The world of MotoGP and WorldSBK has been relatively quiet for the last two weeks, as factories close and teams and riders take time off to celebrate their various holidays. Very little has happened, with people off around the world, and only now returning to prepare for the 2020 season.
The winter break did offer an opportunity for Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport to interview Valentino Rossi. Fortunately for English speakers, the interview was translated and posted on the website of esteemed US publication Cycle World, meaning race fans could read the whole thing for themselves, and not have to rely on translations of interpretations of summaries posted on many websites.
The interview with Rossi was wide-ranging, held in the wake of his testing Lewis Hamilton's F1 Mercedes, and so naturally, there was much talk of F1. Rossi revealed that he came close to switching to F1 at the start of the 2006 season, but decided against it in the end. Fortunately for MotoGP, as the Italian went on to win two more world championships, and is still competitive at the age of 40.
Will he still be competitive when he turns 41 in a few weeks' time? Rossi believes he can be. He told Paolo Ianieri that he feels he is still the same rider that beat Casey Stoner in 2008, a criteria set by his former crew chief Jeremy Burgess. The problem is that he is older, and his rivals are stronger, Rossi said. He knows he has to make a decision this year.
But it is a decision which is still to be made. Before making the decision, Rossi wants to see if he can be more competitive than he was in 2019, and if not, there is no reason for him to continue. He will talk to his close friends and family, he said, before making up his mind.
The problem is, of course, that time is not on his side. With everyone out of contract at the end of 2020, the pressure for the factories will be to sign riders as early as possible. But Rossi needs time to understand whether he should continue or not, he said. "I would like to have a little more time. Unfortunately, today in MotoGP everything is decided at the beginning of the year. I will need a little bit to understand, like mid-season," Rossi told Ianieri.
After the interview was published, there were some headlines suggesting that Rossi would be willing to accept a demotion to the Petronas Yamaha team for 2021 to keep on racing. But that is not quite what Rossi said. The Italian merely pointed out that Yamaha will be facing a dilemma (or perhaps trilemma is a better way of phrasing it), trying to fit three riders – Maverick Viñales, Fabio Quartararo, and himself – into two seats. He was positive about the Petronas team, but at pains to point out that much was still open, and either Viñales or Quartararo in a position to move on.
But there is no need to rely on my interpretation of the interview. Better to read for yourself what Valentino Rossi said. The entire interview is worth reading. You can find it on the Cycle World website.
In the interview, Rossi also broached the possibility of Jorge Lorenzo taking a role as a test rider with Yamaha. Rumors of Lorenzo returning as a test rider started in mid December last year, but there has been little movement on that so far. Lorenzo has returned from his extended post-retirement vacation in Bali and is back at home in Switzerland. The Spaniard is posting photos on Social Media of himself training, so he looks determined to get back into shape.
Whether that means he will take on a role as test rider remains to be seen. The Spaniard has been basically riding injured since Aragon in 2018, and the crashes at Barcelona and Assen, where he fractured his vertebrae, left him visibly frightened. He was afraid in his last race at Valencia, fearful of a final crash that could leave him with permanent spinal damage.
A role as test rider means being willing to push a bike to its limit, and take risks doing so. Only Jorge Lorenzo knows whether he is willing to take that risk. In an interview with Spanish website Motosan.es, he at least acknowledged that that is one possibility he has on the table. How taking up that option would affect his return to the paddock in a TV role is as yet unclear.
One thing is for certain, however. Lorenzo will not be a test rider for Ducati. Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna was keen to have Lorenzo return to the Italian factory, but only if the Spaniard had wanted to keep racing. Ducati's Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti ruled out the idea of Lorenzo becoming a test rider to German language publication Speedweek.
Who replaces Iannone?
The other Italian factory may also be in need of a test rider. On Tuesday, Andrea Iannone's B sample from the drug test he failed at Sepang is due to be tested. If the B sample doesn't clear Iannone, his provisional ban will turn into a permanent one.
Who will replace Iannone? The most logical thing for Aprilia to do would be to promote current test rider Bradley Smith into the factory team, alongside Aleix Espargaro. That would appear to be the most likely course of action, according to Aprilia sources, but if there is one thing we learned from the 2019 MotoGP season, it is that nothing is certain, even when contracts have been signed. Smith will definitely be on the brand-new RS-GP at the Sepang and Qatar tests, and is the most likely candidate to be on the grid at Qatar.
If Smith does receive a promotion, that would leave a vacancy for a test rider. Aprilia already have Matteo Baiocco under contract, who tested for the Noale factory for the last couple of years. But with the objective being to make a big step forward in 2020, they will want a second rider to push the limits of the bike.
New test rider, new bike
Karel Abraham is likely to fill that gap. The Czech rider finds himself without a ride, after being unceremoniously pushed aside to make way for Johann Zarco in the Reale Avintia squad. Abraham has already done some testing work in the past for KTM, and his feedback was judged to be solid.
Having a strong rider will be vital for Aprilia. The Italian factory is due to roll out a brand new bike at the Sepang test, with a completely new engine. That engine will have a new V angle, with some reports suggesting it will be a 90°V, rather than the narrower angle currently being used. The objective is to produce more power and improve both acceleration and deceleration, engine braking playing an enormously important part in MotoGP.
Aprilia have taken on a number of new engineers to help design the new bike, working on the engine, electronics, and aerodynamics. Aprilia Racing CEO Massimo Rivola has made major changes inside the organization to make the racing department more effective, and get better results from the engineers. Such a radical shake up in terms of bike design will take time to get right, and will need a lot of work from a competent test rider to help steer the project in the right direction.
The start of the year was also marked by tragedy, however. IRTA official and former Suzuki MotoGP mechanic Gary McLaren died in a fireworks accident in Thailand. I knew Gary only a little, but he was a clever and friendly man, passionate about racing, always helpful. He is a loss to the paddock, and will be missed. Thoughts with his friends and family.
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