At the beginning of this season, it all seemed pretty clear: In 2009, Ben Spies would be riding a Suzuki in MotoGP. Right now, two-thirds of the way in to the series, that early certainty has all but disappeared. For a number of reasons, most of which involve money in one form or another, the chances of American MotoGP fans seeing Ben Spies on a Rizla Suzuki next year have all but disappeared.
That leaves Spies in a quandary. The Texan does still have options in MotoGP, but these would not be in a factory team, leaving him waiting for important upgrades if the bike turns out not to be competitive. And with Spies' best MotoGP option currently with Gresini Honda, that is a bigger risk than it may seem. Ever since the switch to the 800cc formula, which Honda were expected to dominate, Honda riders - factory and satellite alike - have struggled, with only Dani Pedrosa capable of being truly competitive aboard the RC212V.
And so with Spies looking to ensure factory-level support, he is being forced to explore other options. One of these options, reported by the German website Motorsport-Total and the online magazine GPWeek, is a switch to the World Superbike series. There is already plenty of interest, with Alstare Suzuki's team manager Francis Batta expressing a keen interest in Spies at the recent World Superbike round at Utah, but now an even more attractive option has opened up.
With Troy Bayliss due to retire at the end of the season, the factory Xerox Ducati team is in dire need of someone to fill the giant hole that the Australian champion will leave. And Ben Spies could be just the man to help fill that gap. Signing Spies would make a huge amount of sense for Ducati, as having the American star on their bike would boost their profile in the vital US motorcycle market, which has lagged since they pulled out of the AMA series two years ago.
Although Doug Gonda, Spies' manager, has confirmed that they are talking to Ducati, a deal is far from done. Any deal is dependent on who is signed alongside Spies, as it is absolutely vital to Ducati to have an Italian in the factory team as well. But this, too, is looking probable, with Xerox Ducati reportedly close to a deal with Max Biaggi, and holding the talented young Ducati test rider Niccolo Canepa in reserve.
Though the situation may have changed since January, Ben Spies is still looking certain to end up in Europe, especially considering the disarray in which the US domestic series is likely to be in next year. But the question for Spies remains which series that will be.
When HRC announced that they were to give the factory RC212V to a satellite team to test, very few people were surprised. Well behind in the points race, Dani Pedrosa needs all the help he can get . What did surprise almost everyone, however, was the fact that the bike was given not to Andrea Dovizioso, the rookie who has been most impressive on the satellite bike, and leads the satellite Hondas in the championship table, but Gresini Honda's Shinya Nakano.
Nakano has been mostly anonymous so far this year, riding around in the middle of the pack for the most part. The decision seemed at the very least, a little strange. HRC themselves stated that Nakano had been given the bike because he was Japanese, and he would be able to communicate with HRC's engineers in their native language.
Cynics and conspiracy theorists had another explanation. Pointing to Nakano's Bridgestone tires, they said it was a sign that the official Repsol Honda factory team is preparing a switch to Bridgestones for next year, after two years of problems with their current tire suppliers, Michelin. After all, the cynics said, both Dovizioso and the HRC engineers speak excellent English, and are used to working with riders for whom English is not their first language.
But it's not just the cynics and conspiracy theorists who were surprised. In a story over on Motorcycle News, Michelin's head of motorcycle racing Jean-Philippe Weber publicly expressed his surprise at Honda's decision. Despite Gresini's strong relationship with the factory, Weber had expected Dovizioso to be given the bike. "Based on the partnership we have, we thought the factory bike would be proposed to Andrea," Weber said.
This looks like Weber trying to preempt any move by Honda to Bridgestone. "We also need a strong technical relationship with the teams in order to exchange information on tyre characteristics," Weber was quoted as saying. Michelin has always said that they need to have a factory team on their tires for it to be worth their while staying in MotoGP. With Pedrosa a very strong probability to demand a switch to Japanese rubber, Michelin's time in the premier series could well be drawing to an end.
The desktop images of Scott Jones' great Laguna Seca photos have proved very popular indeed. So popular, in fact, that we received requests for higher resolution versions of those desktops. Scott was very quick to oblige, but unfortunately, I wasn't as quick, and so it took me a while to get the desktops up.
