Ever since Honda proudly presented their 800cc RC212V MotoGP bike, the consensus has been that it was designed with one man in mind: Spanish rider Dani Pedrosa. The dissenters countered that was far too risky a strategy to entrust the future of HRC's MotoGP project on a single rider. Riders are, as Ronald ten Kate so poetically put it, like ships, but the teams are the harbors. No guarantees exist that a rider will stay with a single team for his entire career, and an injury can change everything. But, argued the conspiracy camp, it's different for Pedrosa: It's inconceivable that Pedrosa would part ways with his mentor Alberto Puig, and Puig has his tentacles buried deep inside the entrails of HRC. Puig and HRC are inextricably linked, and that means Pedrosa will be with Honda for as long as it pleases Puig.
But now, it seems, the impossible looks like it could come to pass: Spanish sports daily AS.com is reporting that Dani Pedrosa is seriously considering leaving Honda, after his disastrous 8th place finish at Donington Park. The paper reports that after the race, Pedrosa leveled his harshest criticism ever at Honda and HRC. Pedrosa has now failed to win for 16 races and over 12 months, his last win coming ironically at Donington Park, the site of his most recent humiliation.
Of course, Pedrosa's threats to leave could well be a tactical move, aimed at sending a missile with a message into the heart of HRC, and persuading Big Red to get serious about fixing the RC212V, and not clinging to a theory which gets disproven at every single race outing, Honda having won only 2 of the 24 races run in all classes this season, both wins coming from Andrea Dovizioso in the 250 class. Mick Doohan tried a similar tactic back in the 1990s, and had a great deal of success, gaining influence over the development process of the NSR 500. It remains to be seen whether Pedrosa will be similarly successful, but if he does decide to leave Honda, there will be no shortage of teams ready to pick him up.
The relatively small grid in MotoGP has been a thorn in Dorna's eye for several years now. To remedy this situation, the organization which runs the MotoGP series is starting to put pressure on the manufacturers which only run factory teams (Suzuki and Kawasaki) to provide extra machinery to satellite teams, to enlarge the grid, and increase the talent pool in the premier class. Up until this weekend, it looked like Suzuki were going to do just that, by providing at least one extra bike in MotoGP next year. The Aspar team, which currently dominates both 125s and 250s, were the designated recipients of the extra Suzuki, and former world champion Kevin Schwantz was to be drafted in to run the team.
That was the theory. But now, reports from both Crash.net and AS.com are claiming that the Aspar / 3rd Suzuki project has been put on hold until 2009. Suzuki don't want to provide a bike to a satellite team if they don't feel they can offer them the proper support, and they don't want to risk the nascent success of the factory-run Rizla Suzuki team by overstretching the racing department supporting too many bikes.
The House Of Hamamatsu is indeed caught on the horns of a dilemma. Now that the project that they have slaved over fruitlessly for so many years is showing signs of competitiveness, with a win and a podium so far this year, and Hopkins running with the Hondas, Yamahas and Ducatis almost every weekend, they cannot afford to risk letting their attention be diverted by supplying satellite teams. And yet precisely because of this success, the interest in a satellite bike is very high. According to AS.com, Suzuki has issued strict instructions not to discuss the situation in public, but like most secrets in the paddock, it's the kind of news that is known only to paddock insiders, and a few million of their closest friends.
The lack of a Suzuki does shake up the MotoGP merry-go-round. With one less seat to dispense, the market just got a good deal tighter. Alex de Angelis was the name most closely linked to the project, but with the Aspar seat gone, de Angelis could find it tougher to move up to the premier class. If he comes, then a veteran will have to make way. There'll be a few more worried faces among the MotoGP middle order this evening.
While the weather gods had thrown just about everything they had at the Donington Park circuit on Friday, Saturday turned out to be a much better day. That "much better" should be seen in the light of yesterday's deluge, however, as the weather could hardly be regarded as glorious. But although it had been gray and overcast, tt least it had stayed dry for both the morning and the afternoon session.
