So what are we to make of Valentino Rossi's not-so-shock decision to leave Ducati and go back to Yamaha? The initial reaction from fans and media was that the biggest losers from the move are Ducati as a manufacturer and Rossi's reputation as miracle worker when it comes to bike development. There is some merit in both those arguments, but perhaps it is not quite so clear cut as that. Rossi's two years at Ducati have done a lot of damage to both parties - as well as to MotoGP's popularity and TV income - but in the end, this move could have some very positive long-term repercussions.
Kissing A Frog
Valentino Rossi's honeymoon period with the Ducati lasted just a few laps. From the very beginning, Rossi realized that this was not the bike he had been expecting. The bike had no front-end feel, an excessively aggressive power delivery and a seating position that would not allow him to shift his weight as he needed. Three days after finishing third in the race at Valencia, Rossi ended the test 1.7 seconds slower than Casey Stoner, the man whose bike he was now riding. Rossi looked stiff and awkward, a shadow of the rider he was a few days earlier on the Yamaha.
After shoulder surgery and development over the winter, Rossi was not much faster. At the final test ahead of the season opener at Qatar, he was 1.4 behind the leader, Casey Stoner. In the 14 months since then, the gap has been roughly halved, but Rossi on the Ducati is still some seven or eight tenths behind the leaders, and looking only marginally less stiff, awkward and uncomfortable than he did back in November 2010. On a good day, he finishes 6th, telling reporters "this is our potential."
Rossi on a Ducati has been a failure. Despite a switch of bikes in the middle of last year, the dropping of the carbon fiber in favor of aluminium and the switch from the frameless subchassis design to a full twin spar, Rossi's results on the Desmosedici remain fundamentally the same: a long way from the podium, battling with the satellite Hondas and hoping to catch the satellite Yamahas. For a factory rider on a factory bike in MotoGP, that is simply not good enough.
An Existential Crisis
Rossi's reputation of being able to win on inferior equipment did not last his first year at Ducati. After winning his first race on the Yamaha M1 - widely regarded as no match for Honda's mighty RC211V - in 2004, Rossi's abilities became the stuff of legend. So why could he not do on the Ducati what he had been so clearly able to do on the Yamaha?
The answer is that not all inferior machinery is the same. The problem of the 2004 Yamaha M1 was mainly a lack of power, the bike being well down on the output of the Honda. But the front end of the bike was fundamentally sound, Yamaha's design philosophy always having been focused on building motorcycles which handled sweetly. Using his fearsome talent on the brakes, and ability to switch lines through the corners, Rossi was able to overcome the lack of power and exploit the strengths of the Yamaha. Those strengths would bring him four world titles.
The Ducati's strengths lay elsewhere: high horsepower and slippery aerodynamics had always given the bike a top speed advantage - an advantage it still holds to this day - but the task of manhandling the bike through the corners was very much left up to the rider. Without a strong front end to rely on Rossi was lost, scratching around for ways to compensate. Robbed of his strongest weapon, Rossi was simply losing too much ground on corner entry, then struggling again on the exit as the bike ran wide. Where once he had a grenade he could toss into the mix as he stalked his opponents, now he found himself carrying a knife into a gunfight.
The comparisons with Casey Stoner were inevitable, and justified. Stoner won three of his last six races on the Ducati in 2010. On the bike that was basically only slightly changed from the one that the Australian had left behind, Rossi was over a second off the pace. Where Stoner had found a way to ride the Ducati - based on his blind faith in the front Bridgestone tire, a faith that was sorely tested in his final season with the Bologna factory, crashing frequently in the first half of the year - Rossi could not, and struggled badly. That was the first strike against Rossi's name.
