The long and desperate history of Jorge Aspar Martinez and his attempts to enter MotoGP reached at least a temporary conclusion in Malaysia. The deal the Spaniard had with Kawasaki to run a third factory bike finally foundered on Kawasaki's insistence on Shinya Nakano as the rider, while Aspar's Spanish sponsors wanted a Spaniard. Martinez told Kawasaki that he would run Nakano if Kawasaki shared the costs, but the Akashi factory demanded that Aspar pay the full costs of the project.
But this had been the last page in an extended history: Aspar had turned to Kawasaki after his rider Alvaro Bautista refused to ride a Ducati, and the team had only examined Ducati as an option after a potential deal with Suzuki fell through. In the end, and with the Kawasaki in the shape it is in in 2008, the deal falling through may well be a good thing for the project.
For the Spanish sports daily Marca is reporting that Aspar is back talking to his first choice of motorcycle supplier. According to Marca, Aspar's Spanish sponsors have acquiesced to provide sponsorship for the factory Suzuki MotoGP team - currently Rizla Suzuki - on the condition that Aspar gets a third factory bike to run in MotoGP from 2010. That new team would then see Alvaro Bautista step up from 250s to move into the premier class, hopefully after wresting the world title from Marco Simoncelli.
There is some substance to this deal, as since Rizla withdrew sponsorship from the team run by Crescent Racing in British Superbikes, speculation has been rife that the manufacturer of cigarette rolling papers might withdraw - or reduce its involvement - from the MotoGP team as well. If Martinez can bring money to the factory Suzuki team, that would give him a very strong claim to a bike for 2010.
Though it really is far too early to even be thinking about the 2010 MotoGP silly season, it seems that reality is starting to intervene. The 2010 roundabout starts here ...
Motorcycle racing - in case you hadn't noticed - is an outdoor activity. And despite the Herculean efforts of the organizers to attempt to control as many aspects of the sport as possible in the name of safety, cost and spectacle, that still leaves motorcycle racing at the mercy of the elements.
That does not prevent them from trying. At Qatar, a vast forest of lighting masts lit up the night, turning night into something not far from being day, and allowing the race to be held in the cool of the evening, rather than under the blistering heat of the Arabian sun.
That dazzling display of technological hubris did not go unpunished, however. Though MotoGP escaped the heat of the day, the exceptional chill of the desert night made racing a difficult and dangerous task with no sun to warm the track. And since then, there has barely been a date on the calendar in which the elements have not had a major role to play. From cold to rain to the tail of a hurricane, the weather has been a factor at just about every weekend of the season.
Same Ol' Same Ol'
As the MotoGP circus arrived at Sepang, this weekend looked like being no different. Dark clouds pregnant with rain threatened from the Malacca Strait, and every day would dump their contents onto the circuit whenever the fancy took them. The weather would play its part, no matter what we thought of it.
The consequences of that interference were felt most during Qualifying. While a light drizzle had disrupted practice on Friday, a proper downpour threatened on Saturday. It broke just as the morning's sessions ended, justifying the Kawasaki riders' decision to go out on qualifiers in the hope of bagging a decent grid position if the afternoon's official qualifying session should be canceled. As qualifying practice approached, though, the skies lightened and the threat of cancellation receded.
But with overcast skies and high humidity, the track took a long time to dry, compressing the usual frantic last half hour into just 15 minutes. The last few minutes of the session turned even more manic than normal, adding an extra helping of chance into the job of securing a decent grid position.
Some were luckier - and cannier - than others. Valentino Rossi looked to have timed his final run perfectly, crossing the line to start his final flying lap with a minute to go. But he was outfoxed by Dani Pedrosa, who started his pole lap with just seconds in the session remaining. Though Rossi crossed the line just a tenth off Pedrosa's pole time from last year, the Spaniard struck back, snatching pole by nearly half a second.
Where Pedrosa had got it right, Casey Stoner - or rather, his crew - had gambled and lost. A mix-up in pit lane over tires saw Stoner leave the pits with just under two minutes to the flag. Too late to make it round in time for a flying lap, Stoner was forced to settle for 7th, and a place on the 3rd row of the grid.
