Just days before Christmas, Yamaha Racing announced that its works MotoGP team would no longer be sponsored by Gauloises in the 2006 season, in spite of the team's existing contract with Altadis, the owner of the Gauloises and Fortuna cigarette brands.
Altadis was less reticent, though, and its Gauloises Racing news release indicated that the company was surprised by Yamaha's decision, as the two companies were apparently still negotiating.
However, Gauloises did refer to a "dispute that arose earlier this year" as the cause of those negotiations, without providing specifics. The speculation in the MotoGP paddock, though, is that Rossi is opposed to riding another year in the Gauloises blue livery -- whether because of an objection to cigarette sponsorship in general or a potential conflict with a personal sponsor.
Yet another possibility that has been mooted is a conflict with Phillip Morris company's Marlboro brand; Marlboro is the title sponsor of Ferrari's Formula One team, for whom Rossi has been doing occasional testing this year.
And yet the fact remains that Rossi renewed his contract with Yamaha for only one year, the 2006 season. With the 2007 MotoGP regulations reducing maximum engine capacity from 990 to 800 cc, the balance of power in MotoGP may shift in favor of Honda, which is rumored to be able to develop a new engine by simply lopping off one of the current powerplant's five cylinders.
Or is Rossi serious about switching from two wheels to four, leaving an enormous gap in the MotoGP driver lineup? Only the five-time MotoGP champion knows, and he is not telling.
In the meantime, Yamaha Racing's path seems to fraught with risks: not only is Altadis threatening with legal action, but the manufacturer only has its most important asset, in the person of Rossi, under contract for one year, and no title sponsor lined up yet. And with the single-year contract, will a major sponsor commit to a long-term relationship?
The new technical regulations are only the tip of the iceberg, clearly: there is much change in the wind for the next few years.