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Friday, August 03, 2012

Valentino Rossi Spotted at Yamaha Europe HQ

Valentino Rossi is set to make a return to Yamaha, abandoning Ducati after two long and difficult years of failure. The Italian was spotted at Yamaha Motor Europe’s headquarters at Schiphol-Rijk, an industrial estate next to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, by former racer Niall Mackenzie, who was visiting the Yamaha HQ while negotiating a deal for his younger son Tarran to race in Superstock next season. The Scotsman posted the sighting – naming only a ‘well-known Italian’ wearing ‘a big smile on his face’ - on his Twitter page, but when contacted by Thomas Baujard of the French magazine Moto Journal, confirmed his report to the magazine.

The news of Rossi’s return to Yamaha has been slowly leaking out since last Sunday’s Red Bull US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca. Speculative reports have appeared in leading English and Italian media, with Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport reporting that Rossi has been offered a two-year deal with Yamaha in MotoGP, with the option of making a switch to World Superbikes, to lead the development of the all-new Yamaha YZF-R1 which is expected for 2015. Yamaha pulled out of the World Superbike series at the end of the 2010 season, citing the global financial crisis and failing to achieve their marketing goals with the production-based series.

Rossi’s defection and return is far from surprising: the dream matchup of Italian superstar Rossi with the legendary and iconic Ducati brand had raised expectation all around the world, but it had been a disaster from the moment Rossi swung a leg over the bike at Valencia in 2010. Rossi was shocked to find that the machine that Casey Stoner had taken to victory in three of the last six races of 2010 was a very long way from competitive, the results coming from Stoner’s mercurial talent rather than by virtue of the Desmosedici.

Since then, though much has changed superficially, there has been very slow and very limited progress on the Desmosedici, despite a range of updates coming from Borgo Panigale. Though frames have been modified and the engine layout rotated backwards, the fundamental flaws of the bike remain: The machine lacks front end feel, has a tendency to understeer, and the power delivery is far too aggressive. All of the feedback that both Rossi and his crew chief Jerry Burgess has provided to Ducati Corse has failed to result in any clear improvement.

In essence, Rossi has run into the same problem that caused Stoner to leave the Italian factory: feedback was ignored and developments came at a glacial pace. Rossi’s departure from Ducati will come as a blow for the Bologna factory. Just yesterday, Ducati team boss Vittoriano Guareschi had told the Gazzetta that the factory did not have a ‘plan B’ for a Rossi departure. Ducati is said to have offered 17 million euros to Rossi, something that the Italian hotly denied at Laguna Seca. More importantly, Rossi has had several meetings with very senior Audi executives aimed at reassuring Rossi that Audi has both the means and the intention of investing heavily in Ducati’s MotoGP program.

In the end, Rossi could not afford to wait: the effects of the Audi takeover will not start to bear fruit for at least a year or so, and with Rossi entering the last few years of his career, he needs results faster than that. Rossi is tired of riding round knowing that the best he could hope for is 6th place, and a return to the competitive Yamaha M1 gives him a chance at battling for podiums and wins every race. The wait now is for official confirmation from either the Yamaha or Ducati camps.

Given the fiasco over Ben Spies’ announcement ahead of Laguna Seca that he will be leaving Yamaha at the end of the season, Yamaha will be keen to announce some good news as soon as possible. Ducati, on the other hand, will want to wait for as long as they can before making an announcement. Rossi himself had said he expected to make a decision ahead of Indianapolis, with an announcement at Brno. It is extremely unlikely that any of the three parties involved can hold off on making an announcement for that long.


World Superbikes winner MSMW2012