Fonsi Nieto has been much in the news, recently. The Spanish star had been tipped to replace Alessandro Polita at Sterilgarda Ducati recently, who had had problems with personal sponsors.
Nieto himself believed he was close to extending the deal he had with Alstare Suzuki from last year, despite Alstare claiming they would only be able to field two factory Suzukis. But even that has fallen through, according to Spanish magazine Solomoto, leaving Nieto without a ride.
"The conditions for staying with the Alstare team were unacceptable for a rider who won a race last year, as well as getting on the podium a number of times," Nieto told Solomoto. "They offered me a satellite-spec Suzuki GSX-R, but I wouldn't be able to share the garage with the factory bikes. After weeks and weeks of negotatiting, they told me that the bikes wouldn't be ready until the Valencia race. Which would mean I couldn't race at either Australia or Qatar."
So instead, Nieto will be helping to develop the Moto2 bike which Eskil Suter is developing for the Team LaGlisse, one of the top teams in the Spanish championship. The bike should be ready for testing within the next month, but Nieto told Solomoto that he didn't know whether he would be racing the bike in the series in Spain this year. Instead, he will spend the time training, and getting ready for next year.
Nieto's misfortune goes to show that even the considerable personal sponsorship that the Spaniard is believed to carry can't buy you a place on the grid. And even for a rider who finished 6th in the championship, ahead of names such as Max Biaggi, Ruben Xaus, Michel Fabrizio and his team mate Yukio Kagayama, who did keep his seat, the World Superbike paddock can be a pretty tough place.
Feelings are still mixed about the new Moto2 series, with the purists shedding a tear over the death of the 250 two-strokes, the pessimists fearing a tidal wave of lawsuits emanating from Switzerland and IMS if any production bike engines are used in the machines, while the optimists see this as a very affordable way of building interesting racing machinery. But if the fans and pundits are divided, the teams are quietly getting on with examining the rules and evaluating the options for competing.
The Blusens BQR team were the first team to break cover, launching the Moto2 bike they will be fielding in the Spanish CEV championship just last week. And it looks like they are not alone. In an interview with the motorsports website Crash.net, Herve Poncharal of the Tech 3 Yamaha MotoGP team has announced their intention to start building a bike ready for the 2010 season. Poncharal's reasoning is interesting, and builds on the findings which came out of the IRTA talks which happened in Bologna at the end of January. The Moto2 championship would function even more as a feeder series, with the satellite teams picking up promising young talent, and grooming them to be ready for MotoGP, first with the satellite teams, and if the rider starts to achieve some of his potential, then they could move on to a factory team.
The benefits for the satellite teams would be twofold: firstly, it would give them a platform where they could be competitive, and actually have a chance of winning races and championships. Secondly, it would give them closer links to the factory teams in MotoGP, with a chance of more support from the factories in the top class.
The Kawasaki saga just refuses to lay down and die. As silence continues to envelop the project, and most parties regarding Kawasaki's participation in MotoGP as being consigned to the history books, fresh rumblings are starting to appear. The usually well-informed Italian site GPOne.com is reporting that the bikes will now be appearing on the grid, but without the Kawasaki name on their tanks.
The program would not be run by Michael Bartholemy, however. The Belgian had been in extensive talks with Kawasaki, and had come tantalisingly close to a deal. But though the Akashi factory had been supportive of Bartholemy's efforts, in the end, the deal fell through.
Instead, according to GPOne.com, it is Carmelo Ezpeleta himself who has picked up the gauntlet. The Spaniard is apparently working directly with the team to get the bikes back on the grid, though no details of riders, team personnel or any other information is available at the moment.
The likelihood is, however, that these rumblings are little more than wild fantasy. Ezpeleta has a vested interest in having the world believe that he will have a full grid (in the case of MotoGP, that would mean at least 18 bikes), and so leaks to the press about a rescue package should be taken with a pinch of salt. As for whether the Kawasakis (or whatever they get called in the end) actually line up at Qatar or not, we can only echo the words of GPOne's Alberto Cani: "We shall see..."
Around the time that Kawasaki pulled out of MotoGP, rumors persisted that Suzuki, too, was on the verge of pulling out. A number of sources inside Japan spoke of Suzuki withdrawing, as we reported earlier, but the Suzuki MotoGP team consistently denied the rumors, dismissing them as just talk.