A Little Bit Of History Repeating
But Rossi is not the only rider to have struggled on the Ducati. A recent article on GPOne.com compared Rossi's two seasons on the bike to the first two seasons of every other rider to race in the Ducati factory team. With the exception of Stoner, every rider has underperformed, the only time Ducati having had any real success is once the factory switched to Bridgestone tires and had them custom built to their own spec. Those tires helped compensate for the Ducati's lack of front-end feel, giving their riders a fighting chance of competing. Once the spec tire was introduced, and Bridgestone had to build a tire that met everyone's requirements, Ducati lost out, and it showed in the results. After his first devastating championship win in 2007, Stoner won fewer and fewer races each season. In 2008, Bridgestone was building tires for Rossi's Yamaha as well as Stoner's Ducati, and the Australian started to suffer the first of what would be an ever-growing list of inexplicable front-end crashes. By 2010, his last season on the bike, and the second season of the spec Bridgestones, it took Stoner and his crew two-thirds of a season to find a setting for the bike that worked. The man who was once deemed invincible on the bike was going backwards, and had decided it was time to go.
His reasons for leaving were basically the same as Rossi has for leaving now. The bike that Ducati starts the season with is more or less the bike that they finish the season on - the honorable exception being 2011, when they brought two updated chassis through the season. And this brings us to the other big loser in the affair, the iconic Italian brand itself. The press release announcing Rossi's departure spoke of racing being in Ducati's DNA; an employee of Yamaha once put it to me that while Yamaha go racing to help sell bikes, Ducati sell bikes so they can afford to go racing. They are famed for taking original and innovative approaches to problem-solving, and building stunningly beautiful high-performance racing machines.
The problem is that without the combination of the idiosyncratic genius of Casey Stoner and a special tire to help, those original and innovative ideas are simply not competitive. The spec tire allows only a single solution to create grip at the front of the bike, and provide usable feedback to the rider. The manufacturers are forced into a design straitjacket, allowing only limited freedom of movement around the central requirements imposed by the spec tire. Ducati's original and innovative ideas become worthless, and they need to build a new bike from scratch, one that is much more conventional.
Dogma vs Pragma
The unwillingness to accept the need for change has been Ducati's biggest obstacle to progress. Though Casey Stoner continually asked for changes - one change in particular, which infuriatingly, the Australian refuses to reveal to this day - Ducati saw he was winning races and was in no rush to give in to his demands. Marco Melandri came and went, and his results were put down to a failure on the part of the Italian to adapt. When Rossi came, a man whose talent was above questions, acceptance was slow to come. A quick fix was attempted, shortening the stroke of the bike Ducati originally intended to race in 2012 and handing it to Rossi at Assen in 2011.
More changes came in the shape of a modified chassis, and for 2012, a switch to a twin spar frame. Other modifications have come, but at a glacial pace. Fork bottoms, steering head inserts, triple clamps; all changes, but mostly tinkering in the margins, rather than a fundamental reappraisal of the motorcycle itself. The design philosophy has remained the same: at heart, the Ducati Desmosedici is still an extremely powerful engine with a selection of parts to connect the engine to the wheels.
When it suited his purposes, Valentino Rossi did not shy away from pointing out Ducati's lack of progress. His outbursts were rare, but carefully timed and even more carefully choreographed, with players inside Rossi's inner circle testing the waters with the Italian media beforehand. The harsh criticisms were always uttered strategically, and to the audiences which would have the most effect, Rossi attempting to force Ducati's hand. When updates were still slow to come, fans were quick to blame Ducati, with good reason. The criticism was harsh, and perhaps not entirely deserved. Ducati were working hard to try to fix the problem, with staff sacrificing weekends and vacations to design, test and fabricate new parts. The trouble was, the new parts were built around the old philosophy; they were at best just bandages, when major surgery was required.
Change Is Gonna Come
The irony is that Rossi elected to leave just as such major surgery - or at least, faster updates - may become possible. Audi completed the acquisition of Ducati between the Mugello and Laguna Seca rounds of MotoGP, and the German car giant is expected to provide a major boost to the speed of development. Not so much in terms of design - Audi are resolutely a car company, with no direct experience of motorcycle design - but they do have valuable experience of rapid prototyping and parts production. Audi take their racing very, very seriously, as their victories at the Le Mans 24 hour race have proven. Though no changes will come in the very short term, Audi are sure to want to take a very close look at the Ducati Corse engineering process, and streamline it. This won't help for the 2012 season, but the pace of progress should start to improve some time next season.
