The current status of MotoGP's silly season? Two down, plenty still to go. Valentino Rossi may have joined Marc Marquez as the only other factory rider to have put pen to paper for 2015 and 2016, the rest of the grid is still in the middle of negotiating their riders for next year. Even Cal Crutchlow, who has a contract to race with Ducati in 2015, but more of that later.
Who will join Rossi at Movistar Yamaha and Marquez at Repsol Honda? Most likely, the two men who are already there. It is hard to see either Dani Pedrosa or Jorge Lorenzo jumping ship to ride anywhere else. Though HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto flirted with Lorenzo late last year, he understands that it would be terrible team politics to upset his number one rider, and the man who is likely to bring a fleet of titles to Honda over the next few season.
What HRC needs is a reliable number two rider, and Pedrosa has proven to be perfect in that role. Fast enough to win races of his own accord, and a solid force in the team, not the kind of character to kick up a fuss. He has six podiums this year, as well as a pole position, and can win should Marquez falter. Spanish media are reporting that Pedrosa is close to wrapping up a contract with the Repsol Honda team, with talks having gone at Assen. The new contract would mean less salary for Pedrosa, but at least at Honda, he has a chance of winning races. Big money offers from Ducati and Suzuki are much more of a gamble, with neither bike yet having proven capable of winning.
If Pedrosa's contract renewal can be expected in the next few weeks, a new deal for Jorge Lorenzo is still some way off. In an interview published in the paper version of the Spanish magazine Solo Moto, Lorenzo said the differences between himself and Yamaha were about money. The world champion of 2010 and 2012 would like to stay with Yamaha, but will want to at least keep his current salary, or even improve it. He will not manage that on the basis of his current results, the Spaniard having struggled badly for most of the season. Two podiums from eight races – the same number as Andrea Dovizioso on the Ducati – is not what is expected from Lorenzo, nor what he expects of himself.
The other bone of contention between Yamaha and Lorenzo is contract duration. Both parties are happy to sign up for two more years, but Lorenzo is pushing to have an option to leave after a year. Lorenzo has been dismayed at the difference the new Bridgestone tires and the reduction of fuel to 20 liters has made, making the Yamaha a much more difficult bike for him to ride. He would like to be able to get out early, if Yamaha can't improve the bike sufficiently next season. Yamaha, however, want to him to remain for two full years.
Lorenzo is rumored to have a big money offer from Ducati, but it is almost unthinkable he will join the Bologna factory in 2015. The Spaniard is still determined to win a few more titles, and at the moment, the Desmosedici is not capable of performing at that level. So Lorenzo looks destined to stay at Yamaha. Yamaha would be very happy to keep him, despite his poor results. Conversations I had with Yamaha staff suggested that although they are still a long way from confirming a deal with the Spaniard, they have never considered replacing him. Naturally, the factory has an eye on upcoming talent – Maverick Viñales, Jack Miller and Alex Rins are all riders who Yamaha are believed to be watching with interest – but those are riders for the future, joining at the back of the queue behind Pol Espargaro, and possibly his brother Aleix.
The rider line up at Ducati could also remain unchanged, with Ducati keen to sign Andrea Dovizioso to a new deal, while Cal Crutchlow is in the first year of a two-season deal, though the Englishman has an option to leave a year early. Both Dovizioso and Crutchlow have their eyes on Suzuki, but a switch to the XRH-1 is a big risk. The bike has not impressed in the hands of Randy De Puniet, though as the Frenchman is not racing any longer, it his hard to judge his real pace. More worrying is the pace of development. Though Suzuki brought a new engine and new chassis to test at Barcelona, they have only recently completed the process of porting their software over to the mandatory Magneti Marelli ECU. Though it is a complex undertaking, both HRC and Yamaha managed the switch in a couple of months, and had a fully functional ECU software suite ready to be competitive from the start of the season. Suzuki took many months to get the Marelli ECU up and running, but even now, it is still under intense development. Such an approach points to a lack of resources going into the project in Hamamatsu, a problem which has hampered Suzuki's MotoGP efforts for a long time, perhaps since the early '90s.
