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.