That came too late for Rossi. At 33 years of age, the Italian knows that his time in MotoGP is limited. Two, possibly three more seasons are all that Rossi has at the very highest level before the competition from Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Marquez, Dani Pedrosa, Pol Espargaro, and who knows, maybe even Maverick Viñales starts to get just beyond his reach. Two winless seasons have been too much for the Italian, and facing an uncertain outcome at Ducati - despite assurances from the very top level of Audi management of their commitment to MotoGP - he caved in and took the option to return to Yamaha.
Reaction is mixed to the move. Overwhelmingly, there is a sense of relief from his fans, who believe - with some justification - that he will soon be back battling at the front on the Yamaha, the bike that still suits his strongest points, braking and corner entry. However, there is also a sizable contingent, even among his most hardcore fans, who cannot hide their disappointment. Rossi relishes a challenge, of that there can be no doubt, as the title of his autobiography "What If I Had Never Tried It" underlines. But for the first time, he is giving up, surrendering, and walking away. The challenge has proved a bridge too far this time, and he no longer has the luxury of time to try to turn this one around.
That, perhaps, will be the most damaging part of Rossi's return to Yamaha. Dennis Noyes called the decision to abandon the challenge of the Ducati for the guarantee of a winning Yamaha "the racer's choice," and that it surely is. Racers, like all professional athletes, do not compete to make up the numbers; their motivation is to compete at the highest level, doing all that they can, sacrificing much more than even the most committed fan can conceive, just to give themselves the best possible chance of winning. But to many, Rossi was more than just a racer; for millions of fans around the world, Rossi was a hero. Leaving Ducati with the job undone is not a hero's choice, and Rossi's image around the world - and perhaps his self-image - will be tarnished because of it.
Wiping The Slate
Such doubts will more than likely quickly be dispelled after Valencia. Once Rossi goes from the Ducati to the Yamaha, he should undergo a reverse of the metamorphosis which saw him transmogrify from butterfly to caterpillar two years ago. Jumping off the Ducati, which has seen him kept trapped, stiff as a chrysalis, he will once again hope to find the wings which carried him to four world championships. His prospects are good; his form in the rain indicates that he has lost little of both the desire and the ability which made him such a fierce competitor. Where in the dry, Rossi looks like an impostor stole his leathers and is trying to fake his way around the track, once the track is wet, the Italian returns in all his glory. It is no coincidence that both of Rossi's podiums were secured in the wet; his confidence returned and his ability had only been masked by the weak front end of the Ducati.
Rossi's objective, a return to winning races, looks eminently achievable. The last time he was on a Yamaha, he was winning regularly and challenging for championships, despite injuries and accidents. Rossi on a Yamaha was something very special indeed, his style meshing perfectly with the bike he led the development of for so long. The bike plays to Rossi's strengths, and the Italian has shown time and time again that he can ruthlessly exploit those strengths to pull out some remarkable victories. On a Yamaha, you could never count Valentino Rossi out, and there is plenty to suggest that will still be true upon his return.
Since Rossi left Yamaha, the bike has got even better, if anything, but another MotoGP title will not be so easy to come by. Jorge Lorenzo is two years' older and has two years more experience than when Rossi left at the end of 2010. What's more, he has faced Casey Stoner on a Honda, an experience which raised the Spaniard's riding to its current stellar levels. So far this season, when he wasn't being knocked off in the first corner by fellow Spaniard Alvaro Bautista, Lorenzo's worst finish has been second, with plenty of wins to offset the second-place finishes. Though Casey Stoner will be retired by the time Rossi walks into the Yamaha garage, the Italian will face a more complete rider in Jorge Lorenzo, and the undisputed number one in the team and in the championship. He will have his work cut out for him.
Yamaha, of course, benefit even more from Rossi's return than the Italian does himself. The house of the tuning forks gets to show its most magnanimous face in welcoming its prodigal Italian son back into the fold. But the balance of power has also shifted much more in Yamaha's favor since Rossi left and then decided to return. When Rossi left Yamaha, he took an entourage of some 15 people with him, including crew chief Jeremy Burgess, garage crew, hospitality staff and other helpers. With his return, he will likely be limited to a core group of five or six names, consisting almost solely of his garage crew. His role, too, is clear, as the number two rider behind Lorenzo, though in practice this will only be enforced should the championship come down to the very last race, with a non-Yamaha rider such as Dani Pedrosa still in contention for the title.
