Only 17 men took to the track at Misano on Friday morning, with John Hopkins absent from the proceedings. There is no news yet of a reason for his absence, though Hopkins' broken ankle which is still healing after his crash at Assen would seem to be the obvious answer. We will keep you up to date as soon as we find out what is going on.
After three disastrous races in a row of Michelin, news stories on riders complaining about the French company's tires are as common as discussions of the weather in England. So much so that another story about tires barely generates any interest at all.
Unless, of course, that rider in the story is Dani Pedrosa, and the person complaining about the tires is Masumi Hamane, president of HRC. Neil Spalding interviewed the HRC boss after the race at Brno for the Spanish weekly magazine Solo Moto, and in this interview, Hamane gave his biggest hint yet that the factory Honda team will switch to Bridgestone next year.
"As an engineer, I don't understand how Michelin can make so many mistakes three races in a row," Hamane told Spalding. "We're sure Michelin is working hard, but we've had problems at the Sachsenring, Laguna Seca and here (Brno - MGPM)" he continued.
Worse criticism was to come. "We want to find a way to solve this problem, but it looks like they don't think they've found the reason for the mistakes, what's more, they certainly haven't been able to convince us," Hamane told Spalding. When asked if they would support a switch to Bridgestones for the factory team, Hamane was curt: "Yes".
If the Repsol Honda team were to switch to Bridgestones, that could mark the end of Michelin's involvement in MotoGP. The French company has always said that they will stay in the class for as long as they have a factory team they can support, a factory bike being necessary so that Michelin can have a say in bike development, exploiting the best characteristics of the bike to get the best from their tires. If Repsol goes, then only Jorge Lorenzo would be left on Michelins, and you have to believe Lorenzo, and at least his manager Dani Amatriain would be screaming for Bridgestones to be able to compete with Rossi, Stoner and Pedrosa.
And should Michelin decide to withdraw, that could have a very unpleasant effect on the grid. The Tech 3 team is currently funded in large part by Michelin - witness the striking coincidence between the teams colors and those of the tire maker - and if Michelin left MotoGP, Tech 3's budget would go with them, leaving James Toseland and Colin Edwards out of a job. But even worse for MotoGP, it could leave the grid looking decidedly empty, with just 16 bikes lining up on any Sunday.
At Brno, the riders demanded that Dorna and the FIM impose a single tire rule. They may not need either of those bodies to get one, and it may happen sooner than they had hoped.
Ben Spies progress into MotoGP, a path that looked so easy at the beginning of the year, has stalled, or so it seems. After Suzuki first failed to provide a third bike, and then decided to concentrate firstly on retaining their current rider line up, Spies had turned his attention elsewhere.
Reports started to surface about a possible link up with Honda, and especially a seat at Gresini. But the problem was Spies' salary demands, his expectations inflated from riding in the extremely well-funded AMA Superbike championship. With the AMA series in disarray after the takeover by the DMG, and the manufacturers looking likely to either pull out of racing in the US or set up a rival series, the US distributors suddenly seemed to have a surplus in their marketing budgets, and the press put two and two together, figuring that American Honda could well be interested in picking up the tab for Spies' salary. Nicky Hayden's impending departure from the Repsol team to Ducati was thought to have forced the issue, with American Honda wanting an American on a Honda in MotoGP.
According to Superbikeplanet.com's Dean Adams, however, when the press in Europe put two and two together, they came up with 37. Adams is reporting that American Honda has categorically denied being willing to pay Spies' salary if he rides for the Gresini Honda MotoGP team. If American Honda does have any excess budget for 2009, then they are unwilling to spend it at Gresini.
This looks like being the end of any chance that Ben Spies might get a seat in MotoGP next year. With money tight for most of the teams, and the open seats filling up quickly, and Spies still clinging to an AMA-sized salary, the Texan will find it hard to strike a deal. Spies does still have some offers in the World Superbike series, but he faces the same problem there. Until he drops a zero off the end of the money he's asking, it's going to be tough to find a seat.
