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Valentino Rossi

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The second wave of the coronavirus outbreak is underway worldwide right now, with increases in COVID-19 cases being counted in Europe, North America, and other continents.

Even the MotoGP paddock isn’t immune to this trend, with news and rumors of positive tests occurring within its ranks in the past several days and weeks.

And now today we get news from Valentino Rossi himself that he has tested positive with COVID-19, after experiencing symptoms of the disease this morning.

It was a busy day for MotoGP rider announcements, this Monday. Three riders were confirmed in teams, with a fourth confirmed as leaving. The announcements were hardly a shock, but there was room for the odd raised eyebrow or two.

At Honda, there was the expected reshuffling to make room for Pol Espargaro in the Repsol Honda squad, the Spaniard offered a two-year deal alongside Marc Marquez. This bumped Alex Márquez down to the LCR Honda team, with a two-year contract as compensation.

Alex Márquez may have lost his ride in the factory team before a wheel has turned in the 2020 MotoGP season, but at least he is now assured of three seasons in the premier class to prove himself.

If there was a surprise in the announcements, it was that Cal Crutchlow was being released to make room for Alex Márquez.

The Englishman has been a valuable asset in the development of the Honda RC213V, his feedback highly rated, and he is a firm favorite in the LCR squad, bringing a lot of media exposure to the satellite team.

66 million years ago, an object somewhere between the size of Mt. Everest and the country of Luxembourg (or the island of Puerto Rico) slammed into what would become the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico at a speed of 20 kilometers per second, or 72,000 km/h.

The impact that an asteroid of that size moving at that speed made was unimaginably vast: scientists estimate that the energy released was around 100 million times that produced by Tsar Bomba, the most powerful hydrogen bomb ever built.

The devastation that impact caused, helped along by wide-scale volcanic eruptions and climate change, killed a large percentage of life on earth, wiping out virtually all land and amphibian species larger than 25kg in body weight.

It could happen again. Objects from outer space hit the earth with alarming regularity. 50,000 years ago, a nickel-iron meteorite 50 meters across struck Arizona, creating the aptly named Meteor Crater.

It appears that the deal is done. Italian media, including La Gazzetta dello Sport and GPOne.com, are reporting that Valentino Rossi has reached agreement with Yamaha for a new two-year deal to race in the Petronas Yamaha squad.

The deal is to be announced during the weekend of the first MotoGP round once it resumes at Jerez next weekend.

The deal will initially be for 2021, with an option to extend the contract for a second year to 2022. Rossi will take a seat in the Petronas Yamaha squad alongside VR46 protege Franco Morbidelli, who should also be announcing a new contract soon.

With three weeks to go to the official start of the 2020 season for the MotoGP class (Moto2 and Moto3 have already raced at Qatar back in March, lest we forget), the 2021 grid is starting to fill up.

Of the 22 seats available next year, 12 have already been filled: Maverick Viñales and Fabio Quartararo in the factory Yamaha team, Alex Rins and Joan Mir at Suzuki, Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira, and Danilo Petrucci and Iker Lecuona in the factory and Tech3 KTM teams respectively, Marc Márquez at Repsol Honda, Jack Miller in the factory Ducati team, Aleix Espargaro with Aprilia, and Tito Rabat, who already had a contract before the start of the season.

There are a few more seats we can pencil in as near certainties: Pol Espargaro at Repsol Honda, Franco Morbidelli at Petronas, Pecco Bagnaia and Jorge Martin in Pramac Ducati, Alex Márquez at LCR Honda.

Cal Crutchlow is almost certain to be back, whether that be with LCR Honda or Aprilia – the Englishman appears to be giving serious consideration to what might be an attractive payday before he retires. Johann Zarco is likely to be on a Ducati again in 2021, the odds being that he is forced to accept another season at Avintia.

There are a couple of question marks too: the second seat at Aprilia is complicated, depending on the outcome of Andrea Iannone’s appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) against his doping ban. If the CAS upholds his suspension, Aprilia will need a replacement for the Italian.

If the CAS lifts the ban, then Aprilia has stated their intent to keep him. If Aprilia doesn’t take Iannone, then Crutchlow could go there. If he doesn’t, and stays at LCR, then Takaaki Nakagami could be forced to head off to WorldSBK, and race for the Honda WorldSBK team.

Though racing has stopped, necessity is forcing teams and factories into making choices.

