The official announcement of the demise of Kawasaki's MotoGP effort has not even been made yet, but already, it would seem to have a saviour. Italian sports daily Gazzetto dello Sport is reporting that since the news broke of Kawasaki's imminent withdrawal, Jorge Martinez, the man behind the Aspar team which dominates 125 and 250 racing, has been hard at working trying to take over the team from Kawasaki.
Martinez says he was contacted by Dorna a couple of days ago, and since then he has spent all his time on the phone, despite being on a family vacation. The deal which Dorna, Martinez and Kawasaki are trying to put together according to Gazzetto dello Sport would involve Martinez taking over the team at no cost to the Spanish former racer.
The reasons for this apparent generosity on the part of Kawasaki have little to do with altruism, however. According to the Italian daily, Kawasaki has a contract with Dorna to compete in MotoGP until the end of 2011. If Kawasaki were to pull out before that time, then they would be hit by a fine numbering "millions of dollars" for breach of contract. And as Kawasaki have already invested some 6 million dollars in next year's bike, they have little to lose by handing the whole project over to Aspar, and would avoid the penalty by providing engineering support to the privateer team, whilst Aspar bears the day-to-day costs of running the team, again saving Kawasaki a large amount of money. Contracts with riders and team crew have already been signed, and this is money Kawasaki would have to pay anyway.
Dorna, for their part, have a vested interest in keeping the Kawasakis on the grid: The Barcelona-based organizers of MotoGP have in turn a contract with the FIM, the governing body of motorcycle racing, which guarantees a minimum of 18 riders if the series is to retain the status of a world championship. What's more, the loss of face for Dorna would be immeasurable if a major manufacturer were to withdraw in the very season when two new manufacturers (BMW and Aprilia) entered World Superbikes, with another (KTM) waiting in the wings.
With the big ticket items covered, Aspar should be able to cover the basic costs of the team, especially given the considerable sponsorship from Monster Energy, who had signed a deal to support Kawasaki for the 2008 and 2009 seasons. The Monster millions would also mean that Marco Melandri's seat at Kawasaki is likely to be safe. If Aspar were to take over the Kawasaki team, the Monster money would ensure that John Hopkins - who is linked personally to the deal - will retain his seat. But Aspar's previous attempts to run a Kawasaki in 2009 foundered on the insistence of his Valencian sponsors that the team field a Spanish rider, whilst Kawasaki demanded that the team give Shinya Nakano a ride. With the money mostly covered, Aspar's Spanish sponsors would no longer be the main investor in the team, and Melandri would keep his ride.
Jorge Martinez, Aspar boss, told La Gazzetta dello Sport that he is keen to keep the Italian. "The rider question is not a priority at the moment. I certainly wouldn't have any problem with Melandri. He's a rider that I've always been very impressed with."
Though the article talks of Aspar taking over the Kawasakis, no mention is made of the team. What would happen to Michael Bartholemy and the rest of his Venlo-based crew is unclear, though putting together a team to run a two-rider MotoGP team from scratch in January is likely to be difficult at the very least. The most likely scenario is that Martinez would take over the team lock, stock and barrel, taking over the role as nominal head of the team. Just how current team manager Michael Bartholemy would fit into the whole equation is unclear, and the Belgian is the most likely casualty of the whole deal.
The elephant in the room in all these discussions is of course the question of bike development. Last season, the Kawasaki was by far the weakest bike on the grid, and a huge amount of development was going to be needed to get the bike anywhere near competitive. It's highly unlikely that the 2009 ZX-RR is ready to take on the Ducati and the Yamaha, and if no development is done during the season, Melandri and Hopkins would fall further and further behind. So any handing over of the team to Aspar would not acquit Kawasaki of the necessity to keep trying to improve the bike. Though handing over the entire project to Martinez and his Aspar team may save Kawasaki a considerable amount of money, there could still be hidden costs along the way.
For now, though, we await an official announcement from Kawasaki. On Monday, we should know more.