News that Valentino Rossi is out of the Yamaha MotoGP Team for 2021 radically changes the geography of MotoGP today: from the sport to sponsorship in MotoGP, the world of motorcycle racing is inextricably tied up with the future of Il Dottore. But this is not necessarily a bad thing.
Rossi out, Quartararo in
On Wednesday 29 January 2020 it was announced that the Frenchman Fabio Quartararo will be in the saddle for Yamaha Factory starting in 2021. This announcement comes hot on the heels of last week’s news from Iwata of Maverick Vinales’ contract renewal: the Spanish rider has extended his contract to 2022.
This is, from a sports perspective, an understandable choice by Yamaha, with two young, fast riders for the coming season, who, to date, seem one of the only cards to play against the superpower Marc Marquez. With 45 years between them as we write, Maverick and Fabio are capable of giving the Japanese manufacturer several years of continuity both in terms of motorcycle development and top racing results.
Stepping down from the official Yamaha squad, however, from 2021 – again according to a press release – Valentino Rossi will be taking time out until mid-season 2020 to decide on his future. Prosaically, Rossi has the choice of two roads: retirement or a luxury satellite seat with Petronas Yamaha with a factory bike and contract.
MotoGP today and tomorrow
It is clear that the boundaries of the new MotoGP are being redrawn at the moment. The 2020 and 2021 seasons will radically change the motorcycle Grand Prix scenario, with Marquez probably the new and sole fixed point in world in relentless rotation. The change is still cautious, full of “perhaps” and “who knows”, in which the future of some of the heavyweights in the category are still to be assessed, including Rossi, Cructhlow, Petrucci and so on, not to mention Lorenzo perhaps thrown on the scrapheap with too much haste.
More than everyone else, it is precisely Rossi’s goodbye to the Yamaha MotoGP Team, with whom he won his last four world championship titles, that signals strongly the arrival of a new era of motorcycle racing. It remains to be seen whether Valentino – and it will be his decision alone to tip the scales – will decide to hang up his helmet or continue on a satellite Yamaha with the Petronas Team.
The rest of the paddock won’t just stand by and watch. Whilst Ducati continues its incredible technological evolution, bringing an extraordinary number of new designs and solutions season after season, Suzuki, Aprilia and KTM have absolutely no intention of sitting on the side-lines.
Sponsors, riders and the future of the sport
Everyone knows that Valentino is a huge and very important name in MotoGP, not only from a sports perspective. Though it is true that Rossi hasn’t won a title since 2009, so ten years ago, it is also true that the “Pilota da corsa con il numero 46” is still the face and the biggest asset of MotoGP. The yellow stands, the thousands of Number 46 stickers and the media coverage of The Doctor bear witness to a sportsman who has, in many respects, become bigger than the sport.
Rossi has driven MotoGP into the modern era: the last rider to win the 500cc championship and first rider to win in the current MotoGP, making the racing bike the object of desire for a generation of the very young and not-so-young. It wouldn’t be taking it too far to say that Rossi had a nationwide impact: during the period of triumph and colourful celebrations, Rossi was an integral part of the Sundays of an entire nation, who gathered religiously in front of the TV after lunch to follow his feats on racing tracks all over the world.
There are many who, precisely because of that described above, fear that MotoGP may suffer shockwaves from the retirement, or gradual withdrawal, of Number 46, as much in terms of finance and image as for the sport. Valentino Rossi, as well as having always been a magnet for big sponsors, is also a big driver of audiences in a sport supported by Pay per View. Rossi is a great sportsman, but also a star with a big social media profile: a godsend for television programmes that broadcast motorcycle Grand Prix and third-party economic operators that revolve around the paddock.
Without one of the biggest sportsmen in history, the more sceptical are wondering whether there will still be sponsors ready to invest and broadcasters queuing up to grab the television rights for the races?
Fear of the new
In this blog, we have already outlined the situation that is forming for MotoGP, by saying that it has been years now that squads, championships and sports organizations have been preparing solutions and transition periods for when the big stars decide to end their long and glorious careers.
Without returning to this discussion, here, we need to make two true and necessary considerations: the first is that it would be naïve to believe that Rossi stepping down, or his relegation to a satellite team, wouldn’t have any effect on the motorcycle Grand Prix circus; the second, on the other hand, is that Valentino’s goodbye won’t mean the end of MotoGP or its fall into oblivion.
It is essential that we remember, in fact, that the motorcycle Grand Prix is the greatest expression of the whole motorcycle racing movement, which every year engages millions of people at every level. As long as there are motorcycles, there will be MotoGP, and as long as there are motorcycle enthusiasts, there will also be fans of motorcycle racing.
So, having determined that the motorcycle Grand Prix won’t be leaving with Valentino, the greater of lesser success of MotoGP, and the involvement of sponsors and television, will be closely tied to the competitiveness of the sport. The more thrilling the race, the more riders will compete; if the manufacturers bring to the track bikes that can race one another on an equal level, it’s hard to imagine that the sport won’t have a very bright future.
On the other hand, we always tend to think that the departure of a great champion, such as happened with Jordan stepping down from professional basketball, Sampras and Agassi’s final salute to professional tennis and so on, leaves an unfillable void. It is a totally understandable but often unfounded fear of the new.
Sports, whose fortune is certainly based in part on the presence of great champions, have, however, the ultimate goal of being enthralling and exciting. This happens when the competition is fierce, the outcome uncertain and the final result could go in any direction.
The geography and the new world
Finally, it is important to look further away from home when we analyse broad-ranging issues.
It is clear that the geography of racing (but it is also true for sport in general) is changing, with market openings that just ten, fifteen years ago seemed impossible. In the MotoGP Calendar, more than 33% of races are now held outside Europe, whilst in Formula 1 half of the races (11 out of 22) are now held on other continents. New tracks, new audiences, but also new important sponsors (such as Petronas) that force a change in perspective towards a future of the sport far from the old distinctions.
It is precisely for these reasons that the training championships that race under the aegis of Dorna, such as the British Talent Cup and the Asia Talent Cup, which seek to identify new talent far from Italy and Spain, are essential in the long term.