After Marco Melandri announced that he and Ducati had agreed to drop the second year of his two year contract, after a disastrous year on the GP8, speculation abounded about where Melandri would now end up. The most obvious option seemed to be Gresini Honda: Melandri and Gresini had split on relatively amicable terms, and Melandri had proved in the past that he knew how to ride the Honda - at least, once Honda fixed the dismal satellite RC212V.
But a return to Gresini is not to be. According to MCN's Matthew Birt, Marco Melandri has agreed terms with Kawasaki for 2009. There had been rumors that Melandri would make the switch mid-season, if Ducati decided to drop Melandri early, but after signs of improvement over the past couple of races, Melandri raced for Ducati at Brno, and is now almost certain to finish up the season with the team.
Melandri's main motivation for the switch to Kawasaki is that the Italian would rather stay with a factory team, to ensure he has more input into the development of the bike. His previous experience at Gresini left him occasionally frustrated, forced to wait for developments from the factory to be made available once they'd fixed their own riders' problems.
The switch is something of a gamble. The Kawasaki has been the weakest bike on the grid so far this year, with Kawasaki not looking particularly inclined to spend too much time and money on developing the bike. But the improved parts which Ant West and John Hopkins had at Brno showed that the team was at least making progress. The upside for Melandri is that the Kawasaki doesn't look as hard to get used to as the Ducati does, as Jamie Hacking's creditable outing at Laguna Seca demonstrated.
Melandri's move closes a few doors for other riders in MotoGP. With Hopkins already sure of a contract for 2009, Kawasaki has filled both seats, leaving Ant West out on a limb. Kawasaki has been rumored to have offered West a ride on the factory bike in World Supersport, but that bike has been even worse than the MotoGP bike this year. It is unclear whether West would be welcome back at Yamaha in World Supersport, but there can be no question he'd be competitive there.
In addition to West, there's Sete Gibernau. Gibernau - or "Hollywood", as the Ducati engineers nicknamed the Spaniard - had been seen spending a lot of time with Kawasaki at Brno, after being spotted with Kawasaki at the Barcelona MotoGP round. With Melandri signed, there would appear to be no room at the Kawasaki Inn for Gibernau.
But Melandri's signing for Kawasaki does open another door. Suddenly, at least one seat at Gresini Honda could be open. Sete Gibernau has been linked to this ride as well, although apparently, Fausto Gresini has balked at the size of Gibernau's salary demands. Another man demanding a sizable fee is the American Ben Spies. But in Spies' case, American Honda has indicated that they would be willing to foot the bill, as if - or rather, when - Nicky Hayden announces that he will be joining Ducati, Honda would be without an American rider on their machinery in MotoGP.
Melandri's move is the first major shift in the MotoGP riders' market. But it most assuredly won't be the last.
Times set during the post-race test at Brno, courtesy of GPOne.com:
Final times. Stoner's lap was set on a race tire, and just 0.1 seconds shy of the pole record held by Valentino Rossi.
|1||Casey Stoner||Ducati||1'56.261||52 laps|
|2||Valentino Rossi||Yamaha||1'57.332||28 laps|
|3||Toni Elias||Ducati||1'57.457||49 laps|
|4||Shinya Nakano||Honda||1'57.652||33 laps|
|5||Chris Vermeulen||Suzuki||1'57.742||79 laps|
|6||Colin Edwards||Yamaha||1'57.742||59 laps|
|7||Alex de Angelis||Honda||1'57.826||68 laps|
|8||Sylvain Guintoli||Ducati||1'57.859||54 laps|
|9||Jorge Lorenzo||Yamaha||1'57.979||65 laps|
|10||Loris Capirossi||Suzuki||1'58.177||17 laps|
|11||Niccolo Canepa||Ducati||1'58.204||60 laps|
|12||Marco Melandri||Ducati||1'58.325||69 laps|
|13||Randy de Puniet||Honda||1'58.568||56 laps|
|14||Dani Pedrosa||Honda||1'59.067||5 laps|
|15||Olivier Jacque||Kawasaki||1'59.130||8 laps|
|16||Andrea Dovizioso||Honda||1'59.172||21 laps|
|17||James Toseland||Yamaha||1'59.228||45 laps|
|18||John Hopkins||Kawasaki||2'00.414||4 laps|
|19||Tady Okada||Honda||2'00.735||62 laps|
Times as of 2pm local time
|5||Alex de Angelis||Honda||1'57.881|
|12||Randy de Puniet||Honda||1'58.676|
Yesterday, we reported that all 17 current MotoGP riders had held a meeting to discuss safety with Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta. That meeting took place behind closed doors, and so the exact details of what was discussed were not made public, although it was an open secret that the riders had asked for a single tire rule.