But finally, here they are. The images are now available in the following resolutions: 1400x1050, 1280x1024, 1280x800 and 1024x768. One of those resolutions should fit your desktop. Here's the one gracing mine:
By now, the only MotoGP fans who might have missed the fact that Nicky Hayden is likely to sign for Ducati for next year can only have been stuck in the depths of the Amazon jungle for the past 6 months. But the chasm that yawns between the probable and the actual remains as wide as ever, and until the official announcement is made, the deal cannot be taken as done.
An interview with Ducati team boss Livio Suppo over on Speed TV appears to bring the probable more firmly into the realm of the real. Suppo spoke of his admiration for Hayden, and especially the American's attitude to racing. Suppo was particularly impressed by the American's maturity and consistency, and believes that Hayden would be an excellent team mate for Casey Stoner. Suppo told Speed's Colin Young that Ducati expected to announce their plans at the end of the month, which means that an announcement will probably be made at the Misano MotoGP round, just a few miles from Ducati's home base in Bologna.
Suppo's take on the satellite Pramac team was even more interesting. The Ducati supremo admitted that the team had made an offer to both Marco Simoncelli and to Mika Kallio to join the satellite team, but said that Simoncelli seems to be more interested in staying in the 250s for another year. But Ducati is unlikely to sign both men, as one place is likely to be kept open for the current test rider, Niccolo Canepa. The young Italian rider has been very impressive in testing, usually finishing ahead of Marco Melandri and the other Pramac riders.
Suppo told Speed that the two-day test after the Brno race would be used by Ducati to compare Canepa to the rest of the MotoGP field. Canepa finished ahead of several MotoGP regulars on both days, but whether 7th and 11th is good enough remains to be seen. Canepa has also been linked to Ducati's factory World Superbike squad, another bike he's been impressively fast on.
Testing concluded at Brno today, under hot and sunny skies. Only 11 riders took to the track, all of the Hondas except Shinya Nakano having left, feeling they would learn nothing as a result of not having tires they could use. Dani Pedrosa had left very early on Monday, having gone out for just 5 laps. The message from HRC to Michelin was pretty clear, as Nakano, the only Honda, was running on Bridgestones.
Casey Stoner completely destroyed the lap records, running full second under his pole record from last year on some experimental qualifiers from Bridgestone. But more impressive than that was a sequence of 5 laps Stoner set on race tires, 4 of which were in the low 1'56s, with one incredible lap of 1'55.904. Stoner commented afterwards that they had once again found some improvements in setup. The competition can only hope the jump for Ducati is not as large as it was the last time round they tested, after Barcelona. Stoner went on to win the next three races in a row after that test.
Stoner wasn't the only rider to improve. Valentino Rossi tested more new electronics, and improved his times to get into the mid 1'56s. Rossi's team mate Jorge Lorenzo was the best of the Michelin runners, shaving 1.3 seconds off his best time of the weekend.
Full times for Day 2 of testing, courtesy of GPOne.com:
|1||Casey Stoner||Ducati||1'55.855||40 laps|
|2||Valentino Rossi||Yamaha||1'56.613||31 laps|
|3||Loris Capirossi||Suzuki||1'57.132||30 laps|
|4||Chris Vermeulen||Suzuki||1'57.483||17 laps|
|5||Shinya Nakano||Honda||1'57.559||27 laps|
|6||Jorge Lorenzo||Yamaha||1'57.600||27 laps|
|7||Niccolo Canepa||Ducati||1'57.639||29 laps|
|8||James Toseland||Yamaha||1'58.007||37 laps|
|9||Olivier Jacque||Kawasaki||1'58.483||14 laps|
|10||Marco Melandri||Ducati||1'58.927||6 laps|
|11||Ant West||Kawasaki||1'59.010||38 laps|
After Marco Melandri announced that he and Ducati had agreed to drop the second year of his two year contract, after a disastrous year on the GP8, speculation abounded about where Melandri would now end up. The most obvious option seemed to be Gresini Honda: Melandri and Gresini had split on relatively amicable terms, and Melandri had proved in the past that he knew how to ride the Honda - at least, once Honda fixed the dismal satellite RC212V.
