With all the news emerging about riders switching teams for the 2008 season with only half the season done, MotoGP followers were expressing incredulity that the "Silly Season" had started so early. Now, it just got worse: For the first news is starting to emerge about the 2009 season, some 17 months away.
Motorcycle News is reporting that Ben Spies believes he has a deal to ride with Suzuki in MotoGP in 2009. Spies told MCN that he really wanted to ride in MotoGP next year, but with Chris Vermeulen already signed, Suzuki being close to a deal with Loris Capirossi, and the chances of a third Suzuki bike running next year looking increasingly unlikely, the possibility of switching was not open to Spies for 2008. Spies also stated that he expects to have several wildcard rides next year, as preparation for a full-time switch in 2009.
There was some doubt as to whether Ben Spies would actually make the move to MotoGP. Spies has a well-publicized fear of flying, the result of a couple of bad experiences in aircraft early in life, including looking out of the window as a child, only to see the engine of the plane on fire. There was also some doubt as to the Texan's motivation: Spies, like many racers in the AMA, is very well paid, and is unlikely to see much of a pay hike if he moves to MotoGP. But Spies' desire to measure himself against the very best in the world seems to be motivation enough to put up with the flying.
Spies' move, if it comes about, raises a very interesting prospect of a clash of the series. By 2009, James Toseland should be in the MotoGP series - if he is not, then he is unlikely ever to make it - and that year could also see the entry of Spanish 125 champion and current 250 ace Alvaro Bautista into the class. Added to the likes of Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo, whose move to MotoGP with Yamaha was announced yesterday, we should finally get an answer to the question of which series produces the best riders, and provides the best preparation for MotoGP.
Rumors had been flying for nearly a year, and now it's finally been confirmed: Jorge Lorenzo, the 250 World Champion, has signed with Yamaha to ride a Factory M1 for 2008. There had been much speculation that Rossi would not have Lorenzo in his team, and the wording of the press release seems to confirm this.
There are two key phrases:
- "a YZR-M1, with direct Factory support," and;
- "the exact structure of Yamahaâ€™s team and rider organization is still under consideration."
This seems to suggest that the widely-rumored one-man team, consisting of Jorge Lorenzo, with tobacco money from Fortuna, is likely to be a reality, leaving open the possibility of Colin Edwards staying as the development rider with the Fiat Yamaha team, alongside Valentino Rossi.
The prospect of Lorenzo in MotoGP is a very interesting one, for along with a great deal of talent, Jorge Lorenzo brings a not inconsiderable ego, and a manager with considerable personal animosity towards Alberto Puig, who manages Dani Pedrosa. So there is not just the matter of the world championship to contest, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the title of Spain's favorite rider.
And besides the animosity between managers, there is also rumored to be some animosity between Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo, Rossi said to be not at all enamored of Lorenzo's ego or his antics. All in all, 2008 is already shaping up to be a fascinating season, and we're not yet done with 2007.
From the official Yamaha press release:
Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd announces that it has concluded a two-year agreement with 250cc World Champion Jorge Lorenzo. The 20-year-old Spaniard will make his MotoGP debut in 2008 aboard a YZR-M1, with direct Factory support.
Lorenzo, who won the 250 title in 2006, is currently leading the championship, after winning six out of the first ten races this season.
"Yamaha has been watching Jorge's career with interest for some time and we are delighted that he will be joining our MotoGP line-up from next seasonâ€ - commented Lin Jarvis, Managing Director of Yamaha Motor Racing. â€œWe are sure that he will be a valuable asset for the future and we look forward to the commencement of his MotoGP career with Yamaha.â€
The exact structure of Yamahaâ€™s team and rider organization is still under consideration at the present time. Further details, including Lorenzoâ€™s team structure, will be announced in due course.
The Laguna Seca race has barely finished, but already the rider announcements are coming thick and fast. After the announcement that Marco Melandri will switch to Ducati for next year, now, Motorcycle News is reporting that Chris Vermeulen has signed a new contract with Suzuki. The contract will see Vermeulen stay with Suzuki for 2008, with an option to extend the contract for 2009 as well.
Ducati have just announced at Laguna Seca that Marco Melandri has signed with Ducati for the 2008 and 2009 seasons, according to Superbikeplanet.com. Melandri and Livio Suppo, the Ducati team manager, go back a long way, Suppo helping Melandri get his first ride in 125s, and have maintained a close relationship through the years. The combination of Casey Stoner and Marco Melandri would seem to be an ideal one, possibly laying the foundation of a racing dynasty, the form that Stoner is in, and as good as the Ducati GP7 is.
