Silly Season Rumors Into Overdrive: Dovizioso To Suzuki, Spies To JIR, Vermeulen To WSBK
There are points during the year when the so-called silly season - the period during which contract negotiations hot up and rumors about who will be riding wear start circulating furiously - becomes so febrile that it becomes hard to tell where insider gossip ends and psychedelic speculation begins. At these times - usually shortly after the summer break, and once a major name has switched rides, freeing up the rest of the market to move - speculation about who will go where ceases to be an educated guessing game of which riders would be the best match with which teams, and becomes more like just linking every possible rider with every team with a possible empty seat, in the hope of getting it right thanks solely to the laws of statistics. Consequently, during these periods the silly season is not so much silly as just plain ridiculous.
Now appears to be such a time. Once Marco Melandri officially announced that he would be leaving Ducati, and then confirmed he would be riding for Kawasaki, the rest of the market seemed to fall into place like a jigsaw puzzle. Nicky Hayden would go to Ducati, Andrea Dovizioso would go to Repsol Honda, and if Suzuki kept both their riders, then Ben Spies would go to Gresini Honda, courtesy of American Honda.
But that was before the madness struck. Earlier, we reported that Ben Spies had been talking to Ducati for a seat in World Superbikes, though Ducati are far from enamored of his wage demands. And now, according to the otherwise reputable Spanish magazine Motociclismo, a whole bunch of the other deals we thought were already cemented are up in the air as well.
Perhaps the least exotic of these rumors is one which has been raised earlier. After failing to meet performance targets that would have automatically given him another year at Suzuki, Chris Vermeulen is currently in the midst of renegotiating a contract with Suzuki. The problem here is that Suzuki, though they are keen to retain Vermeulen's services, are only willing to do so at less than half his current salary. As much as Vermeulen wants to stay in MotoGP, such a pay cut may make sticking with Suzuki a rather unpalatable prospect, and the Australian may instead choose to replace Troy Bayliss at the Xerox Ducati factory team in World Superbikes. If Vermeulen does stay in MotoGP, Suzuki isn't his only option: he also has options with Gresini Honda and Kawasaki.
Vermeulen vacating a seat at Suzuki opens up one of the more bizarre possibilities: Not Ben Spies, which the whole world and their second cousin's daughter-in-laws ex-husband have been expecting, but Andrea Dovizioso. The Italian, who is widely tipped to take Nicky Hayden's place at Repsol Honda, is said to be in negotiations with Suzuki, as well as less serious talks with Kawasaki. Dovizioso, who has been with Honda since he started out on a 125 in 2002, may have his doubts about becoming team mate to Dani Pedrosa. Rumors have it that Alberto Puig and Dani Pedrosa have the Repsol team in such an iron grip that the prospect of spending two years as a gopher for the Spanish champion-elect, and subsuming their own ambitions to the goal of a Spanish/Honda championship would be a little too much like a big mouthful from the vessel with the pestle. Despite his long association with Honda, it is entirely conceivable that Dovizioso is exploring other options before signing away his soul to HRC.
After Ben Spies' intended deal with Suzuki fell through earlier in the year, his name started being linked with just about every team in the paddock. It appears there were a couple we missed, though, and now, Motociclismo has corrected that failure: The Spanish magazine is now claiming that Spies is talking to JiR and Luca Montiron, to ride a satellite Honda next year. Spies has already been linked to Gresini Honda, and it is no secret that after losing Nicky Hayden to Ducati, American Honda desperately want to keep an American on a Honda in MotoGP next year. With Team Scot and JiR splitting up, and Team Scot said to be fielding their 250 rider Yuki Takahashi next year, Luca Montiron has claimed that he has a contract from Honda for his Japan Italy Racing team to field a satellite Honda next year, bringing the total number of Hondas on the grid up to 7. The JiR team is no sinecure, however. Since switching from Bridgestone to Michelin in 2005, the team has had dismal results, and helped sink the careers of both Makoto Tamada and Carlos Checa. Whether Spies would fare any better is open to question.
As for Nicky Hayden, though it's an open secret that a deal has been done with Ducati (according to Motociclismo, for two seasons), an official announcement may yet have to wait. The general expectation was that Ducati would hold a press conference at Misano to announce that Hayden would be joining the team for next year. But as Superbikeplanet.com's Dean Adams points out, HRC may yet spoil the Ducati party, to be held just a few miles down the road from their Bologna base. Honda's contracts with its riders are pretty specific, and pretty straightforward: Leave if you want, but if you do, no statements until either we say so, or the end of the season. With MotoGP about to visit the Indianapolis next, and the US media focusing on Hayden and the other American riders, Honda are unlikely to want the questions pitched at Hayden revolving solely around his move to Ducati. If no announcement is made, then Hayden will be forced to carry on as if nothing has happened, and toe the company line.
Even if this does happen, and no official announcement is forthcoming about Nicky Hayden's deal with Ducati until after the final MotoGP round at Valencia, that doesn't mean that further news of the deal won't leak out. Offical statements may be prohibited, but accidental slips of the tongue can hardly be prevented, regardless of the measure of genuine happenstance involved. Of course, both Hayden and Ducati boss would continue to deny it, but that wouldn't stop managers and press officers briefing journalists off the record.
Fortunately for Hayden, he is unlikely to be held to his contract as strictly as Valentino Rossi was when he left Honda to join Yamaha. Then, Honda barred Rossi from riding the Yamaha M1 until after December 31st, in effect losing all of the pre-season testing at the end of 2003. That, though, was for a rider that Honda hadn't wanted to let go. Any affection which Honda may once have felt for the last man to give them a world championship has cooled, though, and Honda is unlikely to stand in Hayden's way.