, it is seen as a remarkable move. That has only happened once in the recent past: when Valentino Rossi left Honda to join Yamaha at the end of the 2003 season.
HRC felt they had some justification in denying Rossi the opportunity to test: Rossi only informed them that he was leaving at the Motegi round in October of 2003, after months of tortuous negotiations.
It was also the first time in a very long time that anyone had had the temerity to turn down Honda. Especially someone with the stature of Valentino Rossi. Rossi was held to his contract, and not allowed to test until after 31st December 2003.
No Private Testing for Lorenzo?
It comes as a surprise, therefore, that Yamaha have decided to limit the test days for Jorge Lorenzo. According to reports in the Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport, Yamaha has given Lorenzo permission to test with Ducati at Valencia, but not at a private test Ducati have planned for Jerez later in November.
Lorenzo will have to wait until the first official test of 2017, at Sepang at the end of January before he climbs back on board the Ducati Desmosedici GP17.
Why would they do this? That is difficult to say, and a question it is pointless to ask, as you are (understandably) unlikely to get a straight answer.
A case could be made – and Yamaha will doubtless make it – that allowing Lorenzo to ride the Ducati at Valencia honors the unspoken agreement MotoGP’s factories have.
When Casey Stoner switch to Honda in 2011, he tested only at Valencia, as did Valentino Rossi the same year he went to Ducati. Similarly, when Rossi returned to Yamaha at the end of 2012, the Italian only tested at Valencia.
That Was Then, This Is Now
This is a slightly disingenuous argument, however. Testing regulations were much stricter for the 2011 season, meaning there was less opportunity for either Rossi or Stoner to test.
What’s more, directly after the Valencia test, Rossi had surgery on the shoulder he injured at the start of the 2010 season, meaning he was unable to ride a bike after Valencia, even if he had wanted to.
Though testing regulations had been eased somewhat at the end of 2012, Yamaha had no tests planned after Valencia that year, meaning that Rossi did not have the opportunity to test, even if he had wanted to.
Things are different in 2016. With five days of private testing allowed for each season, in addition to the official tests, Ducati is free to organize tests with the factory riders in November.
Given that the most important period for Ducati is immediately after Valencia and the run up to the winter test ban, they have scheduled a private test at Jerez for 23-24 November.
They had hoped both to allow Lorenzo to further familiarize himself with the first version of the GP17, and get his feedback on the bike before the winter test ban kicks in. Ducati would then be able to incorporate his feedback into the next version of the GP17 to be rolled out at Sepang.
Preparing for next year
Just how important this is to Ducati is apparent from the lengths they have gone to get the GP17 ready for Lorenzo at Valencia. The initial version of the bike is currently receiving its first run out at Valencia in the hands of Michele Pirro.
That, incidentally, is the reason Pirro is not substituting for Andrea Iannone at Motegi, who has decided to skip the first of the three flyaways to give his injured T3 vertebra a little more time to heal.
Intriguingly, Casey Stoner turned down the opportunity to replace Iannone, despite being asked by Ducati. Though Stoner remains an enigma, this decision is further confirmation that he is done with racing and has no desire to come back, even for a wildcard or a replacement.
Yamaha’s decision to refuse Lorenzo permission to test beyond Valencia looks even more suspect in light of Ducati and Suzuki allowing Andrea Iannone and Maverick Viñales to test for Suzuki and Yamaha respectively.
Viñales will ride the Yamaha M1 alongside Valentino Rossi at Valencia, then again later in the month at a private test in Sepang. Iannone will also ride at Valencia, and either at Jerez or Sepang, depending on where Suzuki decides to test.
Fear or Disfavor?
So why would Yamaha limit Lorenzo’s testing to just two days at Valencia, preventing him from riding the bike at Jerez later in November? There are two plausible explanations.
Either Yamaha fear Lorenzo will be quick from the off on the Ducati, and they want to keep him off the bike for as long as possible. Or the relationship between Yamaha and Lorenzo has deteriorated so badly that Yamaha do not want to allow him to test.