Staying at Ducati is also a risk. Though the Desmosedici GP14 is a clear step forward from last year's bike, it still suffers from chronic understeer and poor ergonomics. At Assen, Cal Crutchlow was complaining that he cannot position himself correctly on the bike. 'My position on the bike is wrong, but there is nothing we can do,' Crutchlow told reporters. 'I can't ask them to come up with what I want to be able to change my position on the bike. You can't do it at the minute, and that's that.' This is a familiar complaint, Valentino Rossi complaining of a similar problem throughout his two years at Ducati.
The 2015 bike should be much better, being a machine designed almost from scratch by Gigi Dall'Igna. The bike, Dall'Igna told the Corriere dello Sport, would feature a 90° V4 engine which was physically smaller than the current unit, allowing the bike to be set up more easily. The current engine is still broadly similar in design to the unit which functioned as a stressed member of the chassis in the old frameless design. It is large, long, and heavy. Having been fortunate enough to see both the Yamaha M1 engine, and the Honda RCV1000R engine (which is very similar to the RC213V engine), the Desmosedici power plant is much larger. The Yamaha and Honda units are tiny, for 1000cc engines, clearly lighter, shorter, and more compact.
That bike will not be ready until the Valencia test at the earliest, however. Dovizioso and Crutchlow will be forced to gamble that Dall'Igna can deliver a much better bike than the current GP14. The omens are good, but it requires a leap of faith. Both men have already taken exactly such a leap when they moved to Ducati, and what they found when they arrived shattered their illusions. In previous years, promises that things will be different this time have tended to be broken. From the outside, the situation looks totally different this time. But that is easy to say from the safety of a computer keyboard, the reality in the Ducati garage may well be different.
If the rumors are to be believed, Andrea Dovizioso is edging closer to a new two-year deal with Ducati, having seen the changes which Dall'Igna has already made. Ducati is very happy with the Italian, Dovizioso posting strong results so far this year on the GP14, when conditions help his case. He has halved his distance to the leaders this season, and his demeanor has taken a major leap forward. Last year, it was a dejected and resigned Andrea Dovizioso who spoke to the media. This season, Dovizioso has been almost perky.
The opposite is the case with Cal Crutchlow. When the Englishman speaks at media debriefs, we journalists have flashbacks to seeing Andrea Dovizioso last year. His body language is slumped and defensive, a change from the edgy, aggressive positivity of 2013. His attitude is rumored not to have endeared him to Ducati management, who are said to be mulling over buying Crutchlow out of his contract. Crutchlow himself has an option to leave the factory at the end of this year, but he must make his decision by the end of this month.
Crutchlow's options are limited, however. He cannot return to Yamaha, his relationship with Yamaha management strained at the best of times. There is no room for him at Honda, unless it be on a satellite bike. Lucio Cecchinello is keen to keep Stefan Bradl on the LCR Honda, despite increasing pressure from HRC, who are disappointed in the German's results. That leaves Alvaro Bautista's slot at Gresini Honda, but they already have a British rider in Scott Redding, and Redding has a shot at the RC213V if Bautista leaves. Crutchlow would also be forced to race with Showa suspension and Nissin brakes, who have partnered the Gresini team for some time. Both Showa and Nissin are very close to the performance levels of the Ohlins and Brembos, but with only Gresini and Redding using them, they remain fractionally behind.
That leaves only Suzuki, or biting his tongue and staying at Ducati. From the outside, the Ducati looks like the better bet: better funded, with more staff and development going into the bike. But confidence and belief play a large part in racing, and Crutchlow may feel he needs to jump to Suzuki merely to preserve his sanity.