The first dry session had thrown up a couple of surprises, none bigger than Nicky Hayden's return to form. Topping the timesheets, and looking consistently quick, the reigning world champion seems to have made a big step forward since his successful test after the Catalunya race, and looked the best he has been all year. At the other end of the table, Anthony West, who had been very impressive in the wet, showed he still needed some time to get used to the Kawasaki MotoGP bike in the dry, ending a lowly 18th.
So, there were a lot of unanswered questions as the riders made their way out onto the track for the official qualifying practice, to sort out the starting grid amongst themselves. Conditions were still dry, the track a little warmer, but still not perfect racing weather, track temperatures staying stubbornly in the high 70s and low 80s, some 20 degrees Fahrenheit below ideal. Casey Stoner immediately demonstrated the lack of grip at the track, by outbraking himself into Melbourne, and running off the track.
Stoner soon made amends. Although Dani Pedrosa set the early pace, getting just inside the 1'29 bracket, after just 10 minutes, a quarter of the way into the session, it was Casey Stoner who set the first serious time of the day, with a 1'29.339. One lap later, he was 3/10ths faster, setting a 1'29.061. If Donington does not suit the Ducatis, nobody had bothered to tell Stoner.
Over the next 20 minutes, riders and teams were focussed on getting as good a dry setup as possible, with everyone putting in long, consistent runs. The timesheets showed that Casey Stoner, Valentino Rossi and John Hopkins were doing the best job, with Dani Pedrosa not far off. But we were waiting for the first of the qualifiers to appear, to start the delicate business of sorting out the grid.
As always, it was Randy de Puniet who was the first to oblige. With 27 minutes to go, the young Frenchman went out on his first qualifying tire to try and set a fast lap. We were in for a surprise: de Puniet's qualifier helped him improve his time, but was still only good enough for 3rd spot, nearly 4/10ths slower than Stoner's time set on a race tire. The man de Puniet had taken 3rd place from was another surprise name: Carlos Checa was setting very respectable times on his very standard satellite Honda, de Puniet's time dropping him down to 4th spot.
The action started getting tighter, and the times started dropping, but not as quickly as we had been expecting. With 22 minutes to go, Dani Pedrosa took 3rd spot from de Puniet, and a minute later, Valentino Rossi improved on his best time so far. But Stoner's time still looked out of reach. Two minutes later, Pedrosa tried again, being faster round the first three sections of the track, but losing out around the final tight left-hander at Goddards, a crucial turn in the race, and a place where the race can be won or lost.
With 15 minutes to go, the track was quiet and the pits full, as everyone came in before the final dash for pole position. Toni Elias' Honda joined in with the general mood, falling silent and leaving the young Spaniard to rush back to the pits to try to set a time on his spare bike.
At the 10 minute mark, qualifying got serious: Valentino Rossi put his first set of Michelin qualifiers to excellent use, grabbing pole from Stoner with a lap of 1'28.667. And a minute later, The Kentucky Kid showed his form in the morning was no fluke, Hayden pushing his Repsol Honda to take 3rd spot. Behind Hayden, John Hopkins looked like getting on the front row, being very quick round the first part of the track, before losing out again on the tight final couple of sections, improving his time, but staying down in 4th.
Then, the Tornado blew in. Colin Edwards had been setting decent times all session, but with 6 minutes to go, the Fiat Yamaha rider took his first qualifier to 2nd spot with a lap of 1'28.931. Stoner, now down in 3rd, was in the middle of fighting back. The shorter track at Donington allows a qualifier to last for two laps, if you're lucky, and Stoner was running very fast for the first three sections. But once again, the tight, bumpy left-hander at Goddards claimed another victim, Stoner nearly losing the front end over the bumps, to cross the line well down on his own best time.
The final minutes of Qualifying turned into a familiar battle, and perhaps the battle we had all expected at the start of the season. The Fiat Yamahas were pitched against the Repsol Hondas, with the Yamahas getting the best of the early running. With 3 minutes to go, Nicky Hayden pushed harder, but could only improve to 3rd. Then Valentino Rossi fought back, fast through the first couple of sections, but could not hold on.
