MotoGP riders march to the same drum… a two-year contract cycle that defers transfers and changes except in special circumstances, and creates a year-two silly season that starts even before the first wheel is turned in anger.
For example, before the end of January came the first formal factory announcement: that Maverick Vinales had renewed with Yamaha for 2021 and 2022. A few days later, Yamaha’s second signing was confirmed. The Spaniard’s team-mate will be 2019’s rookie sensation Fabio Quartararo. Having lost his equally dazzling forerunner, fellow-Frenchman Johann Zarco, the Japanese factory were not about to suffer the same fate again.
Zarco was lost to KTM – a disastrous move: he did not finish the season, and is now threatened with career oblivion – because there wasn’t the space in Yamaha’s two-man factory squad. The position alongside bright hope Vinales was occupied (some would say “blocked”)… by Valentino Rossi. The all-time superstar hadn’t been bringing in much in the way of results for a while, but his unprecedented and ever-growing popularity, and an inspiring determination not to succumb to growing old, gave him too much clout. Yamaha daren’t drop Valentino. But how much are they prepared to lose in keeping him?
The answer to that came hot on the heels of the Quartararo announcement. His wish will be their command. What Valentino wants, Valentino gets.
He had already said he would decide on his future after the first part of 2020, after measuring his level against the swelling tide of youth. Yamaha, it turns out, will accommodate him. Their statement: “Should Rossi decide to continue as a MotoGP rider in 2021, Yamaha assures Rossi of the availability of a Factory-spec YZR-M1 bike and full Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd. engineering support.”
It’s easy to read between the lines. It’s about retaining the most valuable brand ambassador in the 71-year history of the world championships.
The Italian multiple champion turns 41 in February, with a record exceeded only by Giacomo Agostini (122 GP wins and 15 titles against 115 and nine; and in terms of titles also by Angel Nieto (13).
Rossi’s stature as a racing legend is beyond reproach, but there are now just too many faster youngsters for realistic hopes of another championship. Given his talent and unquenchable enthusiasm along with unpredictable circumstances, one or two more race wins cannot be ruled out. But it’s not about the results.
Pretty much everybody loves The Doctor, and certainly everybody inside and outside racing know who he is. Quick wit and ready charm are underlain by a merciless streak with which he slashes chunks out of importunate rivals. It is a complete package that even Marc Marquez, no matter how many races he wins, can hope to challenge.
Rossi, you see, has personality to spare. Most top racers dedicated so much mental and emotional energy to their craft that there’s not a great deal left over. Nowadays, there is even less need for them to have to express themselves: PR men are on hand to do it for them, and to make sure that what little leaks out remains friendly to the all-important sponsors and manufacturers. Bland sells the brand.
Rossi comes from an earlier era, and is also a lot more complicated. It was fun to watch him make light of disassembling such rivals as Max Biaggi and Sete Gibernau. But it was a bit more puzzling when he unaccountably attacked Marquez at Sepang – both verbally and then physically during the race – with patently untrue accusations of conspiring to help Lorenzo in the 2015 championship. (“How,” wondered Marquez? “By beating him in the race?” But Rossi fans didn’t care about the lack of logic.)
Here’s another lesser-known puzzle. At the end of 2013, Rossi unceremoniously dumped his long-serving crew chief and right-hand man Jerry Burgess, who (along with his crew) had been with him at Honda, Yamaha, Ducati and back to Yamaha, for all seven premier-class championships. Rossi looked heartless, but there’s an unexpected but not implausible alternative explanation.
Mid-2011, Burgess’s wife Claudine had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She made a good recovery, but at the same time (rumour has it) there was a need for Burgess to be home in Australia with his family.
Had he resigned, he would have sacrificed his substantial 2014 contract fee. By dumping him, Rossi ensured he would be paid anyway. So was it an act of mercy rather than ruthlessness? Burgess denied it, when I taxed him with it. But then he would, wouldn’t he …
All part of the intriguing parcel of Rossiness that gives him the authority to dangle Yamaha on a string. Will he retire at the end of this year? Or will he carry on for ever?
Your guess is as good as mine. But one thing is certain. As always, he is dancing to a different drum.