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What if Rossi had retired early? Five MotoGP might-have-beens

by Matt Beer
8 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

As Valentino Rossi’s final MotoGP race approaches, we’re giving you another chance to read some of our favourite Rossi content from The Race so far.

Back in April, before Rossi had committed to 2021 being his final season, his thoughts on retirement prompted Simon Patterson and Valentin Khorounzhiy to consider some alternative histories

It’s hardly new in the world of MotoGP to hear rumours of nine-time grand prix world champion Valentino Rossi’s retirement, with speculation first linking him to a switch from two wheels to four dating as far back as his Ferrari Formula 1 experiments in 2006.

But though every recent contract cycle offered the seven-time MotoGP champion a chance to walk away, every time Rossi has found it in him to continue, and MotoGP was only too happy to oblige him.

Valentino Rossi wins Assen MotoGP 2012

Rossi is no longer at his peak, with his last premier-class win having come in 2017 and his last premier-class title over a decade removed (even though Rossi has steadfastly maintained 2015 was a “stolen” title of his).

But in a recent interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport, Rossi has made it clear he has no regrets about staying past his peak.

Asked to respond to the example of basketball legend Michael Jordan saying in his The Last Dance documentary that he wanted to leave at least two years before his skills declined for good and didn’t want “to miss my time to go”, Rossi said he espoused a different philosophy.

“These are always nice things to say, but, in my opinion, what you lose by stopping doing what you like most is more than what you gain by quitting when you are at the peak of your career,” he said.

“And anyway, you never know if it’s really over: in 2013, when I came back to Yamaha, for everyone I was already finished.

“Instead, if they hadn’t stolen my world championship in 2015, I would have won another one, it would have been the 10th [eighth in the premier class] and it would have extended my sporting life as a winner even by six years.

“So I don’t think like Jordan, even if he is a legend for me.

“If I wanted to quit at my peak I should have done it a few years ago.”

Valentino Rossi

Though Rossi hasn’t been MotoGP’s rider to beat for the vast majority of the past decade, and 2021 has been particularly rough, there is simply no questioning that the series has continued to revolve around him even as he stopped winning titles.

So what if he did indeed take one of those opportunities to walk away?

We look at some of the scenarios that might have unfolded.

2012: Would Stoner have stayed?

Casey Stoner Honda Valencia MotoGP 2012

It’s no secret that Casey Stoner’s love of going fast on MotoGP bikes was counterbalanced by his absolute hatred of all the other roles that comes from being a world champion, from media interviews to press days, shaking hands, opening factories and smiling for the cameras regardless of how much you’d rather be elsewhere.

That all came to a head at the end of the 2012 season, when he dramatically announced his retirement while still the reigning world champion and walked away from the sport.

May 19 : Honda's rough 800cc journey to Stoner's final title

But, imagine a circumstance where instead of Stoner announcing his retirement, it was his bitter and personal rival Rossi.

There’s no question that Stoner was jaded by media work regardless of Rossi, but he was also caught up in the maelstrom of controversy and politics that comes from being the Italian’s closest rival. It’s a set of circumstances that Max Biaggi, Sete Gibernau, Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Marquez have all found themselves in, with some handling the pressure better than others.

Had Rossi elected to leave and Stoner to stay, it would probably have created a Repsol Honda dream team that could have conquered the world. Dani Pedrosa would have been booted out, replaced instead by hotshot young talent Marquez – and watching him and Stoner take each other on on equal machinery would have been a sight to beyond.

It would potentially have opened the door for Pedrosa not Rossi to replace Ben Spies at the factory Yamaha team, too – a fascinating opportunity to see Pedrosa at the height of his game on a bike many always believed would be far more suited to him than a Honda.

Alternatively, would Spies himself have stayed in Yamaha instead of making a disastrous move to Pramac Ducati that prematurely ended his career with a series of shoulder injuries? The American left MotoGP with unfinished business, and it’s curious to think how his role would have played out.

2014: A headache for Yamaha

Valentino Rossi Yamaha Valencia MotoGP 2014

While there might have potentially been a wealth of talent on offer at the end of 2012 should Yamaha have needed to find an alternative to Rossi, two years later it would have been a different matter – and one that would have also created a butterfly effect throughout the paddock.

The most obvious option to replace him would have been Pol Espargaro, the top Yamaha satellite rider the previous season after an impressive sixth in the championship at Tech3.

Had he found his way onto a factory bike there, he would have remained a surefire option until at least Fabio Quartararo came along in 2021, potentially shaking up not only Yamaha’s plans but also having a huge impact on KTM’s then-unfounded MotoGP ambitions that Espargaro so ably helped steer to future victories.