The Same, But Different
After two days of damp practice, the MotoGP paddock awoke fearing what the vagaries of the elements might bring for them on race day. Their worries were justified: As the teams arrived at the track, it was clear that once again, the weather would play a role, but not quite the one they had been expecting.
One of the last pieces of the 2009 MotoGP puzzle has just fallen into place. The satellite Ducati team have just announced that Mika Kallio and Niccolo Canepa will be competing for the team next year.
The move is no real surprise, as rumors had been around that Kallio and Canepa would be joining the team for over a month. And it also underlines the role Ducati sees for the satellite team run by Paolo Campinoti. The Pramac team is very much the Ducati junior team, a place where up and coming riders can be groomed and tested.
Both Kallio and Canepa are interesting prospects. Kallio was twice runner up in the 125cc championship, his chances of a title in 2005 controversially ruined when he was beaten over the line by his team mate Gabor Talmasci in Qatar. Now in his 2nd season in the 250 series, he has looked like a title contender ever since moving up. The Fin is a promising talent.
His team mate is another interesting prospect. Niccolo Canepa was the 2007 FIM Superstock champion, aboard the brand new Ducati 1098. He so impressed Ducati's technicians that the Italian was hired to work as their main test rider for 2008, helping to develop both Ducati's GP8 and GP9 Desmosedici MotoGP bikes, as well as the 1098R which carried Troy Bayliss to his 3rd World Superbike title. Canepa's times at Mugello have been very impressive, the only man on a Ducati capable of getting within shouting distance of Casey Stoner's times there.
Another item of note in the press release is that the team, currently racing under the Alice Ducati name, refers to itself only as Pramac Racing. There has been talk that Alice, the Italian-based telecom provider, could reduce its sponsorship of Ducati's race program, and this press release would seem to confirm that suspicion. The financial crisis has bitten deeply in all aspects of life this fall, and now it's starting to sink its teeth into motorcycle racing. Let's hope it loses its appetite soon.
Full results of the 2008 Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang:
|Pos.||No.||Rider||Manufacturer||Fast Lap||Diff||Diff Previous|
|10||14||Randy DE PUNIET||HONDA||2'03.040||1.119||0.002|
|14||15||Alex DE ANGELIS||HONDA||2'03.328||1.407||0.044|
After the brief official announcement earlier today, details of Bridgestone's tire proposal have started to leak out, little by little. As yet, it is all the result of informal briefings and what riders have told the press, the exact details are to be presented in a formal announcement "later" to quote the Bridgestone statement. But this is what we know, or think we know:
- 20 tires per weekend, 8 fronts and 12 rears;
- One carcass construction only;
- 7 different compounds, of which 2 will be available at each race, a "hard" and a "soft". Presumably, Bridgestone will decide which 2 compounds to bring;
- Riders will have equal numbers of hard and soft tires;
- 150 tires for all of winter testing: 100 to be supplied free of charge, 50 to be supplied at the surprisingly reasonable rate of 200 euros for a front and 400 euros for a rear, according to MotoGP stalwart Julian Ryder over at Soup. That sounds quite attractive, and if I thought I could fit a 16.5 inch tire to my overweight adventure tourer, I'd be tempted to have a few myself;
- Testing to be limited to 6 tests lasting 2 days each, that would leave the riders with 12 tires a day, approximately. As Nicky Hayden is wont to do 100+ laps a day during a test, that would mean the tires lasting at least 20 laps each.
- One wet compound, a medium. Earlier, there was talk of only 4 wet tires being supplied, but no numbers are being mentioned any more.
The outcry predicted here has failed to erupt, but the riders have already forced a few concessions from Bridgestone. The main complaint was that 20 tires would be too few, and the riders have extracted promises from Bridgestone that they would reexamine the situation as the season progressed. Valentino Rossi told GPOne.com "they (Bridgestone, Ed.) said that we should trust them, and that 20 tires will be enough, because they will bring tires with a wide enough temperature range to cope, and in any case, they have assured us that if problems arise, they will try to correct this by bringing more tires. Put like that, it's a situation we can accept."
