It has been an intense week or so for speculation about the next and biggest cog in MotoGP's Silly Season merry-go-round. The question of Valentino Rossi's future has filled the media, with multiple sometimes conflicting stories appearing in the international press. That Rossi should dominate the headlines is logical. After all, with Casey Stoner retiring, and the futures of Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez all settled, Rossi's decision will determine not just where he lands, but to a massive degree who will fill the rest of the seats in MotoGP next year.
Rossi's choice is fairly straightforward: he can elect to stay at Ducati and hope that Filippo Preziosi can provide him with a competitive bike soon; he can take up the offer he is believed to have from Yamaha to join the factory team; or he can accept a ride with a satellite Honda team aboard a full-factory RC213V. During his daily briefing with the press at each race weekend, Rossi has suggested that his primary focus is to stay with Ducati and make the Desmosedici competitive. Yet all of the news stories in the past 10 days have been suggesting that Rossi is close to signing a deal with Yamaha, with the sponsors backing the deal varying depending on the source.
So what is the truth? Just where will Valentino Rossi end up next season? Is it possible to make any sense of the rumors and conjecture that surround the future of the nine-times World Champion? Let us examine each possibility, and see what we can piece together.
First, the offer of a factory Honda in a satellite team. There is no doubt that HRC Vice President made the offer to Rossi, but there is good reason to expect that it is an offer which the Italian will decline. His reasons would be very much the same as those given by Cal Crutchlow, who is still waiting for the paperwork to materialize on the offer he has to join the factory Ducati squad. It is impossible to win a title on a satellite bike, as the factory simply won't let you. Repsol is reported to pay HRC between 5 and 10 million euros a year to sponsor the factory Honda team, money which the Spanish oil giant may regard as wasted if they were to be beaten by another Honda team. Even though the bike Rossi would be offered would be to the highest factory spec, the HRC electronics specialist who comes with the bike has the final say over engine revs and power delivery. It would be in Honda's best interests for a satellite bike ridden by Rossi to be in a conservative state of tune, to ensure that he can make it through the season with the engines provided. If that should impact negatively on Rossi's chance of the title, that is a risk Honda would be willing to take. Rossi knows this, and so this option is probably at the bottom of his list.
Much of the recent news regarding Rossi's future has linked the Italian to a move back to Yamaha, the factory he left behind when he embarked on the adventure with Ducati. Though it is widely accepted that this is the most realistic opportunity for the Italian, there is much in the reports which raises more questions than it answers.
The longest and most comprehensive news story on Rossi's future was on the Spanish website Motocuatro.com. That site reported that various meetings had been held at Mugello involving Rossi, Marlboro representative Maurizio Arrivabene, and Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta. The reported outcome of those meetings was that Rossi convinced Arrivabene of his concerns over the ability of Ducati Corse to build a competitive MotoGP bike, and that Ezpeleta had persuaded Arrivabene that Philip Morris (owner of the Marlboro brand) should fund Rossi's move to Yamaha. Without a sponsor, Yamaha would simply not be able to afford the Italian, not just because of his salary demands, but also because of his entourage. Rossi would undoubtedly want to bring his crew back with him, but though the salary demands of Jeremy Burgess, Alex Briggs, Brent Stephens et al are in line with market expectations, the cost of flying them to and from the races from their home bases in the Antipodes is much higher than for the Europe-based mechanics on, say, Jorge Lorenzo's side of the garage.
If Carmelo Ezpeleta has tried to persuade Philip Morris to sponsor Rossi at Yamaha, the Dorna boss would be taking a massive risk. Without the money provided by Marlboro's deep pockets, Ducati simply cannot afford to go racing in MotoGP. Even now that the company has been taken over by Audi, the loss of both Marlboro and Valentino Rossi would probably make the return on investment of MotoGP look highly unfavorable for Ducati. With Suzuki and Kawasaki already having left, and a return to MotoGP by Suzuki and BMW at the earliest by 2014, Ezpeleta simply cannot afford to risk losing Ducati. A series with two factories and eight factory prototypes would look very thin indeed, and risk losing even more talent to World Superbikes. That is a risk Ezpeleta will not countenance.