Fortunately for us, the Spanish sports daily AS.com is very well connected, and has managed to find out just what the ideas were that the riders presented to Dorna. The riders had 5 proposals to improve safety:
- The adoption of a single tire manufacturer;
- A directer connection between the throttle and the rider's wrist, so that the riders not left at the mercy of the electronics quite so much;
- Narrower wheels and tires, to reduce grip levels and force riders to go more slowly;
- A return to the 990cc formula, with a top speed limit enforced by electronics, or else;
- Adding more weight to the 800cc bikes, to make them less agile.
The most interesting part of the single tire rule was that all of the Michelin riders were in favor of the proposal, but accepted by only a majority of the Bridgestone riders. A single tire rule would be the easiest proposal to implement, closely followed by narrower tires and wheels. With proposals on tires being mooted at almost every race, a single tire rule is looking almost inevitable.
With so few bikes on the grid, you would think it would be relatively easy to get into MotoGP. All it would really take is a sponsor with deep enough pockets to fund a bike, a decent rider and the team - with the costs for the team probably being the least significant part of the entire package. But the saga of Jorge Martinez tells quite a different tale.
Jorge Aspar Martinez, the owner of the Aspar team which dominates both the 125cc and the 250cc classes, has been trying to get into MotoGP for quite some time now. At the end of last year, Martinez seemed to have the whole deal sewn up: Suzuki would provide him with a factory machine, and either Ben Spies or Alvaro Bautista would ride it. It was just a matter of tidying up a few loose ends, and preparing for 2009.
It didn't quite work out that way, though. Suzuki's interest in providing a bike quickly cooled, after the Rizla Suzuki team failed to continue the progression they had shown in 2007, leaving Aspar without a bike. Aspar then turned to Ducati for equipment, but rumors emerged in the Spanish press that though Ducati appeared to be willing, Alvaro Bautista, the man Aspar wanted on the bike, had refused point blank to ride a Ducati, pointing to the examples of Marco Melandri, Toni Elias and Sylvain Guintoli. Discussions with Yamaha were also held, but proved fruitless.
Finally, it seems as if Aspar has found a bike for the team. The Spanish sports daily AS.com is reporting that Aspar should sign a deal with Kawasaki at the next MotoGP round at Misano. According to Aspar, the deal would see the team running a single bike in the first year, with options to expand afterwards. The bike would be an official, factory bike, and the team would run a Spanish rider. Aspar already has support from major Spanish sponsors, so the money would not be a problem.
The requirement for a Spanish rider is not surprising considering that most of Aspar's money currently comes from Spain. The Valencian currently has two possible options, the obvious one of Alvaro Bautista, currently having a rather disappointing season in 250s, or if Bautista decides to stay in the smaller class to take another shot at the title there, Aspar could draft in Toni Elias, who is currently scheduled to go off and ride a Yamaha in World Superbikes.
Perhaps the most important thing for fans of the smaller classes, though, is that Aspar's plans for MotoGP will not mean withdrawing from the 125cc or 250cc classes. Aspar is committed to keeping those teams, as they are the teams that keep his sponsors happy by winning world championships.
