Stunning news from the MotoGP paddock at Valencia. According to the well-informed Superbikeplanet.com website, Livio Suppo, Ducati's MotoGP project manager, is to leave the Ducati team at the end of the season. The news follows on from earlier reports that current Ducati test rider Vito Guareschi is to be promoted to Team Manager, a position which would be much more hands on between the riders and management than Suppo has been.
Suppo's departure, if it is confirmed, would mark a huge break with the past of Ducati's MotoGP program. To a very large extent, Suppo IS Ducati's MotoGP program, as the Italian has run the program from the very start. With Suppo out of the way, Ducati's MotoGP team would be likely to undergo a radical shakeup.
The reasons for this change are unclear, but the rumor mill has been in overdrive since September that these are all the first steps in a courting dance aimed at tempting Valentino Rossi to join the Italian factory. The conspiracists say that Suppo and Rossi have no real affection for each other, and that Suppo has been arguing against signing Rossi, as he is believed to fear it would disrupt Ducati's MotoGP project too much. Guareschi and Rossi get on very well, on the other hand, and the removal of Suppo and the arrival of Guareschi is merely preparing the ground for the arrival of the world's most popular motorcycle racer.
How much truth there is in all this is open to conjecture. What is certain is that all of Italy is fervently dreaming of the day that Rossi throws his leg over a Ducati, Italy's greatest rider on Italy's greatest motorcycle. What is also almost certainly true is that Phillip Morris would be prepared to pay almost any price to have Valentino Rossi join the team.
Whether Rossi will actually join Ducati is another question altogether. Yamaha will do everything in their power to keep the Italian in the fold, as Yamaha's MotoGP boss Masao Furusawa recently tacitly acknowledged. After all, Rossi will be helping to sell motorcycles for whoever he finishes his career with in 30 year's time, and that kind of long-term return justifies almost any short-term investment. And if Phillip Morris is so keen to get their hands on Valentino Rossi, there's no reason the tobacco giant shouldn't mull over a return to the glory days of Marlboro Yamaha of the 1990's.
There are also other perfectly rational explanations why Ducati and Livio Suppo should be parting company. Casey Stoner's three-race absence this summer was a PR disaster, and Ducati's normally superb PR machine seemed to grind to a halt in the face of Stoner's illness. Instead of issuing daily press releases updating the world on Stoner's progress - based on either fact or fiction - and being on the phone to every motorcycle racing media outlet on the face of the planet, getting them onside, Suppo seemed as perplexed as the reporters asking him the questions, and was left repeating the vaguest of mantras to assuage the press onslaught. Phillip Morris made their dissatisfaction with the situation very public, their sponsorship boss Maurizio Arrivabene demanding an apology from Stoner. It is entirely conceivable that Suppo has been offered as a sacrifice to appease the wrath of the tobacco giant.
Suppo's departure from Ducati sees yet another big name backroom boy come onto the market, joining Pete Benson and Daniele Romagnoli in the pursuit for work. Where Suppo will end up is as yet unknown, but given that Yamaha's program is completely sewn up, that leaves only Honda and Suzuki. We shall see which of those two is most in need of an experienced hand at the tiller of their MotoGP programs.