MotoGP's 2011 Silly Season - the period during which contracts are negotiated and hammered out for the 2011 season - got underway a little early. In fact, it got underway shortly after the 2010 Silly Season was over, some time around early September 2009, shortly after Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa signed one-year contracts with their current employers, Yamaha and Honda respectively. Their signings effectively meant that the contracts of Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner will all finish at the same time, at the end of the 2010 MotoGP season, leading to a feeding frenzy of speculation, rumor and argument over who will be going where for 2011.
Most of this speculation has surrounded Valentino Rossi. The Italian has been linked with a switch to Ducati, an extension of his Yamaha contract, a return to Honda, a career jump to Formula One with Ferrari, and even retirement to go race in WRC. Most of it has come from the ever-industrious Italian media, but Rossi himself has not been shy of using the media to his own ends on occasion. He has himself hinted both that he has offers from Ducati and that he will end his career at Yamaha, two seemingly mutually exclusive possibilities, as well as flirting cautiously with both Formula One and retirement. Any and all such pronouncements have been pounced upon by the press and sliced, diced and analyzed for any indication of what The Doctor's true intent might be.
The fact that Kevin Schwantz believes Ben Spies will win a race in his first season, as we reported over the weekend, should hardly come as a surprise, given Schwantz' long association with the young Texan. Spies excellent times at the first test of the year at Sepang confirmed that the Texan is making the necessary progress towards that goal, but most observers regard it as a little too early to tell.
To get the view of Ben Spies' team manager on the question, MotoMatters.com spoke with Herve Poncharal, and put Schwantz' bold claim to the Frenchman. The Monster Yamaha Tech 3 manager was much more cautions than Spies' mentor and former world champion Schwantz. "Kevin obviously has a lot of confidence in Ben," Poncharal said. "Obviously you can never rule out the possibility of a win. Colin came very close to winning at Donington last year," Poncharal said, but the task ahead was not simple. "I really hope Kevin is right, but winning on a regular basis is not easy."
Before Spies can beat the Fantastic Four, he first has to catch them, Poncharal pointed out. "The first step is to stay with top four, then to try and beat them. But to stay with them is already tough," the Frenchman told MotoMatters.com.
The news has been leaked, announced and reported for the last couple of weeks, but finally today Aprilia announced its partnership with Alitalia, to act as title sponsor for the Noale factory's World Superbike squad. At the bike launch - held rather spectacularly at Rome's Fiumicino airport - Aprilia's new head of Product Development and Strategy, Maurizio Roman, unveiled the Aprilia's new livery, flaunting the Italian tricolor red, green and white as used by the Italian flag carrier. The actual financial details of the deal were not discussed, though as both Alitalia and the Piaggio Group are owned in part by Italian tycoon Roberto Colaninno, it is hard to regard the deal as outside sponsorship of the industry.
One of the big questions MotoGP fans have this year is just how well Ben Spies will do in his first full season of MotoGP. The Texan has already impressed Europeans and outperformed the expectations of Americans by winning the World Superbike title at his first attempt, but so far, World Superbike champions have had a rather patchy record of success in MotoGP. Consequently, fans are fishing about for any data they can find from experts and former riders, to help them make their own minds up.
Knowing this, the excellent US-based video website OnTheThrottle.com cornered former 500 GP champion and racing legend Kevin Schwantz at the testing session for the AMA Pro Racing test at Fontana, and asked him for his opinion of Spies' chances in MotoGP. Schwantz was pretty clear in his reply: "I think Ben will win a race in his first season for sure." Watch the full video for why he comes to that conclusion, and to hear what Schwantz has to say about the DMG series, his own plans for 2010 and the Red Bull Rookies.
The news that MotoGP is set to change capacity and formula again for the third time in 10 years has caused as much concern as it has joy. Almost everyone concerned has welcomed the return to 1000cc, not least the riders, and many people also expressed the commonly-held opinion that the switch to 800cc was the worst thing to happen to the class. But many observers also pointed out that the change of formula, though aimed at cutting costs in the long term, meant yet more expenditure in the short term as the factories would be forced to develop a brand new engine once again.
That criticism is shared by the MSMA, the association representing the manufacturers in MotoGP. According to MCN's extremely well-informed MotoGP reporter Matthew Birt, the MSMA is pushing for the 800s to get a reprieve in 2012. Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta told Birt that 2012 regulations will allow two separate formulas to run side by side, as in the first year of the MotoGP four strokes in 2002. Having invested so heavily in their 800cc machines, the factories could continue to run the smaller capacity bikes against the 1000cc bikes, with the liter bikes restricted to a maximum bore of 81mm and four cylinders, as announced in Geneva at the end of last year.