There are also question marks hanging over the ability - and the willingness - of Kawasaki to provide a third bike. The factory team run by Michael Bartholemy is unhappy at the prospect, fearing that an extra bike would divert resources away from the task of making the Kawasaki competitive. The only conditions under which Kawasaski are likely to make a bike available is if the Aspar team can bear all of the costs themselves, with no subsidy from the factory. Given the depth of Aspar's sponsor-filled pockets, the team looks eminently capable of doing just that.
Just a quick reminder for all our US-based readers: The MotoGP race from Brno is due to be broadcast by CBS on Sunday, not Speed. The race is due to be shown as a same-day delay broadcast at 2pm EDT. For more details, check your local CBS affiliate, or the TV Racer website.
Be sure to check your DVRs, and don't miss the race. It could well be another classic.
Some unusual reports are coming out of Brno this evening. On Friday evening, there was a scheduled meeting of the riders' safety comission, but at that meeting, Valentino Rossi and Loris Capirossi arranged for another meeting, between all 17 of the current MotoGP riders and the CEO of Dorna, Carmelo Ezpeleta. The subject of that meeting was the dangers presented by the rapidly increasing corner speeds in MotoGP, and ideas were presented and discussed to tackle the problem.
Or at least, that's the official version, according to MotoGP.com, the website owned and operated by Dorna, the organizers of the MotoGP series. Respected motorcycle racing journalist Julian Ryder, however, is reporting over on Superbikeplanet.com that the main idea discussed was the institution of a single tire rule.
There is good reason to think that this is the case. With Michelin on course for their third hiding in a row, the Michelin riders are getting decidedly restive. According to Alberto Cani over at GPOne.com, the atmosphere in the Repsol Honda pit is very poor, with all of the anger directed at anyone wearing a blue and yellow Micheliin shirt. When asked by a Spanish journalist about what the relationship was like with the Michelin technicians, he replied: "I'd like to answer that question, but it would probably be better if I waited until another day."
It's no secret that HRC is considering a switch to Bridgestones. Pedrosa admitted as much, saying "This is something we have to discuss with the team". Two other separate but related clues point this way. The first is that the head of HRC, Masumi Hamane is present at Brno. The second is that Shinya Nakano has been given a factory spec Honda RC212V to ride for the rest of the season.
Two facts are relevant here: One is that the bike given to Nakano is not the pneumatic valve bike currently being ridden by Nicky Hayden, but rather the steel spring valve version which HRC's #1 rider Dani Pedrosa is using. The other is that Nakano's Gresini Honda team is contracted to run on Bridgestones, and so the Japanese HRC engineers which have joined Nakano in the pits will be gathering an awful lot of useful data on how Pedrosa's bike will respond if fitted with Japanese rubber.
All these facts point to a single conclusion: At the end of the season, HRC will announce that the factory Repsol Honda team is to switch to Bridgestones. And that move could well precipitate Michelin's withdrawal from MotoGP. Michelin has always said that they would not stay in MotoGP if they do not have a factory team using their tires. And though technically, even if HRC were to switch to Bridgestones, Michelin would still be providing the factory Yamaha team with tires, in reality, that means only Jorge Lorenzo. And if Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa were on Bridgestones, then it seems certain that Lorenzo and his manager Dani Amatriain would do everything in his power to ensure that Lorenzo got Bridgestones too.
That would leave Michelin with only the Tech 3 team and a couple of satellite Hondas on Michelins. And if the sounds emanating from the Tech 3 garage are anything to go by, then it would be only the money the team is receiving from the French tire maker that would keep them on Michelins. And within a couple of seasons, MotoGP would have a spec tire by default.
Michelin withdrawing of their own accord would be a better solution than enforcing a single tire rule by regulation. Throughout most of the 1990s, the series had a single tire make involved, with only Michelin supplying rubber to the MotoGP teams. It wasn't until Bridgestone entered at the beginning of the 21st Century that the competition returned, resulting in the astonishing levels of grip combined with durability we are seeing today.