With almost everyone in MotoGP out of contract at the end of 2020, and only a few riders already signed up, seats have to be filled for next year and beyond, racing or no racing.

After the early spate of more or less expected signings, the latest round of deals are more of a surprise.

None more than the expected deal for Pol Espargaro to join Repsol Honda in 2021, displacing Alex Márquez as brother Marc’s teammate before the younger Márquez has had a chance to prove his worth.

That, as I wrote previously, will inevitably lead to a parting of the ways between Marc Márquez and HRC, I believe.

It has been two weeks since news of that deal emerged, and yet there is still no confirmation. Despite protestations to the opposite, the deal is very much on.

But there is something of a hiccup along the way, in the form of a contractual stipulation that forbids Espargaro from discussing a deal with another factory before September 15th. No announcement will be made before then.


Actions Speak Louder than Words

Necessity is no respecter of contractual obligations, however.

KTM boss Stefan Pierer may claim that the Austrian factory still has hopes of keeping Espargaro, but the fact that Danilo Petrucci has flown to Austria to visit the KTM factory in Mattighofen, and come away making very positive noises about his visit, is something of a giveaway.

Petrucci’s manager Alberto Vergani told GPOne.com that there had only been exploratory talks so far, but the fact that the pair were invited to visit the racing department is itself telling.

Racing departments are very much off limits to outside parties, for fear of what might leak out. Only the privileged, or those with a contract, are allowed a peek inside.

Hanging on to Talent

There may not yet be an official announcement from KTM, but the facts on the ground speak volumes.

It is all very well getting riders to sign contracts forbidding them from speaking about new deals before a certain date, but shopping around for their replacement is something of a giveaway.

In theory, of course, Petrucci could be a replacement for Brad Binder, who is also still without a contract for 2021. But replacing Binder with Petrucci would be a spectacular failure of management on many different grounds.

Firstly, dumping Binder before he has had a chance to even race in MotoGP would be throwing away the years of investment KTM have made in the South African.

Secondly, it would also upset Miguel Oliveira – another long-term KTM investment – to be passed over for the factory team for a second time in two seasons.


And the Austrian factory has already lost rising star Jorge Martin to Pramac Ducati. KTM’s management is way too savvy to do anything so stupid as to risk losing both Binder and Oliveira.

KTM is just one of Petrucci’s options, though arguably the best one. Ducati has offered him a seat in the Aruba.it WorldSBK team, but Petrucci seems keen to remain in MotoGP.

Aprilia is another option, but that is somewhat uncertain, as the Italian factory is still waiting for a verdict from the CAS on Andrea Iannone’s suspension for doping.

Until the outcome of that appeal is known, Aprilia is offering a show of loyalty to its rider. For the remainder of 2020, test rider Bradley Smith will step into Iannone’s shoes.


Desmo Dovi Lives On

Petrucci replacing Pol Espargaro at KTM rules out the chance of Andrea Dovizioso taking that seat. But in reality, Dovizioso was never likely to leave the Bologna factory.

At 34, Dovizioso is in the closing stages of his career, and has shown no signs of wanting to continue into his 40s, following in the footsteps of Valentino Rossi. That doesn’t leave him much time to get up to speed on a different manufacturer.

“At this time in MotoGP history it’s kind of hard to be swapping machinery like that and jumping from manufacturer to manufacturer,” Jack Miller said at Valencia last year, commenting on Jorge Lorenzo’s retirement.

“I think you need two to three years, and well into your thirties, two to three years becomes a long time. It’s so hard because the biggest thing is understanding how the tires work on each bike, how each bike works, what is it’s strengths? And you can’t do that in winter testing. You need racing, you need experience and it’s hard to do.”

If Dovizioso has any thoughts of retiring in the near future, he faces a choice.

He can stay with Ducati, and hope that Gigi Dall’Igna and the engineers in Borgo Panigale finally give him the last few missing pieces that will help him solve the puzzle of winning a MotoGP title, then retire in a year or two.

Or he can switch manufacturers, sacrifice a year or two to get up to speed, and hope his new employer has built a more competitive bike.

Dovizioso has shown no real appetite to continue racing for another three or four years. Ducati remains his best and most realistic shot at winning a MotoGP crown.


Symbiosis

Viewed from the other side of that transaction, it also makes sense for Ducati to do whatever it takes to retain Dovizioso.