With 2 minutes to go, Dani Pedrosa moved up a gear. Setting a blistering pace through the first 3 sections, he looked like claiming his first pole of the year, but once again, the final corner at Goddards thwarted him, improving his time, but only to 2nd. Pedrosa tried eking another lap out of his qualifiers, but just could not hold his speed through the second half of the track.
There was only one man left on the track still in with a shot at pole. As the clock ticked down to 0, Colin Edwards put his head down and went. With less than a minute left to go, the Texas Tornado howled across the line with a 1'28.521, fast enough to claim pole, the second of this year, and of his career. Once Edwards crossed the line, there was no one else left capable of taking pole away.
So, the front of the grid has a familiar look. The two Fiat Yamahas of Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi in spots 1 and 2, with the Repsol Hondas of Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden closing out row 1 with 3rd, and opening up row 2 with 4th spot. The man who was fast early on, Casey Stoner, took 5th spot on his Marlboro Ducati. Though Stoner will be disappointed with 5th spot, what is most arresting about his time is he set it on race tires, while the rest of the grid set their fastest laps on qualifiers. John Hopkins closes out the 2nd row on the Rizla Suzuki.
The third row sees Carlos Checa on the LCR Honda in 7th, a remarkable achievement considering the terrible time he had at his home Grand Prix in Barcelona two weeks ago. Kawasaki's Randy de Puniet is in 8th, after setting strong times on race tires, ahead of the two Gresini Hondas, Marco Melandri taking 9th ahead of team mate Toni Elias.
What this means for tomorrow's race is hard to say. In the dry, Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa and Nicky Hayden all had good, consistent pace, while in the wet, Anthony West and John Hopkins were up with Rossi and Stoner. The weather forecast is for light rain, so a dry race looks unlikely, but then the conditions don't look like being as torrential as they were on Friday. It looks like anything could happen on Sunday, and it probably will.
Much of the uncertainty surrounding James Toseland's future in MotoGP is related to the plans of his current team, Ten Kate Honda, to enter MotoGP. Ronald ten Kate has already stated that he expects to make an announcement at the end of June, but speculation continues apace.
Now, the Dutch site Motorfreaks.nl has helped clear the situation up a little, in an interview with team manager Ronald ten Kate, ranging over the team's plans for MotoGP and World Supersport, his reaction to the rule changes in World Superbikes, and the possibility of an official Honda Ten Kate replica CBR1000RR.
Most important to MotoGP fans is the state of the team's MotoGP plans. Rumors were rife in Holland that plans for a MotoGP team had been dropped, as Jaap Timmer, Director of Sport for the Assen TT, had said in a press conference that Takeo Fukui, CEO of Honda Motor Company Limited, would be visiting Ten Kate's home base in Nieuwleusen, not to discuss a MotoGP team, but the creation of a junior team in World Supersport. Ronald ten Kate was dismissive of such talk:
Well, there's plenty of talk about, but that particular conversation was about the fact that we could go in two different directions. This doesn't mean that the MotoGP project has been abandoned, on the contrary, we are still in the middle of negotiations about the project. But basically, we can go two different ways: Continue with setting up a MotoGP team; or continue our work in Supersport. We'll be having several discussions with people from HRC next week, including the CEO of Honda Corporation, Takeo Fukui.
So, it seems Ten Kate's MotoGP plans are still up in the air, and only likely to be finalized next week. There is no doubt that Ten Kate's decision will have a big effect in the MotoGP paddock. Ten Kate's inclusion will likely mean the demise of one or more of the satellite Honda teams, as it's improbable that even the mighty Honda could supply more than the 6 RC212Vs plus backup parts and engines that it currently provides to MotoGP teams. Ten Kate's Hannspree sponsorship would suggest that Gresini would get the boot, but Gresini have so far been the most successful satellite Honda team. The alternative is that Konica Minolta and LCR would stop getting Honda bikes, which is a much more credible scenario: the Konica Minolta sponsorship deal with team manager Luca Montiron finishes at the end of the season, and Lucio Cecchinello has had a difficult time finding a title sponsor for the LCR effort. That would just leave the Hannspree spoils to be divided, a battle that Ten Kate look likely to win.
But this remains speculation, of course, and we will only know the truth of the matter once official announcements are made. Those should come soon.
