February 14th, 2009
It is looking ever more likely that there will be 18 bikes on the MotoGP grid after all. Marco Melandri - currently in Qatar racing in the SpeedCar Series - has told the Italian media outlet SportMediaset.it that he is ready to ride the private Kawasaki after all. There is still no absolute word that the Kawasaki project has been given the go ahead, but Melandri is sounding increasingly convinced it will happen.
The project - if it does happen - will likely be financed in part by Dorna, and the Spanish organizing body has been one of the main forces trying to ensure that at least one Kawasaki makes it onto the grid, as reputedly agreed in private contracts between Dorna and the FIM. The withdrawal of the factory Kawasaki team was a huge blow for Dorna, and Carmelo Ezpeleta, the company's CEO, has seemingly spent every waking moment trying to ensure that at least one of the abandoned bikes make it on to the grid.
Melandri's decision to push ahead with the project directly contradicts his earlier statements that he would not race "just to make up the numbers". Asked directly about this by SportMediaset.it, Melandri replied "I'm not going to be able to win, but I'm sure I won't be in for a season like 2008. Because I'll be on a bike that has a character I like, even if it is not super competitive, and I will have a team that will do everything to make me comfortable on the bike, so I can do the maximum, and so I will have nothing to lose." Melandri was also clear about his aims for the year: "I just have to show that I can still want to fight, and then I can find a good situation for 2010."
Yesterday, we reported on the consequences of the credit crunch for the World Superbike paddock, but it seems they may not be quite as bad as expected. After we ran the story relaying reports of Gregorio Lavilla being forced to pull out of the World Superbike series, we were contacted by Marco Nicotari, owner and manager of the Pro Ride Superbike team which Lavilla rides for.
Nicotari denied that Pro Ride would be pulling out of the World Superbike series, and have every intention of competing in World Superbikes in 2009. However, Nicotari did say that they will not be racing at either the season opener at Phillip Island or the second round at Qatar. "Our position is to start the season in Valencia," he wrote.
Reports of Pro Ride's withdrawal were based on stories that the team would not have a title sponsor. Nicotari rejected this, pointing out that Mormaii Sunglasses has been their sponsor since November 2008, and had appeared on the fairing at the recent Portimao tests. However, the team had lost two smaller sponsors, and unfortunately, these were the sponsors paying for the first two rounds of the year, making it difficult to travel to the first two flyaway rounds.
"We have decided to skip the first two races due to a loss of 2 important sponsors. They have declared what everyone is declaring now: that this is a difficult economic moment. That was the reason for this hard decision that for sure upset a little bit all of us, including Gregorio, who is a very competeitive person, and who wants to be there racing against the best riders in the world," Nicotari told MotoGPMatters.com.
The second and final day of testing at Valencia for the 125s and 250s saw Marco Simoncelli dominate once again. The reigning 250 World Champion put in a huge number of laps to finish the day with a comfortable lead over his Gilera team mate Roberto Locatelli. The Gileras finished the day ahead of the Hondas of Hector Faubel and Thai rider Rathapark Wilairot.
The 125 class was a much more worrying affair. Yesterday's leader, Efren Vazquez had a huge crash, which saw him trap his leg in the wheel, ending with the Spaniard being rushed to hospital in Valencia with a deep cut that partially severed achilles tendon. Vazquez wasn't the only rider to fall, being joined in the gravel by his team mate Pol Espargaro, as well as former Red Bull Rookies Johann Zarco and Matthew Hoyle.
With Vazquez gone, it was the turn of the very impressive Italian rookie Lorenzo Savadori to top the timesheets, ahead of Espargaro aboard the Derbi. The unfortunate Vazquez was still quick enough in the 11 laps he ran before crashing to finish third fastest, however.
Vazquez will be hoping to recover quickly, and be ready for the next test, due to take place at Estoril in a month's time. Before that, there will be more testing for the junior classes at Valencia next week.
