While the MotoGP grid is as good as settled, Silly Season for World Superbikes is in full swing. With the Kawasaki riders' contracts settled before the summer break, attention has turned to the other seats, most of which are up in the air. In addition, there could be some changes in machinery, with some teams eyeing a switch of manufacturers.
The biggest news – still unofficial, but widely believed to be a done deal – is that Marco Melandri is set to make a return to the World Superbike paddock, this time in the factory Aruba.it Ducati team alongside Chaz Davies.
Melandri has been angling for a ride ever since his departure from the factory Aprilia MotoGP squad, a move he had never wanted to make in the first place. Over the past twelve months or so, he has been linked to rides with Yamaha, Aprilia, BMW and Kawasaki in World Superbikes, and – possibly the most bizarrely inaccurate rumor to be published in a while – to a ride with BMW in MotoGP. (The fact that BMW have no intention of racing in MotoGP, and the break up with Melandri in 2013 so acrimonious that they would not have him back anyway is what made that particular rumor so entertaining.)
Melandri's return to the fold
In recent months, it was looking like Melandri would finally get his chance to return to WorldSBK, as he had a deal on the table with Puccetti Racing, who run Kawasaki's World Supersport effort, and were keen to expand into World Superbikes. Melandri would have made financing such an expansion much easier, as the Italian is still a big draw for sponsors.
It now looks like Melandri will be taking those sponsors (and more importantly, their money) to Ducati. According to German website Speedweek, the Italian has agreed terms with the factory Aruba.it Ducati squad. Melandri will ride alongside Chaz Davies in 2017 aboard the Panigale R. Melandri's signing meets the requirements of Ducati and their Italian sponsor Aruba.it for an Italian rider in the team, where he will replace Davide Giugliano. Giugliano is looking at options in Moto2, he told GPOne.com, though he has not discounted staying in the WorldSBK paddock.
The more interesting rumor is that Melandri will be riding for Ducati for free. Informed WorldSBK sources suggest that the Italian will be bringing money to the team as part of the deal for the ride. Ducati's World Superbike effort has come under pressure in recent months, especially since the signing of Jorge Lorenzo to the MotoGP team. Lorenzo's salary has placed a financial burden on Ducati which they are having to spread out through their entire racing program to absorb. Added to this, Ducati are having to offer Chaz Davies more money to stay, the Welshman currently carrying the weight of the Italian factory's WorldSBK challenge.
A German in Honda
Over at Honda, Stefan Bradl looks set to join the Ten Kate squad alongside Nicky Hayden. The German admitted to Speedweek that he no longer had a future in MotoGP, despite having an option to ride a Ducati Desmosedici GP16 with the Avintia squad. In the interview with Speedweek, the German dropped hints that it would be Ten Kate Honda where he would end up. That would please both Dorna, who are trying to make the WorldSBK field more international and end the domination by British riders, and Honda, who would have a popular rider to use in the important German market.
At the Sachsenring, before the deal had been done, Bradl talked in general terms about a switch to World Superbikes. "I have not been there many times, to be honest," he said. "I think it's a professional championship, that's for sure. There is the first Bundesliga and the second Bundesliga, it's like that with MotoGP and Superbike, it's not a secret that the Superbike category is a bit lower than MotoGP. But if you can be very successful there, if you can fight for the podium in every race, it makes it interesting. That's the goal." The desire to contend for podiums and wins again is what motivates him, the German said. "If I don't aim for that, I might as well stay home."
Van der Mark can't afford to wait
Bradl's arrival at Ten Kate is made possible by Michael van der Mark's departure. Though an official announcement has not been made, the young Dutchman had an offer on the table from Honda which expired at Laguna Seca. Re-signing Van der Mark had been a priority for Honda, but doubts over the competitiveness of next year's bike has made him look elsewhere. Though Honda are rumored to be introducing a new Fireblade for 2017, it is not expected to be the kind of radical upgrade needed to match the supremacy of the Kawasakis. With only media rumor and leaks to go on, Van der Mark is believed to be looking elsewhere.
Elsewhere is most likely to be the Pata Yamaha squad. Though nothing has been confirmed so far, it appears that Sylvain Guintoli is on the way out, leaving an empty seat for Van der Mark to take on. The Dutchman has ambitions to head to MotoGP, but the available seats are limited to Avintia and possibly Aspar, depending on what Eugene Laverty decides to do. With a year of experience under their belts, the Pata Yamaha team are starting to get a handle on the YZF-R1M. Strong backing from Yamaha should help them make the bike into a truly competitive package in 2017.
The return of Aprilia?
Factory support is exactly what is needed to help turn the Aprilia RSV4 into a competitive package. One current World Superbike rider, speaking off the record, told us at Misano that they believed that the Aprilia had the potential to be the best bike on the grid. What was missing, they told us, was support from Aprilia. It took factory technicians to get the best out of the RSV4, as they had both the data and the intimate knowledge of the bike to get it set up right.
As our WorldSBK reporter Kent Brockman wrote after Laguna Seca, more factory involvement could be on the way from Aprilia, but it will mean a switch of teams. The IODA team made their decision to switch to World Superbikes for the 2016 season at the eleventh hour, leaving little room for Aprilia to budget for any support. However, the Italian factory is currently in talks with SMR, currently running the Milwaukee BMW squad. SMR have been unhappy with the support they have received from BMW, and the German factory's hands off strategy in world championship racing. They are now close to a deal with Aprilia to run RSV4s with direct factory backing.
That support comes at a price, however. SMR would only have one seat to fill themselves, as Aprilia are keen to hang on to Lorenzo Savadori. The Italian youngster has been impressive in 2016, if a little inconsistent. He has been close to the podium a couple of times, finishing fourth at Donington and Assen. But he has also fallen outside the top ten.
Who gets the seat beside Savadori is an interesting question. SMR is believed to be in talks with both Eugene Laverty and Leon Camier. Both men have history with Aprilia, and are looked on favorably by the factory. Camier has to decide whether to stick with MV Agusta, and hope that the troubled Italian factory can raise the cash to finance its racing properly. Laverty, meanwhile, must decide between staying in MotoGP with Aspar Ducati on a GP15, and switching to World Superbikes and hoping for strong backing from Aprilia.
With some of the teams at a private test at the Lausitzring in Germany, and some of the riders on the other side of the world, competing in the Suzuka 8 Hour endurance race in Japan, discussions are in full swing. Decisions are likely in the next week or two, with press releases to follow shortly afterwards. The natural place to make announcements would be at the next race, but the WorldSBK series is in the middle of its seemingly endless summer break. They do not convene again until the middle of September, for the German round at the Lausitzring.
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