The Difficulty in Replacing Maverick Viñales: Will Morbidelli or Rossi Move to the Factory Team?

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Maverick Viñales’ decision to leave Yamaha at the end of the 2021 season raised all sorts of questions.

Who would take his place in the factory Monster Energy Yamaha team? Can Franco Morbidelli be bought out of his contract with the Petronas SRT team? And if Morbidelli goes to the factory team, who do Petronas take to replace Morbidelli?

Valentino Rossi added another layer of complexity to those questions at the Styria Grand Prix by announcing he would be retiring from MotoGP at the end of this year. Now, Yamaha had not one, but two seats to fill.

Where would Yamaha find two riders ready to move up to MotoGP? Do Petronas look to the WorldSBK paddock, or at Moto2? Do they want young riders, or should they look at veterans like Jonathan Rea or Andrea Dovizioso?

The race that weekend saw the issues around Yamaha and Viñales multiply exponentially. Viñales’ abuse of his Yamaha M1, holding the bike on the stop in fifth gear in frustration caused Yamaha to finally lose patience with the Spaniard.

He was first suspended, then had his contract terminated with immediate effect, leaving Yamaha with a seat to fill for the remaining seven races of 2021.

In the same week, Petronas announced it would be ending its sponsorship of the Petronas SRT team.

As a result of that, the Sepang International Circuit announced it would be spinning off the SRT team as a separate entity, under the management of Razlan Razali and Johan Stigefelt, and that the team would be dropping Moto2 and Moto3 at the end of the 2021 season to focus solely on MotoGP.

A Tangled Web

The termination of Maverick Viñales, in particular, opens the door to a vast array of possibilities, and with it, a lot of questions.

Yamaha need to put someone on the second Monster Energy Yamaha bike for the remainder of the 2021 season, but doing so is more complicated than it at first seems.

The obvious choice is to ask Cal Crutchlow to fill in for the remaining seven races – Crutchlow is already scheduled to ride Viñales’ bike at Silverstone – but to do so would disrupt his work as test rider.

Riders get a little over three hours of track time plus the race on a race weekend, with the added complication of having to chase a time for qualifying. That schedule is not conducive to testing, whereas having 8 hours of track time and being able to work methodically through a testing program is far more productive in terms of bike development.

Yamaha may still believe it is better to put Crutchlow on the bike, but if they don’t, then one option could be to move either Valentino Rossi or Franco Morbidelli up from the Petronas team.

For Valentino Rossi, it would give the Italian a chance to say goodbye in the factory team in which he spent so much of his career.

Alternatively, it would be a chance to move Morbidelli into the factory team earlier than the start of the 2022 season, when he is scheduled to take the seat alongside Fabio Quartararo.

Will the Rulebook Allow It?

The process of moving either rider into the factory team is complicated, however, facing challenges from several sides. Including the thorny issue of engine allocations: Franco Morbidelli, after all, is currently using 2019-spec Yamaha M1 engines.

Would he be allowed to use Maverick Viñales’ engines? Would have to bring his own engines up to the factory team? And what about the rule that says the engines of both riders in the factory team have to be of the same spec?

The answer to these questions is to be found in the FIM rulebook, though it takes a careful reading to extract. First, the question of whether a rider can move between teams in the same season. Section 1.11.3.i provides an answer here:

“A substitute rider may not be a rider currently contracted in the Championship, unless approved by the Grand Prix Commission to avoid that such substitution may be motivated by reasons other than sporting or medical (circumventing engine allocation rules, etc.). If approved, the team from which the substitute rider is taken must fulfil their current entry obligations.”

If the Monster Energy Yamaha team wants to move either Valentino Rossi or Franco Morbidelli into the factory team, they first have to prove it is not an attempt to avoid either rider running out of engines at the end of the season.

That is pretty simple: Valentino Rossi has just cracked open his fifth engine, and Franco Morbidelli (or rather, his replacement, Cal Crutchlow) had just started on his fourth.

Both riders have plenty of engines to last them the rest of the year. The GPC are unlikely to deny them on those grounds.

Engine Numbers & Specifications

If either rider does move up to the factory team, what becomes of those engine allocations? And for Franco Morbidelli, will he have to take his 2019 machines into the factory squad, or will he be able to upgrade to the 2021 bike?

