The Dutch TT at Assen looks like being a very busy few days for everyone looking for a ride next year. The end of June has been earmarked as a deadline for all sorts of negotiations, from rider contracts to bike projects. Decisions will be made and contracts - or at least letters of intent - will be signed. A lot of paperwork should get done by the time the trucks roll out of the paddock on Sunday, heading for Germany and the Sachsenring.
Though most of the prototype rides are already wrapped up, there are still a few seats open, and some interesting and major changes could be on the way. The focal point for the future, and the key to all of the moves for next year is Scott Redding. The young Briton has raised his game in 2013, elevating himself to both the favorite for the 2013 Moto2 title, and hot property for MotoGP next season. Redding's prospects went from a possible ride on a Honda production racer with Marc VDS, on a relatively limited budget, to factories reconsidering their current contracts to see if they can make room for the Gloucestershire youngster.
Redding's options are still very open, the only limit the existing contracts the factories have. All three manufacturers would be keen to get their hands on him, with Ducati the current favorite to secure his services. Yamaha's hands are perhaps most tied, especially as Cal Crutchlow appears to be drawing ever closer to renewing his contract with the Tech 3 team, possibly including some kind of additional support from the factory. Redding could only join Yamaha if Bradley Smith could be persuaded to step aside, but the Englishman's contract looks to be pretty watertight so far.
Redding's chances at Honda look better. Livio Suppo has shown a keen interest in the Marc VDS rider, and though all four Honda seats are currently taken, either Alvaro Bautista or Stefan Bradl could find themselves being elbowed out of a ride to make way for the Englishman. Both Bautista and Bradl have contracts with HRC, but performance clauses could be invoked to move them aside. Redding was in the frame for the Gresini ride last year, and that would be the logical spot to put him for 2014. The risk Redding faces is that if he does go to Gresini to replace Bautista, he could find himself with the same conditions the Spaniard currently has, to serve as a test mule for Showa and Nissin. Given Redding's lack of experience, that would not make much sense, either for him, or for Honda.
The best option Redding has is with Ducati, however. Redding impressed the Italian factory in testing last year, when he was consistently faster than Andrea Iannone at the tests the two men attended. Redding came close to a deal to ride a Ducati for 2012, but a series of miscommunications with Ducati management saw Redding and Marc VDS walk away from the deal. With the takeover of Ducati by Audi, top management at the Italian factory has changed, and the possibility has opened up again. The most likely scenario appears to be that Marc VDS will take over at least one of the Pramac bikes, though running both of them also remains an option. Currently, Ducati foots the bill almost entirely for the Pramac operation, and the factory has been less than impressed with the way the team has been run. Having Marc VDS run the team - and help pay some of the bills - would both ease the financial strain, and bring a staff of experienced MotoGP technicians in to run the team. Almost everyone in the Marc VDS Racing team already has experience in the class, with Redding's crew chief Pete Benson former crew chief to Nicky Hayden during his championship season.
If the Pramac deal does not go through, then Redding's fallback position could be to enter on a leased Yamaha engine and Kalex chassis. The Marc VDS team already has a strong relationship with Kalex, after the team switched to the German chassis manufacturer at the beginning of last season. The Kalex / Yamaha option is probably the best of the non-prototype rides available, given the support which will come from Yamaha. Not only will the engine spec be very strong - Yamaha have promised to deliver an engine very close to the satellite spec - but the Japanese factory is likely to support chassis manufacturers in designing frames for the bikes, a prerequisite if the bikes are to be competitive.
Time is running out for this option, however. Kalex have told interested teams, including Marc VDS and the Pons team, that they will need to begin work on designing the chassis in July, which means that contracts need to be signed by the end of June. The costs are known: around 800,000 euros for the lease of the Yamaha engines, which includes three motors and two rebuilds, and 200,000 euros for the chassis. But that does not include research and development. That is a cost to be borne separately, and as yet, no figures have been named. It will be a significant sum, however, likely to be a multiple of the cost of a chassis.
