Marco Melandri knew when he signed the contract with Hayate that Kawasaki would only be doing limited development on the bike in 2009. Just how limited that development will be was revealed today by Matthew Birt on the Motorcycle News website. According to Birt, Kawasaki will cease development of the 2009 ZX-RR at the end of March, shortly after the IRTA test concludes at Jerez. From then on, the factory will provide a maintenance service only, with no more upgrades.
This will leave Melandri to contest the season basically on the same bike that he starts the season on. And given that at the Qatar test, the Hayate - one internet wag has taken to referring to it as the Hai-Karate bike, after a brand of cheap after shave popular in the 1970's - was three seconds off the pace, it looks like being a long and grim season for the Italian. So far, Melandri's impressions of the improvements made to the engine have been positive, but his biggest complaint was a lack of rear grip. As this problem has plagued the Kawasaki for the past two seasons, especially in 2008, the chances of Kawasaki finding a solution at Jerez look slim.
Melandri's best hope must be that the team can find a source of sponsorship, and use the funds to collaborate with a third-party company on developing the machine. Former GP factory Ilmor have expressed their interest in helping with development, and a French engineering firm has also been linked with the effort. As it stands, though, the Hai-Karate bike looks doomed to start at the rear of the field, and go backwards. It's going to be a long season for Marco Melandri.
The Marco Melandri saga is finally at an end. Today, Melandri confirmed that he has signed a contract with Hayate Racing to contest the MotoGP championship for one season, after being forced to tear up his two-year deal with Kawasaki.
The deal is a costly one for Melandri, both financially and in terms of his ability to compete. "I had to make a big financial sacrifice, but the most important thing that I wanted was to find trust," he told MotoGP.com.
He will certainly need some trust. Throughout the last test at Qatar, Melandri complained of issues with rear grip, and he expressed his hope that these problems could be fixed quickly. But as rear grip is a problem that the Kawasaki has had for the past two seasons, that sounds more like the voice of a Candide-like hope, rather than a realistic expectation.
Melandri may feel he has no choice but to live in hope, however. "I have nothing to lose," he told MotoGP.com. "One month ago I had one foot outside the World Championship, and now I have a team that is working solely for me. My motivation is this, and to show Kawasaki that they made a mistake in choosing to pull out their factory support." In another month's time, at the season opener at Qatar, we shall see whether Melandri's hope as justified.
He said he would wait until the Qatar tests to make a decision, and that's exactly what he's done. According to MCN's Matthew Birt, Marco Melandri has decided to sign to ride the Kawasaki / Dornasaki / Hayate in 2009. Melandri's manager Alberto Vergani told MCN that riding the bike under the lights at Qatar had convinced Melandri that the better option would be to ride, and hope to secure a better seat for 2010, rather than sit out a year, and risk being overlooked for 2010.
The conundrum Melandri finds himself facing concerns whether it is better to ride round at the back on an obviously inferior bike, or hope that people remember what he was capable of when he was on competitive machinery. His fear is that what people - and more importantly, team managers and factory bosses - will regard the 2008 Ducati Desmosedici GP8 as competitive machinery, a bike which Melandri deeply feared, and which he had a miserable season on. And so he would appear to be pinning his hopes on the Hayate team being able to fix the Kawasaki enough to at least allow him to score points regularly, and compete for top 10 finishes.
The portents for such an outcome are not good, however. It is clear that the Kawasaki will receive little or no upgrades during the season, which would not be so bad if the Kawasaki was a competently handling motorcycle. The trouble is, the Kawasaki is something very far from that, and its problems have a very familiar ring to them. Melandri was complaining of a lack of rear grip on the bike, and Vergani told MCN that the Italian felt the bike could be competitive if they could just fix this issue.
Testing resumed under rather better conditions at Qatar today, yesterday's rain fortunately not making a reappearance. And so all of the riders took to the track, with no reason to sit it out. One rider came to regret that decision, Dani Pedrosa suffering a big highside, and fracturing his wrist and leg (full story here), a bitter irony after the Spaniard chose to sit out yesterday's session for fear of aggravating his already injured knee.
Fastest of the day was - how could it be otherwise? - Casey Stoner. The Australian put in relatively few laps, but according to Livio Suppo, his wrist was holding up better than it had been previously, the surgery on his injured scaphoid slowly starting to heal. Stoner was testing a carbon fiber swingarm to go along with the carbon fiber frame, and from the times he set, it would appear to be working.