Despite the fractious relationship between Dovizioso and Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall’Igna, the Italian rider has been an absolutely key part in the revival of the Borgo Panigale manufacturer.

Since his arrival in 2013, Dovizioso has provided a lot of the input which has helped get the Ducati to where it is. He has the experience and the detailed understanding of the Desmosedici and its DNA to make it go faster.

Ducati’s prospective 2021 line up needs Dovizioso to stay. Jack Miller’s move up to the factory squad is deserved and timely, and his experience at Pramac as the tester for the holeshot device and “shapeshifter” rear squatting device serves him well.

But he hasn’t had the responsibility for leading the direction of development in a factory team yet, and is an unknown quantity. For 2021, Pramac will have Pecco Bagnaia and the (as yet to be confirmed) Jorge Martin.

Bagnaia was a disappointment in 2019, after an outstanding career in Moto2, and Martin will be a rookie. They are not yet material that you can build a development effort on.

So it seems like only a matter of time before Ducati announces a contract extension with Andrea Dovizioso. But both parties will negotiate hard before agreeing a deal.


Thwarted by RNA

Where does this leave Johann Zarco? The Frenchman has perhaps been one of the biggest victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thrown a lifeline by Ducati after a disastrous year at KTM – the living embodiment of how difficult it can be to switch manufacturers – Zarco took a spot in the Avintia squad after being persuaded by Gigi Dall’Igna that he would get strong factory backing.

He did so in the hope that he could earn a factory ride with the squad in 2021, by proving he could be quick on the bike in the early races.

Then COVID-19 happened, and all racing has been put on hold, until the middle of July. By that time, the seats at Ducati – both factory and Pramac – will be filled.

The chances of the Frenchman finding a better seat than Avintia for 2021 are pretty close to zero, no matter how well he does this season. And given that he will be on a 2019 bike, a Desmosedici GP19, making a real impression at the front will be doubly hard.

So Zarco faces at least another year with Avintia, with support from Ducati. The best he can hope for is an upgrade to a GP21 for next year, but given the financial impact of the pandemic, finding the budget to fund an extra GP21 will be difficult for Ducati.

His saving grace will be the fact that development on engines and aero has been halted until the 2021 season, meaning that whatever he races in 2021 will be much closer to the factory machines than the GP19 he has for this year.


The Devil Is in the Detail

The one piece of news we are all patiently waiting for is the official confirmation that Valentino Rossi will be racing for Petronas Yamaha next year.

The simple fact of Rossi on a Petronas bike seems like a foregone conclusion, but the mechanics of making it actually happen are vastly complicated.

Talks are taking place through Yamaha, rather than directly, and there is the question of Rossi’s crew. He will want to end his career with the mechanics who have (for the most part) been with him throughout his 21 years in the premier class.

But Petronas will not want to have to lose one entire side of the garage to make room for his crew, some of whom may also decide to retire at the same time that Rossi does.

Then there are the little details. At the moment, Rossi’s PR duties are limited, one of the stipulations of his contract. Petronas will want more from him than Yamaha did, however.

The counterweight to the upheaval that having Rossi as a rider brings is the PR and advertising exposure. Petronas will want to milk that for all it is worth, especially in a region in which the Italian veteran is so wildly popular.

Finding a balance between the diametrically opposite PR demands of Petronas and Rossi will not be simple at all.

Photo: Ducati

While the motorcycle racing world awaits the return of real racing, contract time is heaving into view. Though the methods are different – Skype calls and WhatsApp messages, rather than private conversations at the backs of garages or between trucks – the objective is the same: to find the best match of bike and rider, giving the most hope of success.

Having to work remotely is the least of both managers’ and teams’ problems. The bigger issue is that there is next to no data to go on. Teams and factories are having to make a guess at who they think will be strong in 2021 based on who was fast in 2019, and who showed promise in the winter tests.

Riders have no idea which bikes have made progress over the winter, and which have stagnated. Is it worth taking a gamble on KTM? Has the Honda gotten any easier to ride?

With the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic hopefully behind us, the gears of the motorcycle world are starting to grind again. Riders are training once again, and their thoughts are turning to the future. 

It is also clear that riders, teams, and factories are starting to think about 2021. This summer had promised to unleash a Silly Season of unrivaled scale, with all riders bar Tito Rabat out of contract at the end of 2020.