Casey Stoner's retirement announcement marked the - unhealthily early - opening of MotoGP's silly season, and with just two weeks having passed, it is, in the words of Nicky Hayden, "too early to start thinking about that." At the moment, factories, teams and riders are still absorbing the news and pondering their strategy for the many talks and negotiations which will surely follow. Though the paddock, the media and the internet are full of speculation, everything is so open that even the wildest guess may turn out to be true.
Even so, there are a few hard truths that we can be sure of, and most of them revolve around Marc Marquez. After Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, Marquez will play a key role in who goes where in 2013. Honda is a strong supporter of the Spaniard, in no small part due to the backing of oil giant Repsol. It seems almost certain (almost, but not completely) that Marquez will end up on a Honda in 2013, but that brings its own set of challenges. For the question is not so much what Marquez is to ride - money bet on it being a factory-spec and factory-supported Honda RC213V is probably the safest investment going given the troubled time the stock markets are going through - as which team he will be riding it in.
In years past, the answer to that question would have been self-evident: Marc Marquez would have gone straight into the factory Repsol Honda team on a two-year contract with the expectation that he would spend the first year learning and the second year as a title contender. But since the introduction of the Rookie Rule - introduced in 2009, and informally referred to as the Ben Spies Rule, as it prevented the Texan from going straight to a factory team - that has been impossible. Now, any new entrant into the MotoGP class has to spend a year with an independent team, either satellite or CRT.
That rule will not change, as Carmelo Ezpeleta has made it clear in any number of interviews. The last time that the rule was bent - to accommodate Suzuki and allow Alvaro Bautista to go straight to the factory team, Suzuki not having a satellite team to place the Spaniard with, after claims by Suzuki that having Bautista would allow them to continue competing in MotoGP - Suzuki pulled out anyway, and the Dorna boss is not inclined to be taken advantage of again in the same way. Ezpeleta has already granted the factories another set of concessions, postponing the introduction of the rev limit (now more likely to be 14,500 than 15,000 RPM) until 2015 rather than 2014, giving the factories another year on the engines they developed around the rules for this season. The continuing existence of the Rookie Rule is the price the factories have had to pay for that extra year of engine life. The satellite teams are all very happy with the way the Rookie Rule is working. "The Rookie Rule was designed to help independent teams," IRTA boss Mike Trimby told MotoMatters.com, "and it's working very well."
The logical alternative to that would be for Marquez to follow Valentino Rossi's example, and Marquez' current Moto2 Monlau Competicion team to move up to MotoGP with Marquez as a rider. A factory bike would not be a problem - the rule merely prohibits rookies from going to factory teams, it says nothing about what kind of equipment they must have - and Marquez has the financial backing to do whatever he wants. Valentino Rossi drew the comparison with his own situation back when he first entered the class back in the year 2000, when asked about the rookie rule during the pre-event press conference at Barcelona "I think that things won't change a lot for Marc next year," Rossi said, "because if the [rookie] rule stops, he can go to a full factory team, but if the rule remains, for sure Honda will give him a factory bike in his own team, a little bit like me in 2000."
But that introduces another complication into the equation: from 2013, each manufacturer will be limited to supplying bikes for just 4 riders, 2 in a factory team and 2 in satellite teams. That rule is now certain for next season, Trimby confirmed to MotoMatters.com. The arrival of Marquez means that one of the teams will face a major shakeup for one of the five satellite teams, though most probably for one of the two Honda teams, Gresini or LCR. Marquez' team is keen to move up to MotoGP, a source close to the team told MotoMatters.com at Estoril, but with only 2 satellite Hondas on offer, that will mean that somebody is likely to lose out.
The Monlau Competicion team moving up as a separate entity would mean that Gresini and LCR, both of whom have been competing in MotoGP for years now, would face losing a satellite bike. Gresini is the stronger of the two private teams, but Cecchinello has shown a truly innovative approach to raising funding for the team, and has functioned well in the series. Taking away the satellite bike from either team would severely impact their ability to raise sponsorship and jeopardize their long-term future in the class. Allowing their place to be taken by the Monlau Competicion team would be risky, as that team will likely be absorbed into the Repsol Honda squad in 2014, once Marquez moves to the factory squad, as expected. A good existing team would be lost for short-term gain.
But absorbing Marquez' team into either LCR or Gresini is similarly risky, as room would have to be made for the crew that Marquez brings with him, which in turn would probably mean firing crew that have been working with a team for years. Marquez' crew would then depart again a year later with the Spaniard for the factory squad, leaving either LCR or Gresini with a vacancy for not just a rider, but also for a complete crew to support that rider, their old crew having dissipated through the paddock. One year's benefit would cause more problems in the longer term once Marquez departs.
Perhaps the most realistic option is for the Monlau Competicion team to join forces with one of the two Honda satellite teams and take over the running of the factory-backed RC213V for Marquez, with Marquez' sponsors supplying sufficient cash for the team to run a second CRT entry alongside Marquez. That scenario is probably more realistic for LCR than for Gresini, as Gresini already has two bikes using such a set up.
In the end, the decision will be made by Honda. It is HRC who will ultimately decide who they will lease their bikes to, and it is up to HRC to weigh the importance of Marquez to the plans for the factory team against the importance of having strong satellite teams they can nurture talent in and represent the marque. It is a decision they are likely to spend quite some time considering.