There is good news and bad news for MotoGP. The good news is that the VR46 team will, as expected, make the full-time leap to the premier class for 2022, replacing the departing Esponsorama team.
The VR46 team has signed a five-year deal with Dorna to compete in MotoGP during the next contract period, from 2022-2026.
Which bikes the VR46 team will use is still to be determined. The choice appears to be between Ducati and Aprilia, with a decision to be made in the next month or so.
Given that VR46 are already fielding Luca Marini in MotoGP via a collaboration agreement with the Esponsorama squad, alongside Enea Bastianini, the most logical step would be for the team to continue working with Ducati.
In the end, the decision will come down to the level of support available. Alberto Tebaldi, head of VR46 and a long-time friend and confidant of Valentino Rossi, told Matteo Aglio of GPOne.com that having factory support mattered.
The Aprilia was looking like a competitive machine, Tebaldi said, but the difference that factory support made could be the difference between success and failure.
“I think that today, with the gaps that exist, this is fundamental. If you don’t have support at the level of the official teams in MotoGP, it becomes difficult. You lose those 4 or 5 tenths, and you’re screwed.”
While it is undoubtedly good news that a team with the experience and talent of the VR46 outfit, and backed by the biggest name in motorcycle racing (and one of the biggest in global sport), the bad news is the source of the sponsorship.
The title sponsor of the team is Aramco, the state-owned oil company of Saudi Arabia.
Aramco is one of the highest valued company in the world (a title it competes for with US tech giants Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon), and a key part of the economy of Saudi Arabia, managing the vast majority of Saudi oil and gas production, which makes up 42% of the country’s GDP.
Aramco is also a key part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 project, backed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aimed at transforming the country and reducing its reliance on the oil and gas industry.
The country is trying to sell shares of up to 5% of the company to fund the Vision 2030 transformation programs, and to soften resistance to the program as the economy shifts away from a guaranteed income for Saudi citizens toward an economy based more on private industry.
Part of that shift has involved huge societal changes: relaxation of the incredibly strict practices imposed under the form of Wahhabi Islam which is the official religion of Saudi Arabia, allowing entertainment, loosening rules on the mixing of the sexes, and weakening the role the religious police play in the Kingdom.
Vision 2030 has seen the building of a whole host of entertainment complexes as part of a vast construction program.
That is where the VR46 project comes in. The deal between VR46 and Aramco has been signed through Tanal Entertainment Sport and Media, who are heavily involved in the KSA New Cities project. Part of that project is the creation of a new racing circuit in Saudi Arabia.
The tie-up came through contacts between Alberto Tebaldi and Marco Bernadini, an Italian architect who is working closely with Saudi Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al Saud, which started with discussions about a VR46 theme park, similar to the Ferrari theme park in Abu Dhabi, and then went far beyond to become a sporting collaboration including the Aramco title sponsorship.
“It is a true collaboration, and fills us with pride, because we have been working on it for a long time,” Tebaldi told GPOne.com.
The collaboration is part of a wider move on the part of Saudi Arabia. The Vision 2030 project has included tempting various major sporting events to the kingdom, including hosting the Dakar Rally in 2020 and 2021.
Saudi Arabia has also signed a deal with F1 to host a race at a street circuit near Jeddah later this year.
This is because the Vision 2030 project contains a huge element of what is referred to as sportwashing, the use of high-profile sporting events to gloss over Saudi Arabia’s appalling record on human rights, and many other fronts.
The problems of Saudi Arabia are widely documented. Women are subject to so-called guardianship, whereby they are not viewed as having any independent existence outside of their male relatives.
Sexual harassment and abuse is widespread, and the guardianship system makes it difficult to escape that abuse, as a surge in pseudonymous social media posts revealed last year.
Migrant workers are subject to the Kafala system, also in use in Qatar, whereby they are at the mercy of their employers who obtained their visa for them, and results in many cases in something closely resembling indentured servitude.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, migrant workers were locked in detention camps in squalid conditions with little access to food or water, with many dying as a result.
Those criticizing the Saudi regime for their approach to human rights are frequently imprisoned, such as Loujain al-Hathloul, who campaigned for the right of women to drive, and spent two and a half years in a maximum security prison as a result.
The Saudi regime also has a habit of executing its critics, either via dubious pseudo-judicial processes or via outright extrajudicial murder, as was the case with Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based Saudi journalist who was killed and dismembered with a bone saw in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
While Saudi Arabia is using the popularity and profile of Valentino Rossi to whitewash their own image, the risk for Rossi is that his own image and legacy will be tarnished by association with the Saudi regime.
Of course, this collaboration between the VR46 team and Saudi Arabia is hardly the first time motorcycle racing has been involved in ethically dubious projects.
Though the long association with tobacco sponsorship largely ended when sports sponsorship was finally banned in 2006, tobacco giant Philip Morris still provides a large part of Ducati’s budget.
Ducati is also being sponsored by Lenovo this year, and though the computer maker is nominally a privately held company, it holds very close ties to the Chinese government, and its products have been banned for use by intelligence agencies in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
Tobacco has largely been replaced by energy drinks as a source of sponsorship, though the ethics of that industry are not much better. Energy drinks have been linked to diabetes, obesity, and similar diseases due to their very high sugar content, and the purchase price bears almost no relation to the cost of production.
MotoGP holds a race in Qatar, which uses a similar Kafala visa sponsorship system to Saudi Arabia. They race in Thailand, where strict lèse-majesté laws ban all criticism of the Thai royal family.
There are plans to race in Indonesia at the Mandalika International Circuit in a tourist resort, which has been criticized by the UN for seizing land from local farmers and fishermen without offering compensation and evicting them from their land.
And yet the link with Saudi Arabia feels somehow worse.
The human rights record of Saudi Arabia is far worse than any of the other countries MotoGP is involved in. And, the role of Aramco as title sponsor seems to be a far more blatant attempt at sports-washing the regime than any commercial interest from the involvement.
It seems unlikely that Valentino Rossi will escape the tie up with his reputation unscathed.
In the past, Rossi made a point of resisting tobacco sponsorship, and yet VR46 has no qualms over links to a regime that practices the death penalty on an almost industrial scale.
A figure of Rossi’s stature – the most important and significant figure in motorcycle racing of all time, and almost single-handedly responsible for the explosion in the popularity of the sport in the 21st Century – should not struggle to find partners willing to pay for the privilege of being linked with his name.
Which makes it all the more curious that the VR46 team would make a conscious choice to agree to be the face of the regime which would appear to be the antithesis of almost everything he stands for.