To start with the latter theory, it is entirely possible. Relations have been strained between Yamaha and Lorenzo since the end of the 2015 season, when Yamaha found themselves in the impossible situation of having to deal with Valentino Rossi accusing Marc Márquez of conspiring against him to hand the title to Jorge Lorenzo.
Yamaha’s poor handling of that situation left Lorenzo feeling bitter, and with relations soured between their two riders.
Lorenzo then made a difficult situation much worse by first demanding that Yamaha offer him a contract before the start of the season, so that he could start the year with his future secured.
Yamaha complied with his request – scrupulously offering both their riders a contract simultaneously, attempting to avoid any semblance of favoritism. Lorenzo then prevaricated, and tried to use Ducati’s offer as a bargaining tool.
Yamaha held firm, and Lorenzo decided to walk. Already poor relations were made even worse.
Slow Him Down, By Any Means
Alternatively, Yamaha could just be afraid of Jorge Lorenzo on a Ducati. The Japanese factory are all too aware of the talent of the Spaniard: Lorenzo has been with them since 2008, and has won three MotoGP titles for them.
Yamaha invested a lot of effort in Lorenzo, signing him to a MotoGP contract very early, with papers signed in 2006, a whole season before Lorenzo ascended to the premier class.
Yamaha signed Lorenzo knowing full well that it would raise the ire of Valentino Rossi, a move which eventually led to Rossi departing for Ducati.
Will Lorenzo adapt quickly to the Ducati? There are many in the paddock, including current and former riders, who believe he will. Adaptability – to machinery at least – has been the signature of Lorenzo, having battled poor bikes throughout his time in 125s and 250s.
Even in MotoGP, Lorenzo has been consistently competitive, even when the Yamaha has been a little off the pace. His weakness has come with tire changes: without grip at the very edge of the tires, the Spaniard has struggled.
Many Shades of Gray
The true reason behind Yamaha’s refusal probably lies somewhere in between. Yamaha rightly fears how fast Lorenzo will be on the Ducati, and will take any steps they can to slow up his process of adapting to the GP17.
Yamaha expects both Rossi and new boy Maverick Viñales to be quick on the M1, but they already face Marc Márquez on the Honda. Hobbling Lorenzo will give the Movistar Yamaha riders a chance to take advantage early in the season.
The less than harmonious atmosphere inside the Movistar Yamaha garage will have given Yamaha a reason not to be too generous towards Lorenzo.
If the Spaniard had handled the contract negotiations a little better – and Yamaha had dealt with the tension at the end of 2015 with more tact – then perhaps Yamaha would be more inclined to allow Lorenzo to test. But he didn’t, so they aren’t.
Of course, Yamaha is entirely within its rights to refuse Lorenzo any testing at all. By allowing him two days at Valencia, they appear generous enough, while not giving away too much. But you have to believe that the relationship between Yamaha and Lorenzo is fairly well soured.
It Will Not Slow Him
In the grand scheme of things, Yamaha’s refusal will probably not make a great deal of difference. The Ducati GP16 is already a competitive bike, and the GP17 will only get better.
All great MotoGP riders adapt to new bikes quickly, getting up to speed within a few days. Ducati are free to plan private tests any time they want in February, still giving them sufficient time to modify the chassis of the GP17 ahead of the season.
Even without a private test, Lorenzo will line up at Qatar with eleven days of testing on the bike under his belt. He should be ready, whatever Yamaha have decided to do.
Valentino Rossi was allowed to return to Yamaha after his failed adventure at Ducati. You have to wonder whether they will extend the same kindness to Lorenzo, should he decide to return.
Then again, Lorenzo moves to Ducati with the bike already having proven itself capable of winning races. Lorenzo may not want to return, even if he had the opportunity. If you thought 2016 was a good year for MotoGP, just wait for next season…
Photo: © 2016 Tony Goldsmith / www.tonygoldsmith.net – All Rights Reserved
This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.