After news broke on the Monday before Brno of Casey Stoner's absence for the three MotoGP races in August and early September, the gaze of the world's press bore down unblinkingly on the Australian. But the intense scrutiny which befell Stoner was both mercifully and surprisingly brief, as by the time the MotoGP circus actually arrived at the Czech circuit, the attention of the press had been distracted by another, perhaps even larger story. News that Ducati - under direction from Marlboro and Philip Morris, who basically pay Ducati's bills - had made an offer to Jorge Lorenzo of between 6 and 8 million euros had the journalists thrashing about like sharks in a bait ball. Stoner's absence quickly shifted from being headline news to become the underlying reason for Ducati's approach to Lorenzo.
Yet as entertaining as it is, the Lorenzo saga - due to come to a head at Indianapolis, though the press in Spain is reporting that the deadline he had to inform both Ducati and Yamaha of his decision was Monday, August 24th - has left the press with too little time to spend searching for answers about Casey Stoner's situation. Admittedly, the press faces extra problems in this regard - Stoner is on the other side of the world from most of the MotoGP press, and even in Australia, the farm Stoner lives on is relatively secluded. Add to this Stoner's ingrained dislike and distrust of the press and his disinclination to talk to the media about his situation, as well as Jorge Lorenzo's skillful manipulation of the press attention he is receiving, and the media might be forgiven for concentrating on the easy story.
The fact that Casey Stoner is not talking to the press does not mean that there is no news. At the most recent occasion at which a large and varied international motorcycle racing press corps gathered - the German IDM championship races at Assen - the paddock was full of rumors from Australia that Jorge Lorenzo might not be the only big name to switch brands. Talk was rife of reports in the Australian media that Casey Stoner was currently engaged in talks with Yamaha about riding for the Japanese squad in 2010, reports that MotoGPMatters.com has confirmed independently through other sources.
In addition to the in-depth explanation which Lucio Cecchinello gave us about his single-event sponsorship model, which we published yesterday, the former 125cc race winner and now boss of the LCR Honda team also spoke to us about a few other topics. We discussed the role that the Bridgestone tires had played in limiting the number of crashes Randy de Puniet has had this season, and how LCR is trying to keep the Frenchman at the team for next season, but we started out talking about how the engine limits affected the team, with just 5 engines to last 7 races, and next year, 6 engines for all 18 races.
MGPM: We have the engine limits coming up, where you only have 5 engines for the last 7 races. Does that worry you at all, or are you getting enough life out of your engines already.
LC: Yes, at first Honda technology is already in a condition to guarantee us to have 2000 km per engine.
MGPM: Which is 2-3 races per engine.
LC: Yes. With 6 engine you will have quite have a good chance.
MGPM: And for this year, you're not even worried, it won't even be a problem at all
LC: No. This year, we can finish the season with 3 engines, we have 5, so ...
MGPM: I'd like to talk about the changes which Randy has seen. Last year, Randy crashed, this year he hasn't crashed...
LC: Except for the last race! [At the Sachsenring]
The LCR Honda team has been the talk of the paddock this year, with the Playboy logos adorning the bike at several rounds this year. But Playboy aren't on the bike at every round, to the confusion of some of the casual fans, instead, you are as likely to see Italian equipment manufacturer Givi on the bike as you are Playboy, or oil giant ELF, as it is all part of team boss Lucio Cecchinello's ingenious scheme for attracting more sponsors into the sport, by lowering the price of entry.
LCR's sponsorship program works with a series of single-event deals, rather than a single title sponsor, as most of the other teams do. This unconventional and highly innovative approach to raising funds had long interested us, so at Donington, we tracked Lucio Cecchinello down to explain the concept behind it.
MGPM: I wanted to talk to you about sponsorship, because I think you have one of the most interesting approaches to sponsorship, it's totally different to the rest of the teams. Instead of a title sponsor, you have single event sponsors, you are selling a single event package to a sponsor. First of all, how did you come up with the idea.