Motocuatro.com suggests that Ezpeleta's tactic is to try to persuade Marlboro to back both the factory Yamaha team and the factory Ducati squad, to allow Rossi to switch to Yamaha while still keeping Ducati in the series. Yet this itself would be difficult, mainly because of the obstacles faced by accepting any form of new tobacco sponsorship in MotoGP without falling foul of the ban on tobacco advertising in place throughout large parts of the world, but especially in MotoGP's target markets in the EU, Italy and Spain. Motorsports are a high-profile target for the EU regulators, and Ducati has already massively scaled back on the prominence which Philip Morris and the Marlboro brand is given in their public statements. Where in 2010, Ducati's factory squad was officially named the Ducati Marlboro team, since last year they have been known solely as Ducati Team. The visual allusions to Marlboro - the bar code on the livery, and the mixture of red and white - have been made less obvious every year, in the hope of deflecting accusations from EU regulators.
If Ducati are already facing such massive challenges, how hard would it be for Yamaha to create a livery linking their brand to Marlboro without falling foul of the ban on tobacco advertising? Though Yamaha's traditional corporate colors are white and red, to suddenly drop the blue they have been carrying for many years now would immediately get the attention of the regulators. The added value of Ducati is that their own colors are so close, and still so closely linked to Marlboro that no direct association is needed any more: ask any MotoGP fan who sponsors Ducati, and 99% of them will answer 'Marlboro'. At Yamaha, that link would need to be recreated - Marlboro backed the factory Yamaha team through much of the '80s and '90s - something that the EU regulators would almost certainly put an immediate stop to. Philip Morris is stuck with Ducati, as the legal complications of a switch elsewhere are simply too great to overcome.
The other brand being linked to a Rossi move to Yamaha is Monster, a much more realistic option. Monster is already a personal sponsor for the Italian, and expanding their backing to include the Yamaha team is not beyond the realms of possibility. Yet even the stories linking Monster and Rossi to Yamaha give reason to doubt them. The report in the Italian daily Il Messaggero, where this story surfaced, states two curious things as fact. The first is that Monster was recently taken over by Coca Cola, a statement that thirty seconds of fact checking will reveal to be completely false. Though Coca Cola and Monster have a distribution agreement, Monster Beverage Corporation is an independent company traded on the NASDAQ stock exchange. Such an error does not inspire much confidence in the story, especially when added to the second part of the story.
Il Messaggero writes that the decision not to extend Ben Spies' contract is to be announced at Laguna Seca. Though it is entirely possible that Yamaha may decide not to extend Spies' contract, that it would be announced at Laguna Seca would be a form of PR suicide. Laguna Seca is one of the biggest events of the year for Yamaha, because of the pivotal role which Yamaha USA plays in the Japanese company's sales and marketing plans. Dumping an American rider at their biggest American event would be a faux pas of epic proportions. If Spies were to be dropped, it is unlikely that a statement would be issued at all. Instead, what would be announced is the signing of the rider to replace Spies, if he were to be replaced.
The noise coming out of the Spies camp suggests that he is close to extending his contract with Yamaha, however. Yesterday, on his Twitter page, Ben Spies first made a couple of jokes at the expense of internet sites reporting on his future, suggesting a change in his situation was imminent. He then followed it up with a statement that he was just "being dramatic" the same way that the media has been, and suggesting that he is likely to end up back in Yamaha, "where we're meant to be." With Yamaha USA providing strong financial backing for Spies, dropping the American would have a significant effect on the Factory Yamaha team's already strained budget.
In short, though Yamaha is certainly an option for Valentino Rossi, he would only be welcome if he could bring a sponsor capable of paying both his salary and the extra expenses he incurs along the way. No doubt he would be able to attract such a sponsor, but the candidates being bandied about in the media seem unlikely at best. And looking at the situation from Yamaha's point of view, they have no real need to hire Rossi unless he did bring a substantial sponsorship sum with him. With Casey Stoner leaving, Jorge Lorenzo will be the hot favorite to win the next few MotoGP championships. Though Dani Pedrosa has won races with some regularity, somehow circumstances always seem to conspire against him mounting a serious challenge for the title. Marc Marquez will have a lot to learn in his first year, and will not pose a real threat until 2014 at the earliest. And as long as the Ducati remains uncompetitive, Yamaha face no real challenge from Valentino Rossi either. There are good reasons for Yamaha to sign Valentino Rossi - not least because he should be able to challenge for wins once he climbs back on board a Yamaha - but there are at least as many reasons for them not to sign the Italian. Yamaha don't need Valentino Rossi to win title, as they already have Jorge Lorenzo.
