The summer break is traditionally the moment that MotoGP's silly season is unleashed in all its fury, and with two more races to go, it is already starting to build up some momentum. At the center of the whirlwind is Jorge Lorenzo, the young Spaniard who has made an astonishing impact in his second season of MotoGP, winning two races and missing out on a podium only once so far this year, when he crashed out at Jerez.
Lorenzo's contract with Yamaha runs out at the end of the season, and the Mallorcan seems not to be in too much of a hurry to renew it. In all of his pronouncements so far, Lorenzo has reiterated that Yamaha is his primary option, but that this does not mean that staying with Yamaha is an automatic choice, for either Lorenzo or Yamaha. Rumors about Honda's offer to Lorenzo are growing, and both Yamaha and Lorenzo are engaged in a complex bout of contractual wrestling in a bid for the upper hand in negotiations.
Yamaha boss Masao Furusawa made the factory's position clear in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport recently: Yamaha are keen to hold on to the Spanish prodigy, but not at any price: "We know about Honda's offer," Furusawa told La Gazzetta, "If he wants to go with them, we won't be raising our stakes in order to retain him."
Lorenzo, meanwhile, is clear on his position. Speaking to the Spanish daily AS.com on the subject of the Honda offer, Lorenzo said cryptically "I know what I'm worth, and so does my manager." What was important, said Lorenzo, was that he had the right people to work with, who are supporting him and all working in the right direction. "My time with Yamaha has been like a beautiful movie," Lorenzo said. "We'll have to see whether the movie is going to continue, or whether it will come to an end."
The key to Lorenzo's situation is likely to revolve less around money and more around control. But this problem remains whether he stays with Yamaha or switches to Honda. At Yamaha, Valentino Rossi holds the undisputed number 1 status, but so far, that has not troubled Lorenzo, as the team has offered both riders pretty much the same support. Rossi is also adept at developing bikes which suit all types of riding styles and many different riders, a problem which other manufacturers have struggled with.
But Lorenzo is thought to have joined Yamaha planning to take Valentino Rossi's place once the Italian legend retires, something he had announced he was likely to do at the end of the 2010 season. But as this season has progressed, Rossi has made more and more noises about how he is enjoying racing again, and that he could stay for maybe another 2 seasons after 2010, taking him through to 2012. That would give Rossi enough time to beat Giacomo Agostini's record for both the number of Grand Prix victories (122, or 123 if you include a Formula 750 race, as Ago likes to do) and the total number of MotoGP championships (Agostini has 8, Rossi currently has 6).
Rossi has shown himself to be a keen historian, and all to aware of his own place in it, and those two records are high on his list of targets. With Rossi staying on longer than expected, Lorenzo could end up losing his patience waiting for the "old man" to go. His own ambitions at a world title make leaving to join another factory a very tempting prospect indeed.
But Honda may not be as attractive a prospect as Lorenzo may have hoped for. For Honda is currently synonymous with another Spaniard, Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa's position had earlier been thought to be growing increasingly tenuous at the factory Repsol Honda team, after Pedrosa looked like failing once again to deliver the world championship that Honda - and more significantly, Spanish petroleum giant Repsol - have been demanding the past few years. Recently, however, Honda boss Shuhei Nakamoto has made it clear that the reason for Pedrosa's failure has been down to Honda not producing a winning bike, rather than any shortcoming from the rider.
The solution currently doing the rounds in MotoGP's rumor mills is for Lorenzo to join a one-man Honda team of his own with full backing from HRC, similar to the Nastro Azzurro team which fielded Valentino Rossi in his first year of the premier class. The team would be backed by Spanish telecoms giant Telefonica, who withdrew from MotoGP in 2005 in a fit of pique, after the rider they had been grooming for MotoGP glory for several years - Lorenzo's main rival Dani Pedrosa - joined the Repsol Honda team, leaving Telefonica out in the cold.
The rumors of Telefonica backing a separate team for Jorge Lorenzo are being reported both in the Italian weekly Moto Sprint and in the Spanish magazine Solo Moto, and so are likely to have some substance to them. But even in an HRC-backed team, this would still leave Lorenzo with similar problems and more to the ones he faces at Yamaha. Dani Pedrosa remains Honda's main development focus, and so far, there is no reason to doubt this will continue.
Making the Honda switch less attractive is the fact that the RC212V has so far been thoroughly outclassed, first by Ducati's Desmosedici, and now by Yamaha's M1. Unless Honda get back on track and make some more decisive steps in development, a jump to an HRC-backed team may not necessarily be the guarantee of success it once was. Lorenzo would have to start a whole new set of battles with HRC once he arrived on a Honda, and would have to dislodge Pedrosa from atop the development tree.
That may be a problem that solves itself. For parallel to the rumors of Lorenzo's move to Honda comes speculation about the future of Pedrosa himself. Honda have thrown their hat into the ring, declaring they would like to keep the diminutive Spaniard, but Pedrosa and his mentor and manager Alberto Puig have been far less forthcoming.
Puig has even hinted at other offers inside the paddock. When asked by Solo Moto about the fact that Pedrosa's contract is up at the end of the season, Puig said "We shall see. It's not a subject we worry too much about. It's obvious that this [Pedrosa - Ed.] is a guy who is not going to be left without a ride, because there are plenty of people in the paddock who understand motorcycle racing. And people know which are the riders who are worth having."
Puig was quick to emphasize that their priorities lay with Honda. This was a project they all believed in, and the Repsol Honda team is a team which has proven time and time again that they are capable of delivering the best bike on the grid. Puig said that he was sure that Honda could do it again, as long as they listened to Pedrosa and used his feedback to build a better bike. Dani, said Puig, was waiting for Honda to respond.
Puig told Solo Moto that a decision would not be made quickly. When asked how much time he would give Honda, Puig responded "When does the championship finish?" That did not necessarily mean that they would leave if Pedrosa failed to win a title, though. It was, Puig emphasized, all a matter of having confidence and faith.
The most intriguing comment that Puig made contained an implicit link to the fate of Lorenzo. When pushed on what happens when that faith runs out, Puig said "There comes a point at which you say, we believe in this, but .... The priority is for Dani to be on a good ride. Who will he ride with? We hope that these people [Honda - Ed.] will build a fantastic bike, which we all believe they are capable of doing. If for whatever reason they are not interested in Dani, there are others who are interested in him. If we were to sign with another team? It's always the way that if someone leaves one place, another one fills his place. And swapping places is sometimes a good thing to do."
The comment about swapping places is the most intriguing part of that interview. It is all too easy to conclude that if Pedrosa were to leave Honda, his place would be taken by someone else, who would in turn leave an empty seat for Pedrosa to fill. And given that the man most frequently tipped to take Pedrosa's place at Honda is Jorge Lorenzo, Puig may be hinting that the logical place for Pedrosa to go would be the garage vacated by Lorenzo at Fiat Yamaha.