Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Valentino Rossi's Options for the Future
It is ironic that the high point of the relationship between Valentino Rossi and Ducati came as he rode the first few meters out of pit lane and on to the track at the Valencia MotoGP test in November 2010. All of the excitement that had been building since the first rumors emerged in early June that the nine time world champion would be leaving Yamaha to join the iconic Italian manufacturer culminated as Rossi emerged from a crowd of photographers and powered down pit lane, watched by a large group of fans who had come to the test to see this very moment.
From that point on, it was all downhill. Within a few laps, it was clear that Rossi would struggle with this bike, and though everyone was putting a brave face on his performance, he left the test in 15th place, one-and-three-quarters of a second behind his ex-teammate Jorge Lorenzo, and 1.7 seconds behind Casey Stoner, the man whose bike he was now riding and who had left Ducati to join Honda. The contrast between the two could not be greater: where Stoner was bullying the Honda around as if he had been born on the RC212V, Rossi - handicapped in part by his still-injured shoulder - looked like a frightened rookie, thoroughly intimidated by the bike.
Rossi learned two important but disturbing things at that test: the first was that the Ducati was a much, much worse bike than he had expected. Stoner's brilliance and the genius of his crew chief Cristian Gabbarini had flattered the machine, disguising its massive weakness. The second was that Casey Stoner had to be a much, much better rider than he thought if the Australian had managed to be competitive on the bike that had so shaken Rossi's confidence. Throughout the year, as Rossi struggled, he was forced to answer the same question over and over again. Why could he, the man with nine world titles and widely regarded as one of the greatest racers of all time, not be competitive on the bike that Stoner had won three races on the previous season, and put on the podium at Valencia before handing it over to Rossi? "Casey rode this bike in a special way," Rossi answered every time. "I cannot ride this bike like that."
Understanding that Stoner could be so competitive on the Ducati must have been a blow to Rossi's confidence and his self image. After their legendary and heart-stopping duel at Laguna Seca, Rossi had felt he had the measure of the Australian, beating Stoner more often than not and taking the 2008 and 2009 titles. Once he realized that throughout that period, Stoner had been bringing a knife to a gunfight and still regularly beating him - even after the introduction of the spec tire - Rossi must have asked questions of his own ability.
Ducati, Development and the Future
From Valencia onwards, Rossi looked to his track record of developing bikes. Together with his legendary crew chief Jerry Burgess, The Doctor worked at providing the feedback and input to Ducati that would help them turn the bike around. That, surely, was where Casey Stoner had fallen short, in not developing the Ducati in the right direction to make it competitive. And that was one of the reasons that Rossi had been hired, to help create a machine that could be competitive in the hands of more riders. At Qatar in 2011, one of Rossi's mechanics expressed the commonly-held opinion that this was the key problem at Ducati, that Stoner did not have the skills to develop a bike that was easier to ride.
Qatar 2012. After three chassis for the 800cc machine and two for the 1000cc bike, Rossi finds himself only a little better off than at the start of the process. The latest iteration of the GP12 - the bike completely redesigned from the ground up between the Valencia test in 2011 and Sepang in 2012 - does at least respond to setup changes in a way that previous Ducatis never have, but the core of the problem remains: a lack of feel from the front end, and a tendency to run wide in the corners. The bike is better, but it still has the fundamental flaws that the Desmosedici has had in every iteration since its inception. Despite all of the testing Rossi has done, despite all of the feedback he has given Ducati, real change is yet to come.
And so Valentino Rossi learned a second important but disturbing lesson: The state the Ducati was in when he inherited from Casey Stoner had nothing to do with the Australian's development skills, and everything to do with Ducati's attitude. Whether Stoner can develop a bike or not is unknown, for his input was either ignored or misinterpreted at Ducati. That was one of the reasons that Stoner himself had cited for leaving the factory. "I asked Ducati so often for changes," Stoner told the press after he had joined HRC, "But we never got them. The bike we started the season on was what we had to work with all year."
Ducati would disagree with that statement. One Ducati spokesperson impressed upon me in 2010 just how hard Ducati were working. "We've given Casey many things this season. New forks, new triple clamps, many things." That season, Honda worked their way through five different chassis in an eventually successful attempt to cure a chronic stability problem.
How To Say Goodbye
Return to Qatar 2012, and Valentino Rossi's outburst on Italian TV - though watching the video, it was as polite and as measured as all of his responses have been since joining the Italian marque - that Ducati had not given him the bike that he wanted, and that he simply could not be competitive on the machine he had to work with. His frustration was apparent, saying that he had considered pulling in, but had continued out of respect for his mechanics and crew. Hope had died in 2011, he said. "Ducati did not follow the direction I have tried to steer them in. I am not an engineer, and I cannot solve every problem."
