Silly season for the 2010 MotoGP rider line up may be all but completed, but for technicians and engineers, it has only just begun. It started out in Australia, where it emerged that Pete Benson, Andrea Dovizioso's crew chief, and Daniele Romagnoli, Jorge Lorenzo's team manager, would both be leaving their positions at the end of the year. The attrition is continuing now, and most of the damage seems to be in Jorge Lorenzo's garage, as three Yamaha engineers are slated to leave at the end of the season.
First and foremost, perhaps, are Andrea Zugna, Yamaha's Engineering Division Manager, and Cristian Battaglia, Yamaha engineer, both of whom have been roped in to join HRC and work for Honda. The loss of Zugna and Battaglia could be a sensitive one, as the two men are credited with helping to develop arguably the best electronics package on the grid in the Yamaha M1. Their success has probably been the cause of their own downfall, as they have transferred their knowledge to Yamaha's Japanese engineers, who have now taken over responsibility for running the program. Carlo Luzzi has been plucked directly from Jorge Lorenzo's pit box, as the telemetry specialist is due to join Andrea Dovizioso's pit crew in exactly the same capacity, as Dovizioso's side of the Repsol Honda garage undergoes a shake up in the wake of Pete Benson's departure. Luzzi's place as telemetry engineer to Jorge Lorenzo is to be taken by Davide Marelli, currently Chris Vermeulen's telemetry specialist at Suzuki.
The arrival of Zugna, Battaglia and Luzzi are believed to signal another switch in policy by HRC. Currently, Honda uses its own electronics and engine management systems, developed in part by the company's former Formula One department. The problem has been that all of the Honda riders have complained that the engine character and throttle response is too aggressive, making the RC212V difficult to ride. The three Italian engineers all have extensive experience of the Magneti Marelli electronics package, and the obvious conclusion for their moving to HRC is to help with a switch to the Italian electronics package, which both Yamaha and Ducati have used to such devastating effect. Previously, Honda has tried to keep as much as possible of the bike in house, but the announcement by Big Red that they would be testing Ohlins suspension instead of Showa, a Honda subsidiary, marked a major departure from that policy. After testing at Brno, Andrea Dovizioso has continued to run Ohlins suspension, with varying success.
If HRC were to switch to Magneti Marelli electronics, that would leave only Suzuki in the paddock not using the Italian engine management package. Rumors in the paddock suggest that this is not the choice of the team, but that the factory is forcing the team to use Mitsubishi electronics. The team are said to believe that a switch to Magneti Marelli would provide the bike that little bit of competitiveness it is lacking with respect to the other manufacturers.
HRC's poaching of Yamaha's engineers also marks two important trends in the MotoGP paddock. The first is the breach of the former unwritten rule - honored more in the breach than in the observance recently - that the Japanese factories do not go hiring each other's staff. The mass exodus that followed Valentino Rossi into Yamaha put a large crack in that agreement, but this step seems to end it entirely.
The other trend which this move highlights is to underline the growing importance of engineers inside MotoGP. While it is still true that the rider is 80% of the package in MotoGP - a fact made all too clear by the difference between Casey Stoner and anyone else on the Ducati, or even between Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso on the Honda - the top four riders are now so close that even the smallest advantage has to be exploited. The differences between, say, Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo can no longer be made up by rider skill, but bringing the RC212V up to a par with the Yamaha M1 may help Pedrosa compete with his compatriot. And outstanding engineers - especially those with an understanding of electronics packages - can be the link that is missing from the entire rider / bike package.
The rise of the engineer could see yet another problem arise in the field of costs. As factories start tempting the top technical staff away from each other, their main weapons are likely to be money and a technical challenge. Both of these will involve added expense for the teams.
With all of these Yamaha engineers announcing their intention to join HRC, speculation has centered on whether Lorenzo's team manager Daniele Romagnoli would join them and become Andrea Dovizioso's new crew chief. A Honda spokesperson has denied that this is the case to MotoMatters.com, pointing out at the same time that this was a conclusion that everyone in the paddock was jumping to, but this was not an avenue that Honda had been actively pursuing. As yet, Romagnoli's future is uncertain.