But a return to Gresini is not to be. According to MCN's Matthew Birt, Marco Melandri has agreed terms with Kawasaki for 2009. There had been rumors that Melandri would make the switch mid-season, if Ducati decided to drop Melandri early, but after signs of improvement over the past couple of races, Melandri raced for Ducati at Brno, and is now almost certain to finish up the season with the team.
Melandri's main motivation for the switch to Kawasaki is that the Italian would rather stay with a factory team, to ensure he has more input into the development of the bike. His previous experience at Gresini left him occasionally frustrated, forced to wait for developments from the factory to be made available once they'd fixed their own riders' problems.
The switch is something of a gamble. The Kawasaki has been the weakest bike on the grid so far this year, with Kawasaki not looking particularly inclined to spend too much time and money on developing the bike. But the improved parts which Ant West and John Hopkins had at Brno showed that the team was at least making progress. The upside for Melandri is that the Kawasaki doesn't look as hard to get used to as the Ducati does, as Jamie Hacking's creditable outing at Laguna Seca demonstrated.
Melandri's move closes a few doors for other riders in MotoGP. With Hopkins already sure of a contract for 2009, Kawasaki has filled both seats, leaving Ant West out on a limb. Kawasaki has been rumored to have offered West a ride on the factory bike in World Supersport, but that bike has been even worse than the MotoGP bike this year. It is unclear whether West would be welcome back at Yamaha in World Supersport, but there can be no question he'd be competitive there.
In addition to West, there's Sete Gibernau. Gibernau - or "Hollywood", as the Ducati engineers nicknamed the Spaniard - had been seen spending a lot of time with Kawasaki at Brno, after being spotted with Kawasaki at the Barcelona MotoGP round. With Melandri signed, there would appear to be no room at the Kawasaki Inn for Gibernau.
But Melandri's signing for Kawasaki does open another door. Suddenly, at least one seat at Gresini Honda could be open. Sete Gibernau has been linked to this ride as well, although apparently, Fausto Gresini has balked at the size of Gibernau's salary demands. Another man demanding a sizable fee is the American Ben Spies. But in Spies' case, American Honda has indicated that they would be willing to foot the bill, as if - or rather, when - Nicky Hayden announces that he will be joining Ducati, Honda would be without an American rider on their machinery in MotoGP.
Melandri's move is the first major shift in the MotoGP riders' market. But it most assuredly won't be the last.
Times set during the post-race test at Brno, courtesy of GPOne.com:
Final times. Stoner's lap was set on a race tire, and just 0.1 seconds shy of the pole record held by Valentino Rossi.
|1||Casey Stoner||Ducati||1'56.261||52 laps|
|2||Valentino Rossi||Yamaha||1'57.332||28 laps|
|3||Toni Elias||Ducati||1'57.457||49 laps|
|4||Shinya Nakano||Honda||1'57.652||33 laps|
|5||Chris Vermeulen||Suzuki||1'57.742||79 laps|
|6||Colin Edwards||Yamaha||1'57.742||59 laps|
|7||Alex de Angelis||Honda||1'57.826||68 laps|
|8||Sylvain Guintoli||Ducati||1'57.859||54 laps|
|9||Jorge Lorenzo||Yamaha||1'57.979||65 laps|
|10||Loris Capirossi||Suzuki||1'58.177||17 laps|
|11||Niccolo Canepa||Ducati||1'58.204||60 laps|
|12||Marco Melandri||Ducati||1'58.325||69 laps|
|13||Randy de Puniet||Honda||1'58.568||56 laps|
|14||Dani Pedrosa||Honda||1'59.067||5 laps|
|15||Olivier Jacque||Kawasaki||1'59.130||8 laps|
|16||Andrea Dovizioso||Honda||1'59.172||21 laps|
|17||James Toseland||Yamaha||1'59.228||45 laps|
|18||John Hopkins||Kawasaki||2'00.414||4 laps|
|19||Tady Okada||Honda||2'00.735||62 laps|
Times as of 2pm local time
|5||Alex de Angelis||Honda||1'57.881|
|12||Randy de Puniet||Honda||1'58.676|
Yesterday, we reported that all 17 current MotoGP riders had held a meeting to discuss safety with Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta. That meeting took place behind closed doors, and so the exact details of what was discussed were not made public, although it was an open secret that the riders had asked for a single tire rule.
