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?
There are a number of things that factor into the decision. The first two are related and equal: Valentino Rossi had to be believe that he was still capable of being competitive as a rider, and Yamaha had to agree with that assessment.
Valentino Rossi had to believe that Yamaha was capable of producing a competitive MotoGP bike. Preseason testing confirmed that both of those are still true: the Yamaha is still arguably the best bike on the grid, though Ducati does appear to have closed the gap significantly.
Rossi is in the shape of his life, and probably faster now than he has ever been, driven on by the level of competition in MotoGP at the moment. Rossi’s ambition has driven him to work harder than ever before, to try to achieve what he failed to do in 2015.
If, he reasoned at the launch in Barcelona, he could be competitive in 2015 at the age of 36, getting another year or two older will not make much difference.
Rossi wore a grim aspect at the Movistar Yamaha launch in January, and he kept a similarly fierce face through all of testing and going into the first weekend.
His focus is even greater than ever: instead of mellowing with age, he has grown more driven. His focus on racing has even seeped into his private life: over the winter, Rossi split up with his long-term girlfriend, the Italian model Linda Morselli.
That Rossi should make a decision on his future earlier rather than later is not that much of a surprise, but that Yamaha should sign Rossi ahead of Jorge Lorenzo is something of a shock.
Since the launch in January, Lorenzo has been publicly very vocal about wanting to sign a new contract with Yamaha before the start of the 2016 season.
According to Nadia Tronchoni of the respected Spanish daily El Pais, Lorenzo has had a deal on the table from Yamaha since Thursday, which is “the best contract of his sporting career,” according to sources quoted by Tronchoni.
Why the deal has not yet been signed raises a few questions. Though Tronchoni reports sources close to Lorenzo as saying that the Spaniard does not have an offer from anyone else, adding the ominous proviso “at the moment”, Ducati have made no secret of their interest in Lorenzo.
They have, however, continuously denied reports that they had already made an offer to Lorenzo, something which the reports from El Pais confirm.
Both Lorenzo and Yamaha still hold some very strong cards in the negotiations. Lorenzo is arguably the best rider in the world at the moment, and the rider most capable of extracting the most from the Yamaha M1.
If Lorenzo departs for Ducati, it leaves Yamaha with a massive talent hole to fill alongside Rossi, but it also means they will be trying to beat Lorenzo.
There are no guarantees that Rossi can do that on his own: it was hard enough beating Lorenzo on the same bike, so who knows how hard it will be when the Spaniard is on a different machine.
But Yamaha also knows that its has the best bike on the grid, and a bike suited perfectly to Lorenzo’s style. He also has a group around him he knows well and trusts, and it is far from certain who would leave with Lorenzo should he switch to a different manufacturer.
When I asked Wilco Zeelenberg whether he would follow Lorenzo if he left when the Spaniard was in talks with Honda, during 2014, Zeelenberg made it clear that he was a Yamaha man, and would stay at Yamaha.
Zeelenberg is a key figure in the success of Lorenzo, helping to guide both Lorenzo and crew chief Ramon Forcada in the right direction in terms of set up.
Forcada too may choose to stay at Yamaha, with the prospect of bringing on a young rider. Lorenzo works much better when he has the right people around him, and it is far from guaranteed that this will be the case in another factory.
The fact that Rossi has signed a new deal while Lorenzo is still considering the contract he has been offered suggests that Lorenzo is starting to incline towards leaving.
The intensity of rumors in the Italian media that Ducati are ready to make a strong play for Lorenzo suggest they have some validity, especially given that the rumors are coming from reliable sources. The fact that Lorenzo’s people are saying he has not had an offer from Ducati does not mean that talks are underway.
The Ducati Desmosedici GP (that’s the GP16, to you and me) is now clearly a competitive machine, helped by the switch to Michelins and the advent of the spec electronics. Unlike when Rossi left for Ducati, there are several riders performing well on the bike, rather than just a single, exceptional rider capable of winning.
It is possible that Lorenzo is holding off on signing the Yamaha contract to see just how the Ducati fares in the first race of the season. The Ducati may have shown strong pace in testing, but actually racing exposes a different set of strengths and weaknesses.
Should Lorenzo leave, the rider market would be blown wide open. The seat alongside Rossi at Yamaha would become the most highly prized on the market.
Yamaha would almost certainly pursue a young talent to put on the bike, to give them a chance to adapt alongside Rossi, and as a long-term replacement for the future.
Maverick Viñales would be the obvious choice, as his style is the most comparable to Lorenzo’s, and he has already proven his ability. Yamaha also have their eyes on Alex Rins, and Rins is trying to get a seat on a factory team, and is therefore less interested in taking the factory seat at the Tech 3 Yamaha team.
Rins would be a MotoGP rookie, though, and therefore a much bigger gamble than Viñales. If Yamaha could not sign Viñales, then Honda will go after the Spaniard, though they too are also interested in Rins. If Lorenzo leaves, then Honda and Yamaha are most likely to split Viñales and Rins between them.
Until Jorge Lorenzo actually makes a decision, however, all this is just speculation. But one thing is certain: MotoGP Silly Season just got a whole lot more interesting.
Photo: © 2016 Cormac Ryan-Meenan / CormacGP – All Rights Reserved
This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.