This solves the problem of Ducati having an Italian rider, with Loris Capirossi being on his way out almost from the start of the season, and opens up a bunch of doors elsewhere in the paddock. Loris Capirossi is rumored to be going to either Kawasaki or Suzuki, with an announcement expected very soon, possibly as early as this week, which would leave a space at the manufacturer which Capirex doesn't join, and then there's the question of Melandri's Gresini Honda ride.
James Toseland is looking like a strong contender for any of those spare seats, as will be Alex de Angelis and Andrea Dovizioso. There is some talk of Ben Spies moving to MotoGP from AMA, but if that's next year, that would definitely be with Suzuki.
So, with Melandri finally officially announcing his move to Ducati, the next pawn to fall will be Loris Capirossi. Once Capirossi announces his intentions, then we will know which seats are left for newcomers.
~~~ UPDATED ~~~
The usually very well-informed Italian site GPOne.com is saying that Ducati will be talking to Capirossi about running a third factory Ducati. Discussions are expected to take place next week.
This afternoon's qualifying at Laguna Seca turned out to be a very strange affair. Despite the appearance of normality, with Casey Stoner taking the top spot almost from the very first lap the riders made of the Laguna Circuit, after just 10 minutes, the session was red-flagged after Marco Melandri had a very nasty-looking accident, clipping a slow Kurtis Roberts while Melandri was going very fast, running wide into Turn 4 and being unable to stay on the bike, tumbling in the dirt before getting up very shaken.
Melandri's crash, and the aftermath, shed a rather poor light on the Laguna Seca circuit, both in terms of safety and facilities. The run-off area outside Turn 4 is hard-packed dirt, rather than the gravel that you might find at a more modern track, meaning that when you hit the ground here, it hurts pretty good. Then, the fact that the session had to be red-flagged doesn't speak well for the track either: Some air fencing had to be reinflated, and the access for the medical vehicles couldn't be provided via access roads, but had to be done in front of the crash barriers, making it too dangerous to race. The corner workers and staff were all extremely professional, and acted very quickly, but the fact that a practice session has to be red-flagged because of a relatively run-of-the-mill crash is very bad for a track. Laguna struggles with room, of course, the magnificent rolling nature of the landscape which gives the track its character also making it difficult, and very expensive, to create facilities such as deep gravel beds and access roads, but these aspects will have to be examined if Laguna wants to stay on the MotoGP calendar indefinitely.
Once the session resumed, it was Casey Stoner ruling the roost once again. With 18 minutes gone, Stoner cracked the 1'23 barrier, setting a time of 1'22.964. A minute later, Dani Pedrosa moved up to 2nd with a time just under 2/10ths quicker, with Loris Capirossi, who'd been struggling in earlier sessions, popping up into 3rd. Capirossi was not to enjoy his provisional place on the front row for long though, as within a minute, Valentino Rossi had pushed the Ducati man down a place.
For the next 6 minutes, no one looked capable of getting anywhere near Casey Stoner's times, although there were one or two surprises further down the field. Roger Lee Hayden, taking a wildcard ride on the Kawasaki, shot up into 6th spot for a while, but this was not to last. Then, just as Valentino Rossi looked like setting a very fast lap, he was balked by John Hopkins, thwarting his run.
With just over half an hour to go, Chris Vermeulen started setting a quick series of laps. The Rizla Suzuki man loves Laguna Seca, and it showed, as he climbed up the provisional grid lap by lap, taking 4th, then 2nd, and then the provisional pole, with a lap of 1'22.906. Next lap out, he surprised everyone, taking over 3/10ths of a second off his provisional pole time, to claim a new pole record of 1'22.590, under Nicky Hayden's 2005 pole record by nearly 1/10th of a second. The most shocking thing about this is that he set that new pole record not on sticky qualifying tires, but on ordinary, partly worn race tires, a signal of just how fast Vermeulen is around here.
The waiting was now on for the first set of qualifiers to come on. Normally, Randy de Puniet can be relied upon to take a set shortly after the halfway mark, but here in the US, we waited in vain. To relieve the tension of the Q-tire wait, and much to the relief of the watching crowd, Marco Melandri returned to action, obviously banged up and stiff from his crash, but not seriously injured. He took 4 laps to get to speed, but he was soon back running 1'23s with the rest of the field.