Fortunately for us, the Spanish sports daily AS.com is very well connected, and has managed to find out just what the ideas were that the riders presented to Dorna. The riders had 5 proposals to improve safety:
- The adoption of a single tire manufacturer;
- A directer connection between the throttle and the rider's wrist, so that the riders not left at the mercy of the electronics quite so much;
- Narrower wheels and tires, to reduce grip levels and force riders to go more slowly;
- A return to the 990cc formula, with a top speed limit enforced by electronics, or else;
- Adding more weight to the 800cc bikes, to make them less agile.
The most interesting part of the single tire rule was that all of the Michelin riders were in favor of the proposal, but accepted by only a majority of the Bridgestone riders. A single tire rule would be the easiest proposal to implement, closely followed by narrower tires and wheels. With proposals on tires being mooted at almost every race, a single tire rule is looking almost inevitable.
With so few bikes on the grid, you would think it would be relatively easy to get into MotoGP. All it would really take is a sponsor with deep enough pockets to fund a bike, a decent rider and the team - with the costs for the team probably being the least significant part of the entire package. But the saga of Jorge Martinez tells quite a different tale.
Jorge Aspar Martinez, the owner of the Aspar team which dominates both the 125cc and the 250cc classes, has been trying to get into MotoGP for quite some time now. At the end of last year, Martinez seemed to have the whole deal sewn up: Suzuki would provide him with a factory machine, and either Ben Spies or Alvaro Bautista would ride it. It was just a matter of tidying up a few loose ends, and preparing for 2009.
It didn't quite work out that way, though. Suzuki's interest in providing a bike quickly cooled, after the Rizla Suzuki team failed to continue the progression they had shown in 2007, leaving Aspar without a bike. Aspar then turned to Ducati for equipment, but rumors emerged in the Spanish press that though Ducati appeared to be willing, Alvaro Bautista, the man Aspar wanted on the bike, had refused point blank to ride a Ducati, pointing to the examples of Marco Melandri, Toni Elias and Sylvain Guintoli. Discussions with Yamaha were also held, but proved fruitless.
Finally, it seems as if Aspar has found a bike for the team. The Spanish sports daily AS.com is reporting that Aspar should sign a deal with Kawasaki at the next MotoGP round at Misano. According to Aspar, the deal would see the team running a single bike in the first year, with options to expand afterwards. The bike would be an official, factory bike, and the team would run a Spanish rider. Aspar already has support from major Spanish sponsors, so the money would not be a problem.
The requirement for a Spanish rider is not surprising considering that most of Aspar's money currently comes from Spain. The Valencian currently has two possible options, the obvious one of Alvaro Bautista, currently having a rather disappointing season in 250s, or if Bautista decides to stay in the smaller class to take another shot at the title there, Aspar could draft in Toni Elias, who is currently scheduled to go off and ride a Yamaha in World Superbikes.
Perhaps the most important thing for fans of the smaller classes, though, is that Aspar's plans for MotoGP will not mean withdrawing from the 125cc or 250cc classes. Aspar is committed to keeping those teams, as they are the teams that keep his sponsors happy by winning world championships.
There are also question marks hanging over the ability - and the willingness - of Kawasaki to provide a third bike. The factory team run by Michael Bartholemy is unhappy at the prospect, fearing that an extra bike would divert resources away from the task of making the Kawasaki competitive. The only conditions under which Kawasaski are likely to make a bike available is if the Aspar team can bear all of the costs themselves, with no subsidy from the factory. Given the depth of Aspar's sponsor-filled pockets, the team looks eminently capable of doing just that.
Just a quick reminder for all our US-based readers: The MotoGP race from Brno is due to be broadcast by CBS on Sunday, not Speed. The race is due to be shown as a same-day delay broadcast at 2pm EDT. For more details, check your local CBS affiliate, or the TV Racer website.
Be sure to check your DVRs, and don't miss the race. It could well be another classic.