The cost of development could well be the obstacle which prevents Sito Pons from making a return to MotoGP. Pons has been in talks with other teams - most notably Marc VDS - trying to persuade them to go with the Kalex option, and share the cost of chassis development as widely as possible. Right now, Pons looks like being on his own, unless the Marc VDS deal with Ducati falls through.
The Yamaha engine lease option is popular, however. Performance should not be an issue for the engines, as the 24 liters of fuel they are to be allowed should compensate for being forced to use the spec electronics. It should also provide a genuine benchmark for the advantage the factories have with their proprietary electronics: if the leased Yamaha is anywhere near competitive, then electronics will not be as important a factor as the factories believe. One of the biggest threats to performance will be in the garage of the teams themselves, however. Each leased engine will come with a Yamaha engineer, who will be in charge of managing the engines. That engineer will have the ability to control maximum revs, and with it, power output. Just as happens in the satellite teams, power will be limited, in the name of ensuring reliability. Not by much, but possibly just enough.
Both the Forward team and Aspar are looking at Yamaha engines, though the two teams are engaged with different frame builders. Forward are in talks with FTR to build a chassis for the Yamaha, an option which current Forward rider Colin Edwards is extremely keen to pursue. Edwards has given high praise to the British engineering firm, appreciating the feel of the FTR chassis he currently rides in the class. Aspar, meanwhile, are in talks with Suter, to have the Swiss chassis builder provide them with frames for Yamaha's engines. But the interest of Aspar could just be a political gambit, aimed at putting pressure on Aprilia to step up and provide a more powerful engine for 2014.
Aprilia appear to be in two minds about their participation next year, keen to continue the excellent progress they have made throughout the year. Aleix Espargaro has consistently run with the satellite Ducatis, and has occasionally threatened the satellite Hondas as well. The chassis is good, the engine is sufficient, and the Aprilia electronics package, developed in World Superbikes, is more than good enough to get close to the prototypes. But if Aprilia want to keep using their own software in 2014, they would have to compete as an MSMA entry, which would mean managing with just 5 engines and 20 liters of fuel. The RSV4 engine in its current state is simply not able to do so; perhaps it could be made to manage with the fuel, but managing the fuel and the reliability is beyond the scope of Aprilia's MotoGP race program.
That means that Aprilia would have to switch to the Magneti Marelli electronics, a system which at the moment, is lagging behind Aprilia's proprietary system. But Marelli is making large steps forward throughout the season, and with Michael Laverty riding the PBM machine, they are gaining useful data on running the RSV4 engine with the spec electronics. Aprilia have to decide whether they are willing to become just a chassis and engine supplier, and abandon MotoGP as a platform for electronics development.
When Honda announced their production racer, a dumbed down version of their RC213V, it was widely assumed that this would be the weapon of choice for the current CRT teams. Even now, speaking to senior HRC staff like Livio Suppo, they will tell you that they fully expect to sell all five production racers to MotoGP teams. However, speak to the current CRT teams, and they are far from convinced. Though the production racer's chassis should be impeccable, teams are sceptical about just how competitive the bike will be. Steel valve springs will rule out high engine speeds, and the level of performance promised has not impressed the teams.
One current CRT team member told me they had been looking at the Honda racer, but that it was simply too expensive for the performance on offer. "Honda told us performance would be about 7% down on the prototype," the CRT team member said. "But that is exactly where we already are with our CRT bike." What's more, the team already owns the bikes, and can compete again next year with almost the same bikes with just a small additional cost for upgrades to the latest spec. They already have money invested in bikes, and the spec of the production racer does not offer sufficient gains to persuade them to make the change. They would still find themselves fighting for places 10 to 15, but be 2 million euros or more out of pocket. Instead, they would rather invest in team infrastructure, and improving what they already have.
At least Honda's production racer has a longer deadline. HRC is going ahead with the project anyway, and bikes will be provided at the Valencia test. Given the fact that development work is the hardest part, actually producing the appropriate numbers should be easy. Whether that numbers is the maximum of five, as promised, or just a couple, we will see later in the year.