And it's this grip which is allowing corner speeds to rise so dramatically, the development which is so troubling Dorna and the riders. Although Michelin withdrawing from MotoGP would slow development, much as it did in World Superbikes when that series went to a single tire, that may not be enough. Veteran journalist Alan Cathcart predicted that MotoGP would eventually be forced to move to a grooved tire to reduce grip. It looks like that moment is about to get a good deal closer.
~~~~ UPDATE ~~~~
Autosport is carrying a full discussion of the special meeting of the Safety Commission.
The announcement that Team Scot and the JiR team of Luca Montiron were to split up has raised questions in the paddock about what effect this will have on the size of the grid, and how the spoils would be divided. It was generally assumed that Montiron's role in MotoGP was finished, and that Team Scot, having turned the worst team in the paddock into a model of efficiency, would stay in MotoGP, most likely with Yuki Takahashi, their current 250cc rider, taking the seat Andrea Dovizioso will vacate when he leaves for Repsol Honda.
But in an interview with GPOne.com's Alberto Cani, Montiron claimed that he will have a Honda, a title sponsor, and either Alex de Angelis or Nicky Hayden as a rider for next year. Montiron told GPOne.com that he has already presented his plans to Honda, and that these plans would include a big-name rider. Montiron confirmed that Alex de Angelis is one of the riders he is interested in. The other "big name " is believed to be Nicky Hayden, but Hayden is almost certain to sign with Ducati for 2009.
De Angelis could be available because of the shake-up at Gresini Honda. Marco Melandri now looks certain to return to the team he left at the end of last season, and with whom he has a regular race winner. But with Hayden now set to leave for Ducati, American Honda is believed to be putting pressure on Gresini to sign Ben Spies. Honda needs an American on board one of its bikes to help sell its machines in the vast US market. With the prospect of Spies signing a deal with Suzuki for next year, Gresini - with promises of factory support - could be his next best prospect.
Part of Spies' problem has been his reputed $2 million asking price. Suzuki has been reluctant to cough up that much money, but American Honda could well be persuaded to foot the bill, if it keeps an American on a Honda. It certainly looks like Spies' only option if he is unwilling to drop his pay demands.
This is of course still mostly speculation, but as the summer draws to a close, contracts are getting closer and closer to being signed. Stay tuned.
At the end of the first day of practice at Brno, it was clear that there were two men a long way clear of the rest of the field. Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi were over half a second ahead of the man in 3rd, and the only riders capable of cracking into the 1'57s. The timing sheets seemed to tell a fairly clear-cut story of two fast men, a pack of riders all very close to each other, and another disastrous failure by Michelin. The grid seemed to be shaping up nicely.
The problem was, Saturday's weather threw not so much a fly as a whale into the ointment, after a storm front unleashed torrential rain over the Czech track, leaving the circuit completely drenched, though still ridable. With more rain coming in during the day, the grid was going to reflect a slightly different reality than Friday's practice had revealed, and confusing the picture even more, the forecast for Sunday is for the usual warm, bone dry conditions we have come to expect from Brno over the years.
During the morning's free practice session, Casey Stoner had already proved quite emphatically that he is probably the best wet-weather rider in the world, by stomping all over the competition. And as qualifying started in a light drizzle, he continued in the same vein. On just his 2nd flying lap, the Australian took a 5 second lead over the rest of the field, leaving his rivals gasping for breath.
As the other riders edged closer, led by Chris Vermeulen and John Hopkins, Stoner put in two more crushing laps, finishing with a 2'11.657, to give himself a 3 second lead over the rest. The reigning world champion came in to try another tire, but went out for just one more lap before deciding that the worsening rain was not going to allow him to improve his times any time soon. He withdrew to his pit garage, and waited for better conditions.
Stoner's dominance left Valentino Rossi with work to do. He had shown he had the pace to stay with Stoner in the dry on Friday, but in Saturday's morning free practice, the leader in the championship race had only managed to set the 5th fastest time, and that was after a big leap at the end of the session. Rossi has acknowledged that his only chance of beating Stoner lies in starting beside him, or preferably ahead of him on the grid, and he couldn't afford to slip back to the 2nd row.