Cal Crutchlow 2014

Of course, there’s also the Cal Crutchlow option. Then a Ducati rider but deeply unhappy on the Desmosedici and in the end seeing out only one year of his contract before departing for LCR Honda, he had previous Yamaha form and was highly valued there – as evidenced by the welcome return he’s received this year as test rider.

It’s a question mark whether Crutchlow would have achieved the same success at Yamaha he did at Honda, taking three wins – but for Espargaro it’s likely that he wouldn’t have been sitting here seven years later still without a premier class victory on his palmeres.

2016: Lorenzo still a Yamaha rider?

Jorge Lorenzo Yamaha Valencia MotoGP 2016

Similar to Stoner four years previously, Jorge Lorenzo is another rider whose entire career trajectory could have potentially been altered by removing the black hole that is Rossi.

Would Lorenzo have dramatically walked away from Yamaha to join Ducati had he known that he’d be the unequivocal number one in the team the following year? We’ll never know, but it’s unlikely.

And had he stayed with Yamaha, it’s hard to imagine Lorenzo not fighting for the championship – or at least, not putting on a better show than he did first at Ducati and then at Honda.

With Lorenzo still the only man ever to beat Marquez to a premier-class title when Marquez has contested the full season, the smooth rider/smooth bike combo was unstoppable on its day, and there would have been plenty more opportunity for success.

Who would have joined him? Probably still Maverick Vinales, in reality, if Yamaha had been able to coax him away from a quickly-developing Suzuki. Should Ducati still have managed to lure away Lorenzo, though, it could have given Pedrosa yet another path out of orange and into blue, as the most likely candidate to have been on the Yamaha shopping list.

That would have in turn promoted Crutchlow into the Repsol Honda team alongside Marquez, a role the Brit arguably should have also received four years later in 2020.

2018: Disaster averted for Zarco and KTM?

Johann Zarco Jerez MotoGP podium 2018

The exact dominoes here depend a fair amount on the timing of Rossi’s decision, but assuming it came early enough, there was an ideal successor in place.

Johann Zarco was a standout on the Tech3-run Yamaha, and at most manufacturers that would’ve logically transitioned into a place in the factory line-up. From there, he may have succeeded or he may have failed – but it wouldn’t have gone as badly as the KTM move.

Yet Yamaha’s 2019-20 works roster was confirmed as a closed shop as early as March ’18 with Vinales and Rossi in place, and Zarco’s time on the M1 was over.

Had he held off on committing to KTM and had Rossi retired, Zarco would’ve left KTM – which courted him so aggressively – with a spot to fill.

It probably would’ve turned its gaze towards the Ducati-contracted Jack Miller, but KTM was a less attractive proposition then than it is now – and Miller turned it down after Zarco’s 2019 exit, so who’s to say he would’ve said yes a year prior?

Perhaps KTM would’ve therefore recommitted to Bradley Smith, who would’ve made its decision easier with what was a pretty strong run-in in 2018. Or maybe it would’ve just stuck Miguel Oliveira on the factory bike instead of the Tech3 one, and placed Brad Binder in the satellite team.

2020: Watch this space

Valentino Rossi Yamaha Portimao MotoGP 2020

A Rossi 2020 retirement, a fair bit removed from his peak, would almost certainly be the least consequential on this list, and for obvious reasons – either way he will have ceded the Yamaha factory ride.

Yamaha’s decision to promote Quartararo came before there was total certainty Rossi would continue, so there’s no real cause to believe his retirement would impact that in any way.

But one deal that it surely would impact is that of Quartararo’s ex-team-mate and Rossi’s protege Franco Morbidelli. He would’ve still been a Petronas SRT Yamaha rider, sure, but logic dictates he would’ve had the works-spec machinery Rossi’s currently on, as opposed to the older-spec M1 Morbidelli is running now.

That seems like a small distinction in the grand scheme of things, but it could yet evolve to be much more pivotal. Morbidelli, after all, is a proven MotoGP winner and was Yamaha’s top rider last year – and a difference in spec could well be the tipping point that decides whether Yamaha gets to hang on to him longer-term or not.

As for who would take Rossi’s actual spot on the roster, that seems pretty simple. An opening at Petronas would’ve probably created a natural opening for Luca Marini and an all-VR46 line-up in Yamaha’s satellite team, therefore leaving Tito Rabat free to see out his Avintia Ducati contract in 2021.

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