But they were more than that, as an interview which GPOne.com is carrying with Shinichi Sahara, head of Suzuki's MotoGP team, makes clear. Sahara told GPOne.com "At around the same time that Kawasaki officially announced its withdrawal, Suzuki were also considering it as well. Why did we choose to stay? Because Hamamatsu is convinced that competition is in our DNA, and is important for our image. In the end, the final word was for our President, Osamu Suzuki."
Sahara said that contracts with Dorna played no part in the decision: "There were no contractual problems with Dorna," he told GPOne.com.
But costs continue to be an important factor in Suzuki's MotoGP program. And costs mean that Suzuki is unlikely to be fielding extra bikes in the short term. "I can't see more than two Suzukis on the grid in the future. But the long term could be different, of course."
After Sterilgarda Ducati announced that Alessandro Polita would not be present at the first two races of the season, leaving Shane Byrne as the sole representative of the team, further rumors are emerging that Polita could be replaced altogether. Both Bikesportnews.com and sources inside Italy are reporting that Polita could lose his place altogether, after Polita's personal sponsors failed to find the promised cash to fund the Italian's season, and that Fonsi Nieto is waiting in the wings to take his place.
Nieto has no such money problems. The Spaniard, nephew of the legendary Angel Nieto, brings with him the Spanish cellphone provider Pepephone, which helped fund the Alstare Suzuki team last year. But though money may be no concern, there is still some doubt about the truth of these rumors. Nieto himself claims that he will be riding for Alstare Suzuki this season, despite his absence from the first World Superbike test at Portimao earlier this year.
Nieto's claims could well be more bargaining position than fact, given the deathly silence emanating from Francis Batta's Alstare Suzuki team. And if that silence continues, a move to Sterilgarda Ducati would be no bad option. But the loss of a ride for Polita due to sponsoring problems shows that World Superbike is not immune from the financial crisis currently hammering MotoGP.
Casey Stoner completed the three day test at Sepang exactly where he hoped to be: On top. Despite the continuing pain from his wrist, which prevented the factory Ducati rider from putting in any long runs, there was no stopping Stoner. His fastest lap, on the new spec tires which are capable of lasting much longer than the old soft qualifying tires, was over a second quicker than the current lap record he holds.
Second fastest was Valentino Rossi, another inmate of MotoGP's sick bay. The reigning World Champion got close - within a tenth of a second - but could not quite match Stoner's blistering pace. The Doctor kept Suzuki veteran Loris Capirossi behind him, Capirex consigned to third place, just over a tenth of a second behind Rossi. Capirossi has been the revelation of the test, the new Suzuki clearly improved, though the Sepang track also suiting the bikes handling very well.
Fourth fastest was Colin Edwards, the Texan showing both that the 2009 Yamaha M1 is an excellent package, and that he is one of the few Michelin riders to have adapted easily to the new Bridgestone tires, demonstrating just why Michelin kept him as their lead test rider for so long. The other former Michelin men are much further down the field, Jorge Lorenzo the first of them in 7th, three quarters of a second behind his team mate, ahead of Repsol Honda new boy Andrea Dovizioso. Dovi was left without a team mate, after Dani Pedrosa went home a day early with a painful knee, which is still not fully recovered from surgery in December.
Pedrosa's absence left Toni Elias the fastest Honda rider, surprising many who had thought that Elias would struggle with the new tires. The Spaniard had previously used a special custom front tire, of a much softer construction, but has adapted very well to the new, much stiffer tires being used.
Matthew Birt at MCN and the corporate MotoGP site are reporting that Dani Pedrosa has left the Sepang test a day early. Owing to surgery on his left knee in December, he has not recovered sufficient strength to complete race-distance simulations scheduled for Day 3. Considering that he rose to 4th on the time charts in Day 2 - within .4 sec of a similarly ailing Casey Stoner - and having completed everything else scheduled for his test regimen, this would seem to be a wise move.
So far, the global financial crisis has mainly affected MotoGP, leaving World Superbikes largely untouched. This is hardly surprising, as World Superbikes is a much cheaper series to compete in, and does not swallow money in the same way that developing the highly strung prototypes in MotoGP does.