With Silly Season become more and more ridiculous by the day, there is an obvious need for a clear guide to exactly what is going on. With many of the deals being rumored either educated guesses, clouded in uncertainty, or transparent bargaining ploys, that's not easy, but that won't prevent us from trying.
So to try and make sense of it all, we now have a page up, listing all of the deals and rumored deals so far. We shall endeavor to keep this as up to date as possible, so you have a single source for all of the movements in the MotoGP market, but right now, that's a pretty tall order. You can find the page at the following URL:
Leave comments, tips and suggestions there, for anything we may have missed.
Another couple of pieces in the MotoGP rider merry-go-round may be finalized this weekend. According to reports over at Motorcycle News, Suzuki is likely to extend Loris Capirossi's deal this weekend, and is close to renegotiating a deal with Chris Vermeulen. Capirossi is likely to be the first deal to be officially announced, as Paul Denning, Rizla Suzuki's team manager, told MCN "to all intents and purposes Suzuki and Loris want to move forward," which could mean an announcement could be made this weekend in Italy.
Vermeulen's case is a little more complex. Both the Rizla Suzuki team and Vermeulen himself are keen to continue the relationship, but after Vermeulen fell short of a performance requirement which would have guaranteed a new deal, Suzuki in Hamamatsu, Japan and Vermeulen have been haggling over financial terms. Reports say that Suzuki has offered Vermeulen less than half his current salary, something which Vermeulen is understandably unhappy with. But Vermeulen is known to be very keen on staying in MotoGP, despite having several options in World Superbikes next year, reportedly including an offer of the factory Ducati. As a result, Vermeulen may be looking at accepting the pay cut, but seeking an improved package of performance-related bonuses.
Once both Suzuki seats are tied up, then the focus of the market will shift towards the satellite Hondas and Ducatis. There are lots of names associated with those 6 rides, including the American Ben Spies, Alex de Angelis, Mika Kallio, Marco Simoncelli, Shinya Nakano, Niccolo Canepa, and others, and none of them have been clearly settled. After Misano, things should start to firm up a little, but it looks like this could go down close to the end of the year.
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.
Earlier today, we reported on rumors that Ben Spies was in the frame for the Factory Ducati ride in World Superbikes. We also mentioned that there was one problem standing in the way of a Spies - Ducati World Superbike deal, and that was Ducati's need to have an Italian rider on the team.
Well, it seems there is another, more serious problem, and one that seems to be a factor in every deal that Spies is linked with: the question of money. Like many of the riders in the AMA Superbike championship, Spies is extremely well paid. Like those riders, though, Spies is also aware that though an AMA title is nice, it doesn't have the status or the standing of a world championship. If Spies wants to know how he measures up against the rest of the world, he will have to head to Europe to ride in a series with a world title at stake.
And here's where the two desires clash: When Spies tells the teams who are interested in him as a rider how much money he needs as a base salary, they lose interest in him quicker than a teenage boy who has just spotted an oversized adam's apple. His reputed wage claim of US$ 2 million is bigger than anyone else in World Superbikes, and matches - and probably beats - most of the factory riders in MotoGP. For a rookie coming into a series, that's just way too much to be asking.
Now, the Italian website GPOne.com is carrying a report illustrating just how big a problem that is. Davide Tardozzi, the head of Ducati's World Superbike problem, confirmed to GPOne.com that Ducati had spoken to Spies' management, but that they weren't interested in the deal because of the money involved. "Even in dollars, millions are still millions," Tardozzi is quoted as saying. "We spoke to them, and there was an exchange of e-mails, but it was more like two ships passing each other at a great distance in thick fog. Spies is an interesting rider to us, but he is asking for too much money", Tardozzi told GPOne.com.
Time is running out for the Texan. It's obvious that there are a lot of teams out there interested in Spies, and there seems little doubt that Spies would do well in either MotoGP or World Superbikes. But if Spies is serious about coming to Europe, he will have to be more realistic about what he can expect to earn.
At the beginning of this season, it all seemed pretty clear: In 2009, Ben Spies would be riding a Suzuki in MotoGP. Right now, two-thirds of the way in to the series, that early certainty has all but disappeared. For a number of reasons, most of which involve money in one form or another, the chances of American MotoGP fans seeing Ben Spies on a Rizla Suzuki next year have all but disappeared.