Most of the doom and gloom hitting motorcycle racing in the wake of the credit crisis has been centered on MotoGP. Understandably, as the premier class is exponentially more expensive than any of the other motorcycle racing series. But MotoGP is not alone: after earlier news that Sterilgarda Ducati wouldn't have the funds to field Alessandro Polita in Australia and Qatar, reports are emerging that Gregorio Lavilla could be out of a ride for 2009 altogether.
The well-informed Dutch website Racesport.nl is reporting that the Pro-Ride Honda team - which arose from the ashes of the Alto Evolution team, which fielded Shuhei Aoyama in World Superbikes last year, with little success - has failed to find a sponsor, and consequently won't have the money to compete in the 2009 WSBK season, leaving Lavilla sidelined. Racesport's efforts at contacting the team for comment have so far met with no success.
The 35 year-old Spaniard had a mediocre season last year aboard the Vent-Axia Honda, after several years of success in the British Superbikes series. Whether his fortunes would have improved with the former Alto-Evolution team is open to debate, as the Italian team has had very little to show over the past few seasons. But Lavilla could well be joining the ever-growing band of professional motorcycle racers who will be spending 2009 watching from the sidelines.
Sources in the mainstream sports media in Italy are reporting that the on-again-off-again saga that is Kawasaki is sort of on again. According to both Tuttosport and Sportmediaset, Marco Melandri will be riding a privately run Kawasaki, in a team led by Michael Bartholemy. The deal is said to have been put together by Dorna, in the person of CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, who has been in constant negotiation with Kawasaki since the news broke.
Details of the deal are somewhere between sketchy and nonexistent, but the deal seems to be that Kawasaki will make all of the 2009-spec bikes available to Michael Bartholemy, and the Belgian team manager will field a single rider in the person of Marco Melandri. Shortly after the news broke that Kawasaki would be withdrawing from MotoGP, the factory said that it had enough bikes and parts to last approximately a quarter of a season, and so presumably, this would be enough to run a single rider for at least half a season, perhaps a little longer if the practice restrictions are pushed through as expected.
Finance for the project will most likely come from Dorna - presumably in fear of breaching their own contract with the FIM to field at least 18 riders for a world championship - possibly with some seed money from Kawasaki, to buy out their remaining contract, which committed them to race in MotoGP until 2011. Melandri would presumably be riding the 2009-spec bikes tested by Olivier Jacque in Australia during January, despite reports of poor reliability. And maintenance and - speculatively - engine development could be done by the French company Solution F, as reported by GPOne.com in January.
The second batch of 125 and 250 riders are out at Valencia, testing in preparation for the 2009 season. But though the location might be the same, the names are mostly different. This time, it's Marco Simoncelli who tops the 250s, though none of the Aspar big guns are on track to face the reigning champion. Simoncelli's time as quicker than that set by Alvaro Bautista two weeks ago, but it has to be said that the weather conditions are infinitely better. In comparison, Alex Baldolini improved his time by a second, while Hector Faubel took nearly 2 seconds off his fastest time of the previous tests.
In the 125 class, it was Efren Vazquez who was quickest on the factory Derbi, though the Spaniard also managed to crash in a fairly serious way at the end of the day. But the surprise of the day was the 2nd fastest time for Lorenzo Savadori, an Italian rookie who was European 125 champion last year, and hotly tipped for success. To be 2nd fastest on his first test is fairly impressive, and promises more to come.
The other news of interest was the arrival of the Maxtras, the Chinese bike designed by former Aprilia guru Jan Witteveen and Britain's Harris Performance, and run by John Surtees. The Maxtra still has some work to be done, though, as Michael Ranseder was the fastest of the two team mates, beating British rookie Matt Hoyle by two seconds, but still four seconds down on the time of Vazquez.
Testing continues tomorrow.
