A crucial meeting is due to be held at Motegi on Saturday afternoon. During this meeting of the Grand Prix Commission, a proposal is to be submitted to allow only a single manufacturer to produced tires for MotoGP. Bridgestone is the favorite to be awarded the contract, which would end nearly 60 years of open competition in motorcycle racing's premier class. The general expectation is that the proposal will be adopted without too much argument.
Or at least, that was the general expectation up until a few hours ago. Now, Spanish television is reporting that Ducati, the team that has taken Bridgestone to its dominant position in the MotoGP paddock, is in talks with Michelin to supply tires to all 5 Ducatis expected to be on the grid for next year. The deal, if it were to come off, would immediately scupper any chances of a single tire proposal being pushed through, and blow the tire war wide open again.
At first glance, the proposal may seem to be beyond bizarre: Why would a company who have built up such an incredible record of success with Bridgestone suddenly dump the tire company who helped them to win world title this year, and whose tires are certain to win the championship again in 2008? What's more, why drop what is considered to be one of the key ingredients in the magic recipe that has turned Casey Stoner from being a fast kid with a tendency to crash to arguably the most dominant rider in MotoGP?
When you study Ducati's history in MotoGP, however, the move suddenly makes a great deal of sense. Ducati's successful partnership with Bridgestone started as a result of a strategic decision taken by the Borgo Panigale factory to switch away from the then dominant brand Michelin. This decision seemed as bizarre then as any proposal to switch to Michelins does now, but at its core is the same astute piece of analysis. If you want to beat Valentino Rossi, the leading candidate for the title of greatest motorcycle racer ever, you need to obtain some kind of advantage.
At the end of the 2004 season, Ducati made the switch to Bridgestone, arguing that they had more chance of getting Bridgestone to build a tire that would work specifically for their bikes than with Michelin. The French tire giant, then utterly dominant in MotoGP, was also supplying both Yamaha and Honda, and Ducati rightly surmised that with their needs were likely to come a long way down the list, after the demands of the then reigning multiple world champion and the factory that has been the driving force behind motorcycle racing's premier class since the late '80s.
Though the switch brought limited success in 2005 - at that point in time, Bridgestone were a long way behind in tire development - 2006 saw Loris Capirossi in with a legitimate shot at the title until his season was wrecked in the monster crash at Barcelona, and the story of Casey Stoner's domination in 2007 is all too familiar.
In the light of this history, and recent moves which have seen all of the major players in MotoGP either switch to Bridgestone, or demand that they switch for 2009, a move to Michelin starts to look like the smartest course of action. With Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa already on Bridgestones, and likely to be joined next year by Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso, Ducati's influence with the Japanese tire maker is certain to wane, leaving them in a similar position to the one they found themselves in when the Italian factory first entered MotoGP in 2003.
By selecting Michelin as their tire suppliers, Ducati would once again become the major influence in tire development within Michelin as the only major factory team on French rubber. They could work together with Michelin to have tires tailor made to their own specifications, and once again, be in with a chance of getting an advantage over the competition.
The stumbling block to such a proposal would appear to be Casey Stoner. The reigning World Champion has in the past been very negative about Michelin tires, but there is an important distinction here. Stoner was negative about the tires he was given to race with, as the Australian was way down the Michelin pecking order on board the satellite LCR Honda. But his main complaint about the French tire company was that they favored the top teams over his smaller team.
If Ducati are either the sole factory on Michelins, or at least, the most important team on Michelins, this objection disappears. Michelin is determined to restore its reputation in MotoGP, and you can be absolutely certain that the French tire maker will do everything it can to provide Stoner with tires capable of winning. And by having 5 Ducatis to supply, the incentives to get the tires to suit the bike are further increased.
Proof, if proof were needed, of Michelin's commitment to regaining its former dominant position in MotoGP can be seen by the French company's efforts at persuading other teams to join it. Michelin is said to be talking to both Gresini Honda and Rizla Suzuki about using their tires, and dropping Bridgestones. For Suzuki, as for Ducati, the argument of much greater input into tire development is an extremely persuasive one, and worth taking very seriously indeed.
And so, at a stroke, Ducati have helped sweep the single tire proposals from the table, a proposal that was indirectly a result of their dominance of last year. For such a small factory - and their entire factory could probably fit inside just the race departments of some of the major Japanese manufacturers - Ducati have managed to have an inordinate amount of influence over the MotoGP series.
Thanks to Jim Race and Jules Cisek of Rideontwo.com for the tip.