What we all knew was going to happen has finally been made official. Bridgestone has been awarded the contract to supply tires to the MotoGP series as the sole supplier. Here's the FIM statement:
Following a unanimous proposal from MSMA, the Grand Prix Commission, composed of Messrs. Carmelo Ezpeleta (Dorna, Chairman), Claude Danis (FIM), Hervé Poncharal (IRTA) and Takanao Tsubouchi (MSMA), in the presence of Mr. Paul Butler (Secretary of the meeting), in a meeting held today at the circuit of Sepang, unanimously decided to introduce the following change to the FIM Road Racing World Championship Grand Prix Regulations.
Bridgestone will be the single tyre supplier for the MotoGP class for 2009, 2010 and 2011.
However, the full details of the regulations have not yet been released, which could mean that Dorna and Bridgestone are still haggling over details, after the riders' Safety Commission meeting reportedly slammed several of the proposed rules. Bridgestone did issue a formal press release, stating their commitment to safety, cost and fairness.
The qualifying practice session at the Sepang MotoGP round was to be the penultimate time that the MotoGP riders were to experience the exhilarating and terrifying levels of grip provided by qualifying tires, scheduled to disappear once the single tire rule was introduced. But at the start of the session, it didn't look like they would get to use them at all, the rain appearing between the morning and afternoon sessions having soaked the track.
Two riders had made sure that they would use qualifying rubber, as Kawasaki had decided to send both its riders out on soft tires at the end of FP3. The team had seen the weather forecasts, and mindful of 2006, when the grid was set on the basis of the results in free practice, Ant West and John Hopkins had used one of their qualifiers gambling on the official qualifying session being rained out.
It was a smart move, leaving West sitting pretty at the top of the timesheets, shortly before the rain came down. But sadly for West, the rain did not come in sufficient quantity to wash out qualifying, and so the entire grid went out to start the afternoon session on rain tires.
What the riders found was a track that was wet, but drying very slowly, the tropical sun unable to penetrate the thick clouds, and so the initial laps were well off a fast pace, Shinya Nakano the first person to hold the fastest lap for any significant length of time.
The Japanese rider was looking very strong. Every time someone took the fastest lap from him, Nakano responded. His first serious time was a lap of 2'18, a time which Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner then bettered, before Nakano took the top time back again with a 2'17.905.
Next up was Chris Vermeulen. The wet weather master was into the 2'16 bracket before Nakano struck back once again, with a time of 2'15.686. But Nakano's dominance was about to come to an end.
As the halfway mark approached, Valentino Rossi took back provisional pole by a tenth of a second, before ceding pole to Nakano once again, then duking it out with this Fiat Yamaha team mate Jorge Lorenzo over who would start from the front of the grid.
This little contretemps took the pole time down from a 2'14 into the 2'11s, before Andrea Dovizioso started to get involved. The JiR Scot Honda rider was starting to take big steps forward, dropping his times by a second a lap for the next three laps. With just over 20 minutes to go, times were heading into the 2'08s, and the track was starting to show a proper dry line for large parts of the track.
At the beginning of the session, Dani Pedrosa's pole time from last year, a lap of 2'01.877, looked completely out of reach, but as the track continued to dry, and the lap times kept falling, suddenly, it didn't seem such a foolish notion after all.
With the decision by KTM to withdraw from the 250cc class in 2009 - a decision taken in response to the proposed rule changes which would see the class becoming a 600cc four-stroke series - and the global financial turmoil causing a host of sponsors to pull out, the future of the 250 class is looking increasingly in doubt.
The combination of KTM and Polaris World pulling out took 4 bikes off the grid, immediately decimating numbers. And with other teams and sponsors as yet unsigned, at the moment, the class looks like falling well short of the minimum number of 15 bikes needed to run the class. If Dorna does not receive entries for 15 bikes, then FIM rules prevent the series from being called a world championship, which in turn would make the series an irrelevance in global terms.
At the moment, there are between 10 and 12 bikes certain to be on the grid. That does not mean that more will not appear, however. The makeup of the smaller classes is notoriously unpredictable, with entries being added well after the end of the previous season. And the list of likely participants is still missing a few possible names, such as Campetella, Caffe Latte, Blusens and Yamaha Indonesia, so there is no immediate reason to panic. But even if a few more teams do field bikes, it could leave the grid looking worryingly thin.