The latest news/rumor on the Kawasaki front - or perhaps that should be the final nail in Kawasaki's coffin - is that Dorna is attempting to acquire the Kawasaki bikes so that Marco Melandri can race in MotoGP in the 2009 season, as reported by various press sources. Carmelo Ezpeleta is said to be willing to pay for the bikes to run out of his - or rather Dorna's - own pocket, in order to pad out the grid and give it some semblance of credibility.
If this is true - and that's a big if, as one of the sources is Alberto Vergani, Marco Melandri's manager, and Italian riders' managers are about as reliable as Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, though they tend to err slightly more often on the side of optimism - then it is both completely puzzling and remarkably short-sighted. If the Kawasaki - or "Dornasaki" as some wags are labeling it - does turn up on the grid, it will be a bike that is likely to start at the back and travel rapidly backwards. As the year progresses, the competition will receive a steady stream of upgrades, improving at each race. And each of these upgrades will leave the Comatose Kawasaki yet another step behind, heaping calumny upon humiliation over the head of the poor rider foolish enough to volunteer to ride the ailing beast.
Any attempt to resurrect Kawasaki will be doomed to failure, with no money for development. The attempt offers nothing to either the team or the rider(s) involved, and is more likely to damage Dorna than anything else, despite allowing the Spanish company to save face. This is surely a rescue better left untried.
But what is the alternative? I hear you cry. Well, believe it or not, there is one, and one that offers hope not just for the 2009 season, but for MotoGP going forward. I was fortunate enough to visit Ilmor over the past week, to speak with the people involved in their ill-fated MotoGP X3 project. What struck me there was the passion and interest which everyone still had for MotoGP, and their desire - verging almost on desparation - to get back into the series, and make a point. The people involved in the project were filled with a burning desire to prove that they can build bikes, and that the poor performance of the first iteration of the X3 was unjustly laid at their door. They believed they had learned a great deal about the bike since the project was called off at the beginning of 2007, and after consulting widely with people with lots of experience of building competitive MotoGP bikes, have done tests with a modified bike which saw it vastly improve on the time set by its previous incarnation.
Dark tidings from inside Honda. GPOne.com is reporting that HRC has started what the Italian site is calling a "witch hunt" to find the source of the leak about rev limits. HRC is said to be mightily displeased that this information should have been made public, regarding it as "confidential commercial information", which should not be shared in any way.
Quite why Honda should be getting into such a tizzy at the leaking of the fact that the satellite bikes have a rev limit in place of 18,200 rpm, some 800 below the factory bikes 19,000 rpm limit, is a bit of a mystery. With minimum requirements likely to be imposed on engine life, using satellite teams as a testbed for the impact that rev limits would have on engine life would seem to be a sensible step. Granted, HRC's image may be negatively affected, as the company could be seen to be forcing the satellite teams to accept a disadvantage when it comes to the races. But launching a full-scale chase for the loose lips which sunk HRC's ship merely makes the situation a good deal worse. And is more likely to encourage further outbreaks of leaking than prevent it.
For three years now, Dani Pedrosa has been Spain's Great White Hope, and the man that they have placed their hopes on to take only the second MotoGP championship for the country which is obsessed with the sport. And for the past three years, the hope that springs in Iberian hearts has been cruelly dashed, as Pedrosa has confirmed his status as a brilliantly talented rider who finds it immensely difficult to consistently win races.
There have been very good reasons that Pedrosa's ambitions have been thwarted: 2006 was his rookie season, and expecting a title that early is too much to ask; in 2007, the Spaniard faced an incredible Casey Stoner with a severely underdeveloped Honda RC212V; then last year, Pedrosa had to face one of the greatest riders of all time as he rode one of his finest seasons of all time. All entirely understandable, and no one can underestimate the size of the task he has ahead if he is to take the title in 2009.
But it appears that it is not just the Spanish MotoGP fans who are growing tired of waiting. More worryingly, Pedrosa's employer is starting to lose patience with the Spaniard as well. There had been paddock rumors that Pedrosa's position was no longer set in granite as early as the middle of last year. And these rumors started to gain ground after HRC signed the talented Italian Andrea Dovizioso as Pedrosa's team mate, against the express wishes of Alberto Puig.
