An intriguing bit of news appeared over on GPOne.com over the past couple of days. Their main MotoGP reporter, Alberto Cani, writes that Yamaha is getting ready to finalize its plans for 2009. And the first item on the agenda for Yamaha supremo Lin Jarvis is the rider line up. Jorge Lorenzo and James Toseland already have contracts for next year, with Toseland signing an extension with Tech 3 at Estoril, after the French satellite team secured another two years of support from Yamaha, including access to factory-spec machinery. But that leaves two seats still left to fill.
The most important of those seats is of course the other factory Yamaha. The most obvious and most likely sequence of events would be for Valentino Rossi to sign a new deal with the team. Rossi has previously spoken of his desire to end his career with Yamaha, and Jarvis has told the press he will be doing his best to keep the Italian multiple world champion. Pretty straightforward, you would think, but there's a fly in the ointment, a fly in the shape of a close-cropped Spaniard. Jorge Lorenzo's win at Estoril made him the first Yamaha rider other than Valentino Rossi to win a Grand Prix since Max Biaggi won at Sepang in 2002. Lorenzo's victory, combined with his three poles and two more podiums, mean that Yamaha is no longer solely dependent on Rossi for its success. Lorenzo can justifiably be regarded as a title candidate, something which Colin Edwards never was. Much of that was down to the subordinate role Edwards had at Yamaha, where he was tasked with doing whatever it took, which was mostly test work, to help The Doctor clinch yet another title. Lorenzo's arrival meant that the assistant was replaced by the rival.
The significance of Lorenzo's win should not be underestimated. With the balance of power now shifted in Yamaha's favor, The Doctor may well be forced to take a pay cut, from the rumored 12 million euros a year he is currently receiving, a sum close to double what the next best earners in the paddock are paid. The pay cut could be as much as 30%, which is a lot of pride for a seven time world champion to have to swallow. But with Yamahas currently dominating the MotoGP field, a move away from the Iwata factory could be a very risky move indeed. Kawasaki has expressed an interest in Rossi, although no discussions have ever taken place, and widespread rumors persist that Rossi is a likely target for Ducati, although this is probably more wishful thinking than anything else. If Rossi wants to recapture the MotoGP crown, then Yamaha is probably his best bet. In the end, it will come down to what is more important for Rossi: the money, and the associated prestige of his exceptional position within the MotoGP paddock, or the real prestige of yet another world championship.
Adding yet more painful insult to potential injury, Yamaha is also said to be pursuing the Spanish telecommunications giant Telefonica to replace the Italian car maker Fiat, whose contract with the team ends after the 2008 season. So far, Fiat seem disinclined to continue the sponsorship arrangement, leaving the door open for another big name sponsor. Telefonica would be an obvious replacement for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Spanish firm has lost its place both in MotoGP and in Formula 1, the latter as a result of Spanish Formula 1 ace Fernando Alonso's decision to leave the Renault team, the former as a result of Honda deciding to keep Repsol sponsorship for the factory team when Dani Pedrosa joined, after Telefonica bankrolled the Spaniard's climb up through the ranks of the 125 and 250 classes.
And so Telefonica are casting about for suitable marketing opportunities. An up and coming Spanish rider, and a potential world champion, is exactly what Telefonica needs to keep up its high profile in its Spanish home market. What's more the opportunity to sponsor Lorenzo would help settle the score with Dani Pedrosa, as funding Pedrosa's fiercest rival, and a man for whom Pedrosa has nothing but contempt, would be a sure fire way to anger the Repsol Honda man.
But Telefonica's arrival would add even more importance to Lorenzo's side of the garage, making Valentino Rossi's position a great deal less important. The Spanish sponsor would be backing the Spanish rider, with a multiple world champion thrown in for free. Telefonica's main concern would be promoting its local interests in Spain, and you can be sure that the bike featured on the huge billboards which line the Spanish highways would have the #48 on the front, not #46. As a result, the sponsor's interests lie less with providing large sums of cash to an Italian rider - world champion or not - and more in ensuring they have something to use in their home market.
So The Doctor's bargaining position seems weak. His best bet would be to hope that he can win a few races in a row, start leading the championship again, and reestablish his place at the top of the Yamaha pecking order. He may want to hold off on signing a new contract for a few weeks, to give himself a chance to do just that. But with Lorenzo already making an astonishing impact in MotoGP, Honda due to start using a pneumatic valve engine in a bike which is already not exactly short of go, and Casey Stoner sure to regain his Ducati mojo sometime soon, that may be quite a tall order. The Doctor truly is between a rock and a hard place. Fortunately, even a 30% reduction of 12 million euros leaves an awful lot of banknotes to soften the blow.