On August 15th at Brno in the Czech Republic, the worst-kept secret in MotoGP racing became official: Valentino Rossi will leave Yamaha to ride for Ducati in 2011 and '12.
The dominoes started to topple on July 9th, when current Ducati star Casey Stoner announced that he'd signed with Honda. The '07 world champ has had a lackluster last couple of years, sitting out much of '09 with a mystery illness and not winning a race this year until the inaugural series round at Aragon, Spain, on September 19th. But surely Ducati would have retained the Australian's services if they hadn't had a certain Italian on the hook. Rumors that one of Honda's current pairing would have to go to make room for Stoner were quashed when both Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso re-signed.
Rossi's seat at Fiat-Yamaha was filled almost immediately by Ben Spies, the American MotoGP rookie moving up from the satellite Monster Yamaha Tech 3 squad. Spies' current teammate (and fellow Texan) Colin Edwards will stay with Tech 3 for 2011, joined by British World Superbike sensation Cal Crutchlow.
As for Ducati, '06 world champ Nicky Hayden is staying, and will become Rossi’s teammate for the second time, having done so in his debut MotoGP season with Honda in ’03. The second American to partner Rossi was Edwards at Yamaha from '05-'07. Hayden has been on a tear lately, and with Rossi's riding style more like his than his current teammate's, the Ducati should suit him even better next year-the last on 800cc machines before the premier MotoGP class reverts to 1000s in 2012.
Though word of Rossi's departure spread like wildfire, his contract with Yamaha stated that no official announcement could come before Brno (round 10 of 18). Moreover, Yamaha had to announce his departure before Ducati could announce his coming aboard. The tuning-fork company dutifully issued a press release thanking Rossi for his seven years and four world titles, and Rossi countered with a thoughtful, handwritten note that was almost a love letter to his YZR-M1:
"It is very difficult to explain in just a few words what my relationship with Yamaha has been in these past seven years. Many things have changed since that far-off time in 2004, but especially 'she,' my M1, has changed. At that time she was a poor middle-grid position MotoGP bike ... Now, after having helped her to grow and improve, you can see her smiling in her garage, courted and admired, treated as the 'top of the class.'
"Now the moment has come to look for new challenges; my work here at Yamaha is finished. Unfortunately even the most beautiful love stories finish, but they leave a lot of wonderful memories, like when my M1 and I kissed for the first time on the grass at Welkom [Africa], when she looked straight in my eyes and told me 'I love you!'"
Whether Rossi will learn to love the Ducati Desmosedici remains to be seen. As does the question of whether his long-time crew chief, Jeremy Burgess, will jump ship like he did when Rossi left Honda for Yamaha.
Whatever the answers to those questions, the 2011 season should be infinitely more interesting than Rossi's injury-hit 2010. And with an Italian icon on an iconic Italian motorcycle, the tifosi will certainly have something to cheer about!