Silly Season Officially Open: Analyzing Valentino Rossi's Two-Year Deal with Yamaha

So the first shoe has dropped. Valentino Rossi is to remain at Yamaha for two more seasons after this, 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 their 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, shown below, 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 which 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 were 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 do 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 know that they have 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.

The press release confirming the signing of Rossi is show below:


YAMAHA AND ROSSI CONFIRM TWO-YEAR CONTRACT EXTENSION

Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd. is delighted to announce that it will continue its strong relationship with nine-time World Champion and living MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi, having signed a new two-year agreement.

Losail (Qatar), 19th March 2016

It is with great pleasure that Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd. confirms that Valentino Rossi will remain a part of the Movistar Yamaha MotoGP team‘s rider line-up for the MotoGP World Championship season of 2017 and 2018.

The announcement comes after three very strong years by the most-respected MotoGP rider of all time, since his return to Yamaha in 2013.

Rossi has had a very special bond with his beloved YZR-M1 starting from his first race with Yamaha at Welkom Circuit, South Africa, in 2004, which ended in an iconic win. The combination of ’the Doctor‘ and the YZR-M1 has gone from strength to strength since and together they secured four titles and 53 Grand Prix wins over ten seasons.

With fifteen brilliant podiums and four strong GP victories in the last year, Yamaha is confident in their partnership with Valentino Rossi and looks forward to being a serious title contender for 2016 and the following seasons.

LIN JARVIS
MANAGING DIRECTOR, YAMAHA MOTOR RACING

I believe the confirmation of the extension with Valentino will be music to the ears of Yamaha fans and MotoGP fans around the world. I cannot think of a better way to start a new season than for both parties to make this strong commitment. From Vale‘s side a statement of commitment to the sport he loves and towards the Yamaha brand; from Yamaha‘s side a confirmation of the recognition to the rider that has brought us 4 MotoGP world titles and who remains so passionate about his sport and is still highly competitive, as proven by his two 2nd positions in the last two seasons.

When Vale returned home in 2013 it was “a decision for life”. This new Agreement confirms that Vale will indeed finish his motorcycle racing career with Yamaha. Before that however all Yamaha fans can enjoy three full seasons of exciting performances from “the Doctor” as he challenges to win his 10th World Title for the Movistar Yamaha MotoGP team”

VALENTINO ROSSI
MOVISTAR YAMAHA MOTOGP RIDER

I am very happy to announce that Yamaha and I have extended our contract and will continue working together in MotoGP for the next two years. I am very satisfied with this decision, because it has always been my plan to compete in motorsports for as long as I can be competitive and find it enjoyable at the same time. Ever since I returned to Yamaha in 2013 I have felt like I am home again and this showed in the results. I get great enjoyment out of working with my crew and the rest of the Movistar Yamaha MotoGP team. Their support for me has known no limit and I want to thank them sincerely for that. I‘m feeling greatly motivated to keep riding my YZR-M1 for the best results possible, this year and the following two seasons.

I also want to say a big 'Thank You' to my fans, who are always behind me every step of the way, making the races extra special. I will keep pushing at each and every Grand Prix so we can all keep enjoying MotoGP for more years to come!”


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Comments

Good deal for both. And it will end a lot of pointless speculation.

I just hope he keeps his mouth shut from now and focuses on trying to beat the other guys on the track and not off it.

Again, timing of this news is very interesting. Yamaha put a contract in front of Lorenzo on Thursday and a day later they come to agreement with the other factory rider who has been constantly asking for more time before making a decision. Something doesn't add up here. Yamaha have produced a championship winning bike in M1 and by dangling that contract in front of Lorenzo, they are putting pressure on Lorenzo into signing that deal while also making sure they won't be bullied into negotiations.

IMO Yamaha are being proactive here, Ducati rumors have been strong ever since flag dropped at Valencia last year so by signing Rossi early, Yamaha have ensured they have a wealth of experience in Rossi to aid the development of M1. Lorenzo leaving could pave the way for Vinales/Alex Rins, who can be groomed into a future world champion similar to what they did with Lorenzo himself in 2008.