And Pedrosa's problems seem to be growing. The incredibly well-informed Italian site GPOne.com is reporting that 2009 will be a make-or-break year for Pedrosa, and his final chance to win the championship. Both HRC and their Spanish sponsor Repsol are losing patience with Pedrosa's lack of results, wanting to see a better return on their investment in the talented Spaniard. In addition, HRC is keen to ditch Pedrosa's manager Alberto Puig, whose Machiavellian tactics are felt to be undermining Honda's authority. Repsol, meanwhile, is growing disenchanted with Pedrosa's unsmiling demeanor, which is less than helpful for sponsorship purposes.
As we reported on Monday, the Hungarian round of MotoGP, due to take place on September 20th, is likely to be axed. The report, which originated with the British publication Motorcycle News, stated that construction of the brand new Balatonring track where the race was to be held was running too far behind schedule, and that as a consequence, the facility would not be ready in time to host the event. Since then, the arguments have started over who is to blame for the situation, with much finger pointing between the partners involved in the project.
The Hungarian Minister for Sport was in no doubt where the blame lay. Speaking to the Hungarian sports daily Nemzeti Sport, Istvan Gyenesei said "Our Spanish partner has not completed all of the steps set out in the agreement we have with them [..] so it looks as if the track will not be ready in time, and we will not be able to organize the Grand Prix there."
But the Spanish company involved were quick to reject any talk of the blame laying with them. Janos Bence Kovacs, president of the Grupo Milton responded to the minister's accusations "I'm surprised what the minister said. We've met all of the deadlines so far. Our tempo is fine, we're even a little bit faster than expected. We will do exactly what we have agreed to do. The project is right on schedule. We will do everything that we are expected to do." He refused to respond to the allegations published in MCN, dismissing them as "purely gossip".
The financial crisis looks close to claiming yet another victim in MotoGP. After Kawasaki's withdrawal, and a similar fate narrowly avoided for Suzuki, this time it is a race which is on the chopping block. Motorcycle News is reporting that the Hungarian round of MotoGP could be canceled, after funding problems have struck construction of the brand new Balatonring circuit.
Rumors of such a move had emerged at the end of last year, but MCN is claiming to have received information from "senior MotoGP officials". MCN is also reporting that a move to the brand new Portimao circuit in Portugal was mooted, as a replacement for the Balatonring round, but that this was discounted because it would be too close to the official Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril in early October. Given the current calls for cost-cutting in MotoGP, the more popular choice might be for the round to be canceled altogether. Skipping a whole weekend would cut down on expenditure significantly.
Fonsi Nieto has been much in the news, recently. The Spanish star had been tipped to replace Alessandro Polita at Sterilgarda Ducati recently, who had had problems with personal sponsors.
Nieto himself believed he was close to extending the deal he had with Alstare Suzuki from last year, despite Alstare claiming they would only be able to field two factory Suzukis. But even that has fallen through, according to Spanish magazine Solomoto, leaving Nieto without a ride.
"The conditions for staying with the Alstare team were unacceptable for a rider who won a race last year, as well as getting on the podium a number of times," Nieto told Solomoto. "They offered me a satellite-spec Suzuki GSX-R, but I wouldn't be able to share the garage with the factory bikes. After weeks and weeks of negotatiting, they told me that the bikes wouldn't be ready until the Valencia race. Which would mean I couldn't race at either Australia or Qatar."
So instead, Nieto will be helping to develop the Moto2 bike which Eskil Suter is developing for the Team LaGlisse, one of the top teams in the Spanish championship. The bike should be ready for testing within the next month, but Nieto told Solomoto that he didn't know whether he would be racing the bike in the series in Spain this year. Instead, he will spend the time training, and getting ready for next year.