But that does not mean that World Superbikes is immune. According to Motoblog.it, the Sterilgarda Ducati team, in an attempt to cut costs, will only be fielding Shane Byrne at the first two rounds of the series, leaving their Italian rider, Alessandro Polita, making the step up from Superstock, at home. "I'm very sorry about the situation, which prevents us from taking Alex," team manager Marco Borciani said. "Unfortunately, business conditions have prevented some of the companies from providing the sponsorship we were expecting for 2009."
The choice to skip the first two rounds of World Superbikes is a logical one, as these are two of the most expensive of the series. The season opener is at Phillip Island in Australia, followed by Losail in Qatar. Leaving one rider at home allows the team to cut costs significantly, saving them the expense of shipping bikes, parts and team members half way around the world.
Polita is expected to be present at the third WSBK round at Valencia, at the beginning of April.
Casey Stoner continued his dominance at Sepang today, on the second day of testing, though his wrist continues to trouble him, leaving the Australian incapable of putting in too many laps. But even a relatively small number of laps is enough to be the fastest man on the grid, which should give the competition pause for thought.
Loris Capirossi continues his strong showing at Sepang, raising hopes that Suzuki might have a good season again in 2009. The Italian veteran is a fraction ahead of his compatriot Valentino Rossi, who was third fastest. Like Stoner, Rossi is also struggling with injury, though the stitches in his fingers and foot are nowhere near as serious as Stoner's healing scaphoid. But there is less than 2/10ths of a second covering the top three, so things are pretty close.
After a difficult first day, Dani Pedrosa is back up to speed, the Repsol Honda rider also cracking the 2'02 barrier. But Pedrosa is a quarter of a second behind Rossi, and nearly 0.4 behind Stoner. Stoner's Ducati team mate Nicky Hayden took a second off his time from yesterday, climbing to 9th. But the American is still over a second and a half behind his team mate.
James Toseland is the rider struggling the most. The Englishman didn't improve his time from yesterday, and is propping up the bottom of the timesheets. Not the start to the year Toseland will be hoping for.
Testing concludes tomorrow.
The proposals on the table aimed at cutting costs in MotoGP are pretty well known now, and have been discussed here several times. It looks increasingly likely that practice and testing will be reduced this year, with more drastic measures, including engines having to last for at least two races and only allowing the riders to have one bike instead of two.
But it looks like the MSMA feels the situation is more desparate than at first thought. Motorcycle News is reporting that the regulations enforcing extended engine life will be introduced ahead of schedule, as early as the Indianapolis Grand Prix at the end of August. Other measures MCN is reporting to be adopted include the dropping of the Friday morning free practice session, the reduction of the other sessions to 45 minutes instead of an hour, and the dropping of most of the post-race tests in Europe.
One question mark hanging over the introduction of the extended engine life is the penalty for breaking it. Two suggestions had been put forward to deal with this: having points deducted or being put to the back of the grid. MCN does not report what punishment has been decided on, but both are problematic. Manufacturers seem unlikely to accept a points reduction, but being put to the back of the grid encourages gaming the system. If the power advantage is great enough for an engine lasting one race, then it might be worth taking the penalty and gambling on being able to fight your way forward through the field. Also, with only 17 bikes on the grid, if all of the factory bikes break the rule, then the rider who qualified fastest would find himself back on the 3rd row, instead of the back row.
On day 2 of the Sepang test, the picture is similar to yesterday. Once again, Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner and Loris Capirossi are battling it out for supremacy, and a 4pm, it was the Australian who was on top. But unlike yesterday, the Spaniard Dani Pedrosa was very close behind, and ready to join the front group. More times once testing finishes.
Until now, anyone wanting to know the mind of Marco Melandri had only the haiku-like utterances permitted by Facebook status updates. But today, Melandri has added an entry on his blog, finally telling his side of the story, and laying out what he expects. And for fans of the Italian, hoping to see him make the start of the season, the news is not good.
"The situation has got worse day by day," Melandri writes, "changing radically from one hour to the next without any explanation, and I have gone from being hopeful to having no certainty at all of riding in MotoGP in 2009."
And Kawasaki's withdrawal has changed the way he looks at life. "I am feeling calmer now, because I've started to think in a different way. I've realized I can't control everything that happens around me, and that I've done everything I could, and used every means at my disposal to handle the situation."
