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.
Since the official announcement that Kawasaki has decided to pull out of MotoGP, a number of people - most notably, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta - have been working furiously on finding a way of keeping the bikes on the grid. The phone lines between Kawasaki's Akashi base, Dorna's Barcelona headquarters, the Kawasaki MotoGP team's base in Heerlen in the Netherlands, and Jorge Martinez in Spain have been positively humming.
For a long time, Jorge Martinez and the Aspar team looked like the most promising prospect for a continuation of Kawasaki's MotoGP efforts, but as negotiations dragged on, and disagreements started to emerge over the conditions under which Aspar would acquire the bikes, hopes began to fade. On Wednesday, Motorcycle News reported that Ezpeleta believed that Aspar would not take on the project, and today, confirmation comes from Jorge Martinez, boss of the Aspar team, himself.
Martinez confirmed to the Spanish magazine Motociclismo that he will not be running the Kawasakis in MotoGP this year. As expected, the deal fell through over the conditions imposed by Kawasaki: Martinez needed at least one Spanish rider if his sponsors were to be able to justify their investment in the project, a demand that Kawasaki could not agree to. In addition, Kawasaki would only provide the bikes for the 2009 season - a consequence of the deal offered to them by Dorna.
Kawasaki had committed themselves to compete in MotoGP through 2011, in a contract signed by the MSMA with Dorna. Dorna had offered to waive any fines or further litigation against Kawasaki if the Japanese factory was willing to provide bikes for the 2009 season. But Jorge Martinez and the Aspar team are keen to enter MotoGP on a long-term basis, and a one-year deal would be more likely to hinder their long-term plans than help them. Faced with these problems, Martinez decided to pull out of further attempts to negotiate a deal with Kawasaki.
Since Kawasaki announced that they were pulling out of MotoGP, many gigabytes of online storage have been used up on speculating about the future of John Hopkins and Marco Melandri. But for the most part, it has been nothing but speculation, with little or nothing heard from the protagonists themselves. Hopkins posted a brief statement on his personal website on New Year's Eve, stating that he was as much in the dark as everyone else, but his erstwhile team mate, Marco Melandri remained silent.
Until today: At an impromptu press conference in a cafe in Milan, Marco Melandri finally spoke to the Italian press about his future, and what he expects to be doing next year. The Italian told the assembled journalists that he would know more about exactly what is happening next week. "I'll be getting a phone call from Michael Bartholemy next Wednesday," Melandri said, "to tell us whether he expects to run the Kawasakis in a private team next year. Then on the 31st, I'll get a proposal from Kawasaki in Japan, about whether I will get my full salary, a golden handshake or nothing. I'm hoping the proposal isn't to go work in a shop in Japan," he joked.
As for his future in motorcycle racing, Melandri said it was all still up in the air. He discounted a return to Gresini: "I contacted them after reading about it in the press, but they don't have the funds to provide an extra bike," Melandri said. But the Italian was emphatic about only accepting a competitive ride. "What's for sure is that I won't race on an uncompetitive bike (the 2008 Kawasaki, Ed.) nor am I thinking about other series such as Superbikes. Maybe I'll sit out a year and return in 2010."
In the turbulent times which MotoGP is passing through, the first casualty is truth. Throughout the Kawasaki saga, rumors persisted in the Italian press that any deal which kept Kawasaki bikes on the grid would leave them in the hands of Jorge Martinez, head of the Aspar team.
After Kawasaki announced its official withdrawal from MotoGP, speculation continued that Aspar would get the Kawasaki bikes, despite that deal looking much further from reality. Now, the Dutch website Motorfreaks.nl is reporting that Kawasaki have categorically denied the rumors that Aspar would field the former factory Kawasakis in a private team structure. What's more, Kawasaki say that there will be no Kawasakis at all in MotoGP in 2009.
"As soon as the economic situation improves, we definitely intend to return to the MotoGP arena, but for next season, there will be no Kawasakis in MotoGP. Consequently, there's no truth in the rumors that Martinez would be running our bikes," Kawasaki told Motorfreaks.
As for the fine for breach of contract which Kawasaki will incur by pulling out before their contract ends in 2011, the Akashi factory is still in talks with Dorna. "This won't affect our decision to withdraw from MotoGP, however," Kawasaki said.
After weeks of speculation, finally an official announcement has been made. Kawasaki Heavy Industries announced that it was officially pulling out of MotoGP. All the rumors and hopes of Dorna somehow being able to put together a deal have come to nothing: the economic situation is too bleak, with no hope of relief in the immediate future, for Kawasaki to be able to justify the necessary investment.
But for those with a penchant for exegesis, the news is not quite as dark as it may seem. The official statement (shown below) says that Kawasaki will "suspend its factory MotoGP racing activities from 2009." The two key words there are "suspend" and "factory".
For it looks like there will still be 19 motorcycles on the MotoGP grid. The main speculation in the press is that Jorge Martinez is still looking to run the team for 2009, but there are good reasons to doubt this is the case. The Spanish manager of the Aspar team had previously told reporters that a commitment to developing the MotoGP bikes and a three-year deal were the minimum requirements if he was to get involved in running the team, and that is very clearly missing from this statement.
News is starting to filter out of Akashi, Japan, by way of Italy, that Kawasaki will not after all be pulling out of MotoGP. After long negotiation with Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, the Japanese manufacturer has rolled back its decision to withdraw from the premier class, probably after Ezpeleta spelled out the financial consequences of withdrawal.
The exact details are as yet unknown, but it looks like Jorge Martinez will be given the Kawasaki team to run, while Michael Bartholemy will remain team manager. At least, that's what GPOne.com says, the Italian news site Mediaset believes that Martinez will be given the team to run as he seems fit. Martinez had earlier told La Gazzetta dello Sport that he was only interested if he could have a three year contract to run the team.
All this is still speculation, though. An official announcement with full details - including what will happen to the riders John Hopkins and Marco Melandri, one of whom will have to make way for a Spanish rider if Martinez gets to run the team - is expected sometime in the next few hours.
Today - Monday, January 5th - was the day we had been expecting the official announcement from Kawasaki of their withdrawal from MotoGP, but so far, nothing has been heard from Akashi in Japan. No news is not necessarily good news though. What it does mean is that Kawasaki have probably come under a lot of pressure from both Dorna and the management of their MotoGP team to either reconsider their decision, or find a way to allow the team to continue in a drastically revised form.
But while it's been quiet in Japan, news has once again been filtering in from around Europe about the possibilities created by Kawasaki's imminent withdrawal. The main attention focuses on Jorge Martinez Aspar, who runs the Aspar team in 125s and 250s, and whose earlier attempt to form a one-man Kawasaki satellite team foundered on the choice of riders. Martinez has spoken to the Spanish magazine Motociclismo about his attempts to take over the Kawasaki team, should the Japanese manufacturer decide to go ahead.
"At the moment, it's all up in the air," Martinez told Motociclismo. "I spoke to Dorna about it, and we won't know anything for certain until Carmelo [Ezpeleta] returns from the meeting with the MSMA in Japan."
Martinez also made it clear that he wouldn't take on the project at any price. "For me, the most important thing is a Spanish rider, but I also need some guarantees from Kawasaki about the bikes for 2009, such as the development of the bike, the supply of parts, and the maintenance." He also said that the speed with which all this had happened meant there were still a few question marks over the viability of the project. He told Motociclismo he expected that it would be "ten or twelve days" before he knew anything for certain.