MotoGP's bumper silly season has taken another step closer to its conclusion in recent weeks, with signs that both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo are starting to move towards finalizing deals. Reports in the Italian sports daily Corriere dello Sport indicate that Valentino Rossi has been offered 15 million euros by Ducati to sign for the Italian factory.
That is a good deal more than Yamaha have offered the Italian. Rossi is reportedly currently under contract for some 14 million euros, but had been in discussions with Yamaha prior to Mugello about reducing his salary to between 9 and 10 million euros. That reduction was being driven by the need to cut costs, and the Corriere dello Sport is reporting that Rossi was looking favorably upon the salary cut, and had expressed a desire to finish his career at Yamaha.
But it appears that part of that salary cut is needed to fund a doubling of Jorge Lorenzo's contract, from 4 million in 2010 to 8 million in 2011. This, understandably, has left Rossi much less amenable to taking the pay cut, and probably more disposed to consider other options.
Ironically, Rossi no longer has complete control over his own fate. In years past, Rossi could simply lay out a range of demands, and his employers would either concede, or as happened to Honda at the end of 2003, watch as Rossi left to another team. Now, however, Yamaha have an advantage, if not quite the upper hand, as the YZR-M1 is clearly the best bike on the grid, and in Jorge Lorenzo, Fiat Yamaha have a rider capable of matching Rossi on his own terms, at the very least.
But Rossi's hand is also being forced to a certain extent by Ducati. The Marlboro Ducati is clearly capable of being competitive, as Casey Stoner has consistently demonstrated. But this year has seen an extra improvement, as Nicky Hayden and also Aleix Espargaro of the Pramac team has also demonstrated.
Most of all, though, if Valentino Rossi wants to see the number 1 status he believes he deserves reflected in salary, Ducati is probably his only option. While other manufacturers can land sponsorship based on Rossi's salary, the total marketing value they can offer is based the legend that is Valentino Rossi. But the marketing synergy between the brand Ducati and the brand Rossi is so great that Corriere dello Sport believes that Ducati has sponsors standing in line to pay for that. Like Harley-Davidson, Ducati is a brand that can sell t-shirts, caps, belts, after shave, and in the case of the Italian brand, even wine. Add Rossi to that marketing mix and you get almost unlimited selling power.
But there is yet another factor seeming to push Rossi towards Ducati. The injuries to Valentino Rossi and Hiroshi Aoyama have exposed the thinness of the MotoGP grid. Rossi's aura and enormous fan bases helps to camouflage the fact that MotoGP has just 17 bikes when everyone is healthy. With Rossi gone, and Aoyama out as well, the grid is looking very threadbare indeed. Paddock rumors suggest that the top echelons of Dorna would be all too happy to see their biggest marketing asset on a red bike, as the Spanish and Italian press would be full of nothing else all year, almost regardless of the results. A year of Rossi-Ducati coverage would take the series through to 2012, when it is hoped the new rules will help fill out the grids.
With the probability of a Rossi switch to Ducati increasing almost day by day, Jorge Lorenzo is drawing in on a Yamaha deal. Ironically, this is causing Lorenzo to put more and more distance between himself and Yamaha in his public statements, the Spaniard emphasizing that he hasn't made a decision yet, and that he is very much keeping all his options open.
But occasionally, Lorenzo lets his intentions slip through, as when veteran journalist Dennis Noyes asked him about the advantage the Yamaha has over the Honda and Ducati. Lorenzo told journalists that he was worried that development might stagnate, and the bike could end up not improving as much over the next couple of years. Noyes then asked whether that meant that he would be staying with Yamaha for that period, but Lorenzo realized his mistake, and said that he was merely trying to think from Yamaha's perspective, and not necessarily his own.
But with Rossi gone, a generous salary and the ability to direct development of the Yamaha M1 for the next few years, Lorenzo's best option is probably going to be to stay at Yamaha. When asked at Assen about the rumors, Lorenzo was evasive. "I have a passionate relationship with Yamaha," the Spaniard said, "but that doesn't mean I will not leave Yamaha. I would like to stay with Yamaha, but we will see what happens." But Lorenzo was not concerned about the lack of movement in the markets so far. "I am not in a rush," he said.