It is going to be a busy – and lucrative – year for the managers of MotoGP riders. With almost everyone out of contract at the end of 2014, and with Suzuki coming back in 2015, top riders will be in high demand. The signs that competition will be intense for both riders and teams are already there, with the first shots already being fired.
Silly season for the 2015 championship kicked off very early. At the end of last year, HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto made a few casual remarks expressing an interesting in persuading Jorge Lorenzo to come to Honda. He repeated those comments at the Sepang tests, making no secret of his desire to see Lorenzo signed to an HRC contract.
Lorenzo has so far been cautious, ruling nothing out while reiterating his commitment to Yamaha. He is aware of the role Yamaha have played in his career, signing the Spaniard up while he was still in 250s, and bringing him straight into the factory team alongside Valentino Rossi in 2008, against some very vigorous protests from the multiple world champion. Yamaha have stuck with Lorenzo since then, refusing to bow to pressure to the extent of letting Rossi leave for Ducati, and in turn, Lorenzo has repaid their support by bringing them two world titles, 31 victories and 43 other podium finishes.
Yamaha, in turn, have already expressed their determination to retain Lorenzo, as well as Movistar Yamaha teammate Rossi. Speaking to Motorcycle News, Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis said that it was a 'very important year' in terms of contracts and that renewal discussions would start with both riders very soon. With Movistar stepping in as title sponsor, the Spanish telecommunication giant is said to keen to retain both Rossi and Lorenzo, the Italian for his unrivaled marketing power, the Spaniard as the face of Movistar in his native Spain.
But can Yamaha do it? If they do, it will come at a very heavy price. Honda made a play for Lorenzo the last time his contract was up in 2012, driving up his salary to around 9 million euros. Though he denied it at the time, Honda's offer is rumored to have been the reason he split with his then manager Marcos Hirsch. Hirsch, the rumor said, had not told Lorenzo of Honda's latest offer, thought to be in the region of 12 million euros. By that time, Lorenzo had already signed with Yamaha for less than that.
Honda will be looking to pull the same tactic in 2014, offering Lorenzo more money to make the switch. For HRC, it is a situation where they cannot lose: either Lorenzo accepts their deal and switches to the Repsol Honda team, or Lorenzo stays with Yamaha, but at an inflated salary, driving costs up and potentially using money which the Japanese firm could otherwise spend on developing the YZR-M1.
Throwing a second spanner into the works is Ducati. There were rumors earlier this year that Ducati had offered Lorenzo 15 million euros to sign for 2015. Lorenzo dismissed such rumors out of hand, but they do not appear to be completely without foundation. Lorenzo has a good relationship with Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna, having ridden for the him when the Italian was head of Aprilia in 250s. Progress at Ducati has been good, with Dall'Igna appearing to have finally succeeded in bringing the needed change to Ducati Corse, succeeding where others have failed. If Honda and Ducati enter a bidding war for Lorenzo's services, that would drive Yamaha to the very limits of their budget. They would need Movistar to come forward to extend financial support for the team to help pay for keeping the Spaniard on board.
But there are also risks for Lorenzo in leaving Yamaha. The Spaniard is surrounded by a tight-knit group, with at its center crew chief Ramon Forcada and team manager Wilco Zeelenberg. Forcada is the technical genius who has helped Lorenzo utilize every ounce of performance from the Yamaha M1, while Zeelenberg has been the mediating force between the two temperamental Spaniards, guiding Lorenzo's riding, providing key input on bike set up, and helping to filter the data Lorenzo is providing. It was Zeelenberg who carefully guided Lorenzo through the collarbone operation at Assen, walking him through the process one step at a time, from deciding to have surgery immediately, to flying to Barcelona and back, to racing to an astonishing 5th place on the Saturday.
Forcada could be persuaded to leave Yamaha, and go with Lorenzo to either Honda or Ducati. The experienced crew chief has no particular loyalty to one factory or another, though he is very happy to be working within Yamaha. Zeelenberg, on the other hand, would not leave Yamaha. He has a long association with the factory, having worked with them as a rider, then a team manager in World Supersport, and now with Lorenzo. When I asked Zeelenberg if he would leave Yamaha to follow Lorenzo, Zeelenberg dismissed the suggestion out of hand.
For Lorenzo, the decision will come down not just to money, but to where he believes he has the best chance of winning another title. The Yamaha struggled against the Honda RC213V last season, only becoming competitive again once the seamless gearbox made its appearance on the bike. In 2014, the M1 is struggling to cope with the new Bridgestone tires, which have less edge grip than the 2013 versions. What's more, there are questions over how the reduced fuel allowance will affect the Yamaha, though after the first race at Qatar, the M1 seemed to manage better than expected. If Yamaha haven't given Lorenzo a bike he feels competitive on, he is much more likely to defect. And as his main rival for the future will be Marc Marquez, Lorenzo may feel his best chance of beating him is to be on the same bike, negating any advantage which could come from machinery.
If retaining Lorenzo could be a struggle, keeping Valentino Rossi on board should be a much more straightforward task. Rossi has said that he will make a decision on his future after the first five or six races of 2014, only willing to continue if he is still competitive. His season has started well so far, proving to be much closer during testing than he was in 2013, and finishing 2nd to Marc Marquez at Qatar. But Qatar was one of Rossi's strongest races in 2013, and the Italian will be hoping it isn't another false dawn. Austin – if it stays dry – will be a better measure of Rossi's progress, and the likelihood of him staying. Rossi retains his passion for racing, he recently told Italian broadcaster Sky Sport, and is keen to renew. The chances of him staying in MotoGP for another two years are looking better with each race, and Rossi appears to be done with gambling on switching factories. Both Valentino Rossi and Yamaha know that they have a long and lucrative post-career relationship ahead of them, with Rossi acting as brand ambassador, along the lines of Giacomo Agostini.
At Honda, the situation is simple: retaining Marc Marquez is the highest priority for HRC, with Marquez showing no desire to jump ship. First, he has some winning to do, with the challenge of switching to another factory still a very theoretical one for the far future. Dani Pedrosa's seat is also relatively safe, despite the Spaniard's failure to secure a title for Honda in his 8 seasons with the factory. Despite the lack of championships, his record speaks for itself: Pedrosa has racked up 25 wins for the Repsol Honda team, and leads Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz in the all-time standings. At Sepang, Livio Suppo emphasized once again Honda's support for Pedrosa, pointing out that bad luck has played a big part in the lack of titles for the Spaniard.
Pedrosa's seat is safe unless Honda manages to sign Jorge Lorenzo. If HRC secures Lorenzo's signature, then it is Pedrosa who will make way for the double world champion. But that would open up a vacancy at Yamaha, and though Yamaha have signed Pol Espargaro to a factory contract in the Monster Tech 3 satellite team, Pedrosa would find a warm welcome in Yamaha's factory squad. Pedrosa has a long history with Telefonica – they left MotoGP after a long period because of Pedrosa, when the Spaniard was signed to the Repsol Honda team, rather than a separate team, which Telefonica and Pedrosa's management had wanted – and so Movistar (a subsidiary of Telefonica) would welcome the Spaniard back to the brand. Movistar will want a Spanish rider in the factory Yamaha team, and with Pedrosa the only proven winner available, he would be the obvious choice.
Honda and Yamaha are only half the story, however. Tomorrow, we will take a look at Ducati, and how the return of Suzuki will impact the riders market.