After Honda announced its shock withdrawal from Formula One, it was feared that this was just a premonition of what could happen in other forms of motorsports. Initially, reports from Spain suggested that Honda would pull out of MotoGP as well, despite the program costing only a fraction of the costs involved in Formula One. But once Takeo Fukui's end-of-year speech as Honda CEO passed without any mention of MotoGP, the hearts of MotoGP fans were reassured: MotoGP was safe for now.
But further announcements were far from reassuring: Suzuki announced that it was pulling out of its (far from successful) World Rally Championship, a move then followed by Subaru, a brand which is inextricably linked with the sport. Days later, Toyota announced drastic cost cutting in its Formula One program, though the optimists took comfort in the fact that this was not a withdrawal.
Speculation continued around what all this would mean for MotoGP. With Honda seemingly safe, and Yamaha and Ducati positively enthusiastic about the series, attention turned to the lame ducks of MotoGP, Suzuki and Kawasaki. No word has yet been heard from Suzuki, though the extension of the sponsorship deal with Rizla is taking a worryingly long time to be confirmed, though Suzuki team bosses profess that they are unconcerned. But as a (semi-) regular visitor to the podium - including a victory for Chris Vermeulen in 2007 - the team has at least had some success over the years.
The same cannot be said for Kawasaki. The Japanese firm's fortunes have been in a downward spiral since the beginning of 2007, with last year being the absolute nadir. Ant West fought a long and hard battle for last place with Marco Melandri every race, while West's team mate John Hopkins - said to have joined Kawasaki for a multi-million dollar fee - spent all year fighting to finish in the top 10. And earlier this year, Kawasaki's technical chief Ichiro Yoda admitted to the press that he had been told by Kawasaki that he had one more year to produce a motorcycle capable of better results, or he would be looking for a job.
Now, though, press reports from one of Italy's many sports daily's Tuttosport suggest that Kawasaki have decided not to wait that long. Tuttosport is saying that Kawasaki has already decided to withdraw from MotoGP, and that the riders and team have already been informed, pending an official announcement. Yoshio Kawamura, head of Kawasaki Racing, is said to have informed Hopkins and Melandri personally.
So far, no confirmation has been forthcoming, though ominously, nobody from the team has been available for comment. The holiday season may well be a perfectly reasonable explanation for this, but then again, it may just be that the team members are under strict instructions not to speak to the press until after an official announcement has been made.
The major question mark hanging over these reports is the Monster Energy deal. The American energy drink giant is a huge supporter of motorcycle racing in various guises, and has especially close ties with Kawasaki, the two brands conveniently sharing the same corporate colors. Monster signed up to support the Kawasaki MotoGP team for two years - 2008 and 2009 - and so was expecting to support the team for at least another year.
But such contracts usually have an out-clause somewhere. And with a big name American in John Hopkins, Monster were surely not expecting to see their millions of dollars going unnoticed way down the field. But Kawasaki's failure, for whatever reason, to produce a competitive motorcycle may provide Monster with exactly the reason they had been looking for to get out of their two-year deal.
There is also the question of exactly how much money the Monster Energy deal brought to Kawasaki. Exact numbers were - as ever - not released, but it is unlikely that Monster's contribution covered Kawasaki's entire budget, as is believed to be the case with Repsol and Honda. Most likely, the deal covered John Hopkins sizable salary and some of the team's expenses, which is one of the reasons that Kawasaki looked to cheaper options for their second rider in 2007.
With the arrival of Marco Melandri alongside Hopkins, Kawasaki's wage bill will have grown substantially. Though the Italian superstar had a disastrous season aboard the factory Ducati in 2008, he is still a huge name in Italy, and a big crowd puller. Monster's sponsorship dollars may be going less far than last season towards covering the costs of racing in motorcycle's premier class.
With the global financial crisis in full swing, and motorcycle sales expected to fall - though not as badly as car sales - Kawasaki may have decided that they simply could not afford to pour tens of millions of dollars into a project which saw them so publicly humiliated. And despite the fact that Kawasaki Heavy Industries is one of the largest companies in the world, building everything from bullet trains to rockets to supertankers to earth moving equipment to, yes, motorcycles, each arm of the corporation is financially independent, with little or no cross subsidy between the various branches. So Kawasaki's racing program is entirely dependent on selling more motorcycles, a feat which their conspicuous failure in almost every branch of motorcycle sport they participate in has surely made more difficulty.
Kawasaki's possible withdrawal could also mean trouble for Dorna. With Kawasaki gone, the number of entrants would fall to 17, below the minimum said to be guaranteed in contracts with the FIM. And this late in the game, with just a few months to go to the start of the season, it would be very difficult for Dorna to persuade another manufacturer to make up the shortfall. With Honda, Ducati and Yamaha supplying 6, 5 and 4 bikes respectively, the only real room for expansion is with Suzuki. But as stated before, the future of Suzuki's participation is far from certain, so persuading the Hamamatsu factory to enter an extra machine is almost laughably unlikely.
So far, however, no official statement has been forthcoming from Kawasaki, and until it does anything could happen. Stay tuned.
~~~ UPDATE ~~~
The eternally well-informed Autosport is reporting that Marco Melandri has heard nothing from Kawasaki. This directly contradicts the reports from Tuttosport, which said that Melandri had already been told by Kawamura.