Rumors that this is Dani Pedrosa's make-or-break year at Repsol Honda have haunted the MotoGP paddock since Pedrosa not only failed to win the championship last year, but even finished a placer lower at the end of the 2008 season than he had in 2007. It is said that Repsol, the Spanish petroleum giant that funds a large part of the factory team's budget, is growing impatient at the lack of a Spanish world champion which they can use to sell to their home market, and if Pedrosa doesn't deliver this season, Repsol could look elsewhere.
So far, much of the speculation surrounding Pedrosa's potential replacement has centered on Alvaro Bautista, the genial 250cc title candidate regarded as both highly talented and very media friendly. Bautista is helped by the fact that he seems to have a smile permanently fixed to his face, a much more attractive prospect for sponsors to use than the stern countenance Dani Pedrosa usually shows to the world.
There are two serious impediments to this possibility however. One is proposed "rookie rule" which would prevent riders new to the MotoGP class from going straight to a factory team. The rule, designed to help satellite teams secure talent and sponsors, would prevent riders such as Bautista, Marco Simoncelli and Ben Spies joining a factory team without first spending an apprenticeship year at a satellite or junior team, and would rule out Bautista joining the Repsol Honda squad if he moved to MotoGP in 2010.
The other major obstacle is Jorge Martinez' future plans to field a satellite Yamaha squad in MotoGP next year. After failing to obtain extra machinery from both Suzuki and Kawasaki at the end of last season, there is talk that Yamaha may be willing to make more YZF-M1s available next season, and that Martinez is the likeliest candidate to be awarded the bikes. If that is so, then Bautista is almost certain to be one of the riders in a new Aspar MotoGP team, making a switch to Repsol Honda much less likely.
As attractive a proposition as Bautista is, Repsol are reported to have set their sights much higher. At Motegi, the Repsol management met with senior HRC officials to discuss the future of their sponsorship agreement - Repsol are reportedly interested in moving into Formula One - and one of the subjects of discussion was said to be Jorge Lorenzo. According to Road Racer X's editor Chris Jonnum, HRC contacted Lorenzo's management about the 2010 season, but HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto later denied to Motorcycle News that they'd made any approach to Lorenzo.
Signing Jorge Lorenzo would be a major coup for both Repsol and Honda, as well as the sweetest form of revenge for HRC, after Yamaha lured Valentino Rossi away from under Big Red's wing. But there are good reasons to believe this is nothing more than a bargaining ploy on the part of Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo has repeatedly stated that he sees his future with Yamaha, and Yamaha have made it clear that they are grooming Lorenzo as Rossi's replacement once the Italian retires, probably at the end of the 2010 season. Now in his second year with Yamaha, Lorenzo is also well aware of the influence he can have over bike development at Yamaha, and can see the problems Honda's riders have had in getting their wishes respected at HRC, where engineers have traditionally ruled the roost.
Of course, if Repsol want to sponsor a world champion, then their simplest course of action would be to simply switch from the factory Honda squad to Yamaha. That would allow Lorenzo to stay where he is and Repsol may feel that it gives them a better chance of winning a world title.
If Repsol did switch to Yamaha - a move that must be considered unlikely, given Repsol's very long history with HRC - then this would spell disaster for Honda's MotoGP program. It is believed that Repsol stumps up a major part of the funds for HRC's MotoGP racing program, and without the tens of millions of euros coming in from the Spanish oil giant, Honda may decided that MotoGP is not worth the investment it is putting in to it. And if Honda ever decides to pull out of MotoGP, then the series is in very real trouble. With the decision on the single engine contract for the Moto2 series due at Jerez, and thought to be between Honda and Yamaha, Dorna and the FIM may feel it necessary to award the contract to Honda as a way of keeping the manufacturer committed to the series.