With 13 minutes of the session left, Vermeulen had got his Rizla Suzuki within 1.4 seconds of Stoner's provisional pole time, but by now Rossi was hitting his stride. The Italian got within 3 seconds, then took another 2 seconds off his previous time to set a 2'12.886, leaving him just over 1.2 seconds behind the Australian. Following not far behind, John Hopkins got to within a tenth of a second of Rossi, taking 3rd from Vermeulen, but could not quite match the Italian's pace.
With the front row provisionally settled, the rain started to come down in earnest. The track quickly went from just wet to completely waterlogged, and times immediately slowed by some 7 seconds. It was obvious that no improvements would be possible until the rain let up, and so the riders decided en masse to head back to the relative warmth of their pit garages. At least it was dry in there.
The few brave souls who decided to stay out came to regret their persistence. Several people hit the gravel, some harder than others, including James Toseland, Loris Capirossi, Randy de Puniet and Toni Elias, though Elias' trip was taken still on two wheels. Turn 1 was tricky, but Turn 3 was claiming the most victims, the first of the left-right combinations which give the Czech circuit its character.
As the session wound down, and the rain continued to fall, it became clear that the front row times were not going to be beaten. Further down the order, the season's stragglers were bucking the trend and climbing up through the grid. Marco Melandri, Toni Elias and Sylvain Guintoli on the Ducatis, and Ant West on the Kawasaki were improving their times almost every lap, climbing up from near the bottom of the order to get close to, and in some cases even in to, the top 10.
The last few minutes saw almost the entire grid go out, but it was more for experience than to better their times. The grid ended up almost as it had looked after the first quarter of an hour, with only some minor changes at the rear and in the middle orders. Casey Stoner took his 6th pole position in a row, in typical Stoner style: by well over a second.
Valentino Rossi achieved the goal he had set for himself, and will start the race from 2nd place, giving him a fair shot at battling with Stoner during the race tomorrow. He needed a front row start, and he made sure that he got it. His strategy will be helped by the fact that Casey Stoner is ill, and struggling with a head cold. But while Stoner was very weak on Friday, he had regained some of his strength on Saturday, and should be well enough to last the entire race on Sunday, something that was looking doubtful on Friday.
John Hopkins took 3rd, his first front row start since last year. Hopper was excellent in the wet, but as he was slower during Friday's dry sessions, he may not have the pace to stay with the front two on Sunday.
Hopper's former Suzuki team mate Chris Vermeulen heads up the 2nd row, and with strong times in both wet and dry conditions, the Australian is in with a good chance of a 3rd podium in a row. He'll have to beat Gresini Honda's Alex de Angelis to do so, though. Sitting 5th on the grid, de Angelis was good whatever the weather did.
Kawasaki's Ant West is the surprise of the session, starting from 6th. The wet conditions clearly suited West, allowing him to finish well up the order from where he was on Friday. Unfortunately, he is unlikely to feature if it is dry on Sunday.
Randy de Puniet is the first of the Michelin men in 7th, and by a very long way. The remainder of the Michelin-shod runners are languishing at the bottom of the table, as the French tire company has got it badly wrong once again. The LCR Honda man is joined on the third row of the grid by Shinya Nakano on the factory-spec Gresini Honda and Vermeulen's Suzuki team mate Loris Capirossi. Capirossi was strong in the dry, and has only finished outside the top 6 at Brno once in his racing career. He'll have to fight through traffic, but he should be good for a top 5 spot on Sunday.
Alice Ducati's Sylvain Guintoli rounds out the top 10, the Frenchman providing some spectacular action, sliding his Ducati all over the track in an attempt to improve his time. He is definitely getting to grips with the Desmosedici, and is strengthening his case for staying in MotoGP.
