The paddock is about to reconvene at the final round of the year at Valencia and return to the normal business of racing, or at least, as normal as possible less than two weeks after the death of Marco Simoncelli in a tragic accident at Sepang, and there are still a few empty seats to fill on the 2012 MotoGP grid. The slots at the Ducati, Honda and Yamaha factory teams are filled, as are the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha satellite seats, and of course Karel Abraham at the Cardion AB team, but beyond that, MotoGP's silly season for 2012 is still in full swing.
In a stroke of bitter irony, Marco Simoncelli's death gave the rider merry-go-round a bit more impetus. Simoncelli's place in the San Carlo Gresini Honda team had already been confirmed, complete with factory Honda RC213V and HRC contract. His death blows everything wide open again, and adds a massive number of complications. Though it is far too soon for Gresini to be signing contracts - Fausto Gresini was hit particularly hard by Simoncelli's death, as he was close to the Italian personally, and this was the second rider he has lost to a fatal crash, after Daijiro Kato back in 2003 - rider managers will be circling the Gresini pit box and making cautions enquiries as to the team's plans for 2012. As tragic as the loss of Marco Simoncelli is, life goes on, and riders will be racing next year, one of them from the garage destined for Simoncelli before his demise.
The key to the final round of rider signings - of factory and satellite teams, that is, not Claiming Rule Teams - will be Suzuki, and their future plans in MotoGP. Though the press release preview of Valencia held more hope than news, the prospects for Suzuki's future in MotoGP are looking ever bleaker. With every day that goes past without an announcement of their return for 2012, their withdrawal looks ever more likely, and with rumors that some team members are looking for jobs, things are not looking good. The most likely scenario appears to be the Crescent Racing team (the organization behind Rizla Suzuki) focusing all of their resources in World Superbikes after Suzuki decides to pull the plug.
An official decision from Suzuki will determine Alvaro Bautista's future. The Spaniard has been impressive in the second half of the season, and has pushed development of the GSV-R forward. His preference is still to stay with Suzuki, but he, like everyone else, is still waiting for an announcement from the Japanese factory. His patience will not last forever, however: Honda is chasing Bautista hard, hoping to place the Spaniard with Lucio Cecchinello's LCR Honda team. According to Spanish journalist Jose Maroto of Motociclismo magazine, HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto would like Bautista in the LCR team aboard a factory-spec RC213V. LCR is still short of budget, but Bautista's international popularity may help him secure the extra deals he needs to close the gap.
If Bautista does not move to LCR, then the two other candidates are Randy de Puniet and John Hopkins. De Puniet rode for LCR from 2008 until last season, but a few pointed comments from Cecchinello saw that relationship deteriorate in 2010. After a disastrous year with Toni Elias, LCR may be happy to welcome De Puniet back, though the prospect of new blood in the shape of John Hopkins may be more appealing. If LCR can't get Bautista, they may prefer a fresh start with Hopkins to a revival with Randy de Puniet.
With Bautista most likely to take the LCR spot, that leaves just two more seats to fill. The most desirable is the gaping hole left by Marco Simoncelli, and that presents an immediate and complex problem. Leaving aside the sensitivities of the situation for a moment, and the fact that no real negotiations are likely to start for a while, Gresini's fortunes are tied in with the requirements of his sponsor, Italian potato snack manufacturer San Carlo. San Carlo's market is mainly the Italian domestic market, though the company also has brands it sells in other European countries. Its main brand San Carlo - and the title sponsorship on the side of the Gresini bikes - is overwhelmingly aimed at Italy, however, and that requires a face that the company can sell to its domestic customers.
The obvious candidates for Gresini would be Randy de Puniet and Toni Elias. Elias has a long history with Gresini, riding for the team in 2006, 2007 and 2009. But the Spaniard has always struggled on Bridgestone tires, as this year has demonstrated, with Elias laboring at the back of the field with the LCR team. De Puniet could be a better option, both in terms of results and sponsorship, but the main problem with both men is their nationality. If San Carlo insist on an Italian, then the obvious choice - in the absence of Andrea Dovizioso not being either able or willing to get out from under his Tech 3 deal - is Andrea Iannone.
Iannone is keen to get into MotoGP, but the financial hurdles are huge, as Stefan Bradl found out, when 2.5 million Euros turned out to be insufficient to fund a satellite ride. The vacancy at Gresini offers an opportunity for Iannone to enter the class at a much lower price, especially as HRC is likely to swap the factory-spec RC213V earmarked for Simoncelli for a machine with less support. With San Carlo footing the bill, and Iannone a clearly marketable commodity in Italy, there is an opening there. In the end, though, any decision will come down to what San Carlo decide suits their marketing best.
The final unclaimed seat is with Pramac, and given the results of both the Ducati GP11.1 and the Pramac squad, it has not proved to be the most attractive proposition on offer. Randy de Puniet has certainly earned a return, but the Frenchman is looking for a way to get back onto a Honda. The most likely candidate is Hector Barbera; the Spaniard has done very well riding the Aspar satellite Ducati, and has turned down Aspar's offer to stay with the team, preferring to race a prototype rather than the CRT bikes which Aspar will be fielding in 2012. Barbera is a good fit with the Pramac squad, and will have the backing of Ducati if he goes to the team.
All of this will be wrapped up at Valencia, as time is running out to raise the money and prepare for the 2012 season. With the paddock back together once again, the frenzied meetings that are the bedrock of silly season can take place once again. The only deal that will not be completed will be the vacancy at Gresini, as the pain is clearly and understandably still too fresh. But whatever the niceties of the situation, and however much sympathy and compassion the riders, their managers, the other teams, Honda and Dorna have with Fausto Gresini and his team, pressure will start to be applied on the Italian to start giving serious thought to the future. As they say in the professional cycling peloton in July, "The Tour waits for no one." The harshness of that cliché does not prevent it from being any less true.