Honda is caught between a rock and a hard place. Like all of the other manufacturers, Honda has been hit hard by the recession, and is looking to cut costs wherever it can. However, the factory is also desperate for another World Championship, having had only one since Valentino Rossi left the factory in 2004 after winning nine out of the previous ten. The factory has to find a way to win another MotoGP title without breaking the bank.
The way they have selected to marry those two very different objectives is simple yet efficient. As of this season, all of the teams, whether satellite or factory, will be given the same bike. The only difference between the two machines will be the electronics, which control the performance of the bike to a significant degree.
The move marks a huge change in direction for Honda. In previous years, HRC supplied two different specifications of machine: A factory spec RC212V provided to the factory Repsol Honda team and a few selected satellite riders; And a satellite spec for the other satellite teams. The different spec of these machines could be significantly different, with different chassis, engines, fairings and exhaust systems. Even the factory spec machines were not identical, the Repsol bikes always at least a few iterations ahead of the bikes supplied to satellite rider.
Trouble continues to brew in the Aprilia camp. The Italian company's decision to pull out of Moto2 at the end of November last year looks set to have even more serious repercussions, as the authoritative Italian site GPOne.com is reporting rumors that Aprilia's racing boss Giampiero Sacchi could leave his role as head of the factory's racing program altogether. Sacchi's departure would be a body blow to the Noale factory, as Sacchi has been with Aprilia since the 80s and has worked with all of the great stars that the company has produced, from Max Biaggi to Tetsuya Harada, Valentino Rossi to Jorge Lorenzo.
The root of the problem, according to GPOne.com, is the long-standing rivalry between Sacchi and Aprilia's General Director Leo Mercanti. The high-profile CEO of the Piaggio Group Roberto Colaninno is reportedly tired of the bickering between Sacchi and Mercanti, and has been taking steps to sort the situation out.
Looking back at the two days of MotoGP testing at Sepang throws up only a few surprises. The Aliens continue to dominate, as ever, and Colin Edwards is still firmly in place as #5. Behind, the top 5, the picture is a little more interesting. Loris Capirossi's strong outing on Thursday shows that the Suzuki can be fast, but the GSV-R has a long history of being outstanding in testing, yet falling short during the season. Whether it's business-as-usual for Suzuki or a breakthrough will have to wait until the first few rounds have been run.
Ben Spies continues his methodical improvement, but with the Texan complaining of jet lag and telling reporters that he is still very much just learning, he should soon be edging Colin Edwards out of 5th spot and closing on the top 4. Spies is holding station with Andrea Dovizioso, the Italian improving but still looking for more pace.
The rain that held off yesterday finally came to Sepang on Friday, disrupting testing during the morning and at the end of the day. The rain in the morning combined with the limit on engines to persuade most of the riders to sit in the garage, or restrict their laps to a minimum. The track started to dry out at lunchtime, and from then, all 17 MotoGP riders, along with a couple of Yamaha test pilots, got to work on their testing program. By the time the rain came around 5pm, it was Valentino Rossi who had set the fastest lap, finishing ahead of Casey Stoner and Rossi's Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo. Dani Pedrosa completed the top four, the Aliens still clearly a breed apart in the MotoGP paddock.
While both Rossi and Stoner finished in the same positions as yesterday, both Jorge Lorenzo and especially Dani Pedrosa made a huge leap forward. Lorenzo jumped from 5th spot to 3rd, though he did not close the gap to his Fiat Yamaha teammate. Dani Pedrosa, on the other hand, closed the gap by over half a second, while working on the all-new Honda RC212V. Given that the bike has new Ohlins suspension, new electronics, a new chassis and a number of swingarms, there would appear to be plenty of room for improvement once the Repsol Honda team find the right setup for the bike.
One of the most heavily-attended press conferences at Sepang was the Yamaha affair, at which Yamaha's MotoGP group leader Masahiko Nakajima, Racing MD Lin Jarvis, team bosses Davide Brivio and Wilco Zeelenberg and the two stars of the show, Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo faced questions from the assembled press. The subjects covered a lot of ground, from Wilco Zeelenberg's first day on the job, to Yamaha Indonesia's stepping up with sponsorship, to whether post-race burnouts are things of the past. But more pressing subjects were also covered, such as the end to data sharing between Valentino Rossi's and Jorge Lorenzo's sides of the garage, whether Yamaha thinks they can retain both their riders, and the two riders' impressions of the new YZR M1.
