Why Valentino Rossi's latest new VR46 Academy pick is quick... but controversial

WorldSSP star Manuel Gonzalez is being lined up to join the Valentino Rossi-helmed VR46 Riders Academy... despite hailing from Spain rather than Italy

Manuel Gonzalez - ParkinGO Yamaha

Valentino Rossi’s VR46 Riders Academy looks set to break from tradition for the first time with the induction of Manuel Gonzalez to its junior programme, its first non-Italian member.

Paddock rumours are suggesting the Spanish talent is being lined up for a coveted spot in the VR46 Rider Academy after emerging as the standout from the 2021 WorldSSP Championship season.

However, his scouting doesn’t come without some controversy as Gonzalez’s Spanish origin would mark the first time VR46 - which was formed specifically to provide a platform to support and nurture burgeoning Italian talent - has looked overseas for members.

Even so, Gonzalez is a rider in demand after an impressive rise through the junior ranks as the first breakout star from the WorldSSP 300 Championship. The WorldSBK-supporting junior series was launched in 2017 with the express aim of providing a first rung on the ladder through to WorldSSP and WorldSBK.

After romping to the WorldSSP 300 title in 2019, he progressed to the WorldSSP Championship in 2020 and impressed with rookie run to seventh in the overall standings aboard a Kawasaki ZX-6R. A switch to more favourable Yamaha machinery in 2021 has seen the 19-year old soar into lead contention, with two wins placing him third overall with four races of the season remaining.

He also made an impression during a pair of outings for MV Agusta Forward Racing in Moto2 this year, the series he is tipped to join if his VR46 deal goes ahead, either with MV Agusta Forward or one of the two VR46-backed teams that will compete in the intermediate class next year.

Is Valentino Rossi betraying VR46 ethos with Gonzalez signing?

First things first, Manuel Gonzalez is a rider to watch. The youngster has shown excellent progress during his short time on the world stage with his rookie WorldSSP season demonstrating the consistency of finishing each race inside the top ten, while he has stepped up on privateer machinery in 2021 to become a genuine contender against experienced ex-Moto2 racers Dominique Aegerter and Steve Odendaal.

It has made him a firm favourite with Yamaha, which has poached him from Kawasaki in an effort to mould him under its rider development programme.

Trouble is - and this isn’t his fault of course - Gonzalez hails from Spain, a country that certainly isn’t short of exciting young talents, even if most swerve the WorldSSP route in favour of a CEV-GP career progression.

Rossi founded VR46 with the express aim of mimicking Spain’s developed and well-funded junior programmes, enabling upcoming Italian talents to carry the baton once he retired from the sport. 

That retirement of course comes this year but the VR46 Academy has arguably exceeded expectations since its inauguration in 2014 with MotoGP race winners Pecco Bagnaia and Franco Morbidelli its two most accomplished alumni. 

Together with Luca Marini, VR46 has already nurtured three riders into MotoGP, while Marco Bezzecchi is expected to make it four in 2022 when he is confirmed with VR46 Racing, itself graduating to MotoGP having already won the Moto2 title in 2018.

In short, Rossi and his team of scouts have a keen eye for spotting talent, so while it comes as no surprise a rider like Gonzalez has courted attention, it is nonetheless surprising it feels compelled to do so. Eyebrows will be raised.