The Michelins were the biggest losers of the day. Though de Puniet finished 7th, Dani Pedrosa, the man who was leading the championship until the Sachsenring, could only manage 12th, while Dovizioso, Edwards, Toseland and Lorenzo prop up the bottom of the timesheet. So poor are the Michelins that both Toseland and Lorenzo failed to set a lap within the 107% qualifying limit, and technically shouldn't be allowed to start tomorrow. However, with the grids already terrifyingly sparse, there seems little chance that both Yamaha men will be allowed to take their place at the back of the grid tomorrow.
Fortunately for MotoGP fans, it looks like we could still be in for a proper race tomorrow. Valentino Rossi managed to qualify on the front row of the grid, and if he can stay close to Stoner over the first lap, then he can take the fight to him. And if Stoner is still weak from his mystery illness, a tough battle could be the last thing the Australian needs. If he has recovered enough on Sunday, then he should have the stamina to go the distance with Rossi, but if he is still ill, he could find himself short of physical fitness. It looks like being an interesting prospect.
At the previous MotoGP race at Laguna Seca, Valentino Rossi unveiled his strategy for dealing with the relentless pace of Casey Stoner: Get in front of the Ducati, and get in Stoner's way. Those tactics worked beyond expectation at Laguna, but part of that was down to the nature of the narrow, twisty California track. Back in Europe, on wider, faster tracks, it's going to be a good deal more difficult to apply the same strategy.
To do that, Rossi would need more horsepower from his Yamaha M1, to allow him to keep up with Stoner on the straights and attempt to pass him on the brakes again into the corners. The Italian was due to test new electronics for the bike at the post-race tests on Monday and Tuesday, which may be able to help in this area.
Now, in a tacit admission by Yamaha that Rossi's Laguna Seca tactics are going to be tough to apply at the fast and wide Brno, MCN is reporting that Rossi will test the upgraded electronics during Friday morning's FP1 session. According to MCN, the revised electronics are aimed at improving the traction control system and allowing the engine to turn more revs.
60 minutes is not long to test upgrades before making a decision on whether to use them or not, and this is complicated by the fact that Brno has been resurfaced since last year. But if they work, and if the engine copes with the extra revs, the upgrades could well be used in the race. The key will be how far off Stoner's times the Fiat Yamaha team is. In the last 4 races, the entire field has been over half a second off the blistering pace set by Stoner during most free practices. If the electronics get Rossi within a couple of tenths, they're likely to be in.
Despite the romance and the glamor, life in motorcycle racing's premier series is a merciless existence. Just how tough it is is revealed in an interview MCN's Matthew Birt did with Ant West, in which West reveals his exasperation at his own form. In the interview, West concedes that if he was in charge at Kawasaki, he would probably sack himself, given his run of poor form since the beginning of the season. Kawasaki are expected to announce soon that West's contract will not be renewed for next year.
But finding a replacement will not be easy. Riders are hardly lining up for a shot on the Kawasaki ZXRR, especially after having watched John Hopkins slip from potential podium positions aboard the Suzuki to struggling to get into the top 10 on the Kawasaki. The only thing capable of tempting riders is money, and money is not something in abundant supply at Team Green, despite the Monster Energy sponsorship.
So West may yet get to stay in MotoGP. His main advantage is the fact that he is cheap, and the alternative for Kawasaki would be hiring another rider prepared to ride for pin money, in MotoGP terms. Until Kawasaki can improve the bike and get it running closer to the front, Kawasaki and West could yet be condemned to stick together.
The bigger question is why West should stay in MotoGP. The Australian would be almost certain to take the factory seat for Yamaha in the World Supersport series, and would have an excellent shot at the world title in that series, given the brilliance he displayed on a 600. And a decent seat in World Superbike should also be achievable for West, based on his performance in World Supersport and MotoGP. Though given that Kawasaki's record in World Superbike is even worse than in MotoGP, he would be wise to switch manufacturers in that series.
Silly season is hotting up, and MotoGP is approaching the point of the year when contracts are signed and riders are released. Ant West is a safe bet to be the second rider to go, now that Marco Melandri has been freed from another year of misery at Ducati.