Once the shock of Casey Stoner's retirement passed, the speculation began over who would take his place at Honda, and what his departure would mean for contract negotiations among the other riders in the paddock. The permutations are endless, much like a sliding puzzle: will Repsol be able to tempt Jorge Lorenzo away from Yamaha? If Lorenzo does go, will Valentino Rossi be welcome at Yamaha, or could he even go back to Honda, the factory team he left at the end of 2003? What of Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez, and where do Ben Spies and Nicky Hayden fit into this?
But amidst all of the focus on the riders' market, a bigger catch appears to have slipped under the radar. For Stoner's retirement means that it is not just his seat at Honda that will be available next year, his current crew, including crew chief Cristian Gabarrini is also up for grabs. Gabarrini and crew - mechanics Bruno Leoni, Roberto Cierici, Andrea Brunetti, Filippo Brunetto and Lorenzo Gagni - came across to Honda along with Stoner when he left Ducati at the end of 2010, the group remaining intensely loyal to the Australian since winning their first world title together at Ducati in 2007.
The stock of Gabarrini and crew has risen along with Stoner's at Honda, and especially because of what has happened at Ducati since the Australian left the team. Valentino Rossi took over Stoner's ride at Ducati at the end of 2010, and brought his highly-regarded crew led by legendary crew chief Jeremy Burgess along with him. But just as Rossi has struggled to get to grips with the finicky Ducati, so have his crew found it much more difficult than anticipated to give the Italian a bike that he can be competitive on. While much of the focus among the fans and the media has been on the comparison between the fortunes of Rossi and Stoner, much less attention has been paid to the fact that Gabarrini & co found a way to set the Ducati Desmosedici GP10 up to allow Stoner to win on, a feat that Burgess & co have failed to emulate.
Clearly, Gabarrini will be much in demand once it comes time to shuffle the seats in MotoGP. Two things seem probable. Firstly that Gabarrini will stay with Honda is an obvious choice, though the Italian has not expressed an opinion on the matter. The second is that the current crop of factory riders all have long-term associations with their crew chiefs, and sometimes with all of the members of their crew. Rossi has Burgess, Jorge Lorenzo has Ramon Forcada (though Forcada also has experience with Honda), Dani Pedrosa has Mike Leitner, Ben Spies has Tom Houseworth and Nicky Hayden is very happy with Juan Martinez, who took over as the American's crew chief early in the season in 2009. Positions at the satellite teams are also fairly well fixed: Guy Coulon remains at Tech 3, the team he co-founded along with Herve Poncharal, and Christophe Bourgignon is a long-time LCR Honda man.
The most obvious destination for Gabarrini and associates would be alongside Marc Marquez, once the Spaniard makes the move up to MotoGP. But Marquez is firmly embedded inside the Monlau Competicion operation, which seems determined to move up to MotoGP as a whole, along with crew and mechanics. But with Gabarrini's experience, their learning process in MotoGP could be vastly speed up.
Will Gabarrini join Marquez? Will he return to Ducati? Or will he join whoever moves to take the slot left at Repsol Honda by Casey Stoner's departure (Valentino Rossi? Jorge Lorenzo?) Right now, we have no idea. But this could be a move which proves just as fascinating and just as crucial as which rider ends up going where. With it becoming ever more critical and ever more difficult to get the setup of a MotoGP machine spot on, crew chiefs are becoming almost as important as riders.