The first rider who looked like he was on a qualifier was quite a surprise. Dunlop Tech 3 Yamaha's Makoto Tamada was running exceptionally well, taking 5th spot halfway through the session, and continually looking like threatening, a real first for the Dunlops. But the first big movement came from the only man to win here at Laguna Seca: With just under a quarter of an hour to go, Nicky Hayden jumped up to 2nd spot, with a fast lap of 1'22.883, on his third lap with that particular tire. Was it a qualifier? No one was sure, but as he came in, it was clear that the next tire on would be, the Repsol Honda mechanics waiting with a brand new set of tires for the Kentucky Kid.
Now, the hot laps started coming thick and fast. Rossi moved up to 4th, while Hopkins improved his standing to 8th, still rather disappointing for the rider most local to the track. With 8 minutes to go Casey Stoner looked like snatching back pole, but the Australian ran wide at Turn 6, heading into the dirt up the hill and losing a lot of time. Instead of coming in for fresh rubber, though, Stoner continued on, and on his next lap, still managed to get close to his own best time, only coming up short after being running up behind Alex Barros going into the final Turn 11.
Where Casey Stoner failed, Dani Pedrosa succeeded, as with 5 minutes left in the session, the Repsol Honda prodigy blew over the line with a time of 1'22.501, snatching the pole from Vermeulen. It was clear that things were getting serious now, and everyone who was out, was fast. John Hopkins running wide was a measure of just how serious it was getting.
With 2 minutes to go, Valentino Rossi took the 3rd fastest time, getting on to the front row, a crucial factor here at the narrow and twisty Laguna Seca track. Then, just as John Hopkins looked like setting another fast time, he ran into a cruising Carlos Checa, motoring around on his out lap before getting his head down for a qualifying lap. Hopkins was furious, and lashed out at Checa, gesticulating wildly and trying to kick the Spaniard as they ran up the hill. And moments later, Valentino Rossi saw his front row spot taken away from him, as Nicky Hayden grabbed 3rd spot from The Doctor.
With less than a minute left on the clock, the pole was starting to look safely in Dani Pedrosa's hands, but that was reckoning without Casey Stoner. On his penultimate lap, just before the checkered flag was waved, the Australian championship leader beat Pedrosa's time by 0.14 seconds, setting a new pole record with a time of 1'22.361. But his pole record was not to last long, as on Stoner's next lap, he improved on his own pole time, setting a new pole record of 1'22.292.
With the exception of Stoner, the field is pretty close, with just over half a second separating Vermeulen in 2nd from a much improved Shinya Nakano in 9th. One second covers the first 15 riders, and that's including the 2/10ths advantage which Stoner has over the rest. But the qualifying times don't quite tell the whole story.
Looking at the full lap times, one name jumps out at you. Where Stoner, Pedrosa, Hayden, Rossi, Capirossi and the rest of the field all set their fastest laps on qualifying tires, Chris Vermeulen, the man in 3rd place on the grid, set his fastest lap on race tires, during a run of 5 fast laps. 2 of those laps were low 1'23s, and the other two were 1'22s, and that kind of pace looks pretty much effortless to the Australian Suzuki rider. Where race pace looks likely to be in the low 1'23s, Vermeulen's race pace seems to be about 2/10ths faster. We could be in for a repeat of last year, where Chris Vermeulen walked away from the rest of the field, with the exception of Nicky Hayden, until his engine developed fuel problems in the heat. It's not forecast to be as hot tomorrow as it was last year, and so there could be no stopping Vermeulen. Tomorrow will tell us all we need to know.
The FIM announced the provisional MotoGP calendar for 2008 today. As expected, the season remains at 18 races, despite the addition of the previously announced Indianapolis round. Of course, something had to give to make way for Indy, and tragically, it is the financially troubled Istanbul round. The Istanbul Park circuit had problems raising the money to stage the MotoGP race every year, as the local authorities refused to help fund the race, despite the boost the race gave to the local economy. And so we are forced to bid a very fond farewell to one of the finest racing circuits in the world, whilst continuing to suffer through the dire dreadfulness that is Shanghai, and the only slightly better Qatar.
Our only hope as fans is that this is only the provisional calendar, with the calendar to be finalized before the end of the year, around the time of the Valencia Grand Prix. Perhaps things will have changed by then, and China will make way for Istanbul Park.
