Valentino Rossi's imminent return to Yamaha - to be announced on Friday morning, Yamaha and Ducati having been forced to move the schedule forward once news of the switch leaked - will accelerate the final movements in MotoGP's silly season, with the still open grid slots on prototype machines likely to be filled in very short order once the Rossi announcement has been made. Rossi's return to Yamaha will be heralded much as his departure from the factory for fresh pastures at Ducati was, only this time the roles will be reversed. First, Ducati will issue a release thanking Valentino Rossi for his time with the factory, and shortly after - minutes, rather than hours, - Yamaha will issue a press release welcoming Rossi back to the fold. The difference, perhaps, is that this time a love letter such as the one Rossi wrote to Yamaha after he left in the middle of 2010 is unlikely to be forthcoming.
With Rossi at Yamaha, that leaves five prototype seats still open: The factory Ducati left vacant by Rossi's switch to Yamaha; the as-yet unfilled second Monster Tech 3 Yamaha seat (the first seat is for Bradley Smith, who will be moving up from Moto2 as provided for in the contract he signed with Herve Poncharal in the middle of last season); the San Carlo Gresini Honda bike currently being ridden by Alvaro Bautista; and the Ducati junior team seats, in a yet-to-be-decided structure with one or more yet-to-be-selected teams. So who will be filling those seats? And where does that leave the riders left standing once the music stops?
The biggest question is who will be brave enough to take on Rossi's seat at the factory Ducati team. Rossi's failure either to be competitive or to make the bike competitive - though going on past history, the responsibility for that lies more with Ducati than with the riders - means it requires more than just the usual dose of the hubris all riders must possess to compete at the very top level of the sport to take on the challenge. The two names being bandied about are Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso, but it appears that it is Dovizioso that Ducati have elected to take the place of Rossi. Sources close to the negotiations have told MotoMatters.com that Dovizioso has already signed the contract, despite the Italian previously having been wary of the Italian factory. A year ago, after it became clear there would be no room at Honda for Dovizioso, we asked the Italian if he would consider a switch to Ducati given the problems that Valentino Rossi was having with the bike at the time. Dovizioso pointed out then that it had been clear for a long time that the Ducati was a hard bike to ride, ever since Marco Melandri's utter failure to get to grips with the bike.
That criticism was apparently not well received at Ducati, hence the Italian factory's initial preference for Dovizioso's current Monster Tech 3 Yamaha Cal Crutchlow. But talks appear to have accelerated between Dovizioso and Ducati at the same time as the ardour between Crutchlow and Ducati cooled. The Briton has been left out in the cold by Dovizioso's defection, which may sour the otherwise good relations between the two in the Tech 3 team. Right now, it appears that Crutchlow's best hope is to remain at Tech 3 for next year, accepting the offer he had from Herve Poncharal earlier in the year. If it is indeed still on the table - reports after Laguna Seca had Tech 3 showing an interest in Randy de Puniet, the Frenchman proving to be highly competitive on the Aspar Aprilia CRT team, though dealing with a very stiff challenge from his teammate Aleix Espargaro. But Crutchlow is probably higher on Poncharal's list than De Puniet: the media profile of the Tech 3 team has rocketed this year, which is down in no small part to the outstanding performance of both Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso. Keeping Crutchlow would be better for Poncharal's sponsors, though if a rider such as Pol Espargaro could be tempted to make the step up, Tech 3 could be persuaded to take him instead.
The other desirable satellite ride is a bit of mystery. Alvaro Bautista has done very well on the San Carlo Gresini Honda, but not well enough to overcome the handicap of not being Italian. Snack producer San Carlo really needs an Italian rider to help sell their product in their home market, and though Bautista is likeable and popular, he does not have the appeal to the Italian market. Andrea Dovizioso had been penciled in to take Bautista's place for next season, until the Tech 3 man received an offer he could not refuse from Ducati. That leaves Gresini to search for a rider both capable of success and appealing to the Italian market, and sadly, there are very few currently on the market. Andrea Iannone would be the prime candidate, but he looks set to go to a satellite Ducati team.
Just how such a Ducati structure is put together remains to be seen. Currently, it looks like there will be two one-rider satellite teams, with Andrea Iannone or Danilo Petrucci being slotted into a team to be run by Pramac, and Scott Redding to race inside the Marc VDS team on the other satellite team. Unlike this year, the bikes will be much closer to factory spec, however, with the idea being that Ducati will run the bikes as a junior team, instead of treating the operation as a money-making lease scheme. Having four riders on the same bike should help accelerate development, and with engineering assistance from Audi, updates should also come faster, for all four Ducati men. The final decision on the junior team structure - including who will run the teams, and who the riders will be - is due to come next week, with the final sign-off for the project just awaiting final approval from senior Ducati management.
At last, Silly Season is starting to wind down. A big step will be taken tomorrow, with the announcement of Rossi's switch to Yamaha, while other steps will follow in short order. With those moves made, the focus will return once again to the racing, though for many fans, their thoughts will be on 2013 already. The real questions, however, are about 2014, about when the rev limit and spec ECU will be introduced in MotoGP, and about what the reaction of the factories will be. That is another story, however.