With the start of the summer break coming up in ten days time, contract negotiations are starting to hot up for the 2013 MotoGP rider market. The two race weekends at the Sachsenring and then Laguna Seca will see a frenzy of meetings, horse trading and secret talks as the few open MotoGP seats for 2014 get closer to be being filled.
The biggest problem facing riders looking to upgrade their seat is the scarcity of good seats available, both for 2014 and beyond. The Repsol Honda and Factory Yamaha teams are fully booked through the 2014 season, and even after that, it is hard to see them changing personnel. Jorge Lorenzo has shown he has the potential to win multiple championships for Yamaha, and Marc Marquez looks like doing much the same at Honda. Neither man is showing any intention of going anywhere for the foreseeable future.
Dani Pedrosa is looking stronger than ever, and has to be getting closer to his first ever MotoGP title. Though he considered retiring early after a couple of difficult years with injury, the Spaniard has rediscovered his passion for racing, and is also likely to extend his contract with Honda again once it comes up for renewal at the end of next year.
The only possible candidate to vacate his seat at the end of 2014 is Valentino Rossi. By then, the Italian will be nearly 36, the age at which most Grand Prix racers are in full decline. There had been some speculation that Rossi's run of mediocre (for a nine-times world champion) results was the first sign of Rossi's decline, but his convincing victory at Assen seems to have put a stop to such chatter. More importantly, it appears to have revitalized the Italian and restored the fire of his ambition, which had sometimes seemed to be dying down. There is no doubt that Rossi will complete both years of his two-year deal with the Yamaha factory team, and the odds of him extending beyond that are looking better and better.
That leaves Cal Crutchlow, in particular, with no place to go. The Englishman had been pressuring Yamaha to sign a two-year deal, with a guarantee of a seat in the factory team in the second year of his contract. The problem is, either Lorenzo or Rossi would have to go. Given Lorenzo's current form, it would be foolish to drop Lorenzo for Crutchlow, as strong as Crutchlow may have proved himself to be. And dropping Rossi in favor of Crutchlow - no matter how good Crutchlow's results - simply makes no business sense, as Rossi remains the top draw in the sport, and Yamaha's biggest sales ace-in-the-hole around the world. Crutchlow told the venerable British publication MCN that Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis had refused to guarantee him a seat in the factory team for 2015, leaving him to choose between remaining with Tech 3 for the next two years, and fighting on second string equipment, or taking his chances elsewhere.
However, "elsewhere" is a very limited selection of slots indeed. For the LCR Honda seat is taken, with Stefan Bradl set to stay on for another year - though HRC have made it clear that they expect better results from the German, if his pre-contract is to turn into an actual contract. Alvaro Bautista has a contract with Gresini for 2014, though Bautista's position is far from certain, given his disappointing results. In a report on Motocuatro.com, Fausto Gresini expressed his discontent with the results of the Spaniard, and emphasized that Bautista needs to realize just how much effort was going in to ensuring that he had an RC213V at his disposal for 2014.
Even the Tech 3 squad appears to be already full. Bradley Smith has a contract for 2014 with Herve Poncharal, while rumors persist that Yamaha has already signed either a contract or a letter of intent with Pol Espargaro to take the second seat at Tech 3. Even if Cal Crutchlow wanted to stay with the Tech 3 team, it could get very complicated.
And so Ducati finds itself with riders lining up almost around the block. With the Bologna factory the only manufacturer with seats open, there has been a lot of interest expressed in slotting in alongside Andrea Dovizioso, the only factory Ducati rider certain of his seat for 2014. There are four candidates to take the second Ducati seat, and the places in the satellite team could also be up for grabs, in some combination or other.
Chief among the candidates for the second Ducati factory seat is Cal Crutchlow, the Englishman having renewed his talks with the Italian factory after the management clear out instigated after Audi took over the company. Officially, discussions are only at an exploratory stage, but an increasing number of insiders believe the deal to be very close to being agreed. Crutchlow continues to deny rumors of the deal being nearly done, but there is so much smoke that some kind of fire must be present, however small.
If Ducati decide against a seasoned MotoGP rider - a decision which they could come to regret, given the amount of development still needed to make the Desmosedici competitive - they could go for a younger rider. Two names are being linked to the ride, those of Andrea Iannone and Scott Redding, though both are outsider for the ride. Iannone has a contract with Ducati for 2013, with Ducati holding an option to extend that for 2014. That option is due to expire after Laguna Seca, but Iannone continues to be a possibility for the second Ducati seat. The Italian has adapted well to the new category, though problems with arm pump meant he has been hindered to some extent in his first year.