Lucio Cecchinello: When we arrived in MotoGP, in 2006, we had to face let's say the starting of a new era of sponsorship deals, because the fact of the new European rules forbidding advertising tobacco companies made a lot of trouble for everybody. And when we arrived in 2006, the European community started to say within one year, all the tobacco companies have to disappear in the motorsport field. So we arrived in a very tough period, because we proposed to some tobacco companies - because in 2006 there was still the possibility to do that - but unfortunately already all the tobacco companies said, "Sorry, we have no plan to continue in MotoGP, because anyway in 12 months, we are already finished, very sorry."
So there was a huge quantity of money that went way from the MotoGP class, it disappeared. So, MotoGP is not like Formula One, MotoGP teams did not have the skill, capacity, background, or commercial department able to sell their product, to sell our product. And from our side, where we came from the small and medium category, we always had contact with small and medium companies.
Despite the continuing uncertainty over perhaps half the grid in MotoGP, as the world awaits the fallout from Jorge Lorenzo's decision on his future, some seats are starting to fill up. And as those seats fill up, some riders are finding themselves still running in a circle while the music continues to play.
Alvaro Bautista's completely unsurprising announcement that he would be joining Suzuki, coupled with the tacit acknowledgements of Loris Capirossi that he is likely to stay with the Rizla Suzuki team for another season leaves Capirex' current team mate, Chris Vermeulen, one of the men still left standing. It has long been rumored that the Australian was out of the running for a seat with Suzuki next season; both the scarcity with which the team mentioned Vermeulen's name when it came to possible riders, and the decreasing tact with which Vermeulen has discussed the Suzuki's lack of performance have led many observers to conclude that that the Australian will not be returning to Suzuki for year.
Confirmation of what most people have suspected came today, in the shape of a report over on Crash.net that Vermeulen will be leaving Suzuki at the end of the season. Vermeulen's manager, Phil Baker, told Crash.net of Vermeulen's dissatisfaction with the Suzuki, and that he "felt a change was needed as he wants to be running at the front for victories." Vermeulen had earlier told Autosport.com that he found the lack of progress in developing the bike frustrating, and it is an open secret that Vermeulen has been offering his services around the paddock, with the Tech 3 Yamaha the Australian's main target, given the Yamaha's recent competitiveness.
It just never ends. Barely a day goes by without more news and rumors about Jorge Lorenzo's decision on whether or not he will be riding for Yamaha or Ducati next season, and today is no exception. Where previously, the stories have suggested that a deal with Ducati is all but completed, today, but Crash.net and the official MotoGP.com website are reporting that Lorenzo's management have denied that a deal is done.
Crash.net bases its story on sources close to Lorenzo, claiming that Lorenzo and his management are still considering both deals, and telling Crash.net, in the understatement of the year, "It is not an easy decision!". The MotoGP.com website spoke directly to Lorenzo's manager Marcos Hirsch, who said that they were "Getting close to concluding our evaluation of the pros and cons of the offers and we acknowledge that now is the right moment to make a decision." Such a decision would not be based on financial considerations alone, however. Hirsch told MotoGP.com that money was at "the bottom of the list of priorities", and that sporting factors - in this case, code for the number one position inside the team - would play a key role in their decision.
That decision is almost certain to be announced at, or probably, just prior to, the Indianapolis Red Bull Grand Prix. The most likely scenario is for a press conference to be convened in the hospitality unit of the winning bidder, meaning that the news will break some time before it is actually announced. In less than a week, the story should be just about over.
With the veritable category 5 hurricane of media attention that has surrounded Jorge Lorenzo's deal with Ducati - a deal that has been both confirmed and denied - most other MotoGP news has gone unnoticed. And yet the whirlwind of news has managed to stir up a few fascinating details from around the rest of the paddock, as seats are being held open and details hammered out for potential deals which could come into play if Lorenzo moves and his seat at Fiat Yamaha becomes available.