That leaves Spies in a quandary. The Texan does still have options in MotoGP, but these would not be in a factory team, leaving him waiting for important upgrades if the bike turns out not to be competitive. And with Spies' best MotoGP option currently with Gresini Honda, that is a bigger risk than it may seem. Ever since the switch to the 800cc formula, which Honda were expected to dominate, Honda riders - factory and satellite alike - have struggled, with only Dani Pedrosa capable of being truly competitive aboard the RC212V.
And so with Spies looking to ensure factory-level support, he is being forced to explore other options. One of these options, reported by the German website Motorsport-Total and the online magazine GPWeek, is a switch to the World Superbike series. There is already plenty of interest, with Alstare Suzuki's team manager Francis Batta expressing a keen interest in Spies at the recent World Superbike round at Utah, but now an even more attractive option has opened up.
With Troy Bayliss due to retire at the end of the season, the factory Xerox Ducati team is in dire need of someone to fill the giant hole that the Australian champion will leave. And Ben Spies could be just the man to help fill that gap. Signing Spies would make a huge amount of sense for Ducati, as having the American star on their bike would boost their profile in the vital US motorcycle market, which has lagged since they pulled out of the AMA series two years ago.
Although Doug Gonda, Spies' manager, has confirmed that they are talking to Ducati, a deal is far from done. Any deal is dependent on who is signed alongside Spies, as it is absolutely vital to Ducati to have an Italian in the factory team as well. But this, too, is looking probable, with Xerox Ducati reportedly close to a deal with Max Biaggi, and holding the talented young Ducati test rider Niccolo Canepa in reserve.
Though the situation may have changed since January, Ben Spies is still looking certain to end up in Europe, especially considering the disarray in which the US domestic series is likely to be in next year. But the question for Spies remains which series that will be.
When HRC announced that they were to give the factory RC212V to a satellite team to test, very few people were surprised. Well behind in the points race, Dani Pedrosa needs all the help he can get . What did surprise almost everyone, however, was the fact that the bike was given not to Andrea Dovizioso, the rookie who has been most impressive on the satellite bike, and leads the satellite Hondas in the championship table, but Gresini Honda's Shinya Nakano.
Nakano has been mostly anonymous so far this year, riding around in the middle of the pack for the most part. The decision seemed at the very least, a little strange. HRC themselves stated that Nakano had been given the bike because he was Japanese, and he would be able to communicate with HRC's engineers in their native language.
Cynics and conspiracy theorists had another explanation. Pointing to Nakano's Bridgestone tires, they said it was a sign that the official Repsol Honda factory team is preparing a switch to Bridgestones for next year, after two years of problems with their current tire suppliers, Michelin. After all, the cynics said, both Dovizioso and the HRC engineers speak excellent English, and are used to working with riders for whom English is not their first language.
But it's not just the cynics and conspiracy theorists who were surprised. In a story over on Motorcycle News, Michelin's head of motorcycle racing Jean-Philippe Weber publicly expressed his surprise at Honda's decision. Despite Gresini's strong relationship with the factory, Weber had expected Dovizioso to be given the bike. "Based on the partnership we have, we thought the factory bike would be proposed to Andrea," Weber said.
This looks like Weber trying to preempt any move by Honda to Bridgestone. "We also need a strong technical relationship with the teams in order to exchange information on tyre characteristics," Weber was quoted as saying. Michelin has always said that they need to have a factory team on their tires for it to be worth their while staying in MotoGP. With Pedrosa a very strong probability to demand a switch to Japanese rubber, Michelin's time in the premier series could well be drawing to an end.
The desktop images of Scott Jones' great Laguna Seca photos have proved very popular indeed. So popular, in fact, that we received requests for higher resolution versions of those desktops. Scott was very quick to oblige, but unfortunately, I wasn't as quick, and so it took me a while to get the desktops up.
But finally, here they are. The images are now available in the following resolutions: 1400x1050, 1280x1024, 1280x800 and 1024x768. One of those resolutions should fit your desktop. Here's the one gracing mine: