After an eight-hour flight from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur, the MotoGP circus has rolled up at the Sepang circuit ready to do it all again a week later. Fortunately for most of the teams, they have had a day or two in Kuala Lumpur to acclimatize to the sweltering Malaysian heat, quite a contrast to the blustery cool of Phillip Island.
The climate inside the air-conditioned rooms where negotiations are taking place over 2012 is just as fevered as the hot and sweaty conditions outside, however. The spare time forced on the paddock has given riders, their managers and teams time to try to reach agreement over next season. With just two races of 2011 next to go, and with all of the major pieces having slotted into place, the final seats on the grid are starting to shake out.
The biggest announcement came on Thursday afternoon at the circuit, and had held much of the Spanish press in its thrall throughout the week. Marc Marquez finally announced that he will be staying in Moto2 for another year, and not moving up to MotoGP as many had hoped he would. For the full details, see this story here, but part of the decision was down to Marquez' personal backing from Repsol. The Spanish petroleum giant is getting an unprecedented bang for their buck at the moment, with Casey Stoner dominating in MotoGP on the Repsol Honda - and Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso picking up the baton on the rare occasions that Stoner falters - while Marc Marquez is storming up the field in Moto2. Repsol is getting massive exposure in their home market from having the two championship favorites on their books, and will be hoping to capitalize with a brace of #1 plates in both MotoGP and Moto2 next season.
For Marquez personally, the main reason for staying in Moto2 was that he still felt he had so much to learn - or at least, that is what he was telling the press. "Every race I learn something new," he said in Sepang, denying he was disappointed not to be making the switch to MotoGP and pointing out he is still just 18 years old. More experience would surely be a benefit, ran the argument by both Marquez and his manager, Emilio Alzamora.
Yet this is surely the wrong decision by the Spaniard. Yes, Marquez is still very young, and as he has demonstrated a number of times this year, including during practice at Phillip Island, can still make some very stupid and dangerous mistakes. Yes, Marquez still has a massive amount to learn, and MotoGP adds yet more in the shape of the electronics, gearbox selection, setup options and most significantly, the characteristics of the Bridgestone tires.
But the amount that Marquez has to learn remains the same whether he stays in Moto2 or goes to MotoGP. Moto2 has not proven to be the training ground for MotoGP that it was hoped to be; the vastly different tires are the biggest factor here, but the standard Honda engine not allowing adjustments to gearbox ratios , the rudimentary slipper clutch setup and the extremely limited options for the electronics are a major difference too. Staying in Moto2 for another year risks ingraining riding instincts and behaviors that could work against him once Marquez reaches the premier class. Learning to ride a MotoGP bike properly can only be done aboard a MotoGP bike, and its setup can only be mastered when you have all of the options at your disposal.
The sponsorship argument for remaining in Moto2 also makes little sense. If Repsol are enjoying the benefits of having wall-to-wall coverage in MotoGP and Moto2 this year, it is entirely possible that Stoner and Marquez could repeat again in 2012. Once again, Repsol would have plenty of exposure in MotoGP, and not need another rider. With the Spanish economy in dire straits and not looking like improving much in the next 12 months, there could be even less money for sponsorship available in 2013, jeopardizing Marquez' promotion to MotoGP.
A lack of sponsorship is not the only risk. Marquez looks fantastic this year, but an injury - especially a niggling one, such as a shoulder or wrist injury - could see Marquez struggle in 2012, his record losing much of his shine. The old racing adage that you're only good as your last race is a genuine threat to any rider looking to move up a class, and given the current state of MotoGP - especially the Bridgestone tires, which are so difficult to master - teams prefer a rider from inside the championship whose qualities they know to taking a risk on one from outside, even one with the potential of Marquez.
Which brings up the massive opportunity that Marquez is missing out on: with MotoGP switching to 1000cc next season, everyone will be on a machine they are unaccustomed to, and though the 1000s will be very similar to the 800s, they will be sufficiently different for everyone to need some time to get used to the bikes. Switching in 2012 means getting in on the ground floor along with everyone else (or at least, everyone except the factory riders who helped develop the bikes), while waiting until 2013 means giving the rest of the paddock a year's head start.
Then there's the question of contracts: All of the factory riders are out of contract at the end of 2012, meaning there will be a lot of opportunities for anyone on the MotoGP grid next year. With the Rookie Rule preventing new entrants into the class from going straight to a factory team, that door may shut again for 2013 and 2014, if the factory riders follow the current fashion for signing two-year contracts. That would leave Marquez either in a satellite team for two years, or forcing manufacturers to expand their factory teams to three riders, to make room for the Spaniard, which again would be very unpopular given the economic climate.
There is no doubt that Marquez is a prodigious talent, and that he is still very young and has a lot to learn - not running other riders off the track and trying to kill them, according to some of his fellow Moto2 riders. But it is equally clear that the young Spaniard learns at an astonishing rate, and has the mental strength and fortitude to take the pressure that entering MotoGP at the tender age of 18 would have placed upon him. The Spaniard's incredible performance at Estoril last year and Phillip Island this year - both situations where he showed both fantastic speed and the calmness and maturity to stay on the bike - prove that Marquez is ready. Another year in Moto2 for Marquez is a year wasted. I know a lot of Moto2 team managers will agree with me, if only because removing Marquez from the grid gives their riders a chance of winning the Moto2 championship.
Marquez' decision has blown open one of the two final pieces of the rider merry-go-round, and the paddock is now just waiting on a decision from Suzuki. An announcement from the smallest of the Japanese manufacturers currently on the grid is expected tomorrow, both about their MotoGP and their World Superbike teams. The current expectation is that Suzuki will stay in MotoGP for 2012, but they will field their current 800cc machine, as the rules allow them to do, with the proviso that their current 800 has a bore size no greater than 81mm. Suzuki are also expected to support Crescent with their move from BSB to World Superbikes, with current rider, BSB runner-up and MotoGP wildcard this weekend John Hopkins likely to be at least one of the riders, and Tommy Hill rumored to be in the running for the second seat in WSBK. Alvaro Bautista looks likely to stay with Rizla Suzuki (Crescent's MotoGP arm) for 2012, preferring the comfort of a factory team to the uncertainty of a satellite ride with LCR Honda, where he is still the name at the top of Lucio Cecchinello's list of potential candidates.
LCR's choice of riders is almost entirely dependent upon Suzuki. If Bautista doesn't switch to the satellite squad, then John Hopkins would be Cecchinello's next preferred option, leaving the American torn between his loyalty to the Crescent Suzuki operation which he has worked with for many years, and the chance of a (relatively uncompetitive) ride on a satellite Honda. If Paul Denning persuades Hopper to go to WSBK instead - where he stands more chance of podiums and wins than in MotoGP - then Randy de Puniet will make his return to LCR, a year after his departure on not entirely amicable terms.
There will be four Ducatis on the grid next season, with Pramac close to confirming they will be fielding a Desmosedici GP12 for 2012. It will be just a single bike that Pramac runs, however, and not the two-rider team they have had for the past several years. Hector Barbera is a shoe-in for the Pramac ride, an obvious and welcome choice given the Spaniard's outstanding rides on the GP11. Barbera had the option of riding a CRT machine with Aspar but declined, preferring to take his chances on the satellite Ducati.
There is even a possibility of a fifth Ducati taking to the field, with the Marc VDS team having an option on the Desmosedici already produced for the Aspar team, and spurned by Jorge Martinez in favor of two CRT bikes. Scott Redding would be the rider, but the project is dependent upon the team finding extra money to fund the difference between a Suter CRT machine (1.3 million euros) and a satellite Ducati (2.5 million euros). Having already produced the equipment, Ducati may be willing to do a deal.
A political factor could come into play here too. Ducati are rumored to have been pressured into racing at Motegi by Honda, with dark murmurings over refusing support for proposals within the MSMA. With four Hondas and four Yamahas on the grid, a fifth Ducati would make the Bologna factory the largest manufacturer in MotoGP, and very much strengthen their hand in the MSMA. Dorna would be much more willing to listen to the relatively small Italian factory that kept five bikes on the grid, and less inclined to hear the pleas of Honda, which cut two of its bikes from 2011 to 2012, reducing their quota to just 4 RC213Vs.
Despite there being at worst twelve and at best fourteen factory prototypes on the grid, the CRT contingent should bring the grid up to a fairly healthy 21 or 22 bikes. Colin Edwards will be riding one of them, the team having switched to the Suter BMW project, after someone inside Yamaha having vetoed Yamaha USA's offer of an R1 engine for the NGM Forward team to build a chassis around. Having a proven development rider like Edwards on the Suter could be just the fillip the project needs, and after having already made a big step forward from Mugello to Brno, they could cause a few surprises in the second half of 2012.
First, Sepang, and the bikes roll out onto the track in the next few hours. The weather is looking worrying, with showers and thunderstorms threatening every day. Though MotoGP is used to riding in the rain, the tropical downpours which see inches of water fall in just a few minutes are not safe to race in. The schedule could be disrupted, unless the weather holds off until the end of the day.
The other thing that could be disrupted is the test on Monday. Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa will be taking the RC213V to the track again, while Ben Spies - if he is fit, as question marks remain over the Texan after his big crash and concussion at Phillip Island - and Katsuyuki Nakasuga set to take the 2012 Yamaha M1 out on Monday as well. Nakasuga, replacing the injured Jorge Lorenzo, still recovering from surgery to fix his finger crushed at Phillip Island, has worn a groove around Sepang already, as he is currently a Yamaha test rider helping to develop the 2012 M1. His best time at the track is a 2'02.4, which would put him firmly on the pace with Elias and Abraham, and not leaving him to lap on his own at the back. He may not be in for a podium on Sunday, or even a top 10, but he is unlikely to embarrass himself.