In The Paddock Column

Michael Scott | February 12, 2020

In The Paddock


Bum in the butter. Cake and eat it. Carte blanche. A win-win situation.

And who could begrudge it of Valentino Rossi? The old man of the grid’s latest career move gives him exactly what he wants from Yamaha.

Whether he wanted it or not.

Yamaha retains Vinales, acquires Quartararo, and keeps Rossi. Problem solved. Photo: Gold & Goose
Yamaha retains Vinales, acquires Quartararo, and keeps Rossi. Problem solved. Photo: Gold & Goose

The second Japanese factory, still struggling to get back on terms with Honda and Ducati, has had its hands tied for a couple of years now, by the presence of Valentino. He is arguably the greatest of all time. But he is also arguably increasingly past his sell-by date.

His last win—out of a total of 89 in the premier class—was back in 2017 at Assen.

Yamaha dare not drop him. Just imagine the fans’ fall-out. Not to mention his own rage, with the loss of the chance of adding the crucial eight wins he needs to beat Agostini’s all-time all-class tally of 122. Or, more to the point, at being denied the chance to continue at the top level of the sport that he still so conspicuously loves, passion undimmed.

With just two full factory bikes, and one of them seemingly Rossi’s in perpetuity, Yamaha has had to watch high-end satellite team riders go elsewhere.

They include Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso, and, more recently, given their current trials, more painfully Johann Zarco, as well. His switch to KTM not only robbed Yamaha of a skill set perfectly matched to their sweet but slowish M1, but also tipped the Frenchman into a career dive from which he may never recover.

The loss forced them to never mind, and hope there’d be another Frenchman along soon. Amazingly, there was—enter Fabio Quartararo who, like Zarco before him, frequently embarrassed the factory Yamaha riders in his first MotoGP season, and gave Marquez serial bother with increasing intensity in the latter part of the year.

Suddenly the downtrodden YZR-M1 didn’t seem such a bad bike after all, and Yamaha wasn’t going to let this Frenchman go. Likewise Quartararo, forewarned, was unlikely to risk the same fate as Zarco, no matter how tempting the huge piles of Red Bull or Repsol money. Days after re-signing Maverick Vinales, happily scotching rumors that he was about to walk away, came the news that his teammate for 2021 and 2022 would be Fabio Quartararo.

And Rossi?

Well, he can do as he chooses. In the words of Yamaha’s official statement: “Should Rossi decide to continue … in 2021, Yamaha assures Rossi of the availability of a factory-spec YZR-M1 bike and full Yamaha Motor Co Ltd. engineering support.”

At least nobody can accuse him of being a bed-blocker any more.

It would be intriguing to have eavesdropped on the conversation. We can only glean tidbits from under the table.

We already knew (because he has told us several times) that Rossi planned to defer his decision on whether to continue after the end of his current contract, expiring at the end of 2020, until after a decent number of races. This, he said, was to determine whether, turning 41 this month, he was still not only sufficiently competitive but also sufficiently motivated to carry on.

The sub-text concerned the Yamaha, the failings of which Rossi has clearly blamed for his waning results over the past two years. A relative lack of acceleration and top speed and a slightly unexpected tendency to punish its rear tire were among his complaints, as he rode his heart out only to see those difficult chances of victory slip away.

Would the factory be able to upgrade the M1 enough to make carrying on worthwhile? Better still, will they ever build the V4 he has been asking for?

Yamaha, meanwhile, was caught in a pincer movement. Vinales, after three increasingly difficult seasons, was kicking up a fuss, threatening to accept approaches from either his improving former Suzuki team or an open-wallet invitation from Ducati, unless his status at Yamaha was confirmed as number-one rider. He too has blamed the M1 for poor results, but with a slant of his own.

He believed the bike’s development was being misguided by Rossi’s input, and that his ideas and wishes should be given the precedence they deserved. After all, he did win two races in 2019, and one the year before. Significantly enough, this was achieved by sticking to pretty much the same bike all year, and ignoring the “improvements” suggested by his teammate.

The answer seemed to be the perfect compromise. Vinales gets his chance as team leader, Yamaha hangs on to the massive potential of Quartararo.

And Valentino gets to choose.

Will this year end with vale Vale?

Quo Vadis, Valentino?

The answer: “I will go wherever and whenever I like.”CN


Michael Scott | MotoGP Editor Scott has been covering MotoGP since long before it was MotoGP. Remember two-strokes? Scott does. He’s also a best-selling author of biographies on the lives of legendary racers such as Wayne Rainey and Barry Sheene.