Part of the 250 classes problems are down to money, victims, like many other sports, of the current financial crisis. Polaris World, who sponsor the team fielding Mattia Pasini, are a Spanish-based construction company building second homes and luxury golf resorts around the Mediterranean. The company had originally weathered the storms ravaging the Spanish housing sector rather well. Though domestic Spanish housing prices were caught in a hyperinflated bubble, prices for second homes had been holding up reasonably well. But once the financial crisis hit worldwide, luxury purchases such as apartments at golf resorts were among the first purchases to be dropped, hitting the firm badly.
Polaris World's difficulties highlight the MotoGP's underlying problems. The series is still based very strongly in Spain and Italy, and consequently, economic circumstances there dictate the health of the series to an exaggerated degree. More and more broadly-based sponsorship is required to help carry the series through difficult financial times.
Full results of the Qualifying Practice session for the 2008 Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang:
|Pos.||No.||Rider||Manufacturer||Fast Lap||Diff||Diff Previous|
|11||14||Randy DE PUNIET||HONDA||2'02.776||0.660||0.035|
|16||15||Alex DE ANGELIS||HONDA||2'03.332||1.216||0.069|
There's an old saying, that goes "Be careful what you wish for, you may receive it." Ever since the introduction of the restrictions on tires - introduced rather foolishly at the same time as the 800cc rule, breaking the engineer's golden rule of only changing one variable at a time - complaining about how tires have come to dominate racing has taken on epic proportions. Fans complained that the racing had become boring, riders complained that they were left powerless to compete if they were given the wrong tires or the tire companies got it wrong, and sponsors muttered that they were unhappy pouring money into teams who would be invisible all weekend because of a simple hoop of not-so-sticky rubber.
After a false start last year, the baying crowd were finally given what they wanted three weeks ago at Motegi: Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta announced that in 2009, the MotoGP series would have only a single tire manufacturer, and that he was open to bids for the contract from tire companies.
What happened next completely altered the balance of power: Michelin, knowing that it stood no chance of actually getting the contract, as any result other than Bridgestone would have caused a bombshell of tactical nuclear warhead proportions to go off in the paddock, threw Dorna a curve ball, and decided not to submit a bid. With Bridgestone the only company to have submitted a proposal, the deal was theirs.
But this leaves Dorna with a problem. They too knew that realistically, Bridgestone was the only option, but had hoped to use the bid from Michelin as a stick to beat Bridgestone with to get more favorable conditions. With Michelin declining to play ball, Dorna is now stuck, forced to accept whatever deal Bridgestone offers them, their leverage removed by Michelin's very clever, and very spiteful move.
The Bells! The Bells!
Already, the storm clouds have started to gather. There were always going to be questions about how the development of the tires would be handled, and who and which bikes the tires would be developed around. And as rumors have started to emerge, the alarm bells are finally starting to go off in the paddock as well.
Colin Edwards was one of the earliest riders to comment, stating quite bluntly that he expected the tires to be developed for Valentino Rossi, and that the tires that Rossi likes are so hard that there are very few people who can actually make the tires work. Then both Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner chimed in, Rossi demanding that tires be developed that will work for all of the manufacturers equally, while Stoner slammed the proposals for just 20 tires, consisting of two different constructions and two different compounds, as being complete inadequate.
The current belief in the paddock - this was written before an official statement was made on the proposal by Dorna, expected on Saturday, local time, at Sepang - is that riders will have 20 tires for the weekend, 10 fronts and 10 rears, with two constructions and two compounds, and just 4 wet weather tires for the weekend. There will be no qualifying tires, and teams will have an allowance of 150 tires to test for the entire season. The upside for the teams is that all of these tires will be supplied free of charge.
The downsides are many and varied. Firstly, there's the question of tire development. There can be no doubt that Dorna will want to ensure that the faces that help it sell MotoGP in key markets are provided with tires that they will be competitive on. This immediately raises a problem: Valentino Rossi, MotoGP's marketing genius and golden goose, likes a very hard tire, which is one of the reasons he takes a couple of laps to get up to speed.