All these and more are covered in the transcript of the press conference, which follows below, thanks to our friends over at Superbikeplanet.com:
Q. To MN: Are you satisfied with the development of the M1?
Masahiko Nakajima: Difficult to say! It's too early to say how the development is but so far, on the first day of the winter test, we have quite good results and we are quite satisfied.
Launching a MotoGP race bike is a tricky prospect. The aim is for it to be as glamorous as possible, but without being too expensive for journalists to cover. Ducati solve this problem by launching at a giant event done together with Ferrari in the Italian Alps, but Yamaha have decided to make use of the opportunity presented by the first official MotoGP test of the year, out in Sepang. The location was especially appropriate this year, as Yamaha Indonesia has stepped up into a sponsor role, capitalizing on the growing interest in the sport in that part of Asia. According to Google Trends, Indonesia provides the largest number of users searching for the term "motogp", outnumbering Italy by nearly 4 to 1.
The rain that threatened to ruin the first day of testing for 2010 luckily decided to stay away, but the session was still disrupted by the weather. Instead of water, it was the oppressive 40°C tropical heat that sapped the strength of the riders, limiting the amount of testing the riders could do. The rain finally came just before 5pm to cool the track from the scorching 50° Centigrade it was at most of the day, though only adding to the humidity.
Valentino Rossi ended the day with the fastest time, a comfortable half a second ahead of Casey Stoner on the Ducati. Stoner had suffered chatter for part of the day, and the hot asphalt made it difficult to judge the difference adjustments to the bike were making. The riders in 3rd and 4th place were a big surprise, Colin Edwards' 3rd spot slightly less so than Loris Capirossi's 4th fastest time. It's clear the Yamaha is good, but even the satellite bikes are so good that on their day, they can match the speed of the factory bikes, Edwards finishing ahead of Jorge Lorenzo and nearly a quarter of a second faster.
MotoGP makes a long-awaited return to action on Thursday, with the 17 official entries all taking to the track at Sepang. For the veterans, it marks the first time they will have ridden a MotoGP bike in nearly three months, their last outing being at the Valencia post-race tests in November last year. Even the rookies, who got extra tests at the end of 2009, have not been been on track since late December, with Marco Simoncelli and Hiroshi Aoyama the most recent to test here at Sepang before Christmas.
Wednesday saw the bikes already on track in the hands of the testers, who gave all of the teams' bikes a shakedown to ensure they are all working properly. This had been agreed as part of the cost-cutting measures limiting testing, allowing test riders an extra day on track to ensure that the teams would not lose any testing time to mechanical problems. Honda's Kosuke Akiyoshi was fastest, in a relatively meaningless 2'04.43, between three and four seconds off the pace the MotoGP riders will be aiming for at Sepang.
After the rumored link-up of Garry McCoy and the FB Corse MotoGP team was finalized over the weekend, the details of the deal left plenty of room for questions. We caught up with Garry McCoy at his home in Andorra to put some of those question to him. Here's what he has to say, about his expectations for the 2010 season, when he expects to be racing, and how his previous experience will work to his advantage.
MotoMatters: Are you pleased that you've finally got a deal in place?
Garry McCoy: Yeah, for sure. What can I say? The World Supersport ride [with Triumph] was looking good there for a while up until mid-January, and then I thought I had nothing there for a moment. Then the GP deal popped up with FB Corse.
MM: Did they contact you or were you phoning them?
GM: They were chasing me down. I hadn't contacted them at all.
MM: I understand you were getting getting ready to go back to Australia when the deal happened.
GM: Yeah, I was planning to go out at 9 o'clock in the morning and we were still doing the deal at about 3am.
MM: The deal is for two years, do you know how many races you'll be doing this year?
Despite the fact the bike is yet to be presented officially, news is all over the internet and elsewhere that Garry McCoy is to be the rider for the FB Corse team in 2010. Just days after hearing that he had been dropped by BE1's factory-backed Triumph World Supersport squad, McCoy is back in the saddle, and back in MotoGP.
The opportunity came about as a result of the maneuvering surrounding John Hopkins. Hopkins was the rider FB Corse had originally planned to sign, but after the team declined to allow Hopper to test the Italian-designed triple before signing a contract, Hopkins decided to play it safe, taking a ride on the Team M4 Suzuki with backing from his personal sponsor Monster Energy. Once Hopkins' intentions were clear, FB Corse went looking for a replacement, and contacted McCoy by phone last Wednesday. The Australian veteran was on a plane to Italy in a thrice, and the deal was done before the weekend was out, rumors of which had been picked up on Friday.