A Factory MotoGP Bike In Your Bedroom. How Does That Work?

contract of bailment

Yesterday’s presentation of factory race bikes to Valentino Rossi at Valencia sparks a good question: how does it work when a manufacturer gives a MotoGP bike to a rider? Does the rider actually “own” the bike? Can it be sold?

In days gone by manufacturers would give bikes to riders all the time. Mike Hailwood had a fleet of ex-works race bikes presented to him by Mr. Honda; Giacamo Agostini’s basement is reputedly full of old YZR500s (his people sold one to an American collector three years ago), the late Yvon DuHamel had one of every factory bike he raced in his home in Canada, Kevin Schwantz has his RGv500 in his bedroom and Wayne Rainey has three factory YZR500s in his office in California.

Those were the old days. Many times race bikes were crushed at the end of the season thus presenting a bike to a rider was an easy way to make less work for factory technicians. Back then the bike arrived in a crate with, maybe, a thank you letter. Or maybe a This Is Your Problem Now letter.

“Where the hell is my motorcycle?” Kipp Adams

As you might imagine, today it is rare for a rider to be presented a factory race bike. If he is bestowed with one, it comes with a file. Not a rasp, but a manila folder full of documents that need to be notarized and signed by the rider, and in some cases, his estate. Lawyers call this “bailment” and it essentially means transfer of possession of personal property without transfer of ownership. And it comes with a contract.

As you might imagine Honda is the most strict in terms of language used in the contract. As is well known Honda basically throws nothing away at the racetrack, everything but used MotoGP oil gets shipped back to Honda in Japan. This includes crashed bodywork, worn out grips and not just “kayed out” brake pads but even mundane, simple aluminum washers. It all goes back. Nothing goes missing.

In the modern MotoGP era if Honda presents a rider with a MotoGP bike, typically the bike comes with a contract spelling out that ownership of the motorcycle is retained by Honda Motor and that the bike is on loan to the rider. The bike also comes with a NDA (non disclosure agreement) stating that the contents of the contract are not to be made public.

Yamaha, Suzuki, Team Roberts and Ducati are progressively less strict with motorcycles and ownership contracts.

For Honda, there are people in Japan whose job it is to keep track of motorcycles presented (“loaned”) to riders. Typically if a rider has been presented with a factory MotoGP bike he gets a packet in the mail every year or so which needs to be filled out, notarized and returned by the due date. And it’s not just a “ya still got that bike?” communication. Honda will want to know exactly where the bike is being stored, and that it is currently insured. If a technician has worked on the bike (flushing brake lines for example) then Honda will want to know who worked on the bike, what they did to the bike and why. In writing. Make sure you have the technician’s mobile phone number because Honda will want it.

Can they be sold? Well, they have been sold. After Mike Hailwood’s death, his family was left struggling financially and Pauline (his widow) sold all of the factory Honda bikes Mike The Bike had amassed. Briton and Honda man Neil Tuxworth said that Mr. Honda was deeply unhappy when he learned that Hailwood’s family had sold his bikes, but a letter from Pauline to Mr. Honda spelled out the unfortunate state of affairs in regards to Mike’s estate. Mr. Honda blessed the sale, eventually.

Freddie Spencer sold both his landmark championship bikes from 1985: The 250 that sat in a Shreveport museum for decades and the 500 that Freddie had in his office. Both motorcycles are known to be possession of a private owner in Georgia. Are they not seen very often because Honda wants to discuss ownership with the new owner? That’s the story anyway.

The UK is a hotbed of former factory RGv500 bikes and parts. Seemingly everyone who worked for Team Suzuki in the 1980s or 1980s will deny that any bikes or spares exist. These same people offered Scott Russell one of his 1996 Lucky Strike factory Suzuki GP bikes at an Indy USGP for $40k cash, but it came without bodywork. Once Suzuki started pressing charges and people (Suzuki mechanic Wilf Needham) went to jail for being in possession of bikes they never owned many of these Suzukis went underground.

Ducati sells MotoGP bikes on occasion. They sold one each of Rossi and Nicky Hayden’s Ducatis to a US collector. The sale came with a detailed contract–signed by Ducati CEO Claudio Domenicali– which defined how the new “owner” could use the bikes: no racing, and if Ducati cleared it, in advance, the engine could be maintained. However, if disassembled the contract specified that that no photos of the engine internals were to be published. Ever.

Like most things in 2021 vs the 1990s having a MotoGP bike in the house much more complicated and now comes with a ton of paperwork.

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