I don´t have a hunch as to what Lorenzo will do, but I imagine he remembers that Ducati began last year like gangbusters only to fade after that string of three seconds places by Dovi. Iannone was frequently quick later, but the Desmos were more quicksilver than gold. Lorenzo will make a decision based on all the many factors. I think that by Mugello the true balance of power will be seen and, in this market, Jorge will be able to take his time and observe. I would be very surprised if Casey Stoner, who has not ridden in anger since 2012, were to shine in a replacement ride for Ducati and, even if he did, there would be the legend of CS the guy who can ride the the bronc no one else can sit. If Casey were to struggle on the Duke, folks would say, the bike is no good because Casey can´t win on it; if Casey were to win on it, folks would say, the bike´s no good because only Casey can win on it.
This will be Lorenzo´s 9th season with Yamaha, the only MotoGP bike he has ridden. Only Dani Pedrosa has spent more time on the same bike. That follows in the tradition of Alex Criville, who only left Honda when his career was already over due to illness and Kenny Roberts who was a Yamaha for life guy. I think the only other 500 he ever rode hard was a Norton Manx in one of those vintage races.
I don´t know Jorge all that well. He keeps it that way, although there are many who believe they know him. Since 2009 I have never seen him make a hasty decision.
Will all this be a distraction?
If he goes very long into the season without making the decision, it could be. If he does decide to move to Ducati or Honda while still riding the Yamaha, that might be uncomfortable.
I was never too good at guessing what riders would do. The best way to learn what a given rider is likely to do is to watch him. I never thought Rossi would leave Honda, but once he left I understood that he is not motivated by winning...Vale loves the life of a racer and performer and is the racing equivalent of Douglas Fairbanks Junior...picks the pirate roles. Rossi left Honda for the same reasons he has chosen to stay at Yamaha....because it is a daring role.
Lorenzo has been wearing the black hat in this cowboy movie (to change the analogy) for a long time. We don´t see him much when he is not in the action. He´s usually practicing his draw. He knows this only looks like a movie...to Jorge it really is the Old West and the guns are loaded.
Rossi knows it is real too, but not a battle so much as a duel, and, if you let him choose, he chooses the cutlass and makes the occasional entry swinging from the rigging.

Aarrghety Dennis!

Lorenzo could find lots to prove by changing to Ducati. He could be the first to master the bike since you know who, doing what the other you know who couldn't. There would be a lot of hams of course. And Rossi being seen as the golden boy of Yamaha could provide push for Lorenzo. I can see it happening as well as staying.

I can't see him at Honda now. He and that bike? No. Honda is not likely to be in agreement with David's ponderance that Jorge is the best rider now. They have Marquez. It would be a fool's errand to enter an argument with folks here about it, but I will throw away some stars and say that I think Marquez is the best rider in the world right now. Why? Subjective. There are aspects of such a thing that aren't able to be "proven." And Jorge is also experiencing a wish to try to do just that - prove himself. I think he should stay on a Yamaha, it is "his" bike, and he can beat everyone on it. Except ghosts of riders no longer on the track.

I agree with your sentiments. Being a lorenzo fan, I think it is imperative that he waits for two or three races and see how the Ducati (and this might be seen as ludicrous, Suzuki ! ) fair over the course of 4, 5 races. He has more to lose if he makes the wrong decision.

Patience will be key. It's gonna be hard, especially when you consider that if he switches, he will have to leave behind a major part of the crew that has given him success. Ducati has improved but the distractions of him having to assemble a new crew can be too distracting

Eventually, I do see him leaving Yamaha at some point in future. Rossi and VR46 academy/apparel are going to have more influence in Yamaha in the coming years and I don't think he would want to have that constant, frothy relationship hanging over his head. In my opinion, the earliest he should move is the end of 2017.

There's still all to play for, both for Lorenzo and Yamaha.

Yamaha handed the contracts over for Lorenzo and Rossi at the same time. I'm seeing more and more comments that somehow there is some controversy there, there isn't. Jarvis handed both their offers at the same time. There isn't any favoritism to Vale. Lorenzo chose not to sign his yet, while Rossi said fine and inked it. That's it, nothing more, so forget about the drama, there isn't any.

Well put, Lin Jarvis has put it straight. Both were offered contracts at the same time. Rossi signed it and Lorenzo didn't. If Lorenzo did, both would have been announced. People all over the net are reading conspiracy theories and fanning up BS that simply doesn't exist but then again, it's the internet; people usually read between lines that are non-existent and go gangbusters !

Here is what Jarvis had to say - Lorenzo has to decide whether to leave or not

Jorge's biggest threat to winning championships isn't VR but MM ( & potentially an alien on a Ducati). IMO if the Honda hadn't been a POS last year JL & VR would not have been fighting for the title against each other but would have been fighting to stop MM winning it. Honda will get their bike sorted, probably sooner rather than later, & JL IMO, wants to know which bike will best let him beat MM over the coming years.