Nieto's misfortune goes to show that even the considerable personal sponsorship that the Spaniard is believed to carry can't buy you a place on the grid. And even for a rider who finished 6th in the championship, ahead of names such as Max Biaggi, Ruben Xaus, Michel Fabrizio and his team mate Yukio Kagayama, who did keep his seat, the World Superbike paddock can be a pretty tough place.
Feelings are still mixed about the new Moto2 series, with the purists shedding a tear over the death of the 250 two-strokes, the pessimists fearing a tidal wave of lawsuits emanating from Switzerland and IMS if any production bike engines are used in the machines, while the optimists see this as a very affordable way of building interesting racing machinery. But if the fans and pundits are divided, the teams are quietly getting on with examining the rules and evaluating the options for competing.
The Blusens BQR team were the first team to break cover, launching the Moto2 bike they will be fielding in the Spanish CEV championship just last week. And it looks like they are not alone. In an interview with the motorsports website Crash.net, Herve Poncharal of the Tech 3 Yamaha MotoGP team has announced their intention to start building a bike ready for the 2010 season. Poncharal's reasoning is interesting, and builds on the findings which came out of the IRTA talks which happened in Bologna at the end of January. The Moto2 championship would function even more as a feeder series, with the satellite teams picking up promising young talent, and grooming them to be ready for MotoGP, first with the satellite teams, and if the rider starts to achieve some of his potential, then they could move on to a factory team.
The benefits for the satellite teams would be twofold: firstly, it would give them a platform where they could be competitive, and actually have a chance of winning races and championships. Secondly, it would give them closer links to the factory teams in MotoGP, with a chance of more support from the factories in the top class.
The Kawasaki saga just refuses to lay down and die. As silence continues to envelop the project, and most parties regarding Kawasaki's participation in MotoGP as being consigned to the history books, fresh rumblings are starting to appear. The usually well-informed Italian site GPOne.com is reporting that the bikes will now be appearing on the grid, but without the Kawasaki name on their tanks.
The program would not be run by Michael Bartholemy, however. The Belgian had been in extensive talks with Kawasaki, and had come tantalisingly close to a deal. But though the Akashi factory had been supportive of Bartholemy's efforts, in the end, the deal fell through.
Instead, according to GPOne.com, it is Carmelo Ezpeleta himself who has picked up the gauntlet. The Spaniard is apparently working directly with the team to get the bikes back on the grid, though no details of riders, team personnel or any other information is available at the moment.
The likelihood is, however, that these rumblings are little more than wild fantasy. Ezpeleta has a vested interest in having the world believe that he will have a full grid (in the case of MotoGP, that would mean at least 18 bikes), and so leaks to the press about a rescue package should be taken with a pinch of salt. As for whether the Kawasakis (or whatever they get called in the end) actually line up at Qatar or not, we can only echo the words of GPOne's Alberto Cani: "We shall see..."
Around the time that Kawasaki pulled out of MotoGP, rumors persisted that Suzuki, too, was on the verge of pulling out. A number of sources inside Japan spoke of Suzuki withdrawing, as we reported earlier, but the Suzuki MotoGP team consistently denied the rumors, dismissing them as just talk.
But they were more than that, as an interview which GPOne.com is carrying with Shinichi Sahara, head of Suzuki's MotoGP team, makes clear. Sahara told GPOne.com "At around the same time that Kawasaki officially announced its withdrawal, Suzuki were also considering it as well. Why did we choose to stay? Because Hamamatsu is convinced that competition is in our DNA, and is important for our image. In the end, the final word was for our President, Osamu Suzuki."
Sahara said that contracts with Dorna played no part in the decision: "There were no contractual problems with Dorna," he told GPOne.com.
But costs continue to be an important factor in Suzuki's MotoGP program. And costs mean that Suzuki is unlikely to be fielding extra bikes in the short term. "I can't see more than two Suzukis on the grid in the future. But the long term could be different, of course."