Well, we've speculated about possibilities, deciphered information from various sources, and chewed over press releases, but finally, confirmation is here. Kawasaki confirmed to Motorcycle News that Anthony West has officially joined the Kawasaki Racing Team to ride the MotoGP bike for the rest of the season, replacing Olivier Jacque. Kawasaki were known to be unhappy with OJ, and with the French veteran being injured so often, it meant that the full weight of testing and development fell on the still young shoulders of Randy de Puniet. After West tested the Kawasaki after the Catalunya round, ostensibly to help test tires, the team was so impressed with his technical feedback that he became a serious candidate to replace OJ.
The team hope that West can take some of the responsibility of testing and developing from de Puniet, and push the young Frenchman to greater heights of achievement. And with Jacque returning to his duties as a pure test and development rider, replacing Naoki Matsudo, who is out with a hip injury and may not return to riding for quite a while, Kawasaki hope to step development of their already impressive 800 cc ZX-RR Ninja up a gear.
What West's arrival will do to the merry-go-round that is the MotoGP job market is too early to say. But if he makes an impact, then at least one seat is likely to remain filled next year, reshuffling the cards for the remaining candidates. And with rain likely at Donington on Sunday, and West being one of the finest rain riders in the world, Westy could make an impact very, very quickly.
Italian racing site GPOne.com is reporting that James Toseland is to hold a press conference on Thursday, at the Day of Champions. GPOne.com quotes Toseland's manager as saying the purpose of the press conference is to announce a tie with a sponsor, and not to talk about his future. But any talk of a personal sponsor is likely to open doors in MotoGP, if Toseland can bring money to a team. The press conference is expected at 1:30 pm.
At last, confirmation has been forthcoming of something the world has known for the past week or so: Yamaha Motor Europe have finally confirmed that they have released Ant West from his contract to ride for them in World Supersport for the rest of 2007. The press release makes no mention of which team West will be joining, but there really is only one viable option open: The Kawasaki Racing Team. After all, no one else is in desperate need of a rider.
The most interesting aspect of the press release is probably the timing. Normally, this kind of release is coordinated between teams, but the press statement has been released ahead of official confirmation by "a competitor brand" that West will be riding for them. This may cause a little discomfort in the "competitor brand's" team, as it is possible that the "competitor brand" has not yet told Olivier Jacque that he's going to be their test rider for the rest of the year, like he was last year.
The other thing worthy of note is that West had to pay a financial penalty to break open his contract. And the wording of the text could make you think that West will be paying this out of his own pocket, the "competitor brand's" generosity not stretching to covering the costs of a contract breach.
But Yamaha's disappointment is understandable: With two wins and a podium out of three races, the team must have believed they would be collecting a good deal of silverware over the next few months. Now, they will have to find yet another replacement. The obvious name would be Andrew Pitt, who has already rode in World Supersport this year, and has just been contracted to work as a test rider for the Yamaha MotoGP team. But this remains speculation at this point in time.
The full text of the Yamaha press release is shown below:
Yamaha Releases World Supersport Winner Anthony West
Yamaha Motor Europe has agreed to release Anthony West, at his request, from riding the R6 in the remaining races of the 2007 Supersport World Championship. West has been offered a chance to ride in MotoGP for the rest of the season for a competitor brand and has accepted a financial compensation agreement with Yamaha to terminate his current contract.
West was hired by Yamaha to replace Kevin Curtain, who is currently out injured following an accident at the Valencia round back in April. Swapping his GP250 two-stroke machine for a 600 stock based four-stroke West showed his capability very quickly, finishing third in his first race at Monza.
West was initially contracted only to ride for the Yamaha World Supersport Team in the Monza event. But, after it was confirmed that Curtain's recovery period was going to be longer than originally anticipated, Yamaha and West extended the one-event agreement to the remainder of the season. He went on to win the Supersport race at Silverstone and also won at last weekendâ€™s round in Misano, reconfirming the championship potential of the R6.
"It's such a strange feeling, making this decision. Yamaha gave me a fantastic chance to show my potential on the R6. Itâ€™s thanks to this ride that I feel I've got my career back on track. To leave Yamaha now is sad but it's such a great chance for me to follow my dream to go to MotoGP.