One candidate for that vacancy would be Dani Pedrosa. Despite HRC boss Tetsuo Suzuki announcing that Honda had reached a "basic agreement" with both Pedrosa and Dovizioso, with just a few details left to be thrashed out, both Dani Pedrosa and his manager and mentor Alberto Puig denied that any deal had been agreed upon, though Pedrosa described the talks as being "positive". Until a deal with Honda is finalized, Pedrosa is still at liberty to explore other options, one of which is Yamaha. Puig has commented several times that if Pedrosa cannot reach an agreement with Honda, Yamaha would be his best option.
But there is one detail which is blocking any deal which Pedrosa may be considering. Both Honda and Yamaha have said that they would welcome Pedrosa with open arms, but they will not accept the presence of Alberto Puig in the garage, according to the Spanish website Motoworld. The contract which HRC presented to Pedrosa reportedly contained the condition that Puig would no longer be welcome in the Repsol Honda garage, a condition which caused Pedrosa to refuse to sign it. Similarly, when Jorge Lorenzo flirtation with Honda caused Pedrosa to put out feelers to Yamaha, one of the conditions demanded by Yamaha was that Puig would not be involved.
Yesterday, we reported on Kevin Schwantz' comments on Casey Stoner's condition, which he made during the press teleconference hosted by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Of course, Schwantz commented on many more things than just Casey Stoner. The press heard his thoughts on the Red Bull Rookies, Ben Spies, Colin Edwards, his future as a team manager and Moto2. Read all about it in the transcript of yesterday's press conference, hosted by IMS' Paul Kelly.
HOST: Welcome, everyone, to the teleconference for the Red Bull Indianapolis GP, the second annual MotoGP event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which is taking place next Friday, August 28 through Sunday, August 30th. Our guest today is Kevin Schwantz, American motorcycle racing legend.
Kevin was born in Houston, won the 1993 500cc World Championship, at the time the premier class of worldwide motorcycle racing just like MotoGP is now. Kevin used an aggressive, all-out style to earn 25 victories during his Grand Prix career, second on the all-time list among American riders.
Kevin is still very involved in the sport today. He is an advisor and a rider coach for the Red Bull Rookies Cup series for aspiring MotoGP riders in Europe, and he also runs the Schwantz School which provides classroom and on-track performance motorcycle riding instruction. It's a big weekend for the Schwantz School coming up as it will have a session tomorrow and Saturday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Kevin, thanks for joining us, we appreciate it.
KEVIN SCHWANTZ: Thanks. Great to be here.
HOST: You were at the Red Bull Indianapolis GP last year working with the Red Bull Rookies Cup and doing media work, among your many other duties. You never stood still the whole weekend. What did it mean to you to see your sport finally compete at the world's most famous racetrack?
As is customary prior to the Indianapolis MotoGP round, the Press Communications staff organize a conference call with a senior figure in American racing to help stir up the already intense interest in the event. Last year, we spoke to Colin Edwards, and this year, the press assembled on the end of the phone lines has the distinct honor to talk to US racing legend Kevin Schwantz. Schwantz is known for his outspoken yet well thought out opinions - his article on what he thought of the DMG's attempt at running the AMA Superbike series over on Superbikeplanet.com is an excellent example - and we were hoping to hear something interesting.
We got that, alright. The first question to Kevin Schwantz, once the mike had been turned over to the press, was from Superbikeplanet's Dean Adams, who asked Schwantz for his thoughts on the situation surrounding Casey Stoner and his mystery illness. A transcript of his replies follows below:
Dean Adams: Can you touch on the Casey Stoner situation a little bit, a lot of mysterious stories going around at the moment. You've been to several MotoGP races this season, what have you heard, what have you seen, what do you think?
Kevin Schwantz: Well I guess first of all what I've heard and what I've seen is that Casey's been struggling with some type of an illness, whether it was a stomach bug or whatever, at a bunch of the earlier grand prix that I went to. Of course the last one I went to at the Czech Republic he wasn't there, still with no form of illness that's been diagnosed by any doctors that I've heard, anyway.
