Analysis Sponsorship

VR46 Team in dire straits? The Aramco-TANAL saga explained

The team founded by 9-time World Champion Valentino Rossi could be facing deep trouble as an investigation led by MotoGP publication MisterHelmet points to suspicious activity of its Saudi sponsors.

In April 2021, VR46 Team announced a five year deal with Dorna Sports to join MotoGP as an independent team with Ducati bikes, replacing the slot currently held by Andorran team Esponsorama.

The news broke from TANAL Entertainment Sport and Media which alleges to be a Saudi operation headed by former deputy foreign minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al-Saud.

Surprisingly, Saudi oil company Aramco was mentioned as the title sponsor of Rossi’s new project in MotoGP, thus naming it Aramco Racing Team VR46.

In the press kit from TANAL, it’s interesting to note that two rough draft pictures were attached of bike and suit livery proposals made by the VR46 design team, which is unusual for a team announcement.

It was predictable, however, to see avid fan backlash of the news considering the criticisms of the Saudi government’s human rights record and sportswashing attempts.

Communication between parties started to get very confusing prior to the Spanish Grand Prix when a lot of questioning spread around the paddock and in the press room.

Valentino Rossi was adamant that there was a deal in place with Aramco to make his MotoGP team a reality, despite admitting not directing talks with the reported Saudi partners.

“Head-scratching” is the most-fitting word to this situation, as more information started to be found regarding Aramco’s involvement and TANAL’s behaviour.

Whose lie is it anyway?

The investigation by MisterHelmet reveals that all of the communication from Aramco companies and spokespeople were negative when asked about their involvement with VR46.

It is alarming to see two contrasting statements of the subject, with Valentino Rossi, his team and TANAL insisting Aramco being involved, whereas the oil company argues the opposite.

There is no strategic agreement between Aramco and VR46. There has never been any commercial relationship between Tanal Entertainment and Aramco

Adam Jibali, Brunswick Group Account Director, Aramco UK Press Officer

Talal Al-Marri, CEO of Aramco Overseas was invited to the Pramac garage at the Dutch Grand Prix and he corroborated the narrative from the company’s spokespeople.

MisterHelmet reports that Al-Marri was cited saying “Do you know how many princes we have in Saudi Arabia?” when asked about the apparent cosign of Prince Al-Saud.

Talal Al-Marri, CEO of Aramco Overseas

After the numerous claims by Aramco denying any involvement, TANAL published a press release that referred Saudi companies as a potential sponsor and lacked any mention of Aramco.

Despite Al-Saud being mentioned and featured in every press release issued by TANAL, a signature or a video is never attached, instead it’s a matter of “trusting the process” with a portrait.

Other details are pointed out by MisterHelmet, such as adulterated images, inconsistent descriptions of TANAL’s ventures, fake projects and events, lack of company contacts, and the name of Marco Bernardini.

Bernardini gives a stereotypical characterisation of a “palazzinaro”, with the dream of working in Saudi Arabia as an architect, an occupation he claims to have.

His name is nearly always mentioned in TANAL’s press releases, and he can be traced in some of the companies mentioned, but the question then is – what is Bernardini’s relation with Prince Al-Saud?

Decalspotters’ investigation led to an additional detail of document forging from TANAL, as all documents presented by this entity are always in the same two fonts – Calibri and Georgia, bundled with Windows operating systems.

There are documents that are allegedly from Prince Al-Saud that use these fonts, which contradict documents issued by Tanal Global Holdings* and the Prince assessed by Decalspotters that show a different typography family and structure.

In such a short time, the promising “soon-to-be” partners of Rossi’s MotoGP team appear very suspicious and with a lack of communication skills in an industry dominated by them.

TANAL and its brands (MAIC, KSA New Cities) are currently signed to all of VR46’s motorcycling teams for this season.

*not TANAL Entertainment Sport and Media

When a fellow prince joined Formula 1

Motorsport fans know the story of the infamous Prince Malik Ado Ibrahim, a Nigerian prince who had big business ambitions that decided to buy shares of a declining Formula 1 team.

Arrows was one of the oldest teams in Formula 1 at the time and never quite had the same wallets as the big names such as Williams, and by the late ’90s the team was struggling to remain afoot in an increasingly expensive sport.

The British squad had found itself in a complicated financial situation before the arrival of the Nigerian prince, who promised an undeniable sum that secured the team’s future in the sport.

Prince Malik’s plan was to launch his brand T-Minus, which income would come from energy drink and clothing sales, and use the Arrows team as a platform to showcase his business.

His interests were almost immediately shown, as he hired a PR agency to manage his likeness and image instead of paying the team its promised funding.

Unfortunately, no promises were kept as Malik evaporated out of the F1 paddock by mid-season before ever concluding the deal with the team, which sadly resulted in Arrows declaring insolvency by 2002.

Ado Ibrahim kept his radio silence for a long time, until he reappeared in the racing world alongside a NASCAR driver, but his involvement would be quickly cut short after perjury charges and further theft charge.

A similarity in the motorcycling world

The Aramco-TANAL saga was definitely not the first of its kind, and it would be naïve to claim it is going to be last.

MisterHelmet recently brought a very similar situation to light of famous state-owned brands apparently being interested in sponsoring a renowned Italian racing team

In the interview, Genesio Bevilacqua reveals that Althea Racing were nearly victims of a false sponsorship deal with a party that alleged to bring Emirates and Gazprom funding to the table.

Contacts started in 2012 with a deal that was set to be concluded by the start of the 2013 World Superbike season, in Australia.

The Althea boss cites being in advanced talks with the scammer, going as far as making teamwear, suits and team assets incorporating the two brands.

Davide Giugliano suit proposal, image courtesy of MisterHelmet

Bevilacqua admits that the promised funding was “too good to be true”, which he later found out when not half of the figures was transferred to the Althea coffins, prompting the team boss to file a complaint to Rome’s prosecution.

During this time, Emirates was due to sign a long-term multi-million contract with Formula 1 as the sport’s Global Partner, making this scam attempt quite dismissible as World Superbike never had the reach that F1 does.

Althea eventually signed with Italian batteries company Unibat and plastics manufacturer BMP Tappi for the year.

However, it is important to mention that this was not the last attempt of bringing this scheme into fruition.

In 2016, the identity of the scammer (or an identical one) was found in Valerio Lattanzio, who attempted to scam Italian football team Inter Milan into signing a fake deal with Etihad Airways.

The details of this scheme are all similar to the current situation with TANAL – fake documents, fake emails, fake royal family – but then followed by an investigation by the Italian police.

In ironic fashion to Aramco with VR46, Etihad then also denied reports of talks being held between the airline company and Inter.

The matter of fact is, MotoGP’s owners Dorna are willing to help Rossi in bringing his team to the premier class, but now it’s a matter of time until all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

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