Yamaha didn't want to block this chance for me; Iâ€™m grateful they believed in me and gave me the chance to prove myself. I want to add that Iâ€™m really sorry to the supersport team guys and Iâ€™d like to thank them for all their hard work and support. The crew have been great and the bike was fast from the first minute I sat on it. Iâ€™ve not been used to such a professional team and they really made me feel at home.
The financial compensation Iâ€™ve got to pay is severe but I've got the chance to show what I can do on a MotoGP bike and I hope it's worth it. It was important for me to be released from the team by mutual agreement; I'm still young and Yamaha is a good company and, who knows, maybe at some point in my career we can work together again."
Laurens Klein Koerkamp, Racing Manager, Yamaha Motor Europe
â€œWe are obviously disappointed by releasing a winning rider from his contract, which is not our normal conduct! But rather then going to court we have been able to find a financial settlement; a solution we can only accept because Anthony was a replacement rider drafted in during the season and only had a theoretical chance to win the championship. Nevertheless, we deeply regret his decision, which leaves the team disappointed. All the same, Anthony is a good rider and I wish him all the best in pursuing his dream. We are currently working to replace him and have plenty of time before the next race."
The ninth round is at Brno in the Czech Republic on 22nd July, with two Yamaha World Supersport Team tests planned prior to that.
After what seems like weeks of speculation, even though it's only been a few days, the deal has finally been done: Anthony West will ride the works Kawasaki in MotoGP for the rest of the season, according to Motorcyclenews.com. West is to replace Frenchman Olivier Jacque, who has suffered a nightmare season with injury so far this year. Jacque will return to working as Kawasaki's test and development rider, taking the place of Naoki Matsudo, who has been out with a broken pelvis.
West has had a genuine roller coaster of a season so far, breaking with his 250, Team Sicilia, over money and technical problems, whilst winning 2 out of the 3 World Supersport races he entered during his free weekends for the factory Yamaha team. He had originally signed a contract to run the rest of the season with Yamaha in Supersport, but his contract allegedly has an escape clause built in if he is offered a ride in MotoGP.
West previously competed in the premier class in 2001, aboard a highly uncompetitive Honda V-twin 500, finishing 18th, well ahead of his team mate. The equipment he will be riding now is a good deal more competitive, as Randy de Puniet's 5th place at Catalunya demonstrated. The Kawasaki Racing Team have been complaining all season that their riders weren't living up to the potential of the bike, but with West coming into the team, they must be hoping that that will change.
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Although widely regarded as a done deal, official news on a potential link up between reigning 250 world champion and the Fiat Yamaha team remains conspicuous by its absence. But two different sources, the Italian site GPOne.com, quoting the sports daily Corriere dello Sport, and AS.com, quoting the Spanish weekly magazine Solo Moto, are both saying that the deal has already been signed, and that Jorge Lorenzo will ride for Yamaha in MotoGP next year. Lorenzo and his manager Dani Amatriain have said that they will not make an announcement until after the summer, to allow the Mallorcan to concentrate on prolonging his 250 world crown, and so confirmation is unlikely to come from them, nor from Yamaha, who are notoriously good at keeping secrets, as the silence around their signing of Valentino Rossi at the end of 2003 proved.
The question remains whether Lorenzo and Rossi will share a pit box. Rossi is said to be against the move, and so either Rossi or Lorenzo could find themselves in a separate team. But with both riders being such big names, finding cash to fund those teams should not be a problem.
Team KR have announced that Kenny Roberts Jr is to take a rest, and miss the Donington race. The former 500cc world champion feels he has reached the end of what he can do with the current equipment, and cannot provide the team with any more input, until the new chassis which the team is working on for the KR212V turns up after Assen.
With Jonny Rea having pulled out earlier today, the team will run only one rider, Kenny's younger brother Kurtis Roberts. Kurtis rode at Mugello and Barcelona, and will now be in the luxurious position of having two bikes at his disposal. With the weather looking decidedly English (read: some sun with a dash of rain mixed in) this weekend, two bikes look like being an absolute necessity.