With the recent leaked news of Suzuki's MotoGP test and Honda's press release discussing the test of their new Production Racer MotoGP machine, the first speculation of silly season is starting to appear. With so many seats already tied up - all four Honda seats, three Yamaha seats and one seat at Ducati - speculation is limited, though the imminent return of Suzuki to the fold opens up more seats for consideration.
One name is on everyone's lips, however. Cal Crutchlow is the current hot ticket in MotoGP, and rightly so. The best of the riders available, and the only rider so far to get anywhere near the current four MotoGP aliens, with a podium at Le Mans to go with two fifth places and a fourth. If there is one rider looking capable of breaking the hegemony on wins currently held by the front four, it is surely Cal Crutchlow. So where will Crutchlow be riding in 2014?
The Englishman has made no secret of his desire to be aboard a factory machine. If he is to have a shot at winning races, and even a championship, he must have a factory ride, Crutchlow believes. He came close to one last year, but his dealings with Ducati fell short over a lack of communication. After Crutchlow gave a verbal commitment to the Italian factory, a contract never appeared for Crutchlow to sign, with Andrea Dovizioso finally picking up the ride. For 2014, he has two more shots at a factory ride, but the question is, will that be his best option for next season?
Crutchlow's name has already been penciled in for the ride with Suzuki, with new team manager Davide Brivio believed to have the Englishman at the top of his contract list. A ride with Suzuki would give Crutchlow one part of what he wants - a full factory ride, and a hand in development - but given Suzuki's checkered past in the series, it remains a risky move. Suzuki's R&D budget has always been severely limited, and the question is whether that will be any different this time around. Suzuki's last world championship came from Kenny Roberts Jr, a title he won on consistency and on outstanding performances in the many wet races in 2000. In the dry, Roberts Jr found it much harder to compete, in no small part because of the limited resources available from the factory.
It is clear that the new Suzuki will need a lot of development. If the times quoted by the German website Speedweek are correctly, test rider Randy de Puniet was 2 seconds off the pole time, and 1.4 seconds off the fastest lap in the race. Those 2 seconds are very expensive to overcome, the cost rising exponentially as the gap gets smaller. The first second may cost several millions to close, the second could take many tens of millions, as Ducati is currently showing. Does Suzuki have the experience and engineering ability to close the gap? Almost certainly. Do they have the funds to be able to dedicate those skills to actually achieving that? That is where the doubt lies.
The second option for Crutchlow could be an opening at Ducati, and to be honest, 2014 would be a good year to join the Italian factory. Ducati's new owners, and the new management team which has been installed, are pushing the development program forward aggressively and methodically, with progress being made painstakingly towards getting closer to the leaders. One major update is expected at the Barcelona test, the second towards the end of the year, possibly at the Misano test in September. The first update improves braking and corner entry, the second is aimed at fixing the understeer which continues to plague the bike. If both work as expected, they could solve a large part of Ducati's woes.
So with Nicky Hayden on a one-year contract, there could be a space for Crutchlow to fit into the factory Ducati team, alongside his former teammate Andrea Dovizioso. Crutchlow's style would be a good fit at Ducati, his more aggressive approach more suited to the Italian bike, whereas at the moment, he is having to rein himself in constantly to duplicate the smooth and flowing style used by Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo's style has been the leading factor in development of the Yamaha, but there is a case to be made that the bike has reached the point where it is getting harder to ride for people who cannot ride like Lorenzo does. Ben Spies struggled to adapt his late-braking style to the flowing Yamaha, and left the factory team at the end of last year.
But Yamaha also remains an option for Crutchlow. Though Yamaha first approached Tech 3 boss Herve Poncharal at Qatar over signing Moto2 prodigy Pol Espargaro, the Spaniard has had a very mediocre season since winning that first race. Espargaro is in danger of falling out of favor with Yamaha, who may look elsewhere to fill the seat which will fall empty when Crutchlow's contract runs out at the end of the year. Poncharal is very keen to retain his star rider, Crutchlow bringing the team both success on the track and exposure off the track, thanks to his outgoing personality. The Englishman is a big favorite with Dorna, who see him as raising the profile of the sport in the UK, as well as with Tech 3 title sponsor Monster. In a recent interview with the Belgian site GP Inside, Poncharal said that Monster boss Rodney Sacks was very keen to retain the services of Crutchlow. "He told me and he told Cal that he was 200% behind Cal," Poncharal said. It was his team, and now that he had a competitive rider in it, the Monster boss had no desire to lose him to another team.
That Crutchlow can ride the Yamaha is quite clear, and at the moment, the bike looks like being his best chance of winning a race. Crutchlow keeps pointing to the structure which HRC uses for its satellite riders, providing Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista with factory bikes and support in return for helping develop brakes and suspension. A similar role would suit Crutchlow down to the ground, and with both Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez looking set to dominate MotoGP for Honda this year and in the future, backing Crutchlow could be a way forward. However, Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis will not have been impressed with Crutchlow telling the press that the factory was talking to Espargaro, and that breach will be difficult to heal.
All parties will be present at Mugello, and no doubt there will be much to be discussed. Italy is home base for all three factories chasing Crutchlow's signature, and his manager is likely to be a very busy man this weekend. Perhaps by Sunday, we will know a little more.