It is a bit of a risk, announcing that Valentino Rossi will be switching to Yamaha just a couple of days after getting caught out by a hacked Twitter and email account. This time, though, confirmation is coming from multiple sources, including our own. Rossi will be leaving Ducati for Yamaha at the end of this season, with an official press release expected from Yamaha on the morning of August 15th, the Italian national holiday of Ferragosto, and the day before the paddock assembles at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Red Bull Indianapolis GP.
According to the Italian media, the decision was taken a few days after the US GP at Laguna Seca, a race which was typical of Rossi's experience with the Ducati: slow during practice, unable to make progress during qualifying leaving him to start from 10th, and topped off with a crash at the top of the Corkscrew. Rossi crashed on lap 30, losing the front while braking and still almost upright. Unable to get any heat into the tire, the front tire looked almost new, despite having nearly the full race distance on it. Ducati CEO Gabriele Del Torchio had flown especially to the US to present an offer to Rossi and convince him of the sweeping changes that Audi will help to bring about to the racing program, and at the Sachsenring and Mugello, Rossi had spoken to senior Audi executives about their plans for MotoGP. Ducati had even gone so far as to try to persuade Masao Furusawa, the former leader of Yamaha's M1 MotoGP project, to come to Ducati to help fix the bike.
Furusawa declined, as respected Japanese journalist Akira Nishimura reported on his Twitter page this morning after interviewing the former Yamaha man. Furusawa's reasons were deeply rooted in Japanese culture, and the strong bond between company and employee, even after the employment contract is terminated: it would not be right for a former employee to betray the company he worked for, and that was a step too far for Furusawa. The Japanese engineer revealed just how far Ducati were prepared to go to get help, telling Nishimura that Preziosi had said "I just want to make our bike better. It doesn't matter if I lose my position."
The Furusawa gambit was probably Ducati's last chance at getting Rossi to stay, and when it failed, Rossi made up his mind. The only thing that Rossi wanted was a competitive bike for the beginning of the 2013 season. When Preziosi acknowledged he could not provide that, Rossi's decision was clear. At the age of 33, Rossi understands that he does not have many more seasons left in MotoGP. He cannot afford to wait for Ducati to build a competitive bike. If he wants to start challenging for podiums and wins again - and more importantly, start enjoying racing again, finding the pleasure in racing that gives him the energy to make it through the long slog of testing and training - then he needs to be on competitive machinery. The Yamaha is competitive now; the Ducati is clearly no such thing.
Rossi's departure from Ducati is a defeat for both parties, as a curious retraction from the Italian magazine Motociclismo's website makes plain. Motociclismo published quotes from Ducati PR manager Francesco Rapisarda, acknowledging that Rossi would leave Ducati. The story with quotes was then removed from the website - though picked up by the eagle-eyed GPOne.com, who also saved a copy of the quotes as a screenshot - and Rapisarda denied to GPOne that he had made those statements, while editorial staff at Motociclismo told GPOne that it was 'a misunderstanding'. Whether a Ducati spokesperson said those words or not, the underlying truth remains. Rossi left Honda for Yamaha to demonstrate that the rider was more important than the bike. His return to Yamaha from Ducati demonstrates that this is only true up to a point. There is a basic level of performance that is needed from the bike for a rider such as Rossi to be able to perform.
But the move - indeed, the threat of a Rossi departure - has already had a massive effect on Ducati. The Corse department are scheduled to hold a major meeting this week, to discuss their R&D strategy and plan for the rest of the season. Rossi's leaving will have a major impact on the testing schedule, and cause Ducati to rethink their R&D efforts. Though help from Audi will not be direct, they may be able to help in speeding up redesign and production of new parts, with new parts feeding into the process more quickly. Ducati may find themselves in a quandary: having a man widely acknowledged as one of the best and most sensitive development riders under contract, but unwilling to give away too much of their future development direction.
There is still one fly in the ointment for the Rossi-to-Yamaha story: Though Rossi will be taking a massive pay cut to return to Yamaha, and leaving most of his entourage behind (only his 'Australian' crew are expected to follow him, the group consisting of Jeremy Burgess, Alex Briggs, Bernard Ansiau, Brent Stephens and Matteo Flamigni) the factory is still without a title sponsor for the second year running. Rossi is expected to bring a sponsor with him, and though the appeal of the Italian is undiminished - his name is far, far bigger than the sport, a risk to the future of the series itself once he retires - the pen has not yet been put to paper. Once that hurdle has been cleared, then the deal can be announced officially.
We realize that after being tricked by a hacked Twitter and email account, our credibility has suffered when it comes to Rossi's move to Yamaha. The Twitter and email messages about Rossi visiting Yamaha's HQ in Amsterdam may have been faked. But as many people pointed out, Rossi does not need to fly to Amsterdam to sign a contract with Yamaha. Just because he wasn't at Schiphol-Rijk, it doesn't mean that Rossi hasn't signed for Yamaha.