Rossi in Catalonia MotoGP front row after signing Yamaha deal

Barcelona (AFP) –


Valentino Rossi will start the Catalonia MotoGP from the front row of the grid after finishing third fastest in qualifying on Saturday, just hours after signing a deal to move to Yamaha's satellite team next season.

The 41-year-old, one of the greatest motorcyclists of all time, finished 0.331sec behind Franco Morbidelli at the Montmelo circuit near Barcelona as his future Yahama-SRT teammate took his first ever MotoGP pole position.

Rossi will drop down to Yahama-SRT from the manufacturer's factory team in 2021 after agreeing a one-year extension to his contract which Yamaha said would make him "a fully supported Factory Yamaha rider" for the satellite outfit.

"It's a really great result to be in the front row, especially today which is special because I signed a contract for next year," said Rossi after claiming his first front-row position in over a year.

Rossi has won the MotoGP championship seven times, with four of those titles coming with Yamaha.

The Italian holds records for MotoGP and 500cc wins (89) but he has not won an elite class race for three years. He was pipped to a 200th podium at the San Marino MotoGP fortnight ago.

He dominated the sport in the first decade of the century but has been replaced as the sport's number one rider by six-time MotoGP champion Marc Marquez. Rossi finished last season in seventh place.

"I am very happy to continue riding in 2021 and to do it with the PETRONAS Yamaha Sepang Racing Team," Rossi said in a statement.

"In the first half of the year I made my choice and I talked with Yamaha, who agreed with me. They told me even if there was no place for me in the Factory Team, the factory bike and the factory support were guaranteed."

- Wrangling -

Rossi will finish this season in Yamaha's factory team alongside Maverick Vinales but is currently ninth in the overall standings, 26 points behind championship leader and fellow Italian Andrea Dovizioso.

Spaniard Vinales is one point behind Dovizioso, level on 83 with Frenchman Fabio Quartararo who rides for the Yamaha-SRT team.

The pair both have a chance to take the championship lead as they qualified second and fifth fastest respectively while Dovizioso slipped to a disastrous 17th on the grid for Sunday's race.

Quartararo will take Rossi's place at Yamaha's factory team next season after agreeing the move back in January, which had prompted questions about Rossi's future in the sport.

His season-long deal confirms that he does not want to commit to more than a year when he is already, by far, the most senior rider in the field.

He said two weeks ago that he was almost certain to sign with Yahama-SRT but the agreement comes after some wrangling with his team.

Lin Jarvis, the head of the Yamaha factory team, said on Saturday that Rossi should benefit from a bike that is almost identical to that of the official team.

However Rossi will be without two of his closest collaborators -- Alex Briggs, who has followed him since almost the start of his MotoGP career, and Brent Stephens, who had been with him since 2004.

New teammate Morbidelli is one of the dozen or so racers Rossi helps to train for MotoGP at his 'VR46 Academy', based near he Misano-Adriatico circuit which hosted last weekend's Emilia-Romagna GP.

Another of his academy stars is his maternal half-brother Luca Marini, who leads the second-tier Moto2 rankings heading into race day on Sunday.