Will Yamaha reshuffle drive Valentino Rossi to retirement decision?

The wheels are set in motion for Valentino Rossi to make a call on his future this year... but will rider reshuffle be the nudge he uses to call it a day

Valentino Rossi - Yamaha MotoGP

The timing of the news that Valentino Rossi is on his way out of the Yamaha Factory team for the 2021 MotoGP season may have come as a surprise, but for many the details are less of a bombshell.

It was a conundrum that presented itself during the second half of the year as it became clear Rossi was slipping down the pecking order at Yamaha in terms of results, diverting the conversation away from ‘if’ he will retire to ‘when’.

One can imagine the situation would have been less pressure filled had Fabio Quartararo not burst onto the scene in 2019. The Frenchman wasn’t even Petronas SRT’s first choice when it was picking riders to form the line-up for its inaugural season, let alone feature in Yamaha’s imminent factory plans.

That said, even if it wasn’t for the looming threat of rivals poaching Quartararo’s signature, Rossi’s desire to delay a decision until mid-way through 2020 would have left Yamaha in an undesirable situation anyway had he chosen to hang up his helmet.

With the MotoGP silly seasons now starting even before the actual racing has started these days, Yamaha would have been left with scant choices to replace its superstar rider. In short, committing to Franco Morbidelli or getting its hands on a dominant Moto2 up-and-comer should they emerge.

While it is probably unfair to say Yamaha ‘lucked’ into Quartararo when he far exceeded expectations during his rookie campaign, his emergence did ultimately suddenly provide some clarity to the manufacturer’s future. However, the short-term pain to this long-time gain was the difficult call it had to make regarding Rossi.

That call has now been made and while Yamaha is entirely understanding of Rossi’s predicament, it does stress it has to plan for an inevitable future without its talisman and not allow its unexpected star to slip through its fingers. In short, Rossi is big but the team is ultimately bigger…

Trouble is, while Yamaha hasn’t exactly ‘pushed’ Rossi, this is definitely a gentle nudge that could be the difference between remaining or retiring.

Valentino Rossi - will he stay or will he go?

The decision may be coming in ‘seven or eight races’ but by clarifying his position this early in the year, Rossi is certain to be facing different versions of the same question over the next few months.

Right now though, Rossi has no plans to ‘wind down’ as such. The 2019 season wasn’t a vintage one by any means but Rossi still believes he has a lot to give, which explains why he’s making quite a significant change in his own set-up by getting a new crew chief David Munoz on board.

At this point in his career, such a decision is not one to be made hastily and has every chance of making a massive difference. Trouble is, Rossi’s calls for a Yamaha with more straight line speed looks to have been relatively ignored and while Vinales and Quartararo have largely been able to negate this by capitalising on the M1’s sweet handling chassis, the Italian has struggled to do the same.

If this continues to be the case for him in 2020, it’s unlikely he’ll want to continue into 2021 when bike development will ultimately swing away from him in favour of the two Factory riders.

Alternatively, it may have the effect of lifting the pressure from his shoulders and sidestepping into a satellite team could ultimately be a positive thing. The well-funded Petronas SRT outfit has already proven its worth, while Yamaha has stressed it will give Rossi support akin to full factory. He’ll just race in different colours.

Moreover, an underdog role could well suit him if he can get a few great results over the Factory riders.

Nonetheless, it is a fairly big commitment to invest one or two of your final seasons in a satellite operation, one that could deny him the chance of exiting on his terms with the team he has won four of his seven premier class titles with.

What happens if Valentino Rossi retires?

Few believe Rossi will wash his hands of MotoGP, at least not in the long-term, and Yamaha will be keen to continue cashing in on his brand for as long as it can.

Most hope and expect Rossi to move into a hands-on managerial role, an extension of his VR46 Academy brand to promote young Italian talent. Currently, it competes as Sky VR46 Racing in the Moto2 and Moto3 classes and most predictions suggest Yamaha would be keen to get this branding elevated to MotoGP in time.

This could well form the basis of Rossi simply focusing solely on the rider management side, working at a grassroots level and opening the doors for the next generation. Alternatively, VR46 could become a team in its own right, though quite how that’d fit into the current line-up remains to be seen – perhaps a link up with Petronas SRT, though it seemingly doesn’t need that input right now.

Either way, Rossi’s influence will live on beyond his racing years, much like Michael Schumacher did in F1 when he (first) retired, still raking in tens of millions in the immediate years after he stopped racing.

The beginning of the end was always approaching, only now it has been set in motion