This is where the rules are not obvious, though relatively clear cut. Section contains the relevant wording:

“The number of engines available for use by each permanent contracted rider is limited to 7 for all of the scheduled races of a season of up to 20 races. The limit applies to all practice sessions and races at GP events, engines used for testing outside of GP events are not controlled. The following terms and exceptions will apply:”

The condition listed below, under subsection b), is the relevant rule for the situation of either of the Petronas riders replacing Maverick Viñales:

“Should a rider be replaced for any reason, the replacement rider will be deemed to be the original rider for purposes of engine allocation.”

It is easy to think of engine specifications and quantities being allocated to riders; that, after all, is how it is worded in the rules.

However, it is more accurate to say that engines are allocated to a particular side of each garage, rather than to a rider. Riders can be injured, and forced to miss a race. When they are injured, whoever comes in to replace them on that side of the garage gets the engines used by the injured rider.

The case of Viñales is merely a much more complicated version of replacing an injured rider.

If Valentino Rossi or Franco Morbidelli move up from the Petronas team to take Viñales’ place, they inherit the engines on Viñales’ side of the garage, leaving their own engines in turn to whoever replaces them.

One In, One Out

This is why it would not be a problem for Franco Morbidelli to replace Maverick Viñales in the factory team. If he were to switch, he would leave his 2019 engines in the Petronas team, and jump onto the engines on Maverick Viñales’ side of the Monster Energy Yamaha team garage.

This, perhaps, could be grounds for the Grand Prix Commission to refuse the request to move Morbidelli from the Petronas team into the factory squad. The rule says that approval is subject to it not being “motivated by reasons other than sporting or medical”.

An unwilling member of the GPC might argue that by moving into the factory team, Morbidelli is getting an upgrade to a better spec of engine. But it is also hard to argue that the Monster Energy Yamaha team faces a pressing need to find a replacement rider, and have good reason to put Morbidelli on the bike.

That same engine allocation question covers what happens to Maverick Viñales if Aprilia put him on the bike after Silverstone, as they are expected to do.

Viñales inherits the engines used by Lorenzo Savadori in the Gresini Aprilia squad so far, as Savadori is the rider he will be replacing. Savadori has already used four engines, so Viñales would get those four, and have the right to take an additional five – concession teams get nine engines instead of seven, and are allowed to change engine spec through the season.

Here, too, the same logic applies: riders may move from team to team, but engines stay in the garage where they were allocated.

Of course, any move by Viñales would face the same obstacle faced by Rossi or Morbidelli going into the factory team. Before they can make the move, the GPC must give their blessing.

Contracts, Contracts

It is unlikely that the Grand Prix Commission would stop either Maverick Viñales going into the Gresini Aprilia team, or either of the Petronas riders taking Viñales’ seat in Monster Energy Yamaha. But that doesn’t mean that a move by Rossi or Morbidelli into the factory Yamaha team is a given.

The much bigger objection to moving either Rossi or Morbidelli out of Petronas and into the factory team is one of contracts.

Firstly, Franco Morbidelli’s contract is with the Petronas Yamaha SRT team, and so moving him out of Petronas into the factory team would mean negotiating a new contract, or at least paying the Petronas team some form of compensation.

Yamaha are already having to do that for 2022, of course, as the Italian’s contract with Petronas was for next year as well.

That issue does not apply to Valentino Rossi, as he is already contracted directly with Yamaha. But that doesn’t make it any easier. It is not rider contracts which are the problem here, but contracts with sponsors.

Teams made deals with sponsors, and sponsors signed off on them based in part on who they expected the riders to be. They are getting publicity for their brand from those riders, and may not want to swap, say, the biggest name in motorcycle racing for a relative unknown from Moto2 or Moto3.

There are direct conflicts too: Petronas is a petroleum company that sells both fuel and lubrication products. The Monster Energy Yamaha team has a deal with Eneos, a Japanese supplier of lubricants, and direct competitor to Petronas.

Though these brands have contracts with teams rather than riders, this is not a change that can be made without approval of the team’s major sponsors.

Choices, Choices

Will Yamaha actually decide to move one of the Petronas Yamaha riders into the factory team for the remainder of the 2021 MotoGP season? It may be legally possible under the FIM regulations, but that doesn’t mean it will actually happen.

Yamaha has plenty of reasons to consider, but may yet take the simplest way out, and put Cal Crutchlow on the bike for the rest of the season.

This is just one headache facing the factory and SRT team. Once they have dealt with that decision, they have to move on to who gets the satellite bikes for next year.

At the moment, Petronas Sprinta Moto3 rider Darryn Binder is in one hot seat, and, perhaps surprisingly, Andrea Dovizioso is in the other. But that is just the current state of play; there is still a long way to go to the end of the year.