In the days that followed, a string of rumors emerged. Sightings of Rossi's friend and confidant Alessio 'Uccio' Salucci talking to Phillip Morris boss Maurizio Arrivabene had the press abuzz with rumors of Rossi wanting an early exit to his Ducati contract. Talk had already emerged of a Coca Cola-backed satellite Yamaha for 2013 even before qualifying had started for the 2012 MotoGP season opener. One Spanish source even went so far as to report that Rossi would not finish the season with Ducati, and would take a sabbatical this season, to return to try again on a Japanese bike in 2013. Ducati CEO Gabriele del Torchio was quick to step in and dampen suggestions that the Bologna factory and Rossi were heading for an early divorce, and at Monza, where Rossi was racing a Ferrari in the exclusive Blancpain Endurance Series, the Italian himself told a comic TV show that he would not be going anywhere, and would be trying to make the relationship work.
A divorce before the end of the season seems unlikely, however. Rossi's contract is with Ducati via Phillip Morris, and the tobacco giant's legal team handling sports and sponsorship is notorious for writing watertight legal documents. The chances of Rossi getting out of the contract without suffering major financial consequences are nonexistent. Not only would the Italian have to forfeit his salary for this year, but penalty clauses for damages would probably also put a sizable dent in Rossi's personal fortune. An early exit would damage all three parties: Rossi, for giving up on the contract so early in the season; Ducati, for failing to give a proven champion a winning bike; and Marlboro, for backing a losing combination, and being associated with failure.
So if there is to be no early exit for Rossi, just what are the nine-time World Champion's options for the future? Speculation has been running rife since last week, and given that almost every rider in MotoGP is out of contract at the end of 2012, the possibilities for 2013 seem endless. And yet it may not be as simple as it at first appears, with Rossi's long history in the sport making the situation more, rather than less complicated.
With the contracts of the factory riders up for renewal at the end of 2012, the most obvious step - to his many fans, at least - is for Rossi to be offered a seat at either Repsol Honda or Factory Yamaha. Rossi's strong form at the end of 2010, winning in Sepang despite suffering with a shoulder injury, would suggest that at the very least, he would still be competitive. But that very competitiveness could well be an obstacle, rather than a benefit. Both HRC and Yamaha have bet their immediate futures on the success of their younger champions Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo. Both men have proved in the past that they are capable of beating Rossi, a natural result of their having grown up knowing that he is the man they would have to beat if they had any aspirations of becoming World Champion. At the moment, Stoner and Lorenzo are arguably better and faster riders than Rossi, and on equal machinery, the Italian would have his hands full trying to beat them.
That only weakens Rossi's case for a factory seat. No doubt that Rossi on a factory Honda or Yamaha could run with Stoner and Lorenzo, but the most likely scenario is that he would end up taking points off his factory teammate rather than challenging for the title himself. Rossi could well end up being decisive in a championship race, the danger being that he prevents his teammate from becoming champion, allowing a rival to take the crown. Viewed from the perspective of HRC or Yamaha Racing, Rossi offers more risks than he does rewards.
Then there's the personal factor. Neither Honda nor Yamaha were particularly overjoyed to see Rossi leave, and there is still some resistance to welcoming him back into the fold. Even if the management were interested in signing Rossi, they would then have to face the objections of their current number 1 riders, with Jorge Lorenzo's memories of having Rossi as a teammate far from happy, and Stoner and Rossi locked into one of the bitterest rivalries since Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey in the early 1990s. Neither Stoner nor Lorenzo would happily accept Rossi as a teammate, probably preferring to have each other as teammates over Rossi.
The Satellite Option
That leaves a satellite bike, but here too, there are complications. The most obvious place for Rossi to end up would be with Herve Poncharal's Monster Tech 3 Yamaha squad, but here again, Yamaha may decide to veto such a move. Rossi could be more of a risk in a satellite squad than in the factory team, as the difference in spec between the factory and the satellite machines would make it even more likely that Rossi could end up splitting the points. On a bike that is slightly inferior to the factory bikes, Rossi would struggle to win races, though podiums might be possible. Winning would take points from both Stoner and Lorenzo, while a podium could see him behind Stoner but ahead of Lorenzo, making Lorenzo's title assault even more difficult.