Pity poor Jorge Martinez and his Aspar team. While the rest of the world is concentrating on the incredible soap surrounding Jorge Lorenzo and his switch to Ducati, what should have been the biggest news of the week - the confirmation of Hector Barbera to ride the Aspar Ducati in 2010 - is being shoved aside, consigned to the sidebars and small print, now a virtual irrelevance. Which is a shame, as the entry of a new team - and one of the most successful ever in the series - into MotoGP is a very big deal indeed.
The fact that Hector Barbera will be riding for Aspar will hardly come as a surprise. Once Alvaro Bautista confirmed he would be riding for Suzuki, Barbera became the Aspar team's first alternative. Barbera fits Aspar's needs perfectly, as the young 250cc star is from the Valencia region in Spain, as is Jorge Martinez, boss of the Aspar team and the team's primary sponsor, the Valencian tourist board. Barbera has been offered a one year deal to ride with Aspar for 2010.
The decision to sign Barbera did surprise some observers, however. Barbera rode for Aspar in the 125 class in 2002 and 2003, and the split at the end of the 2003 season was said to be far from amicable. But both parties have now declared that that is all in the past, and are looking forward to working with each other again next year.
Barbera is one of a bumper crop of rookies entering the MotoGP series next season. Marco Simoncelli and Alvaro Bautista are definitely confirmed alongside Barbera, Hiroshi Aoyama looks to have a good chance of riding a MotoGP bike next year, and rumors are strong that Thomas Luthi could also make the leap into the MotoGP class. With the possibility of Ben Spies entering to join the Tech 3 team, the fight for the title of Rookie of the Year looks to be one of the toughest in many years.
The past few days have been a veritable whirlwind of news, or more accurately, rumor and speculation, about the future of Jorge Lorenzo. The Spaniard has been holding up the MotoGP transfer market since early July, when he held off on signing a new contract with Yamaha over the conditions of the deal, and explored the options on offer to him from the other manufacturers. He had, as he took pleasure in pointing out, received offers from all the other manufacturers, and was using those offers as leverage with Yamaha, to try and extract promises of equal treatment from the team. The kind of promises that Lorenzo believed he had from the factory when he signed with them the first time around, for the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
At Brno, the market started to show some signs of movement, with Marco Melandri going to Gresini Honda, Alvaro Bautista moving up to the Rizla Suzuki ride, strong indications that Hector Barbera would take the Aspar Ducati, and a statement by the head of HRC that they had reached basic agreements with Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso. At the same time, HRC boss Tetsuo Suzuki also indicated that they would not be signing Jorge Lorenzo. Two different stories are in circulation about the reasons for this: One says that the deal failed because Honda was unwilling to meet Lorenzo's salary demands; the other reports that Suzuki-san's statement was a face saving operation, after Lorenzo had already turned Honda down.
It looked like Lorenzo's role was played out. But Casey Stoner's absence due to illness, the presence of Philip Morris head of marketing Francesco Calvo at Brno despite Stoner's absence, and a series of late night meetings in the Ducati hospitality unit soon gave rise to speculation that Ducati were closing in on signing a deal with Jorge Lorenzo, to take over development of the troublesome Desmosedici, and become the new face of the team. The sums involved were reported to be astronomical, somewhere between 4 and 8 million euros a year, for a two-year deal.
The saga, which reported on on Saturday, Tuesday and Wednesday night, seems to be coming to a head. For Spanish website Motocuatro is reporting that Lorenzo has reached an agreement in principle with Ducati, and will be riding with the Bologna-based factory for the next two seasons. Concrete salary numbers were not reported, but according to Motocuatro, the deal would make Lorenzo the second highest paid motorcycle racer in the world, behind only - you guessed it - his team mate Valentino Rossi. That would put the deal in the upper end of the 4 to 8 million euro range being bandied about.
