MotoGP Silly Season Update 2: Satellite Hondas, Leased Yamahas, Crutchlow, Redding And Nicky Hayden
Just when it looked like the MotoGP silly season was getting ready to wrap up, a few new developments threw a spanner or two in the works. A week ago, most MotoGP pundits were convinced that Cal Crutchlow would be going to Ducati, Scott Redding would be moving up with his Marc VDS Racing team, and there was next to no interest in Yamaha's leased engines. At the Sachsenring, many things changed, in part at the instigation of Honda, and in part because of Yamaha.
Honda has made the biggest move in the market. At the Sachsenring, credible rumors emerged of Honda attempting to secure both Redding and Crutchlow, in two different moves. HRC's approach to Crutchlow could cause the biggest upset. The Japanese factory is known to be very impressed by Crutchlow, but their dilemma is that all four Honda prototype seats are ostensibly taken for 2014. While both Marquez and Pedrosa have contracts for next year, and Bautista is locked in at Gresini for 2014, Stefan Bradl's seat at LCR Honda could possibly be available. While Bradl is locked in to a two-year deal with HRC, Honda hold the option to decide not to take the second year, potentially freeing up Bradl's bike, and that seat could then be taken by Cal Crutchlow.
Bradl's camp insist that the deal to extend is close to completion, and that Honda are happy with Bradl's performance. Yet witnesses at the Sachsenring heard some very heated exchanges going on in the LCR Honda truck when HRC staff came for talks. Putting two and two together (something all too often in the paddock results in a number which does not resemble four), it suggest that HRC are trying to persuade Lucio Cecchinello to cut Bradl loose and take Crutchlow in his stead. That deal would be ideal for Crutchlow - the LCR Honda machine is a factory-supported Honda RC213V, and a slot at LCR would give him a shot at the Repsol Honda seat in 2015, when the contracts for both current riders - or more particularly, Dani Pedrosa - are up. LCR is less enamored of the deal, with Cecchinello being very happy with the way the partnership has worked and pleased with the progress Bradl has made. But HRC has expected podiums, and Bradl has not delivered those.
The LCR truck was not the only place where tempers were running high. An exasperated Herve Poncharal was seen having meetings with top Yamaha staff, and his general mood after those meetings was not good. Poncharal has made no secret of his desire to keep Crutchlow, but Yamaha have not been able to offer him the support he would like. Yamaha is rumored to be putting pressure on Tech 3 to sever his contract with Bradley Smith, as this would allow Yamaha to slot Espargaro into Smith's place, and keep Crutchlow where he is, though finances and support are the major issues here. Both Poncharal and Cecchinello are finding that running a satellite team is the worst of both worlds: you have to pay to lease the bike, but you still don't have the freedom to put whatever rider you like on it.
Cal Crutchlow could still stay at Tech 3 Yamaha, but he knows he has no chance of a factory ride in 2014 there. Jorge Lorenzo remains the best of the Yamaha riders, and Valentino Rossi is both extremely competitive and a huge marketing boon for Yamaha. Crutchlow's other option is a move to Ducati, which may be lucrative financially but remains a risk, given the continued problems Ducati are having at making the Desmosedici competitive. There is no doubting the efforts they are making, but questions remain over just how effective those efforts will be.
Nicky Hayden will be the man who Crutchlow replaces if he goes to Ducati, the American having been told he will not be kept in the factory team for 2014. Hayden's loyalty to the Italian factory will not go rewarded, much to his dismay. The Kentuckian believes that the fact he was competitive with Valentino Rossi while the Italian was at Ducati, and is on a par with Andrea Dovizioso, who scored multiple podiums with Yamaha, proves that he can still be competitive on a good bike. But Hayden has his age and his longevity in the class against him. Whenever I have asked team managers whether they have any interest in Hayden, the reply always centers around the fact that he has been in the series so long already, rather than any doubts over his ability. "What we need are fresh faces, young riders, to add a bit of excitement," one team manager told me last year. With so many fast riders coming up from Moto2, and more on the way, team managers are more interested in trying to bring on young talent with which to try to face Marc Marquez for the next five years. Hayden, who will be 32 at the end of July, is not the man team managers have in mind to take on that task. Hayden's future appears to be in World Superbikes, where he will land a top-level ride, and help grow the US audience for the series, one of Dorna's biggest goals.