A private team with a Yamaha would face even more complications, as Tech 3 have a contract with Yamaha to run two M1s in 2013. Yamaha have long made it clear that they are unable to supply more than two factory bikes and two satellite machines, and so expanding to field a fifth bike would be complicated and expensive, unless Rossi could find a sponsor willing to pay well beyond the normal lease price for a Yamaha M1. Though Rossi's commercial marketability remains as high as ever - more about that later - the price Yamaha might ask would be pushing the bounds of value for money.
A more logical place for Rossi to try might be the Gresini Honda squad. Gresini needs an Italian rider to keep his sponsor, Italian snack manufacturer San Carlo, happy, and no doubt they would be elated to have Rossi. So much so, in fact, that Gresini might even be able to afford to run two prototype bikes again.
Increasing the number of satellite bikes it runs is much easier for Honda to achieve than it is for Yamaha. Just last year, HRC supplied a total of 6 bikes, a number which for a variety of reasons has been reduced to 4. Expanding that number would be possible, allowing Rossi to even consider the option of running a private team for himself, allowing him to more easily bring his crew along with him.
But the problem would remain of whether Honda, like Yamaha, would be willing to lease Rossi a satellite bike. Rossi on a Honda would merely be complicating the title race for Casey Stoner, the man that HRC have staked their immediate future on. What's more, Rossi could also divert resources away from Marc Marquez, the next young rider being coached to take his place in the HRC hierarchy. Marquez, if he lives up to the promise he has so far shown, looks set to become the next alien to join the MotoGP field, and with Stoner likely to start looking at retirement in another three seasons or so, the young Spaniard is being groomed to replace the Australian as Honda's #1 rider.
Even ignoring the difficulties of persuading either Honda or Yamaha to give him a satellite ride, the question is whether Rossi himself would want to race a satellite bike. Though he would undoubtedly immediately be much faster on a satellite Yamaha than he currently is on the Ducati, a satellite M1 would still be different enough from the factory bikes to make it hard for him to win races. To illustrate the problems of racing on a satellite bike: last year at Qatar, on board a factory Honda, Andrea Doviziosi finished just over 5 seconds behind the winner, Casey Stoner. In 2012, this time on a satellite Yamaha, Dovizioso crossed the line over 17 seconds after the winner Jorge Lorenzo. Even taking into account the difference between Rossi and Dovizioso as riders, and Rossi's greater experience with the behavior of the Yamaha, that is a huge gap to overcome, and indicative of the difference that is in the bike. A satellite machine may make it easier for Rossi to get nearer the podium, but it is not a guarantee of being able to fight for wins. In that respect, taking a satellite ride may not necessarily work out that much better than staying with Ducati.
But what of Rossi's selling power? Is his massive commercial value not enough to ensure that he gets the bike that he wants? This is in itself an interesting question, and adds several complications of its own. Would signing for Yamaha or Honda help a factory shift more bikes in their target markets? It seems safe to assume that it would, though the benefit gained is likely to be smaller for Yamaha than it would be for Honda. Rossi is still closely associated with Yamaha in the minds of the fans, the Japanese company still profiting from the afterglow of Rossi's legendary time with the factory. Rossi might be of more commercial value to Honda, but as discussed before, that would risk Casey Stoner leaving, taking with him perhaps the best chance Honda has of another championship.
The party with the real power to put Rossi where he wants to be is surely Dorna. MotoGP's commercial rights holder has been riding the Rossi money train ever since the Italian joined the premier class, and has benefited massively from the marketing tsunami that Rossi has been. Surely it is both in Dorna's interests and within their power to make sure Rossi gets a competitive ride?
Up until the end of last year, that was undoubtedly true. But in a twist of irony, with the lapsing of the contract granting the manufacturers a monopoly on the technical regulations, Dorna also lost some of its grip over the factories. Before, Dorna and the MSMA had a simple bargain: the factories got the rules they wanted, while Dorna was left to handle the commercial exploitation of the series. Dorna did not complain about technical regulations - no matter how much they might object to them - while the factories that made up the MSMA were willing to go along with Dorna requests to place riders when commercial realities demanded it.
But after seeing the MSMA lead MotoGP down the road to ruin through a series of disastrous technical rule changes, including the switch to the much-despised 800cc formula, and then seeing individual manufacturers scale back their involvement and pull out of the series, Dorna has taken the rules into their own hands. Technical regulations are now being drawn up in conjunction with the FIM and IRTA with the sole aim of making the series more affordable and filling out the grids once again. The role of the factories has been reduced to more of an advisory role, their input on rule changes now subject to bargaining rather than being adopted without argument as it was before.