Provisional 2008 MotoGP calendar
|March 30||Spain||Jerez de la Frontera|
|May 18||France||Le Mans|
|June 22||Great Britain||Donington Park|
|July 20||United States *||Laguna Seca|
|August 17||Czech Republic||Brno|
|August 31||San Marino &
Riviera di Rimini
|October 5||Australia||Phillip Island|
|October 26||Valencia||Ricardo Tormo Valencia|
|*: MotoGP Class Only|
|**: Saturday Race|
Having just speculated that there would be no replacement for the injured Alex Hofmann, it took virtually no time at all for me to be proved almost entirely wrong. Motorcycle News is reporting that Chaz Davies is to replace Alex Hofmann for the remainder of the Laguna Seca race weekend. Davies competed in the 250 class for four years on privateer machinery, before finally losing his place due to a lack of funds halfway through last season. He has since moved over to the USA to race in Supersport and Formula Xtreme in the AMA series, aboard a private Yamaha R6, where he has regularly beaten factory riders, even taking a podium at Miller several weeks ago. Davies has no experience of MotoGP bikes, however, which will leave him with an uphill task, although his experience with 250s should stand him in good stead with regards to the extreme adjustability of the MotoGP bikes.
After being torpedoed by Laguna Seca rookie Sylvain Guintoli down the Corkscrew, Alex Hofmann has been ruled out of the rest of the US Grand Prix. Hofmann suffered serious hand injuries after his left hand got trapped underneath the bike, causing bad cuts and breaking a bone. Hofmann now has two broken hands, after having broken his right hand in a freak accident involving a car door prior to the Sachsenring. In fact, the Pramac d'Antin team is having a terrible time with hand injuries: the Pramac riders have one good hand between them, Alex Barros having cut his hand badly after getting it trapped under the bike in a similar crash at the Sachsenring.
According to the rules, Luis d'Antin could draft in another rider to take Hofmann's place. And being surrounded by riders from a second series all very keen to bag a ride on a MotoGP bike, finding someone to take a ride on it wouldn't be too difficult. There are even two riders on hand who've already featured in the series recently: Corona Honda team mates James Ellison and Neil Hodgson. Hodgson even has experience on the Bridgestone-shod Ducati, having stood in as a test rider earlier in the season. However, as Hodgson parted on very bad terms with Luis d'Antin, the chances of Hodgson accepting a ride on the d'Antin bike are about the same as the Qatar MotoGP round being canceled due to snow. The overwhelmingly probable scenario is that d'Antin will continue with just Alex Barros riding for the rest of the weekend.
It has been obvious that Loris Capirossi would be leaving Ducati almost since the start of the season. Despite his 5 years of service with Ducati, being perhaps the bedrock of the Desmosedici 990 project, Capirex has singularly failed to gell with Ducati's new 800 cc GP7 bike. To make things worse, his new team mate, Casey Stoner, has used the same bike to devastating effect, winning 5 of the 10 races held so far, and leading the world championship by 32 points. So Capirossi leaving was almost inevitable, the only question was, where would Capirex go?
Now, it seems, thanks to Matthew Birt, Motorcycle News' MotoGP reporter, we know: Loris Capirossi will join Chris Vermeulen at Rizla Suzuki for 2008.
More to follow ...
A move which has been rumored for a very long time looks like coming to fruition after the US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca. According to the Italian site GPOne.com, Marco Melandri will officially sign with Ducati after Laguna Seca, as he still has a condition open in the pre-agreement he signed with Ducati at the end of last year. Although Melandri eventually re-signed with Gresini Honda, this was only after Gresini matched Ducati's financial offer, as stipulated in the contract Melandri had with Ducati. Now, it appears, this contract had a couple of extra clauses, one of which gives Melandri the option of joining Ducati, subject to his standing in the championship after Laguna Seca. In brief, it boils down to Melandri having an existing, legally binding contract with Ducati, if Marco Melandri is in the top 6 in the championship after the US GP.
Being 6th after Sunday's race looks eminently feasible for the Italian, as Melandri currently lies 5th in the championship, 6 points behind John Hopkins. But just 4 points behind him is Chris Vermeulen, a man who looked capable of winning last year's race at Laguna until fuel problems stopped him in his tracks. And 9 points behind Melandri is Colin Edwards, determined to do well at his home race. Melandri could even be threatened by the man who has won the last two races held here at Laguna, Nicky Hayden. The Kentucky Kid is 24 points behind Melandri, but could theoretically sneak ahead of the Italian if he wins here and Melandri only manages a 15th place or worse. Below is a table of the relevant positions, so you can calculate the possible permutations yourself.
With all this going on, we can be sure to expect an announcement on Melandri's future soon. And by extension, that of Loris Capirossi.