That leaves Ducati. After meetings with very senior Audi staff at both the Sachsenring and Mugello, Rossi was optimistic when talking to the press. At Mugello, he spoke of the positive effects he expected from Audi's involvement, but he added a very important proviso. "I have to trust that with the help of Audi we can fix the problem of the bike," Rossi said. "But it's just a bet. I don't have any insurance about the future and whether we will be able to fix the bike, because in one and a half years, we have not been able to."
That, in a nutshell, is Rossi's dilemma. His reputation of being able to ride around problems and still win on an inferior bike has already been damaged irreparably by his tribulations at Ducati. Seeing Casey Stoner win on the Ducati gave Rossi and his crew the impression that it was already a competitive bike. It took him just a few laps at Valencia to realize just how wrong they had been, and how much of Ducati's success had been down to the ability of Casey Stoner - something which Alex Barros told Ducati way back in 2007. If Rossi walks away from Ducati, then another part of his legend - of being able to develop a bike, and turn an uncompetitive machine into a winner - will also fall by the wayside, deservedly or undeservedly. Rossi is facing the same problems that prompted Casey Stoner to leave the Italian factory, a resistance to make the changes necessary to keep the bike competitive, as witnessed in a fascinating piece very recently by Mat Oxley over on the website of Motorsport Magazine. Yet if he leaves Ducati, history will not record the reasons for his failure, merely that he tried at Ducati and failed.
Rossi's hope is that Audi can exert sufficient pressure on Ducati to make the changes necessary - both organizational and mechanical - to turn the bike into something which Rossi is able to fight for wins on. Some progress is already visible: part of the rideability improvement package tested at Mugello was a revised weight distribution, while changes to the inlet system - either new injectors, or possibly the addition of secondary injectors to the inlet tract, Ducati currently the only factory using a single set of injectors - should improve throttle response. Just how much of that package will be available at Laguna Seca remains to be seen, though the original plan was to have most of the parts ready to be used in the US. Rossi has consistently told the press that he will only make a decision over the summer, before making an official announcement at Brno. Signs of progress - and signs of support from Audi - will be a key part of that decision.
The million dollar question is, of course, just what Valentino Rossi will do. Will he jump ship to Yamaha, with the backing of a big-money sponsor, in an attempt to get back to his winning ways, or will he stick it out with Ducati, and hope that help from Audi will turn that project around and allow him to secure an unrivaled place in history, as the only rider to win races - and perhaps even championships - with three different manufacturers in MotoGP. It is a test of Rossi's patience, and of his optimism. It pits his desire to win - which still burns feverishly within him, visible for all to see whenever it rains - against his sense of his place in motorcycle racing history.
And the answer to the million dollar question? I honestly have no idea. I have heard and read so many conflicting reports on Rossi's future that I am not sure what to think. What is clear is that there are leaks emanating from within Rossi's circle, though just how reliable those leaks are - is the public being softened up for an imminent switch to Yamaha, or are the leaks aimed at putting pressure on Ducati and Audi by suggesting that Rossi is prepared to leave at any moment? - remains to be seen. The most curious thing about the Rossi/Yamaha rumors is the deafening silence emanating from the Italian racing media. The sources I trust most, those closest to Rossi and his entourage, have remained quiet on his future. Prior to news breaking of Rossi's move to Ducati, there were stories leaking out in the Italian media that Rossi was ready to make the jump. So far, there has been little or nothing on an imminent move to Yamaha in the Italian motorcycle racing press. That, in itself, is reason enough to doubt that any decision has been made. Yet.
If you really want to know where Valentino Rossi will be racing in 2013, there is only one thing you can do. Along with the rest of the motorcycling media - with the exception of one or two outlets, who will be granted early access to the news - you will have to wait.
~~~~ UPDATE ~~~~
The news that Ben Spies is to leave Yamaha adds an extra twist to this story. The news comes as a shock: Yamaha was not expected to make any announcement this weekend, to allow the many PR events the factory has planned in one of their most important markets to run smoothly. However, Spies' timing, on the eve of Yamaha's big events, was not taken into account in the above analysis. There was very little to indicate that Spies might decide to leave, rather than Yamaha making the call. It is clear from Spies' statements that he is unhappy with Yamaha, and the timing of the announcement fits in with that pattern.