What this means is that Dorna's requests are now also subject to the same bargaining. Where previously, the two parties had an (almost) unspoken arrangement, now each move and request must be bartered over. If Dorna wanted to put Rossi on a satellite Yamaha - or even a factory Honda - then Dorna will have to give up on some of the technical rules they have been hoping to push through to make the series cheaper and the racing more entertaining. That leaves Dorna facing a painful and difficult dilemma.
Facing the Future, Long-Term vs Short-Term
Here, too, Rossi's age is starting to work against him: Dorna have been preparing for Rossi's retirement for several years now, as the Italian has talked about leaving the series consistently the last couple of times his contract has been renewed. With the goose that has laid so many golden eggs for them on the verge of quitting, Dorna have realized that they need to put something in place to compensate. Although they will never be able to replace a global superstar of the stature of Rossi, their plan for limiting the financial damage that Rossi's departure would undoubtedly do the series is to try to bring back the exciting racing seen in the past, to create a more stable commercial base. By jumping on the Rossi bandwagon - the Italian is truly a global star known far outside the world of motorcycle racing, a once-in-a-generation phenomenon - Dorna ended up with too many of their eggs in one basket, and now they face paying the price. Their new strategy is to try to create closer, more exciting racing, and reduce the importance of a single individual to the series. The riders will always be the stars, but having great racing ensures the long-term commercial stability of the series as riders come and go, as they inevitably do.
And here is Dorna's delicate dilemma: by forcing either Honda or Yamaha to provide Rossi with a competitive bike, they will have secured the commercial success of MotoGP for the next couple of seasons, until Rossi retires and leaves, as he surely must one day. However, if the price that Dorna has to pay is to offer too many technical concessions to the factories that the satellite and CRT teams are left without a chance of being competitive, and the processional racing that has characterized the series under the rules drawn up by the MSMA continues, then they could end up saving the series in the short term, only to see it wither and die once Rossi leaves, with nothing to take his place.
Should He Stay or Should He Go?
Overall, Rossi's best hope may actually lie in staying with Ducati. Right now, he is clearly not competitive, and the bike obviously still needs a lot of work. But a large part of Rossi's claim to greatness is built on his reputation as someone who can develop a bike, helped in no small part by his legendary crew chief Jerry Burgess. If Rossi leaves without making the bike competitive, then his legacy will be tarnished, despite much of the blame being attached to Ducati. Failing to turn the Ducati around will leave a stain on his reputation and that of Burgess.
Some seeds of doubt are already being planted. Though the M1 campaigned by Alex Barros and Olivier Jacque did not win a single race, Barros had a significant input on the bike that Rossi inherited. Masao Furusawa had already built a completely new bike for Rossi's arrival, and the Italian's role was not so much development as correctly identifying the bike that Furusawa had expected to be best. While Rossi and Burgess have received much of the credit for developing the Yamaha M1 that Rossi would go on to win the championship on, that view underestimates the massive role that Furusawa played in understanding the weaknesses of the bike and improving it, before Burgess and Rossi got their hands on the bike to tweak it.
Now, at Ducati, after a total of five frames and two engines, the bike is still suffering, and the magic that everyone expected from Rossi and Burgess is failing to appear. Much of the problems seem to stem from a fundamental misunderstanding between the rider, his crew, and Ducati's engineers. Once that miscommunication is cleared up, then Rossi can try to prove that his reputation as a good bike developer is deserved, and not just down to being in the right place at the right time.
Two Sides To Every Story
But Ducati, too, need Rossi to do well. They could afford to ignore the input of the riders while Casey Stoner kept on winning on the bike. They could afford to send Marco Melandri to a psychologist, instead of listening to his complaints about the bike. Now, with Stoner gone, and the man who was supposed to be able to ride everything failing so spectacularly, it has become clear to everyone, including Ducati's engineers, that this situation cannot continue. If they do not produce a competitive bike, there is more at stake than just the reputation of Valentino Rossi, the continuation of Ducati's MotoGP program is at risk.
Ducati's MotoGP project has only been possible thanks to the willingness of Phillip Morris, who continue to fund the lion's share of the Bologna factory's budget - paddock rumor suggests that the amount is in the region of 25 million euros - to promote Marlboro. The tobacco giant has stayed faithful to Ducati, despite ever-tighter rules on tobacco sponsorship and advertising, with just the red-and-white color scheme remaining to tie the Marlboro brand identity to Ducati's MotoGP team. The question remains how much success Phillip Morris feels it needs from Ducati, but they will surely be demanding more than the team is currently providing. Having Rossi failing so badly on the bike is bad for everyone's image, including their tobacco sponsors.
