Dani Pedrosa's announcement after the Qatar Grand Prix that he would be withdrawing from racing to seek urgent treatment for arm pump immediately triggered an explosion of speculation over who might replace the Spaniard during his absence. Fans and pundits offered a barrage of possible names to take Pedrosa's place: Casey Stoner, Cal Crutchlow, Michael van der Mark, Jack Miller, Nicky Hayden. Coming as it did just before April Fool's day, it even triggered a spate of hoax stories: Casey Stoner, Mick Doohan, Alex Marquez and Fabio Quartararo were all offered in jest.
Hiroshi Aoyama was always going to be the man to replace Pedrosa, however. For a range of reasons, Aoyama is the only reasonable candidate to take the place of Pedrosa in the short term, all the other names being bandied about subject to sponsor conflicts, race conflicts, contractual obligations or just plain unwillingness. Here's a rundown of why Aoayama got the call, and the others didn't.
Aoyama arrived in MotoGP in 2010 as the last ever 250cc world champion, having taken the final two stroke title before the class was replaced by Moto2. He failed to set the world alight, struggling to adapt to four-stroke bikes after many seasons racing two strokes. After a brief stint in World Superbikes, he returned to MotoGP last season to ride Honda's RCV1000R production racer. Out of a job at the end of 2014, he was recruited by HRC to work as their test rider, and help push the development of their MotoGP project.
Though Aoyama is unlikely to come in to the Repsol Honda team and start taking podiums, he is sure to acquit himself respectably. He has recent experience of racing in MotoGP, testing experience with the factory Honda RC213V - he tested the bike at the first Sepang test, where he ended as 14th fastest overall. He has experience of the 2015 Bridgestone tires, and he has raced at both Austin and Argentina. Knowledge of those two tracks is important: both circuits feature only on the MotoGP calendar, Austin being added in 2013, and Argentina in 2014.
Riders coming in from other series would face some formidable obstacles. Not only would they have to learn the formidable Honda RC213V MotoGP machine, they would also have to learn the Bridgestone tires - not as hard as it used to be, but still requiring some experience to master - and the layout of two new circuits. Aoyama's experience is what gives him the advantage.
If experience and speed is needed, why not replace him with an existing rider in the class? Prime candidate in this instance would be Cal Crutchlow: he is now a veteran of MotoGP, has spent the winter testing on the Honda RC213V, and after finishing as the first satellite bike at Qatar, proved he has the pace to earn the ride.
But Crutchlow was never going to be an option to replace Pedrosa, for commercial reasons. First and foremost is a clash of sponsors: Crutchlow has had Monster backing for many years, and is well embedded into the energy firm's marketing and athlete support programs. Repsol Honda have strong financial support from Red Bull, with the sponsorship prominent on both bike and riders. Untangling that conflict would be contractually impossible, with both Repsol Honda and Crutchlow tied in by too many clauses to escape.
But the surrender of a top rider would also be hugely unpopular with the LCR Honda team. For a satellite team, the riders are their main marketing asset. The riders are out to get results, and the riders are a key part of the package which the team sells to its sponsors. Riders spend a good part of the weekend in meet and greet sessions with sponsors and business partners of the team, shaking hands, exchanging pleasantries, sharing the occasional meal. Factory teams have the might of their manufacturer behind them, offering much deeper partnerships. Repsol gets to work with Honda, for example, providing much more than just the backing of a rider. The main attraction of the LCR Honda team is its riders, Cal Crutchlow and Jack Miller, men capable of grabbing attention.
Several years ago, when one factory rider was out with injury, I had a long conversation with the manager of a satellite team. He expressed his fear that the factory would take his star rider away, making it much more difficult for the coming races. "What can I give my sponsors, my guests if he is not here?" the manager asked rhetorically.
What about Jack Miller? Taking Miller from LCR Honda would leave the team with Cal Crutchlow, and Miller's Red Bull contract means no conflict of sponsors. Miller is already on a three-year HRC contract, and is already tipped to take Pedrosa's place at Repsol Honda once the Spaniard's contract expires at the end of 2016.
Yet putting Miller into the Repsol Honda team is exactly what HRC are trying to avoid. The Australian has already made a major leap, going straight from Moto3 to MotoGP, and managing the pressure on Miller is one of Honda's main objectives for this year. He is being brought on carefully, given the assistance of Cristian Gabarrini, one of the most highly-rated crew chiefs in MotoGP. It would be impossible to bring Miller into Repsol Honda without the young Australian being subject to enormous pressure to perform. If Miller tries to hard to live up to that, he risks pushing too hard and crashing, and the potential for serious injury.
Miller is in the LCR Honda team, on the Open class RC213V-RS, to learn, and gain experience of MotoGP, so that he can show his potential in years to come. Not to go straight to the factory team.
Michael van der Mark / Sylvain Guintoli
The last time a rider in the Repsol Honda team was injured, HRC turned to the Pata Honda team in World Superbikes. Jonathan Rea was brought in to replace Casey Stoner in 2012, after the Australian had broken bones in his ankle in Indianapolis. Despite an incredibly hectic schedule - five weeks of back-to-back racing, alternating between WSBK and MotoGP every weekend - Rea acquitted himself exceptionally well, scoring a 7th and an 8th at Aragon and Misano, coming in after half a day of testing at Brno, still jet-lagged from his flight back from Japan.
Bringing a World Superbike rider in is impossible this time around, though. The two upcoming rounds of MotoGP at Austin and Argentina clash with the next two rounds of World Superbike. The Aragon round of WSBK is on the same weekend as Austin, while a week later, MotoGP heads to Argentina and World Superbikes head to Assen. Sylvain Guintoli is the defending WSBK champion, and he, Honda and WSBK series owners Dorna will want to have the champion's #1 plate on display at both races. The Assen round is the Pata Honda team's home race, and not having either the reigning champion or Dutchman Van der Mark at Assen is completely unthinkable.
Guintoli's objective for 2015 is to defend his WSBK title. Van der Mark is focused on learning the ropes in World Superbikes - something he has already shown he is getting to grips with incredibly quickly - and preparing for a title challenge in 2016. Neither man wishes to jeopardize their 2015 season for a chance to ride a bike they have never tested on tires they have never used at tracks they have never seen. They have far more to lose than to gain.
If the fans had their say, there would be only one candidate to replace Pedrosa at Repsol Honda. After all, if you want to replace the man who came second in the championship for Repsol Honda, who better than the man who came first? What's more, the fans would relish the chance to see the reigning champion and current fastest man in MotoGP up against the man he replaced, and the previous holder of his title. Stoner is fast enough, he knows the bikes, the tires, and has a contract to test the Honda RC213V for HRC. He still has plenty of competitive spirit in him, racing RC model cars in Australia, following his friend Ryan Villopoto in the MXGP world championship, and is set to race in the Suzuka 8 hour later this year.
There is only one person standing between MotoGP and Casey Stoner, and that is the most important person in that equation: Stoner himself. The Australian has said repeatedly and publicly that he has no desire to return to the Grand Prix paddock, and no desire to race in MotoGP again. He has two world championships, enough money to enjoy a very comfortable retirement, and nothing left to prove. He is enjoying life with his family, spending time with his family and watching his daughter growing up. Stoner has nothing to gain from a return to MotoGP: he is enjoing being a human being too much to give it all up, and have to deal with the atmosphere and politics of the paddock again.