He is a seven-time MotoGP™ world champion and one of the planet’s most popular sports stars. But will 2020 be Valentino Rossi’s last year in MotoGP™?
Rossi, who turned 41 on Sunday, was way off the pace in 2019, finishing seventh in the race for the world title, some 246 points behind winner Marc Marquez.
Like Rossi did in the 2000’s - the Italian won the MotoGP™ world title in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2009 - Marquez has utterly dominated in recent years.
The Spaniard is now a six-time world champion and is celebrating his 27th birthday in February, meaning Rossi’s record, that some thought would never be beaten, is now under serious threat.
That Rossi finished so far behind Marquez in 2019 - the former won just two podiums for the season - has led to speculation that 2020 could be Rossi’s last.
And that talk only ramped up when Monster Energy Yamaha - Rossi’s team - announced that they had signed Fabio Quartararo to fill Rossi’s seat in 2021.
Quartararo’s results with Petronas Yamaha SRT essentially forced Yamaha’s hand, given the 20-year-old’s promising form and subsequent interest from Ducati.
The Frenchman will pair up with Rossi’s existing teammate, Maverick Vinales, for 2021, meaning if Rossi is to continue beyond 2020, it will have to be with a new team.
Rossi has Yamaha’s support if he wants to ride in 2021 and a deal is on the table from satellite team Petronas Yamaha SRT.
But does Rossi want to ride on – and could he stomach riding for a satellite team?
Speaking about his future earlier this month, Rossi said: “My target is to try to continue next year . But if results aren’t what I expect, it becomes difficult.
“For this reason, when I speak to Yamaha [about a contract], I was not ready to decide, unlike the last contract that I signed when I was sure and I signed before Qatar [in 2018].
The man affectionately known as ‘The Doctor’ acknowledged that if he continues to battle in 2020, retirement is likely.
“I don’t want to continue like this. If it’s like this, it’s better that I stop,” he said.
There were encouraging signs from Rossi at pre-season testing in Sepang, though, particularly on the final day.
That was when Rossi was fifth quickest and he declared he was pleased with his pace.
“We are happy with these three days,” he said.
“Today was a good day because I did a very good lap time in the time attack. It’s the first time for me to be in the 1:58’s, so this is positive, also because we are in P5 and very close to the top.
“We worked a lot, also on the pace, and we tried different things. Some were good, others weren’t.”
Rossi added that his team had to keep tinkering with his bike ahead of the 2020 season opener.
“We have to work hard because everybody is so fast. But the test was positive.”
The challenge is to convert positive tests into podiums – and race wins.
Rossi has not won a MotoGP™ event since 2017 and the only other time he has endured winless seasons was in his ill-fated two-year stint at Ducati in 2011 and 2012.
A third-year without a win is likely to make Rossi’s mind up for him.