Within minutes of Valentino Rossi's terrible crash at Mugello, once it became apparent that the Italian's leg was broken, speculation began on who would replace the Italian. During the first update the assembled press received in a hushed media center at Mugello, one journalist, with blatant disregard for taste and decency (mea maxima culpa), pressed the Fiat Yamaha PR spokesperson on whether the team was working on a replacement. The spokesperson rightly pointed out that as the incident had happened less than an hour previously, it was perhaps a little too early to be thinking about this.
Once the dust Rossi's crash had settled, though, and it became clear that The Doctor will be out for the next three to four months, the debate began in earnest. The list of possible replacements was already surprisingly long by Saturday night, and has only grown since then. Disregarding wishful thinking (Troy Bayliss and Garry McCoy) and the downright impossible (Max Biaggi, Toni Elias and Alex de Angelis, all under contract), the two options most commonly named are moving a rider up from the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team (Ben Spies being most frequently named in this regard) or bringing in one of Yamaha's test riders to take Rossi's place.
Sooner or later, however, all discussions of a replacement for Rossi get bogged down in the same swamp: the muddy wording of the so-called Rookie Rule, which prevents rookies from being signed to factory teams. The exact wording of the rule is as follows:
1.11.11 Riders who enter the Championship for the first time (Rookies) must be entered by a non factory team.
Most interpretations of this rule have focused on a single word, the one between brackets. This is mainly due to Ben Spies, and the broad expectation that Yamaha would want to see how the Texan would go inside of a factory team. As a rookie (having so far only contested 8 MotoGP races), Spies is believed to be ineligible to replace Rossi, as Rossi rides with a factory team, the Texan falling foul of the Rookie Rule.
But the argument is not just true for Spies: If Fiat Yamaha decides to bring in Wataru Yoshikawa, one of their two test riders (Norihiko Fujiwara being the other), he too would fall foul of the Rookie Rule, having only appeared once previously in MotoGP, as a wildcard in 2002. This is also the case for some of the other names being bandied about, such as Sterilgarda Yamaha's World Superbike rider Cal Crutchlow.
With so much room for interpretation and speculation, journalists expended a good deal of shoe leather at Mugello chasing round people in positions of power and asking them for clarification, to clear up this question conclusively. The answers we received were rather dismaying: The people who should know, including the people who helped draw up these rules, could not supply a definitive answer to our questions. The response was unanimous about one thing, though: The rules have been badly phrased, and it is not clear exactly how they should be interpreted.
Despite the confusion, however, there was unanimity on what will happen in practice, based on a much older agreement already in the rulebook. The final sentence of section 1.11.3.iii reads as follows:
Exceptional circumstances will be examined by IRTA and DORNA/FIM.
In effect, this means that the Fiat Yamaha team will be allowed to do more or less as they please, as few would argue that Valentino Rossi missing a race is an exceptional circumstance. But this also extends to other factory teams; should they also lose a rider, they too will be allowed to use their better judgment to find a replacement, and the question of whether a rider is a rookie or not is frankly irrelevant. The current MotoGP bikes are so highly specialized that it is almost impossible to get up to speed on them in the space of a race weekend. So moving up rookies with experience on the bike would at least give the factory teams a fighting chance of getting creditable results.
The point of the Rookie Rule was to help out the satellite teams, by preventing factories from taking promising young riders and slotting them straight into the factory teams. The Rookie Rule forces factories to place their fresh talent into a separate satellite team, giving those privately-run teams a better chance of securing sponsorship.
A case in point is Marco Simoncelli: The Italian is signed to a contract with HRC, but has been seconded to the Gresini Honda team. This placement has allowed Fausto Gresini to secure backing from San Carlo, a major Italian producer of snacks and potato chips, who had demanded that Gresini have two Italian riders, to help San Carlo sell their product in the Italian domestic market.
However, should Andrea Dovizioso or Dani Pedrosa injure themselves badly enough that they are forced to sit out four or five races, Simoncelli could quite easily be drafted in to replace them. The Rookie Rule is there to help satellite teams over the course of a season, not for just a few races.
So with the Rookie Rule not relevant, who will replace Valentino Rossi? Well for the first two races, nobody at all. Jerry Burgess and the rest of Rossi's crew have been told to stay home for the Silverstone and Assen MotoGP rounds, partly as a mark of respect for their injured rider, and partly as a chance for Yamaha to take their time making a more careful decision, saving a little money in the process. Burgess and the crew will back again at Barcelona, by which time there will be a rider taking Rossi's place.
There are several riders whose names have been mentioned who it won't be, and one of those names is Yuki Takahashi. The Japanese rider is currently riding for the Tech 3 team in Moto2, but has previous MotoGP experience aboard the Scot Honda early last year. When asked whether Takahashi was in the frame for the ride, Tech 3 boss Herve Poncharal told MotoMatters.com, "Yuki has his hands full in Moto2," with Takahashi and teammate Raffaele de Rosa struggling to find some consistency on Tech 3's otherwise highly-rated Moto2 machine.
The other name currently being bandied about by some British websites is that of James Toseland, currently riding for the Sterilgarda Yamaha team in World Superbikes. There are several good reasons to take this rumor seriously, including the fact that the British rider has previous experience aboard Yamaha's M1 MotoGP bike, and is currently under contract to Yamaha directly.
But if Toseland did take over Rossi's seat, it would put the Yorkshireman under a huge amount of pressure. Toseland would face a punishing schedule of six events on consecutive weekends, including two World Superbike double headers. The risk of injury would be raised almost exponentially, and given that Toseland's task will be to win another World Superbike title for Yamaha in 2011, exposing himself to that much risk just does not make sense.
Furthermore, Toseland would be left to switch between two totally different machines with totally different tires from one weekend to the next. Yamaha's YZF-R1 may be based on MotoGP technology, but it is still well-removed from the real thing. The biggest problem would be the tires, though, with the Pirellis used in WSBK providing a completely different feel to the Bridgestone spec tires for MotoGP. Given Toseland's record in MotoGP with the Bridgestones, the Briton is an unlikely candidate to take #46's place.
Yamaha's two test riders remain the current favorites to take the ride, giving the team a chance to start testing for 2011 and give the test riders an opportunity to improve their pace, the adrenalin of a race weekend hopefully helping them to take a second or two off their best lap times. But the truth is that nothing will be certain until early next week, when an announcement is likely to be made officially.
That leaves MotoGP fans - and MotoGP journalists - another four or five days to fill with speculation about who Rossi's replacement is going to be. No doubt they will take full advantage of that opportunity, and throw more and more names into the ring, each less likely than the one before.