For almost as long as Valentino Rossi has been racing in the premier class, there have been rumors that the Italian would one day make the switch to Ducati. For the most part, they have been based on little more than wishful thinking - the marriage of Italy's most famous motorcycle racer and Italy's most famous racing motorcycle is one which is surely made in heaven - yet over the past few weeks, those rumors seem to have been gaining some substance.
The new wave of speculation was generated by Rossi's public expressions of displeasure at his team mate Jorge Lorenzo being offered a one-year contract, an option which has never been offered to Rossi even when he requested it. To make things worse, Lorenzo was allowed to hold out before signing until after the Brno round of MotoGP, traditionally Yamaha's cut-off point for contracts, and a deadline which Rossi again always had imposed on him.
Rossi made several pointed statements in the press complaining that he had developed the Yamaha M1 and Lorenzo was taking advantage of his hard work, and that having two of the very best riders in a single team was an unusual and in his eyes untenable situation. His father Graziano hinted at Rossi's willingness to leave, comparing Yamaha to a wife who had been found cuckolding her husband, and hinting that what was good for the goose might also be good for the gander.
At every opportunity the Italian and Spanish press got - each contingent following their own agenda - they prodded Rossi for quotes on the subject, trying to wheedle him into making an admission that he either had been talking to Ducati, or had already signed, or was considering signing. Rossi's usual response to this prodding was simple: he would point out that his contract expires at the end of 2010, and that he would not be making a decision on his future until June next year, the usual period for contract negotiations.
But recent reports from Italy, originating with Radio Tavullia according to respected American journalist Dennis Noyes and published in the Italian newspaper Il Riformista, suggested that these were more than mere rumors. According to the story in Il Riformista, at 6:30pm on Monday, September 14th, an Audi S6 with tinted rear windows was seen entering the Via Antonio Cavalieri Ducati entrance of the Ducati factory, with Rossi's best friend and assistant Uccio at the wheel, and Jeremy Burgess, Rossi's long-time crew chief, in the passenger seat. The paper suggests that the main reason for the visit to the factory was to discuss pre-contracts with Ducati, and that after the visit, much activity was noted among the lawyers and accountants in Pesaro, the town near Tavullia where Rossi has his business interests.
The paper goes on to suggest that Marlboro would be more than willing to foot the bill for an increased salary of 15 million euros for Rossi, and more than that, they would also be willing to cough up another 15 million euros for the penalty Rossi would face for leaving Yamaha during his contract, and moving to Ducati for the 2010 series. Marlboro would fund a separate, one-man factory-supported team for Rossi similar to the Nastro Azzurro squad Rossi raced with when he first entered the premier class, and that team would consist of most, if not all, of Rossi's current crew at Yamaha, right the way down to the current communications officer William Favero.
The Ducati ride, according to Il Riformista, would be just one part of the package to tempt Rossi away from Yamaha. Once his career in MotoGP was over, Marlboro would then continue to bankroll Rossi, but this time in Formula One, at Ferrari, Marlboro's other great motor racing venture. All these factors - the separate team featuring his hand-picked crew, the money, the prospects of switching to Ferrari after retiring - are supposed to have been enough to encourage Rossi to abandon Yamaha and switch to Ducati for the 2010 season.
At Phillip Island, Valentino Rossi was questioned directly about these reports, and once again denied them completely. When asked about the rumors he would be switching to Ducati next year, he told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica: "Some of those things make me smile. Sometimes rumors have a basis in truth, but not in this case. I don't understand where they come from, but I suppose they are based more on hope. Many people would love to see me go to Ducati, but there's no truth in this. I will 100% for sure stay with Yamaha in 2010."
Rossi gave two important reasons for not leaving Yamaha at the end of this year. First and foremost was the contract he has with the Japanese firm, which binds him to the company for next season. But secondly, Rossi also revealed that he is already talking to Yamaha about continuing his tenure with the factory. "In Portugal, Furusawa [head of Yamaha's MotoGP project] put the idea on the table for me to finish my career with Yamaha. This is an offer which pleased me very much." But Rossi was a long way from making a final decision on the matter. "As I said at Misano, I will decide my future in June next year," Rossi told the press.
Rossi's statements would appear to definitively scotch any rumors that he may yet move to Ducati. There can be no doubt at all that Ducati - and more importantly, Marlboro, who pay the bills at Ducati - would love to have Rossi in the fold. Marlboro would get a face they could use in their advertising - of their current crop of Ducati and Ferrari drivers for next season, Stoner hates doing PR work, Felipe Massa has failed to excite the popular imagination, Ferrari newcomer Fernando Alonso is as stern and idiosyncratic as Stoner and is closely tied to Banco Santander, the other major sponsor of the Ferrari team, and only Nicky Hayden has any real PR skills. Millions of fans, many of them Italian, dream of seeing Rossi on a Ducati, the world's favorite racer on the world's best-loved motorcycle.
But the prospect of the Italian on the Ducati appears to be increasingly unlikely. Crew chief Jerry Burgess has said that he will continue to work as long as Valentino Rossi is racing, but Burgess has expressed no desire to go through the rigmarole of leaving one employer for another yet again. The mindset at Ducati and in the Rossi garage are also completely opposite: Filippo Preziosi has built a motorcycle that goes incredibly fast, but only when ridden in a specific way, by going fast from the very start and getting heat into the tires. The Rossi / Burgess crew have spent their joint careers making bikes which are easy to ride by everybody, and the fact that three of the top 6 bikes in the championship are Yamahas are a testimony to their success.
There is good reason to doubt that Preziosi's approach and Burgess and Rossi's approach are compatible. This was precisely the reason that Rossi turned down Ducati's advances during 2003 in the first place, in the period when he was looking to leave Honda.
Then there's the record books. If Valentino Rossi has a goal, it is to establish himself as the greatest racer of all time, and beat the records set by his compatriot Giacomo Agostini. Rossi is currently 20 victories short of Agostini's all time win record (or 19, depending on whether you count Ago's F750 victory or not) and 2 titles short of Ago's premier class championships. The number of titles looks reasonably achievable, though with Lorenzo, Stoner and Pedrosa giving Rossi his toughest challenge to date, 20 victories looks like a considerable stretch, unless Rossi agrees to stay on for at least another two years after 2010, and possibly longer. In the era of the Fantastic Four, taking 10 or 11 victories a season looks well beyond the realms of possibility.
Rossi's best chance of hitting the record books therefore rests with stability. Continuing to work with what is obviously the best bike on the grid and make it even better. Though he faces tough competition internally - Yamaha are committed to Jorge Lorenzo, as they need to secure the future once Rossi finally decides to retire - it remains easier to keep improving the Yamaha and focus on beating just his team mate and the Tech 3 riders, rather than have to take a completely different bike, adapt it to his needs and beat four men on the bike he spent so long perfecting.
Of course, logic will not stem the flow of rumors, nor dampen down the flames of speculation fueled by the ardent desire of motorcycle racing fans around the globe to see Rossi on a Ducati. It could still happen. It's just not very likely.