With Ducati rumored to have already massively overrun their budget this year - perhaps by as much as 20% - the Borgo Panigale factory needs to start producing results. The GP12 suffers from two major problems: firstly, though the engine has been rolled back to reposition it, it is still a 90° V, and as I wrote in August of last year, such a wide angle between the cylinder banks makes mass centralization nearly impossible, and makes packaging the engine extremely difficult; and secondly, the power delivery is too aggressive - Valentino Rossi joked that the bike had "a lion under the fairing" at Qatar - making it more difficult to control.
A New Hope?
But there are reasons to believe that this situation could change relatively quickly. Much speculation has centered on the new parts that Ducati are expected to be introducing "after three or four races," widely expected to be some new chassis parts. While Rossi and Hayden are very likely to be given a new swingarm at either Jerez or Estoril, the big change could come at the tests after the Portuguese round of MotoGP. All the signs point to Ducati bringing a new engine to test there, and that could turn out to be radically different from the one they are currently using. The engine currently in use is basically the same as the original 2012 1000cc engine, designed to be a load-bearing part of the chassis. The rumored new engine will be much lighter, as it has been designed from the ground up to be used in the aluminium twin spar chassis, rather than the original carbon fiber monocoque subframe, and so is substantially less rigid than the current unit. There are also signs that the engine angle could finally be changed, with some sources hinting that the new engine will be a 75° V. Just how reliable these sources are is yet to be proven - guesses based on glimpses of engines may be the result of an optical illusion rather than the actual engine layout. But a new engine layout would radically transform the handling of the bike.
The other hope could come as a result of the proposed rule changes for 2013 and onwards. It now seems certain that a rev limit will be put in place for next year, with 15,000 rpm the most likely candidate. Such a limit would change the nature of the bikes, and probably impact Ducati hardest. However, given that the Ducati's problem is its excess of horsepower and the way it delivers that to the rear tire. A rev limit would force Ducati to work on mid-range torque rather than extracting maximum horsepower, and make the bike more rideable. That would answer one of Rossi's key complaints about the Ducati, and if a revised engine improved the handling as is expected, Ducati's fortunes could be turned around fairly quickly.
Whether that will be enough remains to be seen. No matter how good the bike is, Valentino Rossi faces two riders who grew up knowing that they had him to beat if they were ever to be champions themselves. He was the target they aimed for, and both Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner have hit, and arguably surpassed, that target. Even if Ducati do fix the GP12, then Lorenzo and Stoner are going to be hard to get wins against, and impossible to take the title from.
With the chances of a satellite ride very limited, and a factory Honda or Yamaha seat out of the question, Rossi's best hope of a competitive ride in MotoGP is to help Ducati turn the Desmosedici around, and create a bike which is easier to ride and offers better feel at the front end. His reputation - and the reputation of Jerry Burgess and the rest of his crew - depends on him fixing the Ducati, and it is the fastest track the nine-times World Champion has to success in MotoGP if he is to remain in racing.
Of course, Rossi's success depends to a major extent on the willingness of Ducati to make the changes he has asked for. That, for so many years, has been the sticking point, but the Bologna factory is now starting to reach breaking point. If Rossi does not start to score podiums and challenge for wins on the bike, their MotoGP project will be in danger. If they have any ambition of continuing in the series, they have to build a bike that a rider like Rossi can win on. Despite what his detractors say - and over the past 18 months, his detractors have become even more tiresome than his fans ever were - Valentino Rossi still has seven premier class titles to his name, as well holding the record for premier class wins. It is reasonable to expect Rossi to at least be fighting for podiums, and so to see him nearly a second a lap slower than his rivals is a signal that the bike is at least part of the problem. Given Rossi's renowned grasp of paddock politics and his media savvy, his outburst on Italian TV was almost certainly calculated to put maximum pressure on Ducati to make the changes that he wants.
They Can Work It Out
Like the children of two royal families pledged to be wed, Valentino Rossi and Ducati are condemned to one another. They can either try to make the marriage work and their empire a success, or they can fail and fall bickering to their doom. If Ducati does not build a competitive bike, and Rossi does not commit to riding it the way it needs to be ridden, then both are likely to disappear from the GP scene, both with serious stains on their reputations. Though the wedding between Rossi and Ducati was the high point of the MotoGP year, it has proven to be a marriage of inconvenience for both parties. They need to make it work, and quickly.