Scott Redding remains the other option, though the factory Ducati seat is the least likely of the young Englishman's choices. Redding impressed the Ducati organization last year during the tests, when he was faster than Andrea Iannone, who had already had some time on the bike. Redding and his management team are in the same boat as Crutchlow, having rebuilt their bridges once the old guard were removed by new management put in place by Audi.
And then of course there is Nicky Hayden. Hayden has a wealth of experience on the bike, and is a one-man sales machine for the Italian factory, working as hard at promoting the brand as he does to go racing. Hayden has been an outstanding ambassador for the Italian brand, and has helped to shift large amounts of product, especially in the US, Ducati's most crucial market.
The question is, of course, does Nicky Hayden need to be on a Ducati in MotoGP to help shift Panigales in the US? The answer to that question is obviously no, and a sideways move to World Superbikes would be an obvious move. It would be good for Ducati, to get someone with experience of the frameless chassis in MotoGP try to figure out the same concept in World Superbike aboard the Panigale. It would be good for Dorna and World Superbikes, too, raising the profile of the sport in the US, and helping Dorna sell TV rights in the country. According to both Superbikeplanet.com and GPOne.com, Hayden already has a contract offer for World Superbikes, GPOne.com believing that contract to be with Ducati. Hayden has repeatedly said he wishes to remain in the MotoGP paddock, but that may not be possible for Hayden, if he is to retain his current position.
Then there's the situation at Pramac. Ben Spies has a two-year contract with Ducati, though so far, Spies has not stated explicitly that the contract specifies him racing in MotoGP. As a rule, Spies' contracts are locked down pretty tight, and so to expect him to do anything other than stay in MotoGP for 2014 is probably incorrect. The one angle of attack which Ducati may have in negotiations is the Texan's extended absence, with Spies badly hampered by an early return to testing and racing after major shoulder surgery. The Texan is currently scheduled to make his return at Indianapolis. If he still isn't strong enough then, it may mean his shoulder will never recover the strength needed to race in MotoGP.
If Andrea Iannone's contract is renewed, and Ducati hire Cal Crutchlow for the second factory seat, Iannone could remain in the Pramac squad - or whatever structure is thrown up to replace it - for next year. If he doesn't get another year on his contract, then he has options with Gresini as well. The Gresini team has made no secret of their desire to hire Italian riders, and a slot riding one of Honda's production racers alongside Alvaro Bautista would be a boost for the Italian team, making it easier for them to find sponsorship.
A more intriguing possibility is for Scott Redding to take the second satellite Ducati, but in a separate team to be run by Marc VDS. His current team has been in talks to move up to MotoGP with a number of people, with a leased Yamaha engine in a Kalex chassis one option, and a production Honda another. But perhaps the most attractive is to take over the running of the Pramac squad, and field the Ducati junior team. That would allow Redding to retain much of the team who current surround him, and have been instrumental in his success. It would also give Marc VDS a foothold in MotoGP, something the team has been interested in for a while.
But Redding has other options outside of the Marc VDS team, with talks ongoing with Gresini about a production Honda there. Yamaha have also expressed an interest, but the Japanese factory already has all of its slots more than filled, and so has nothing to offer the Gloucestershire youngster a the current time. Redding told MCN earlier this week he expected to make a decision after the Sachsenring, at some point during the summer break.
Why, though, would anyone want to take a gamble on a Ducati, when the brand has been struggling so badly ever since Casey Stoner left the team and went to Honda? Two factors. Firstly, the Audi takeover changed a lot of things inside Ducati, some of the significant changes underlying the heart of the organization. Changes in communication, in some key personnel, and in business processes are underway, but that kind of change takes a very long time.
Ducati have to get it right some time, or they will have no future in the sport. Those looking closely at Ducati contracts have been listening very carefully to what they have been told of the changing processes inside the Italian factory, and of their hopes for progress. There are signs of a more methodical work process, though that has yet to bear fruit. But a gamble on Ducati is a gamble that the small Italian factory can once again triumph through ingenuity and application, just as they have done before.
It is surprising that Ducati should be the hot ticket in MotoGP, but at the moment, they are the only factory with anything to offer. With a strong hand, the Italian manufacturer looks set to pick up a bargain or two in the next few days. Interesting times lie ahead, starting in Germany.