If Valentino Rossi stays in MotoGP for 2021, it seems certain he’ll do so with the Petronas SRT Yamaha team.
And in an exclusive interview with The Race, SRT team principal Razlan Razali says his squad is definitely open to signing Rossi as Fabio Quartararo’s replacement alongside Franco Morbidelli next year.
But he also admits to having had reservations, and that the situation might be different if 2020 had been a ‘normal’ season.
In its extraordinary first MotoGP campaign last season, Petronas Yamaha took six pole positions and seven podium finishes with its rookie of the year sensation Fabio Quartararo – who regularly took the fight to Marc Marquez for race wins.
During the winter it was announced that Quartararo would replace Rossi in the factory Yamaha team for 2021, triggering intense speculation about nine-time grand prix motorcycle racing world champion Rossi’s future.
Rossi has already admitted that losing out on what could have been his final year in 2020 thanks to the coronavirus pandemic means that he’s likely now to continue at least one more season – but with his seat at the factory team already filled, all eyes have fallen on Petronas Yamaha as the only real spot left for him.
Yamaha has promised full factory support for wherever Rossi rides.
But bringing in a 41-year-old veteran – even a legendary one – goes against SRT’s ethos of developing young talent, as it managed to do so successfully with Quartararo last year.
Razali (pictured above) even admits that had 2020 proceeded as planned, Rossi would have to fight for a seat in his team against potential rookie candidates that SRT would have been assessing in Moto2.
But, with 2020’s much-adjusted calendar playing havoc with the rider market already, the team has ruled out the rookie option and Rossi’s hand is much stronger.
Not that talks have started yet.
“Who will be the replacement for Fabio? Of course, the talk is that it’ll be Valentino, but at the moment nothing has come from him to us,” Razali tells The Race.
“Before, it wasn’t something that fitted with us, because we sincerely believe in what we’ve done with Fabio.
“He may be a one-off wonder for the team or not, but we believe that developing young riders is the way forward for the team and the championship.
“If this had been a normal championship then it would have all depended on how he [Rossi] performed in the first half of the season, and how the Moto2 riders we’re also eyeing had performed.
“By now we’d have started talking to some of them, because after eight races we’d know how the riders were performing.
“But it’s been an unusual year, and to take a rookie into MotoGP without seeing them race is a huge risk. We can’t take that risk. It’s difficult to consider a rookie for next year.
“If we don’t take a rookie, then the proposition of taking Valentino Rossi becomes very attractive.
“He knows the bike, he’s very much experienced – there are a lot of positives that come with him.
“He’s still a fit person, he rides a lot at the ranch.”
Also counting in Rossi’s favour is his obvious motivation for results and further success in the series – something that Razali says is key to any partnership between the two.
His understanding is that Rossi doesn’t want to be simply foisted on Petronas Yamaha, and Razali certainly doesn’t want to sign Rossi just for off-track reasons.
“I’ve been told that he doesn’t want us to take him because Yamaha wants us to, and we don’t want him to come into the team just to enjoy his presence and all the press attention,” he says.
“We want him to come and for us to support him as best as we can so that he can do the best he can.
“Whether he likes it or not, he’s out of the factory seat, he can’t go to any other factory seat for a year – he has no choice but to come to us.
“We’re not doing so bad, and hopefully, he’s got some faith that we know what we’re doing, but we’d also look forward to having his feedback and his information.”
While Razali is keen to stress that they haven’t even started negotiations yet and that the team’s own self-set deadline to replace Quartararo isn’t until the end of August, there’s one thing that he’s adamant about – that Rossi won’t be able to do what he has done at Yamaha and Ducati and bring a full crew with him.
The core team of mechanics around Rossi has been stable throughout his top-level career. Key members of the ex-Mick Doohan personnel group that he inherited at Honda for his 2000 debut followed him to Yamaha, then to Ducati and back to Yamaha.
Razali warns that can’t be the case at SRT, and suggests the team’s priority will be current rider Morbidelli’s future.
“It’s important for us to have some stability and it’s important for us to keep working with the rider we already have in Frankie,” says Razali.
“He’s young, he’s the future of the team, and we have to put a lot of emphasis on him.
“We don’t want Valentino to come and disrupt our structure either though, to come lock, stock and barrel from the factory team.
“We can only allow him to come with one or two guys – he’ll have to work with the rest of our structure beyond that.
“That’s what we want – but again, we haven’t even started speaking to him yet!”
Before it comes to signing up a rider for 2021 and beyond, however, there are bigger challenges to face for Razali.
Now concentrating solely on managing the team after stepping down from his primary role as the boss of the Sepang International Circuit, he admits that the current situation means that there could be some tough decisions ahead not only for him but for all the MotoGP teams.
“We were indecisive about what to do in terms of team member salaries and riders salaries,” Razali admits.
“But now we’ve determined our minimum operating expenditure and we’ve proposed a plan for some austerity measures.
“We’ve reduced team salaries up to 50% because we’re planning for the worst case of no races. That’s why we’ve made this drastic cut.
“It may get worse if we know in July that there’ll be no races – there will be a group of team members who we’ll have to let go.
“Right now we’re trying to keep the team whole. We’ve got a couple of new team members this year – in Moto2, in sponsorship – who we’ve only met a few times.
“We’ll try to keep them together as much as we can but if we have to be brutal then we will.
“There’s a fine balance between team sustainability and being a charity. It’s hard, but we have to do it.
“Everyone knows now what will happen, and everyone is hoping that we can go racing in July or August. The mindset is that everyone knows what is happening and this can happen.
“The rider side is more or less the same, and if there’s no racing by July we won’t pay the riders any more.
“As long as they get 50% then I think they’ll be OK. Of course, there’s no benchmark, and I’m basing this off a lot of other discussions with other teams to see what they’re doing.”
Well aware that series promoter Dorna has done everything it can to help keep MotoGP afloat during the suspension of racing, Razali says that this financial support nonetheless comes with a caveat of teams taking responsible decisions for the future of the series.
“The support from Dorna is something that we absolutely appreciate and cherish,” he says.
“At the end of the day, teams make an exciting championship and the last thing they want is for teams to struggle, especially the Moto2 and Moto3 teams.
“But the support has to be reciprocated and teams must be prudent, exercise caution, manage their finances.
“If you do that properly, then most likely you can survive it. If Dorna give you the money to support your team, use it wisely!”