But this is going to cause enormous problems in the other key market: Dani Pedrosa is used heavily by Dorna to sell MotoGP in Spain, but the Spaniard is some 35lbs and 8 inches shorter than Rossi. He needs a tire which is softer both in compound and construction, as he doesn't have the weight to help squash the tire and get some heat into it. Valentino Rossi's tires just won't work for Dani Pedrosa.
But with two constructions and two compounds, this would give them both a tire they could work with, right? Well, it would leave Valentino Rossi with one construction that might work for him, and Dani Pedrosa with one construction that might work for him. It would effectively limit their choices even more, making it the worst of both worlds.
In this tug of war, there can be only one winner. And it isn't going to be Dani Pedrosa. If Dorna believes that Jorge Lorenzo can use the same tires that Valentino Rossi can - despite being a few inches shorter and 20 lbs lighter - then Dani Pedrosa will be left clutching the short straw, his only realistic option adding extra weight to the bike to compensate for his own diminutive stature.
Is This Thing On?
Then there's testing. 150 tires may sound a lot, but that's about what a team might expect to get through in three days of testing. It's unlikely that they'll be forced to make that allowance of tires last the whole season, the more likely option being that extra tires will be made available, at an extra cost. This will offer Bridgestone a chance to recoup some of the income it will lose by providing free tires, so tires for testing are not going to be cheap.
And the losers here will be the satellite teams. Already, the teams struggle to find the money to compete, but if the costs for testing tires become too exorbitant, then testing will become too expensive for them to undertake. The satellite teams already test much less than the factory teams, in an attempt to keep costs down, and extra tires may just be an expense too far. If you had only a slim chance of winning on a satellite bike to begin with, without testing, you now have none.
The first day at Sepang was a strange affair, with weather playing a major role, as expected. Though the expected thunderstorms didn't roll in while the bikes were on track, conditions were hot and humid, and a light drizzle blighted the afternoon session for 20 minutes or so.
Valentino Rossi set the mark in the morning, the only man to post a time in the 2'02 bracket in the dying moments of the session, but in the afternoon, it was clearly contract time. Shinya Nakano dominated the session almost from the off, quickly setting the fastest time, a low 2'03, and once the drizzle started 20 minutes in, his time went unchallenged.
Most of the grid spent much of the next 20 minutes in their garages, venturing out only sporadically, with only the truly desperate putting in a lot of laps. The light drizzle meant that any data gathered would be of little use in either the dry or the wet, as times were several seconds off the pace, but there was not enough water on the track to break out even intermediate tires.
Once the rain stopped, and the track dried out, the garages emptied their riders onto the track in a rush to the end of the session. Everyone was out on track, people only popping briefly back into the pits for a new tire and a quick conference with their pit crew. And everyone was drastically improving their time.
It was a testament to Nakano's first fast lap that his time stood for so long. He was the only man to beat his own time until the last minute of the session, when Valentino Rossi came flying past, followed shortly by Casey Stoner. But even Stoner's time would not last, as it was Colin Edwards who ended up with the fastest time, putting in a seriously fast time on his final lap.
After weeks of argument, the question of the third Kawasaki has finally been settled. Sadly, it's been settled in the worst possible way, as Motorcycle News is reporting that the project has been shelved due to problems over who would ride the machine.
The problems boil down to a question of money: Jorge "Aspar" Martinez had enough sponsorship to run the team, but his Spanish sponsors demanded that he field a Spanish rider. This is not an unusual request, as sponsors need riders they can use to help sell their product in their target markets. Unfortunately for Martinez, Kawasaki would only provide the bike to the Aspar team on condition that Shinya Nakano be given the ride, as the Japanese rider is former Kawasaki rider and could help develop the bike. And if Nakano were to get the ride, Aspar's sponsors weren't prepared to provide the same level of funding.
And so it looks as if the project is finally off the cards. This is a tragedy in many different ways: After many years of success in the smaller classes, Aspar was ready to make the step up into MotoGP, a step which the team looked easily able to cope with; Kawasaki would have another rider to help develop the bike, something they badly need considering the dismal form they've shown this year; The MotoGP grid could once again have started to grow, rather than shrink, which would help to make a much more positive impression on potential sponsors; And last but not least, this was Shinya Nakano's final chance to stay in MotoGP for another year.