In any exciting story, there comes a point where the author is tempted to push the action up another notch, in the hope of making it more exciting still. The danger is that by pushing the envelope, you push the audience from suspending their disbelief into outright incredulity at the improbability of the storyline, and lose them altogether. As an example, think of the sequence in the first Mission Impossible movie, where the scene in which a helicopter is chasing a high-speed train transitions from the exciting to the ridiculous, as the helicopter continues its pursuit by flying into the Channel Tunnel, and does so without crashing due to the incredible turbulence a train generates in a tunnel.
That's just about where we are with the Jorge Lorenzo-to-Ducati story. Rumors started to arise that Ducati had upped their pursuit of Lorenzo during the early part of the Brno MotoGP weekend, and at the time sounded entirely reasonable. With Casey Stoner's health situation unknown, and his return to racing and full fitness for next season uncertain, it made a lot of sense to renew the approach that Ducati had made to Lorenzo earlier in the season. Obviously, to coax him away from both Yamaha and Honda, the early reports of salary offers between 3 and 5 million seemed entirely plausible.
After Mattia Pasini was drafted in to test the Pramac Ducati MotoGP bike, on the official one-day test after the Brno MotoGP round, speculation grew that the Italian 250cc star would be given the nod to race the Pramac bike for the next two MotoGP rounds, at Indianapolis and Misano. To many people's surprise, once he gave the Desmosedici GP9 back to the Pramac mechanics, he thanked them nicely and then told everyone that he had learned what he wanted to know, and that he had no intention of racing the bike. Instead, Pasini said, he would return to the 250cc championship where he is still theoretically in with a shot at the title.
This left Pramac casting about for a replacement. With the 250cc season also coming to a head and the Misano race clashing with the next round of World Superbikes at the Nurburgring, the list of possible substitutes was looking pretty threadbare. But within a couple of days of testing finishing at Brno, the Pramac squad have found a suitable replacement: For the next two rounds, the Ducati left vacant by Mika Kallio's temporary elevation to the factory Marlboro Ducati team will be filled by former 250cc star Aleix Espargaro. According to GPOne.com, Espargaro was offered the ride after former Suzuki rider John Hopkins declined, when the team refused to offer him a contract for 2010 on top of the two wild card rides at Indy and Misano.
The MotoGP paddock resembles a battlefield in many ways, but perhaps its most striking resemblance is that the truth is a very hard commodity to come by. The fog of war envelops the paddock, and stories which emerge always come out spun in one way or another, depending on which party is leaking a story, and which side of the argument a journalist is on.
So it has been hard to make sense of the stories emerging from the paddock recently of the offer Ducati has made to Jorge Lorenzo. Depending on which source you believe, the amount involved is either a suspiciously precise 3.52 million euros a year, 6.5 million euros a year rising to 8 million, or 7 million euros a year, and by the time you read this, doubtless a new figure will have emerged from somewhere. The numbers being given smell of a mixture of propaganda, sensationalism and guesswork, and all parties involved planting stories in the press to serve their own ends. Riders' salaries are always swathed in secrecy, and contract offers are far worse, with a healthy dose of subterfuge and misdirection thrown in for good measure.
However reliable - or more likely, unreliable - the numbers, they reveal an underlying truth: Casey Stoner's absence has opened a can of worms that his previous success had kept firmly shut. For the stories doing the rounds speak of Ducati offering Lorenzo extremely generous terms, but in truth, it isn't Ducati but their sponsor, Marlboro which is behind the move. Marlboro provide a sizable chunk of Ducati Corse's MotoGP budget, and have both the money and the influence to decide on rider choice.
With one extremely successful rider already at Ducati, why would Marlboro want to secure the services of another, and risk upsetting the only man who has so far brought them a world title? The answer is simple: Casey Stoner may appear on the podium regularly, but as far as appearances off the bike, he is extremely unwilling to play ball. Rider appearances, corporate entertaining, all the boring stuff that persuades sponsors to keep paying the bills, Stoner loathes it and keeps his commitments to a minimum. Even something as simple as a publicity shot is impossible to organize, with body doubles in leathers posing for glamour shots while Stoner's face is photoshopped in afterwards.