More importantly, Rossi will make it much easier for Yamaha to find a title sponsor once again. Though it remains unclear whether Rossi has been asked to bring a sponsor as part of the deal for his return, his very presence in the team makes it much easier to persuade companies to pay out the premium required to be title sponsor in a team which includes Valentino Rossi. After two years of having the factory foot the bill for a large part of the team, Yamaha need the help. Many rumors surround who that sponsor will be - the names of Marlboro, Coca Cola, San Carlo and Monster have been bandied about, though only the latter appears to have much credence - with little concrete information emerging. The chances of Yamaha racing in corporate colors again next season are fairly slim, however.
To The Victor, The Spoils
If needs be, Dorna may even move in to help fund Rossi's transition to Yamaha. Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta's statement at the Valencia Formula One GP that Rossi would be 'on a competitive bike' in 2013 immediately set the alarm bells ringing among the conspiracy theorists, and while it seems unlikely that Ezpeleta can persuade both Rossi and Yamaha to accept the deal against their will, it is clear that Rossi's return to the Iwata factory is a massive boost for Dorna's prospects. Viewing figures have dropped off as Rossi has struggled, especially in Italy, one of the two key markets for MotoGP. Having Rossi running round at the back of the field was an expensive business for Dorna, especially when it came time to renew TV contracts. With Rossi back on a Yamaha, and expected to be racing at the front once again, TV audiences should receive a big boost.
This dependence on Rossi is a huge risk factor for Dorna, and they know it. Rossi is a genuine superstar, a racer who transcends the sport he competes in, just as Muhammad Ali was in boxing, or Tiger Woods was in golf, or Bjorn Borg in tennis. Rossi has captured the imagination of the casual fan, those who love sports, but not necessarily the sport of motorcycle racing. This audience is much, much bigger than the hard core of racing fans who will tune in anyway, and determine the size of TV contracts to be awarded. The casual fan needs to be given a reason to tune in, and having a superstar in your series is one very, very good reason to do so. Superstars, however, will only appeal if they are at the front; it is hard to explain to a new fan just why someone is such a phenomenon when he is struggling in mid pack.
Without their marketing superstar Rossi, Dorna are in real trouble. They need to have something to maintain the popularity of the sport once Rossi inevitably retires in a few years' time. Hoping for another rider to take up Rossi's mantle of popular appeal is a vain and futile exercise: Rossi is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon, the previous man to have his appeal outside of the sport probably being Barry Sheene. Superstars cannot be created, at least not in a sport as niche as motorcycle racing. And so Dorna need something else to take its place.
Bread And Circuses
Two factors can help to keep the casual fans from departing the sport, things which every sport tries to generate. The first is a local hero to cheer for - and by local, I mean local to the audience you are pursuing, which in this case means Europe, the US and Asia - and the second is a spectacle to keep the fans entertained. Both of these goals are being actively pursued by Dorna, though neither is simple to implement.
The utter dominance of Spanish riders, highlighted so shockingly at Mugello, where the qualifying press conference consisted entirely of Spaniards, with the polesitters in all three classes plus the entire front row of MotoGP racing on a Spanish passport, is very close to its peak. Despite the wealth of Spanish talent coming up through the ranks - Pol Espargaro, Marc Marquez, Maverick Viñales, to name but a few - the combination of the Red Bull Rookies and expanded national programs are starting to pay off. In the next five years or so, there are riders from Britain, Germany, South Africa, the Czech Republic, Italy, Malaysia, France, Australia, Austria and the Netherlands expected to make their mark at the Grand Prix, with many more to follow. The Italian federation has expanded its program, as has the Netherlands, where racing is very much a niche sport despite former glories. Czech Rider Karel Hanika is tipped by many as being the most talented rider to pass through the Rookies program in years. Given a little time, soon there will be a much, much wider variety of nationalities in any given MotoGP race, enough to suit most markets.
