After news broke on the Monday before Brno of Casey Stoner's absence for the three MotoGP races in August and early September, the gaze of the world's press bore down unblinkingly on the Australian. But the intense scrutiny which befell Stoner was both mercifully and surprisingly brief, as by the time the MotoGP circus actually arrived at the Czech circuit, the attention of the press had been distracted by another, perhaps even larger story. News that Ducati - under direction from Marlboro and Philip Morris, who basically pay Ducati's bills - had made an offer to Jorge Lorenzo of between 6 and 8 million euros had the journalists thrashing about like sharks in a bait ball. Stoner's absence quickly shifted from being headline news to become the underlying reason for Ducati's approach to Lorenzo.
Yet as entertaining as it is, the Lorenzo saga - due to come to a head at Indianapolis, though the press in Spain is reporting that the deadline he had to inform both Ducati and Yamaha of his decision was Monday, August 24th - has left the press with too little time to spend searching for answers about Casey Stoner's situation. Admittedly, the press faces extra problems in this regard - Stoner is on the other side of the world from most of the MotoGP press, and even in Australia, the farm Stoner lives on is relatively secluded. Add to this Stoner's ingrained dislike and distrust of the press and his disinclination to talk to the media about his situation, as well as Jorge Lorenzo's skillful manipulation of the press attention he is receiving, and the media might be forgiven for concentrating on the easy story.
The fact that Casey Stoner is not talking to the press does not mean that there is no news. At the most recent occasion at which a large and varied international motorcycle racing press corps gathered - the German IDM championship races at Assen - the paddock was full of rumors from Australia that Jorge Lorenzo might not be the only big name to switch brands. Talk was rife of reports in the Australian media that Casey Stoner was currently engaged in talks with Yamaha about riding for the Japanese squad in 2010, reports that MotoGPMatters.com has confirmed independently through other sources.
Of course, there is one minor problem with such reports: Casey Stoner already has a contract for 2010, to ride for Ducati. But despite very vocal denials of an impending split by Ducati team boss Livio Suppo, there is plenty of reason to believe that the Australian wants out of his contract with the Italian factory.
It has long been known that Stoner is unhappy in Europe, and finds it hard to be away from Australia. Despite having an apartment in Monaco - a beautiful, if rather soulless city state - he does not feel at home there and would rather be back home in Australia. The fact that he does not speak Italian, nor has any intention of learning the language is merely symptomatic of his predicament, rather than a sign of his inability to learn.
Part of the reason for his unhappiness in Europe is the way that the press - most especially the Italian press - have treated him. The general assumption in the Italian press that Casey Stoner only won his 2007 title because of his tires and the electronics on the Ducati has angered him, and Stoner is not a man who is quick to forget, let alone forgive. His frustation at "the Europeans" came strongly to the fore in an interview the Australian did with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra back in June.
His digs at "Europeans" and his statement that the only friend he has in the paddock is his wife, Adriana, is again symptomatic of something deeper. When Stoner first came to Ducati, he had praised the atmosphere in the team, but those words have been fading since his championship year. The turning point in the relationship came after the Laguna Seca round, when Ducati announced that Stoner had been diagnosed with mild gastritis and slight anemia. At the Sachsenring, and at Donington Park, Stoner angrily denied that that was the cause of his problems, and claimed that anemia could not cause the extreme fatigue he was suffering, and it had to have another, more serious physical cause. Further tests back home in Australia seemed to reveal that Stoner had caught some kind of viral infection prior to Barcelona, and had pushed himself too hard trying to race before he was fully recovered.
Stoner's sensitivity to the diagnosis of anemia may well be a result of the criticism he has received from within Ducati about his diet and exercise regime. The Australian is reported to go for long periods - 12 to 14 hours - without eating, and then to binge on candy rather than have a proper meal. These reports, it must be said, come from the Spanish press, a source which is not always 100% reliable, though they claimed that they had this information from "sources close to Casey Stoner."
And so Casey Stoner may be feeling that Ducati have - to use a colloquial phrase - thrown him under the bus. With Ducati pointing the finger of blame at his diet, Casey Stoner may feel that the factory is not giving him the support he feels he deserves in these difficult times. Reports that Jorge Lorenzo has been offered between two and three times Stoner's salary to join the factory merely reinforce the feeling that he has been let down by Ducati.
There is plenty of past evidence to support that feeling. Ducati has a long history of dumping riders in haste if they do not get results fast enough to suit the factory. Dennis Noyes, in an article for the Spanish TV station TVE, sums up Ducati's long history of perfidy, in his advice to Jorge Lorenzo about the Spaniard's possible move to Ducati.
So Stoner's growing antipathy to all things Italian, and Ducati in particular, rather limits the Australian's choices. The obvious place to go would be to Yamaha, as the Yamaha team has a very strong English-speaking element, with Valentino Rossi's pit crew being composed almost entirely of Australians. In 2006, Rossi's Australian crew chief Jerry Burgess stated that he would like to work with the Australian, but Yamaha decided against signing Stoner, leaving him with Ducati as his only option, signed at the penultimate round.
At first, Stoner had declared that he would prefer to stay with Ducati, as the Italian squad had given him a chance after Yamaha and Honda had turned him down for a factory ride. But with a rift growing between Stoner and Ducati, the Australian appears to have changed his mind. There have been reliable reports from multiple sources that Casey Stoner is currently engaged in talks with Yamaha, and is trying to get out of his contract with Ducati.
So strong is Stoner's feeling in this matter that, despite still being in training, he is believed to be seriously considering pulling out of MotoGP altogether, instead of continuing to struggle against the straitjacket of duties which riding in a factory team places upon him. As Stoner told the Corriere della Serra, "This is who I am, a racer, not an actor. I want to come here, do a good job, and then go home. That's all." If his only option is to return to Ducati and be forced by Marlboro to take more part in the PR and press work that he so detests, he may prefer just to throw in the towel.
Of course, if Jorge Lorenzo decides to stay at Yamaha, there will be no room at the inn for the Australian. The factory Yamaha seats would be full up, leaving only Repsol Honda as an option. But given the state of Honda's negotiations with Dani Pedrosa, and the stumbling block that is Alberto Puig's role in the team, there may well be an opening, leaving Pedrosa with only Ducati as an option. At Repsol Honda, Stoner would find an English-speaking contingent, though that may require swapping pit crews with Andrea Dovizioso. But so far, unlike the Yamaha talks, MotoGPMatters.com has received no indication that Stoner is talking to Honda as well as Yamaha.
If Casey Stoner did decide to call it a day, it would be a huge loss to MotoGP. Stoner was only one of two men to beat Valentino Rossi to the title, and one of the three who have pushed the Italian to the very limit in the defense of his title. In terms of rider talent, MotoGP has an embarrassment of riches, with Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner all equally capable of winning races on any given day. Take away Casey Stoner, and the racing will be a good deal less interesting, and the title would lose some of its luster.