Probably the best-known aphorism in motorcycle racing - or racing of any sort, for that matter - is that the first person you have to beat is your team mate. Your team mate, after all, is on exactly the same equipment with the same support, and so there are no excuses. If you beat him you're the better rider, if he beats you, he is. No argument.
Reality is always a little more complicated than a simple aphorism, of course. Just because you're in the same team doesn't necessarily mean that your bike is the same as your team mate's; development parts filter through at different rates. You may be on the same team, but like riders, not all team members are equal; your crew chief might be a genius or he might be just very, very smart, which can be the difference between finding three tenths of a second during the warm up on Sunday and losing the race because you're a tenth a lap too slow.
All the more reason to beat your team mate, then. After all, if you do so regularly, then it is you who will get the pick of the development parts, use of the genius crew chief and hopefully, a serious chunk of the team budget. You get the glory, but more importantly, you get the power. The bike is developed to your tastes rather than anyone else's, so that the bike naturally suits your style. This in turn allows you to get the most out of the bike, more than anyone else, increasing your advantage over your competition - and especially your team mate - and further tipping the balance of power in your favor.
It is this goal which has been driving Jorge Lorenzo since being beaten by Valentino Rossi at his home race in Barcelona. His contract with the Fiat Yamaha team comes to an end this season and talks on its renewal are in full swing. There are a lot of reasons for Lorenzo to stay with the squad - the bike is clearly the best on the grid, the team is probably the best run team in the paddock, and Yamaha's R&D department are dedicated to building a motorcycle that riders can win on, rather than a winning motorcycle - but there is one major downside: At Yamaha, Jorge Lorenzo is the number two rider, not the number one.
For a young man as ambitious as he is talented, that is not good enough. Lorenzo wants to be number one, and the drawn out negotiations, the posturing, the flirtations with other manufacturers, all are aimed at securing that undisputed number one status, preferably with Yamaha. The one minor obstacle in his way is that at Yamaha he shares a garage with a rider who has 101 victories, 8 world titles and 6 MotoGP championships under his belt. Receiving preferential treatment over the man widely reckoned to be the greatest motorcycle racer ever is a very serious, and rather presumptuous, demand to make. There is only one way to ensure that such a demand is heeded: by beating your team mate, and beating him regularly.
Over the past few races, Jorge Lorenzo's intention to do just this has been increasingly clear. The young Spaniard has gone out at every practice and laid down a ferocious pace, challenging Rossi - and anyone else - to follow. He has demonstrated emphatically that Jorge Lorenzo is the fastest man on the track, and as such, is the man to beat.
The rain brought proceedings to an early end at the final day of testing for the MotoGP class for this season. It started to rain shortly after lunchtime, and though it rained only briefly, by the time the track had started to dry out a fresh shower arrived to drench the track again. Only in the final hour did the riders venture back out onto the track again, and then, it was only Valentino Rossi who managed to improve his time.
So the riders did not get the testing done that they had hoped for. Jorge Lorenzo was once again the fastest rider on the track, ahead of the ever tardy Valentino Rossi, who did not roll out of the garage until after 11am, and Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda riders were due to test Ohlins suspension, but as Dovizioso was scheduled to run the Swedish suspension in the morning, and Dani Pedrosa only in the afternoon, Dovi did the bulk of the testing. Pedrosa did get out on the new forks, according to GPOne.com, but certainly wouldn't have given the new suspension the kind of workout he would have hoped for.
Julian Ryder, over at Superbikeplanet.com, reports that there was cloak-and-dagger atmosphere inside the Suzuki pits, where screens were being erected around bikes every time the fairings came off. Obviously, the factory brought more than just the minor tweaks that they gave to Loris Capirossi for the race on Sunday.
The first outing for a Moto2 bike at an official MotoGP event was not a roaring success. Spanish rider David de Gea crashed during the morning while testing tires for Dunlop, and was transported to a local hospital with a broken foot. De Gea was not the only faller. Both Gabor Talmacsi and Nicky Hayden hit the gravel, though neither man was seriously hurt.
Times at the end of the day, courtesy of GPOne.com