Though the other satellite Honda is tied up for 2014, Alvaro Bautista could find himself across the garage from the man who will replace him in 2015. Scott Redding admitted that he had 'one preferred option' among the several from which he can choose for 2014. That option is to race the production Honda which Gresini will be using in 2014, with a view to replacing Bautista in 2015, after Redding has had a year of experience in MotoGP. The sticking point for the talks currently underway is the support which Redding would receive in 2015. Redding and his manager Michael Bartholemy have no appetite to be taking on the likes of Marc Marquez while using Showa suspension and Nissin brakes. But Bautista was given the contract at Gresini precisely because he agreed to continue with Showa and Nissin, and Gresini is keen to continue. Not least because the development contracts which he has with the Japanese suspension and brake suppliers are much more attractive financially than having to pay for Ohlins and Brembo support. Redding wishes to be competitive, however, and though both Showa and Nissin are close, they are not quite at the level of Ohlins and Brembo.
It may not be Bautista who Redding replaces, however. The former 125cc world champion is, like Hector Barbera at BQR, one Spaniard too many in the premier class. Dorna has already expressed their disquiet with Yamaha for moving Pol Espargaro into the Tech 3 team for 2014, as the series organizer believes there are already too many Spaniards in the class. Dorna may prefer to see Nicky Hayden remain in MotoGP, as the American remains extremely popular in the US. Gresini may elect to sever Bautista's contract early on performance grounds, and move Hayden into that slot. Gresini's dilemma is that his sponsors are largely Italian, and he would ideally like an Italian in his team. But given Hayden's universal popularity, he may be able to sell that idea to his sponsors.
The Honda production racer at Gresini means that there will be at least one of the dumbed-down RC213Vs on the grid for 2014, but whether the other four will be sold is still uncertain. At Assen, Repsol Honda team principal Livio Suppo told me that they would sell all five bikes, but it is hard to see where they will end up. There has been interest from Paul Bird's PBM team, who looks likely to field Michael Laverty and another British rider. Shane Byrne's name has been mentioned, though that would mean leaving a championship-winning career in BSB. If the rumors are correct, Bird could be about to pull the plug on his BSB team and focus on MotoGP, meaning Byrne would have to either move elsewhere or come back to MotoGP. However, the presence of HRC favorite Jonathan Rea at the Sachsenring fueled speculation about a slot for the Ulsterman in MotoGP next season, and PBM would be a logical place for him to land, aboard a production racer. There has also been talk of the Avintia Blusens BQR team buying a couple of production Hondas, but that team also has an option to remain with the Kawasaki engines and FTR-built frame which they are currently using. If the long-rumored pneumatic valve engine turns up, that bike could be a more competitive package.
Yamaha's engine lease deal is close to seeing its first takers, and it will not be with Kalex, as was first expected. The NGM Mobile Forward team is believed to have signed a deal to lease two engines, to be housed in a chassis built by the team's current chassis supplier FTR. Yamaha is set to offer support to FTR in designing a chassis, but though the engine package looks competitive at first glance, it is a risk for the Buckinghmanshire firm. If the bike is competitive, then the credit will go to Yamaha's engine. If the bike is not competitive - or the riders chosen to race the bike are not competitive - then the blame will be placed squarely with FTR, whether the blame belongs there or not. Colin Edwards looks set to stay on for one more year, but who the second rider might be is as yet unknown. Current man Claudio Corti could retain his place.
The Yamaha and Honda non-MSMA entry options are looking rather expensive, however. The Yamaha will cost well over a million euros including the chassis, while the price for the Honda production racer has gone up to 1.2 million euros, with an update package for the second year of ownership coming in around half a million. The alternative is to go with Aprilia, which are offering to lease ART machines for 400,000 euros a season. Given Aleix Espargaro's outstanding results on the bike, that looks like a pretty attractive option. The question for teams using the ART machines is what Aprilia intends to do next season. Will they use the spec Magneti Marelli software and take 24 liters of fuel and 12 engines, or will they stick with their Aprilia software, and try to manage with 20 liters of fuel and just 9 engines?
The Power Electronics Aspar team looks set to stick with Aprilia next season, and right now, it looks like they will retain both of their current riders. That makes sense for Aleix Espargaro, despite his outstanding performance this year, as it puts him on the market for 2015, when almost everyone's contracts will be up. Espargaro has caught the eye of many a team manager, and is sure to be in line for a prototype (or rather, MSMA entry, as we must now call them) ride at some point in the future.
Two more of the current CRT teams will stay as they are for 2014 as well. Karel Abraham will continue for another year on the Aprilia ART with the Cardion AB team, the bike doing exactly what they want it to do. Abraham has suffered a number of injuries this season, making it hard to judge his progress. The IODA Racing team will also stick with their current crop of bikes, as they have already invested in the Suter BMW they are contesting. They have little incentive to trade up, as they do not believe they will get vastly improved performance if they spend a significant amount on a Honda production racer.