Crutchlow faces plenty of competition for the Suzuki slot, however. The factory is still talking to Dovizioso, despite the Italian's thinking moving increasingly towards Ducati. The other Ducati Andrea – Iannone – is also in Suzuki's sights, as is Aleix Espargaro, who has excelled on the Forward Yamaha. Aleix' problem is that he comes with a debt of several hundred thousand euros, which was needed to buy himself out of another year at Aspar. The NGM Forward team funded Espargaro's exit from Aspar, under condition that if he leaves the team before his contract is up, he must pay Forward what Forward paid Aspar.
Both Iannone and Espargaro have other options as well. Ducati are keen to keep Iannone at the Italian factory, but the youngster is keen to land a factory ride. If Crutchlow departs for Suzuki, Iannone will move up to the factory team alongside Dovizioso, but if Crutchlow stays, Ducati will have a hard time keeping Iannone from departing for Suzuki himself. If he stays at Pramac, Ducati will surely increase their support for him there.
As for Aleix Espargaro, his performance on the Forward Yamaha M1 – basically, a late 2013 model M1 – has impressed almost everyone. He has another year on his contract at Forward, but Aspar is keen to have him back, and with Honda replacing the RCV1000R's rather anemic engine with what is basically a full-fat RC213V engine with pneumatic valves, but no seamless gearbox, the production Honda should be a good deal more competitive next year. He is also very high on the list of candidates for Suzuki, and as a young, fast rider would make an ideal signing for the brand.
At Assen, there were also rumors that Aleix could take the second slot at Tech 3, turning the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team into a family affair. Giovanni Cuzari seemed to spend all of his time in the Tech 3 hospitality, and was spotted in talks with Herve Poncharal several times during the weekend. Yamaha is known to be very keen on Aleix, and the pairing of Aleix and Pol in Tech 3 would make for excellent publicity. My French friends were convinced that Aleix will be replacing Bradley Smith next year.
When I asked Poncharal for his plans for 2015, he was adamant that the only MotoGP rider he was interested in was Bradley Smith. 'I have no interest whatsoever in any current MotoGP riders,' Poncharal insisted. Smith remained a candidate, who was doing much better than many fans gave him credit for. Smith was fast in practice, and even fast in the race, though his outright results were disappointing. Putting together a race all the way to the finish remained a problem for Smith, and the Oxfordshire rider needed to remedy that if he was to remain at Tech 3. Smith acknowledged the problem. 'I wouldn't hire me with my results,' he said candidly. But Smith also pointed to his strengths: in the ranking of fastest individual race laps, Smith was third fastest.
Poncharal said he was looking for a replacement in the junior classes. He was talking to 'the top five in Moto2', he said. That is a phrase used by most team managers in MotoGP, however, just as the team managers in Moto2 will tell you they are looking at 'the top five in Moto3'. What was more interesting is that he suggested he could be looking to recruit a rider directly from Moto3. It would be a step 'into the wild' as Poncharal phrased it. It would be more interesting to take a gamble on a rider from Moto3 than to keep following existing paths.
This was an interesting statement, given the current rumors surrounding Moto3 championship leader Jack Miller. The Australian has hinted at a move straight to MotoGP, skipping Moto2 altogether. Usually, though, Miller's name has been linked to a satellite Honda ride, with LCR Honda a strong candidate. Yamaha, too, have expressed an interest in Miller, but having him move directly to MotoGP would be very risky. It would certainly please Dorna, as it would make selling TV rights in Australia much easier for the Spanish rights holder.
Realistically, however, Miller looks more likely to step up to Moto2 next season. Who that is with remains a question mark. Miller was insistent that he is free to race wherever he wants next year, a suggestion backed up by his team manager – and his personal manager – Aki Ajo. Marc VDS boss Michael Bartholémy contests that, however. According to Bartholémy, he still has a contract with Miller for 2015 and 2016. Ajo and Miller say this is just a pre-contract, which is not binding on the Australian. Bartholémy insists that although the contract does not completely specify all of the details a normal rider contract contains, the only things missing are relatively trivial items such as team clothing and personal sponsorship details. The contract still obliges Miller to race for Marc VDS for the next two seasons, unless Miller buys his way out. This is a situation which needs to be resolved soon.