Valentino Rossi was second fastest, though still 6/10ths behind Stoner, a big gap. But his arrears to Stoner had not left him without a sense of humor: Rossi appeared at the track with a comedy high-visibility yellow helmet, in the colors used by the emergency services in a number of countries.
Colin Edwards was third fastest, the Tech 3 Yamaha man clearly settling in with his new crew chief, while Andrea Dovizioso was left to salvage Repsol Honda's honor, taking the 4th fastest time in the dying minutes of the session, ahead of the Suzukis of Chris Vermeulen and Loris Capirossi.
The night test at Qatar got off to a frankly bizarre start on Sunday night. The test, which was due to run from 6pm to midnight local time, got off to a difficult start, after rain in the morning left the track greasy, and then rain at around 7pm called proceedings to a halt for a while, with riders sitting in the pits for an hour or so, before going out again. But it wasn't just rain that was causing the problems: Sand had been blowing onto the track and both reducing grip while paradoxically increasing tire wear, making the whole exercise of rather dubious value.
That was certainly the opinion of a number of riders: Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa decided to sit out the evening, not wanting to risk further injury to their recovering wrist and knee respectively. Loris Capirossi did not even bother to start, while Valentino Rossi came straight in after an out lap. Jorge Lorenzo recording a single lap before coming back in again.
The two riders who recorded the most laps were the two riders who need the work the most: Nicky Hayden is still battling to come to terms with the Ducati, and find a solution to the rear wheel pump that everyone except Casey Stoner seems to struggle with. Stoner suffers it just as much as all the other Ducati riders, he just seems to cope with it better, perhaps by ignoring it completely.
Marco Melandri is still to sign his contract to ride the "Hayate", or The-Bike-Formerly-Know-As-The-2009-Kawasaki. But he put in a fair stint of testing, to try and get a feel for what the bike is like. According to GPOne.com, Melandri said that TBFKAT2K is better than the 2008 Kawasaki, which must come as a relief. The team is to be run by technical guru Ichiro Yoda, with former team boss Michael Bartholemy having been pushed aside.
How could we be so naive as to think the on-again-off-again saga of Kawasaki's withdrawal from MotoGP had reached its final conclusion? The official announcement from The Team Formerly Known As Kawasaki (and now to be called Hayate, according to Motorcycle News) that they would be fielding a single bike in MotoGP next year, came as news to Marco Melandri, the man supposed to be riding it. Speaking to the Italian press, Melandri claimed that nobody had spoken to him about it. "It was a surprise to me too!" Melandri told Sportmediaset.it. "I wasn't expecting it, because until yesterday, I knew they were looking for a new name for the team, and that's all ... I need some time to examine the situation, and to get confirmation from Japan, because nobody has called me about this."
As reported yesterday, Marco Melandri will be on the grid at Qatar for the start of the 2009 season. Melandri will be riding a Kawasaki, with support provided by the Akashi factory. The company issued a statement earlier today, stating that the agreement to provide support for the team had come because of "the necessity to come to constructive solutions for all related parties."
Given the amount of public pressure Dorna had placed on Kawasaki, it seems reasonable to interpret this to mean that Dorna had placed severe pressure on Kawasaki to honor the contract which the Akashi factory had with MotoGP's organizers, after Carmelo Ezpeleta had made veiled - and not-so-veiled - threats to take Kawasaki to court for breach of contract. Although this seems to have solved Dorna's problem in the short term, Kawasaki are likely to be very wary of ever returning to the series once the economy recovers, afraid of finding themselves once more stuck in a series they cannot get out of without spending a lot of money.
Meanwhile, Dorna's own legal difficulties with the FIM look to have been solved, as the minimum quota of 18 riders has been met, which it is believed is stipulated by the private contracts between the FIM and Dorna. MotoGP remains a world championship. Just.
Episode 673 in the Kawasaki saga, as Marco Melandri used his Facebook profile once again to announce his intentions to the world. According to the Italian press, Melandri wrote "for the moment, we will test the bike at Losail, we will see whether it's going to be worth racing the bike after the test: if the bike's a disaster, we will all go home."
More interesting news about just which bike Melandri will be testing. GPOne.com is reporting that the Italian will be riding the updated 2008 version of the bike at Qatar, which was tested at Valencia and Phillip Island earlier. Melandri had previously rejected trying to race this bike, but the prospect of a year on the sidelines may have persuaded him to give the bike one more chance.
