Today marks an auspicious day, as Valentino Rossi appears in something other than the colours of the factory Yamaha MotoGP team for the first time since 2013.
He’s ending 19 seasons as a factory rider and returning to a satellite team for the 2021 season as he unveils his new Petronas SRT Yamaha.
But, after so long with the same squad – he’s spent 15 of those 19 factory seasons with Yamaha, punctuated by his unsuccessful two-year Ducati stint – perhaps the best thing that could happen is the move to the young Malaysian team for what might be his last season as a rider before focusing fully on being a team boss.
A change is as good as a rest, or so they say, and while Rossi clearly isn’t ready to rest just yet, new scenery could be exactly what he needs.
It’s hard to imagine that even doing something as amazing as riding a MotoGP bike for a living doesn’t get a little monotonous eventually, when you’re turning up to the same faces every day – especially when things aren’t going well.
And things haven’t been going fantastically at Yamaha for quite some time.
At loggerheads with engineers who wouldn’t let him try to fix his problems his own way and constantly fighting a battle to try to improve the consistency of the M1 since at least 2017 now, recent years have got to have been a tiring process for Rossi.
It’s also a situation that takes away focus from the job at hand: winning.
If his step down to the satellite team gives him a little bit of the freedom he needs to relax, experiment and enjoy his riding again, then it could play a key part in what happens in 2021.
Because don’t for a minute think there wasn’t pressure to succeed in his old team. Sure, he’s Valentino Rossi, and sure, he’s already done all he needs to do to justify his place in the squad – but that still doesn’t take away from the fact that Yamaha is pumping millions every year into MotoGP and wants to see results.
There’ll still be pressure of sorts at Petronas, of course – team boss Razlan Razali will expect nothing less than success and won’t be afraid to tell people that in the coming weeks and months.
But it’s a less immediate sort of pressure that comes at a satellite team, where wins are something to celebrate rather than the expectation. And another strong season for Franco Morbidelli on the other side of the garage won’t hurt Rossi either, of course.
But there are other reasons beyond the different expectations why Rossi will fit in well in the Petronas camp.
He’s admitted time and again that, at 42 years old, he is racing only for one thing: the sheer love of going fast on a motorbike and standing on a podium now and then.
It’s hard to find room to have fun in a factory team with all that pressure – but at his new team, he’ll find a fun-loving bunch who are more than happy to help him enjoy himself. A young team with an even younger mentality, there’ll be practical jokes, extensive pisstaking and lots of laughs – exactly what he might realise he’s needed.
The other side of the garage won’t hurt, either – because he doesn’t so much have a team-mate as a best friend who goes racing with him. Morbidelli is literally the reason that the VR46 Academy exists, and it’ll play further into Rossi’s sense of fun to have his mate alongside him.
If Rossi can tap into some of the knowledge that took Morbidelli to second in the championship last year – and convince the Yamaha engineers that his hands-off approach is the key to success in a satellite team – then who knows what’s on the cards.
This deal’s not entirely a one way street in favour of Rossi, either.
It’s an open secret that Petronas Yamaha was perhaps initially not exactly in love with the idea of having Rossi forced upon it, but it’s hard to see how there won’t be considerable gains from his presence for the young team along the road.
For one, Rossi brings a huge wealth of knowledge about Yamaha, about the bike and about how to make the whole package work well together.
For a squad that nearly won the championship last year due to Morbidelli’s ability to take the best from an old bike, that’ll be crucial information.
Much has been made of how while the factory bikes of Rossi, Maverick Vinales and team-mate Fabio Quartararo floundered in 2020, Morbidelli – who was riding year-old machinery – was able to disconnect from the engineers’ attempts to fix the problems and instead worked around them.
He did that by relying on the huge wealth of knowledge provided by veteran crew chief Ramon Forcada, a man as familiar with the bike as Rossi.
Combine the experience of both of them in 2021, assuming that the Rossi and Morbidelli friendship means that there’ll be endless data sharing in the box, and you’ve got a recipe for success.
The other reality is that there will be of course a financial windfall for Petronas Yamaha. With Yamaha paying Rossi’s wages and supplying his equipment, there’s already been a cost saving right away – but merchandise will fly off the shelves, space on the bike will be available at a premium, and there will be more sponsors than ever who want to be a part of the team.
All of which perhaps begs the most important question: what’s going to be possible for Rossi there?
Well, it’s fair to say that no one is expecting him to return to his winning form of a decade ago, regardless of how much fun he’s having in the garage – but there’s plenty of room for improvement.
There were plenty of opportunities in 2020 that looked like they went to waste for Rossi, where he just wasn’t able to capitalise on conditions or the misfortunes of others.
If the new working environment can help him find the consistency that Morbidelli had last year, then perhaps there’s a chance on those days for success.
No one is realistically expecting a title challenge or regular visits to the top step of the podium – but should he be able to challenge for top three results or even sneak in one last win, then it’s fair to say that it’ll make a lot of people very happy.