I am also sure Rossi's fans won't be too happy to see that bike isn't as POS as they thought it would be, especially in the hands of Marquez, who as we all know is now the bane of their existence. More contenders means more distractions for the great man, although you can never put it past him taking the crown. let's see how it goes

The mind games have surely started in the Yamaha garage (lorenzo has no balls for duc, says rossi). is he subtly trying to push him out? as i said in my earlier comment, things are going to get uncomfortable for lorenzo in the coming years since VR isn't going anywhere with his academy/apparel tie giving him more influence at Yamaha but long as Lorenzo gets the same equipment and same support from his crew then he will be fine.

Lorenzo has basically been Yamaha's #1 since about 2011 I believe, but as long as Rossi is there he doesn't seem to get the.... adoration I guess, that he wants. He always seems to be in Rossi's shadow. And who wouldn't be? Rossi is the biggest personality in the sport. And Lorenzo's personality is a bit lackluster I suppose you could see. If he moved to Ducati, and did what Rossi couldn't... I can see that being a big feather in his cap. But that'd be a tough call to make, since he's been a Yamaha man since day one in his MotoGP career. I think that would difficult to give up what is likely his best shot at being world champion again. Though I imagine it does wear on him being paired with Rossi. I guess we'll see! I'd like a shake-up in the grid, let someone else on that factory seat.

I think if Lorenzo decides to stay he should sign the contract now, and of he wants to jump ship it will be better if he announces it at the end of the season. It'll be so uncomfortable for the Yamaha people working with someone who will join the rival, the same goes with Lorenzo

Jorge wanted the contract from Yamaha before TESTING. during the BREAK. He wanted to be the first contract signing, at a price that was probably at or near what Yamaha are offering.

Rossi was constantly saying over the break he was going to wait 5 to 6 races to decide.

Yamaha decided to wait till after testing had concluded to put forth an offer to both riders at the same time. While ultimately fair, it lacks a certain level of appreciation for not providing an offer to Jorge at the time he said he was ready to sign, before any testing for 2016 had begun.

Meanwhile, Valentino, ever the clever, having realized he can be competitive on the Michelins, and that the M1 was still the best bike on the grid, took advantage of the situation to gain the media's attention over a weekend in which we've seen Jorge dominate the timesheets from start to finish. Attention, correlates to future expectations, assumptions, glories, etc, more talking about VR, and less about the reigning World Champion, Pole positioned, fastest man on the grid. It also places the slow dagger in Jorge side, with the cold facts that you can expect to share the same garage with Vale through 2018. If there already was the cannotation of Jorge as the "bad guy," he will have to be the bad guy longer.

Im still predicting he stays. Vale has 4 titles with Yamaha. Jorge 3 titles with Yamaha. If Jorge really wants to beat Vale in the long haul, you have to beat him in every aspect including WC for the same manufacturer. And not a more obvious way then beating him for 2 more seasons on the same bike. Vale will never match the speed of Lorenzo any time soon.

For some fun dirt: Valentino does certainly have balls for making big moves. 3 manufacturers. 2 crew chiefs. Numerous girlfriends. Is Uccio next? Jorge is clearly better at not burning bridges. Just saying with love VR.

Keep daring Jorge to leave, its only gonna make him want to stay more. Did you not learn anything from 2015? Your mind games for calling out World Champions has been working in polar opposites. I expected smarter moves Machiavelli. The stress of staying on top is showing the signs of small cracks under the surface. Still pulling for you though. 10 and done.

Yamaha have slipped under the criticism radar with deceptive ease for many many years while HRC are crucified weekly for their supposed influence in the game that is every bit as beneficial to Yamaha as to themselves.
If Lorenzo leaves, Lyn Jarvis and Yamaha's vastly experienced team are in a world of pain and it won't last just one or two seasons!

I don't know where the speculations come from that Lorenzo might contemplate going to Honda, I can't see this happening before Honda makes a completely new bike. Lorenzo's speed and fluency comes from the corners and that is where Honda is lacking for the last couple of years, stop, turn and accelerate.
Deciding to go to Honda would really be a very big gamble for Lorenzo. He's not content to come in second, he's not content to just be on the podium and have fun fighting on track with the other riders. He only wants to be number 1 and it's going to be hard work to change his style and drop his strength in the corners and hope the Honda will make up for it in acceleration.
IF he decides to leave Yamaha, it will almost certainly be for Ducati, but that being said and as others before have mentioned, he doesn't make any rash decisions. My expectation is that he'll stay at least 1 more year with Yamaha and see how the Ducs are doing it in the long run.

I also seem to remember that Lorenzo has said on multiple occasions that his intentions are to stay with Yamaha his whole career, and as long as they're producing a bike that suits his style and he can win with, I don't see a single reason why he would sign with Ducati or any other team.