Having a wide spread of nationalities is all well and good, but if the races are decided in the first 5 laps, then there is nothing to keep the audience watching. The excitement has seeped from the races as the rules pushed through by the manufacturers - the switch to 800cc and the fuel restrictions being the main culprits - have placed their stamp on the racing. The end of tire competition and especially the demise of the qualifying tire have made things even worse, cutting costs but at the same time meaning that riders finish the race more or less in the order they qualified. Without a spectacle, Dorna has no product to sell.
Room For Maneuver
And so Dorna have seized back the imperative. The agreement with the manufacturers giving them a monopoly over the technical regulations has been allowed to lapse, and Dorna is pushing through a long-term strategy to give them more control over the technical level of the machines. The switch to 1000cc was the first step in that process, as was the request to Bridgestone for softer tires. The next step is the imposition of a rev limit and a spec ECU, but these cannot simply be imposed directly after one major change in the technical regulations. It cost Honda, Yamaha and Ducati a lot of money to design their new 1000cc bikes, and having a 15,000 RPM rev limit and a spec ECU with restrictions on electronic capabilities would require them to build a completely different bike. A lower rev limit means finding different ways to maximize horsepower, while depending on the options available with a spec ECU, it could require a completely different engine characteristic.
For the past 6 months, Dorna and the MSMA have been locked in negotiations over when to introduce these changes. Dorna wanted the changes in 2014, but Honda, in particular, has issued vague threats over leaving the series if they are pushed through before 2015, claiming they cannot afford to make more changes to their bikes so short after the last switch. With Rossi on a Ducati, Dorna needed the spectacle to return as soon as possible, but with Rossi on a Yamaha for at least the next two years, and challenging for wins, they hope, then Dorna has a little leeway, and can hold off until 2015. Rossi can be relied upon to entertain the crowds in the intervening period, until the performance of the bikes can be balanced sufficiently to make the racing a little closer, and hold the interest of the casual fans once he departs for pastures new.
Dorna and the MSMA should now be able to reach an agreement more quickly, with the extra breathing space affording Dorna room to wait another year. The earlier the agreement, the better it is for all concerned, as both Suzuki and BMW are waiting in the wings for a stable rules package before taking the plunge to enter MotoGP. The spec ECU, in particular, has been a sticking point, and knowing the capabilities of that will be a key factor for the development of their engines. More manufacturers in the series helps in many ways, providing more competitive seats for riders to take, strengthening the series once again. That helps Dorna hugely, dovetailing nicely with the wider range of nationalities. After all, it's no good having, say, a top South African rider if there's nowhere competitive for him to race.
Everyone's A Winner
Overall, the return of Rossi to Yamaha is a positive move for all concerned. Valentino Rossi gets a chance to redeem himself by proving that he can still race competitively, and help to wipe away the memory of two bad years on the Ducati. Yamaha gain a top rider, are likely to secure a title sponsor and are looking the hot favorites for the triple crown of rider, team and manufacturer titles next year. Even Ducati benefit, returning to the role of underdog, of a small company battling against the Japanese giants, and can focus on developing the bike without the million-watt spotlight of public attention that Rossi's presence in the garage ensured. Rossi's departure even makes it easier for the man brave enough to take his place at the Bologna factory: if Andrea Dovizioso (as it is almost certain to be) struggles, then he has merely suffered the fate of everyone except Casey Stoner at the factory. If he succeeds, then he will have done better than the legendary Valentino Rossi.
But the biggest winners of all out of this are Dorna, the commercial rights holders to the series. They get their superstar rider back racing at the front, giving them time to formulate a strategy for when he finally leaves the sport for good. Many will claim that they pushed for this result as soon as it became apparent that the marriage Valentino Rossi and Ducati was doomed to failure. Whether they were instrumental in making it happen or not, it is clear this was their desired outcome. Those conspiracy theorists who despise the role they believe Dorna plays behind the scenes in manipulating the outcome will be livid at Rossi's return. But for most fans, they simply won't care. All they want to see if Valentino Rossi mixing it up at the front again, and they are prepared to forgive him the act of hubris that saw him jump to Ducati. By the time Qatar rolls around next year, all will be forgiven, if not quite completely forgotten.