There have been persistent rumors that both Marc VDS and the Pons team are ready to step up to MotoGP. Their partner would be Kalex, who would build chassis for leased Yamaha engines, along the lines of Forward Racing. I spoke to Kalex co-owner Alex Baumgaertel at Assen, and he said he was waiting for confirmation from the two top Moto2 teams, which he expected at that race. The paperwork with Yamaha – a non-disclosure agreement, similar to that signed between FTR and Yamaha – was just about finished, and he was ready to start work on designing a chassis.
No decision had been made by the time MotoGP left Assen, but with the paperwork done, Kalex can make progress without a direct commitment from a team. Though both Marc VDS and Pons are strong enough teams to race in MotoGP, it makes more sense for them to wait for 2016 than move up next year. With Michelin set to replace Bridgestone in 2016, and spec ECU software to be made mandatory, it gives any teams entering the class a chance to see the results of tire testing, and judge the best horse to bet on should they make a move. It would also give Kalex an extra year to work on a chassis.
Kalex will have more time next season anyway. KTM have pulled the plug on their Moto3 collaboration with Kalex, meaning that there will be no Kalex KTMs in Moto3 in 2015. This is a major problem for teams currently racing a Kalex KTM, as they will have to switch manufacturers. The cost of upgrading material for a new season was around 100,000 euros per rider, RW Racing GP team boss Jarno Janssen told the Dutch magazine MOTOR. A switch to either KTM or Mahindra would cost 250,000 euros per rider, causing a huge burden on the teams. Choosing Honda was even more expensive: the cost of a Honda NSF250RW was 400,000 euros a season, Janssen said. The attempts at controlling costs in Moto3 have clearly not been as successful as hoped. The engine may be price-capped at 12,000 euros, the rest of the support is still being sold at full price. The one area where the class has been improved is that the engines have been equalized. Now, more teams have a chance of success. Under the old regime, Aprilia decided who would be racing with full factory material, and who would be racing with less powerful bikes. The difference was much greater between the two then than it is now.
In Moto3, the top of the championship look set to move up to Moto2. The two Alexes – Rins and Marquez – both look set for Moto2, though Marquez may stay on for another season if he does not win the championship this year. Rins is in great demand, and could join Marc VDS if Miller goes elsewhere. Romano Fenati is another hot ticket, with many teams expressing an interest. For both Fenati and Alex Marquez is whether their teams will move up to Moto2 with them. For Monlau – the structure behind the Estrella Galicia team – moving up to Moto2 should be simple, as they have previously done the same for Alex' older brother Marc. For the Team Sky VR46 team, it is another question altogether. It is the team's first year in Grand Prix, and despite the outstanding results for both Fenati and his young teammate Pecco Bagnaia, expanding into Moto2 could be a step too far in just their second year.
Expansion is also on the cards in MotoGP. As reported here earlier, LCR Honda is looking to expand to a two-bike team for 2015, adding a second production Honda to race alongside the factory RC213V. The expansion has been made possible by the new sponsorship deal secured with CWM World. Adding a production Honda will not be simple, however. Unless one of the existing teams makes their bike available, LCR will be forced to pay the full price – nearer 3 million euros than the 1 million paid by Aspar, Gresini and Cardion AB – for the bike. Realistically, the only team considering a withdrawal is the Cardion AB team, but even that seems extremely unlikely.
Riders, managers and teams have a lot of work ahead of them. Contracts should be largely settled by the end of the summer break, with Indianapolis being a favorite slot for announcing future plans. At the moment all is up in the air. But in a month's time, the situation should be a good deal clearer.