It was set to be a topic which would dominate in the opening rounds of the 2020 MotoGP season as Valentino Rossi took his time to decide the next step in his illustrious career. But that call could already have been made.

Following the rapid-fire announcements by Yamaha back in January, seeing Maverick Vinales and Fabio Quartararo set become the factory Yamaha duo from 2021 and Jorge Lorenzo returning to the Iwata factory as test rider, the biggest talking point centred around the sport’s most famous name.

It was confirmed Rossi wouldn’t be part of the factory Yamaha team from next season, but where and what he would be doing was up in the air.

Despite this the Italian’s immediate options remain clear; a readymade factory-specification M1 at the Petronas Yamaha team (effectively swapping places with Quartararo for 2021) or end an ever-present 25-year career in MotoGP.

While Rossi’s presence in MotoGP wouldn’t disappear completely if he did retire, given his Sky Racing Team VR46 squads in Moto2 and Moto3 plus the VR46 Riders’ Academy, it would mark a significant end to an era which stretches all the way back to 1996 – before a number of his current rivals were even born – and begin a new chapter in the sport’s history.

Ever since the Yamaha bombshells, Rossi has made it clear he wants to use the opening rounds of the 2020 MotoGP season to assess both his own and the manufacturer’s competitive levels against the rest of the grid. The Italian had been expected to make his final decision heading into his home round at Mugello in late May, fresh from the first six races covering a variety of circuits with differing characteristics.

In truth, Rossi’s decision, at least unofficially, would have been clear before the Italian Grand Prix. Rossi set the goal of reaching the podium on a regular basis if he was going to continue racing. That meant a quick look at his results from the opening half-dozen rounds and the context behind the performances would have pointed towards his final call.

But all that has gone out of the window.

Even with an optimistic outlook the 2020 MotoGP season isn’t set to start until August, if there is a season this year at all, and while Rossi had been hopeful of still using the opening rounds to decide his future it became clear it wouldn’t be possible with every subsequent race postponement.

Rossi has accepted this and acknowledges he will need to make a call on his MotoGP future before completing a single racing lap.

“I want to continue but it is very important to understand the level of competitivity, especially in the second part of last year as we suffered very much and too many times I was too slow,” Rossi said in a Yamaha Q&A video released this weekend. “In my mind I had another year with the factory team and time to decide. For me I need five or six races to understand with the new chief mechanic and some modifying in the team to see if I can be stronger.

“The problem is no racing! So with the news as it is, we cannot race. I think that I will have to decide before racing because in the most optimistic situation we can race in the second half of the season, so around August or September, we do if everything is good. But I have to make my decision before.”

Against his wishes, if Rossi is to make a 2021 choice today it would be to carry on racing.

“It is not the best way to stop as the situation is maybe we don’t race in 2020. It is fairer to make another championship and maybe stop at the end of the next. I hope to continue in 2021,” he confirmed.

Rossi’s reasons for wanting a handful of races to decide are understandable given he goes into 2020 having rolled the dice. The 41-year-old has promoted inexperienced crew chief David Munoz into the hot seat, replacing long-time right-hand man Silvano Galbusera, optimistic fresh eyes can deliver new ideas to teach an old dog some new tricks.

“The first impression is very positive and it is a different way to work as David doesn’t have a lot of experience as he is a very young chief mechanic,” Rossi said. “I feel good because he has a very good approach, he is always very quiet and he already has a good relationship with the rest of the team and the rest of my mechanics. The atmosphere in the team is very positive as everyone is very happy so this helps for the result.

“Also under the technical point of view he is very ready for everything, he already knows the bike and he worked during the winter to be ready so I am very curious to try a full race weekend together as I think we have a better potential than last year.”

Yamaha’s own developments have also raised significant interest from Rossi with key engine updates over the winter aiming to provide the power and traction gains all the Yamaha riders had been asking for over the past 24 months.

Test timesheets should always been taken with slight caution given riders can run different fuel loads and programmes, but Rossi’s lap times in the final pre-season test in Qatar were encouraging while his fellow Yamaha riders also starred as Vinales, Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli locked out the top three spots on the combined fastest times. Vinales’s race pace on a long run during the last day seriously impressed.

With Marc Marquez under pressure trying to fix Honda’s setup worries on the final day of testing while also returning from invasive shoulder surgery, and Ducati continuing to search for solutions to its corner speed woes, on paper Yamaha were going into 2020 as one of the best prepared title contenders.

It’s not to say Rossi, Yamaha and company would have walked away with the 2020 season – the Iwata factory has only won three races across the previous two years after all – but a serious world championship challenge had been anticipated to upset the ongoing Marquez and Honda domination.

It all adds up to provide fair reasons for Rossi to take time over the biggest decision of his career, but even if the season starts in August, potentially waiting until October wasn’t part of the arrangement for Yamaha or the Italian.

The Japanese factory were happy to provide him with time to decide his own future having been able to tie down its works rider line-up for the next two seasons and get the jump on its rivals.

But uncertainty and delays late into the year was never part of the plan, Yamaha will have already given Rossi a generous timeline to meet his preferences. Postponing that any further will not be helpful for either parties.

Rather than focusing on the maybes and uncertainties, Rossi’s decision remains a straight proposition.

Rossi has a factory M1 ready and waiting for 2021 guaranteeing him equal machinery to Vinales and Quartararo and also the best package he could hope for irrespective of results and performances.

Furthermore, with MotoGP opting to freeze major development regions across 2020 and 2021 to cut costs amid the current crisis, the technological battle will stay level for the next two seasons to give Rossi a potential extension to assess his competitiveness.

Retiring at the end of 2020 wouldn’t diminish his achievements but it would leave an underwhelming feeling that one of the greatest of all time would merely fade into the background without a final bow.

Would Rossi really leave with no regrets at the end of a truncated and unusual season? Those doubts would only increase if Yamaha’s developments did pay off and began to deliver what the Italian desired, only for him to walk away too soon.

If any rider in MotoGP can plot out his own retirement it is Rossi. A nine-time world champion and international star that few in motorsport can compare to, how the 2020 season is set to unfold isn’t fitting to the Italian nor his legacy on the sport.

2020 might not go to plan, but Rossi can look to 2021 with optimism knowing he will have all the pieces in place to thoroughly carry out what he had hoped for this year.

It’s why Rossi’s biggest decision should be his easiest.

 

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