Whether this is just idle speculation or a genuine plan, we will see soon enough. The Qatar tests take place this weekend, and if Melandri is there on a Kawasaki, we will finally get an inkling of how this story is to end.
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."
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 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.
Until now, anyone wanting to know the mind of Marco Melandri had only the haiku-like utterances permitted by Facebook status updates. But today, Melandri has added an entry on his blog, finally telling his side of the story, and laying out what he expects. And for fans of the Italian, hoping to see him make the start of the season, the news is not good.
"The situation has got worse day by day," Melandri writes, "changing radically from one hour to the next without any explanation, and I have gone from being hopeful to having no certainty at all of riding in MotoGP in 2009."
And Kawasaki's withdrawal has changed the way he looks at life. "I am feeling calmer now, because I've started to think in a different way. I've realized I can't control everything that happens around me, and that I've done everything I could, and used every means at my disposal to handle the situation."
But the chances of Melandri racing are slim: "The one thing I'm sure about is that I will only race if I have the chance of doing well. I won't be in MotoGP just to make up the numbers." This is the lesson that Melandri has drawn from his difficult year with Ducati. "Another year like 2008 would kill me," he wrote.
Melandri is close to a decision on his 2009 season, however. "Now I have to wait until the end of February, but I really can't wait any longer than that to decide whether I will be racing or not," he wrote. It looks like he is ready, as Dean Adams of Superbikeplanet.com predicted with eerie clairvoyance, to sit out the season.
Kawasaki's MotoGP program looks another step closer to its demise today. On the eve of the first official MotoGP test at Sepang, various reports are appearing that the green bikes won't be present. After private testing at Eastern Creek and Phillip Island with Olivier Jacque, the Kawasakis have been packed up and most likely shipped back to Japan.
A Kawasaki absence at Sepang almost certainly means the attempts to keep their MotoGP program alive will have failed. Deadlines have come and gone with no official word on the outcome of the talks being held. Team boss Michael Bartholemy flew out to Japan for talks with Kawasaki bosses two weeks ago, and a decision was expected last Wednesday. Then, rumors emerged that the decision had been postponed until February 2nd, which came and went again with no word.
The latest rumors surrounding the situation are taken from Marco Melandri's Facebook status updates, suggesting that the Italian has a "big meeting" today, Wednesday, though the Italian was less forthcoming on what the meeting might be about. There has been talk that Melandri has been offered a buyout of his contract, which would allow him to ride another bike, and this could be related to the "meeting" Macio refers to on his Facebook page.
John Hopkins, meanwhile, is filling his days with a road trip across the US, according to MCN. The American has been spotted at an AMA Supercross event, but did not speak to reporters there. Earlier rumors that Hopper could be about to sign for Stiggy Motorsports in World Superbikes have been denied by the team boss, Johan Stigefelt.
Dorna has been notoriously careful with the video footage of its races, and has spent a lot of time and effort getting races and fragments of races taken off of Youtube and other video sharing websites. Indeed, when an online publication such as ours applies for media accreditation for MotoGP races, we are issued with instructions explicitly forbidding us to shoot and use any moving image footage of the race. This is entirely understandable, as the lion's share of Dorna's income is from television broadcasters, and they expect a good deal of protection for the large sums of money they pay for the broadcast rights.
One sign that things are starting to change a little at Dorna was the opening earlier last year of the official MotoGP.com Youtube channel, which hosted various snippets of video from the MotoGP.com website, including the excellent After The Flag official video podcast. It was a start - a careful one, but a start nonetheless.
Now, though, bigger changes are afoot. Perhaps having learned from the World Superbike website, which hosts live video of the races on its website for free in most countries, MotoGP.com is now starting to put some of the old races online. The first race to go up is the complete footage of the 2008 Jerez race, which went up online earlier today. Whether this is the first of many, or just a one-off experiment remains to be seen. At the very least, it is a promising step.
Rumors continue to surround Kawasaki's MotoGP program, and the latest rumor would seem to tip the balance in favor of the program's demise. The often well-informed British website Visordown is reporting that the 2009 MotoGP bike showed a distinct lack of reliability at the private tests they ran last week at the Australian Eastern Creek circuit.
So worried are Kawasaki's MotoGP bosses by the reliability that they are giving the project one last chance, according to Visordown. The bike will run at the private test to be held by Suzuki and Kawasaki at Phillip Island next week, where reliability issues will be examined. If the bike is not reliable enough, the project will be killed - and with it, any hope of a privateer team running the machines - so say Visordown's sources.