But the chances of Melandri racing are slim: "The one thing I'm sure about is that I will only race if I have the chance of doing well. I won't be in MotoGP just to make up the numbers." This is the lesson that Melandri has drawn from his difficult year with Ducati. "Another year like 2008 would kill me," he wrote.
Melandri is close to a decision on his 2009 season, however. "Now I have to wait until the end of February, but I really can't wait any longer than that to decide whether I will be racing or not," he wrote. It looks like he is ready, as Dean Adams of Superbikeplanet.com predicted with eerie clairvoyance, to sit out the season.
The work that Suzuki have done on their GSV-R over the winter seems to be paying off. After the deadly duo of Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi had led for most of the day, Capirossi put in a final fast lap to top the timesheets. And what a lap: over quarter of a second under Stoner's existing lap record. Suzuki have been impressive at Sepang before, putting in a strong showing here at the beginning of the 2007 season, and it looks like they have found some of the speed they lost last year, although it must be said that the Sepang track's lack of very long fast sweepers suits the Suzuki very well. With Capirossi appearing wearing standard Suzuki leathers, it looks like Rizla will not be renewing its deal, though you have to wonder whether a good result from testing here might help sway the argument.
Casey Stoner was second fastest, his scaphoid surgery apparently successful, as he was riding comfortably, and comfortably under the lap record. Valentino Rossi was in a little more discomfort from the stitches he has in his hand after falling over at home, but the Italian was still very fast, though 3/10ths slower than Stoner. Rossi suffered a fall earlier in the day, but escaped relatively uninjured. Capirossi's team mate Chris Vermeulen set the fourth fastest time, confirming Suzuki's form here in Malaysia.
The atmosphere in the factory Honda garage could be tested, as Toni Elias was the fastest of the Hondas, ahead of Andrea Dovizioso on the first of the official Repsol bikes. Dani Pedrosa, heavily tipped for the championship this year, only managed the eighth fastest time, 1.5 seconds behind Capirossi. Sete Gibernau was fastest of the other Ducatis, 1.75 seconds behind Casey Stoner, but a quarter of a second ahead of Stoner's Marlboro Ducati team mate Nicky Hayden, who finished 11th.
Testing continues tomorrow.
Action is still underway in Malaysia, and the times are starting to come in. All day long, Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner have been swapping the lead, and at 4pm, it was Rossi's turn at the top of the timesheets. The big surprise of the day are the Suzukis, both Loris Capirossi and Chris Vermeulen the only riders capable of getting anywhere near the two leaders.
More worrying will be the big gaps between the rest of the field: Dani Pedrosa is in 6th place, nearly a second behind Rossi, while Sete Gibernau in 10th is another second behind Pedrosa. Stoner's Ducati team mate Nicky Hayden is down in 14th, just behind James Toseland. Hayden's time will be a worrying sign that the Ducati is still a difficult bike to handle.
The rev limits imposed by Honda on the satellite spec bikes seem to be having the expected result. First satellite spec RC212V is Alex de Angelis down in 11th, over a second behind the fastest factory Honda of Dani Pedrosa. More times once the session is over.
One of the cost-cutting proposals aimed at saving MotoGP currently under discussion is the introduction of rev limits. The idea is that the lower revving engines will stress the engines less, and make them last longer, cutting the amount of maintenance required. Whether this will work or not is open to debate, and ever the great innovator, Honda have taken the first step, in announcing that they will be placing a rev limit of 18,200 revs on RC212V engines.
Of course, Honda isn't foolish enough to sacrifice its chance of winning a title while imposing rev limits, so the only bikes these limits will be applied to will be the satellite spec RC212Vs. The factory-spec Hondas of Dani Pedrosa, Andrea Dovizioso and - presumably - Toni Elias will continue unfettered by any such limits.
This is a hard blow on the satellite teams. Though aimed at extending engine life from the current 600km to 1200km - or about two race weekends - it will also most likely render the satellite spec bikes unable to compete with the much faster factory bikes. Coming after two years of - by HRC's very high standards - substandard equipment, another year of circulating at the back of the field will make it even harder for the satellite Honda teams to secure sponsorship.
The restriction is even more frustrating because it cancels out the benefits of having pneumatic valves. The satellite teams were looking forward to being able to compete once again, now that HRC had dropped its old steel spring valve engines and switched to the potentially more powerful pneumatic valve unit. But most of those benefits will be lost due to the rev ceiling.