About 10 minutes after I posted this reply, I received the official press release. You can find my take on it here:
Ilmor have finally made up their minds about who will be riding the Ilmor SRT X3 next year. On Monday, they announced that Jeremy McWilliams (42) and Andrew Pitt (30) will be joining the team for 2007. The line-up is as expected, after McWilliams and Pitt spent a lot of time testing the bike at Valencia and Jerez. However, it is a little surprising for someone of McWilliams' age to be given the ride. Most riders are a long way past their sell by date by the time they hit 40, and McWilliams is 42. The reason that Ilmor give is McWilliams' experience, a fact which cannot be denied. However, the last MotoGP project that McWilliams was involved in was the ill-fated Proton V5, developed by Team KR, which was just never competitive, and blew itself apart with some regularity. Andrew Pitt, on the other hand, makes a little more sense. At 30, he is much younger than McWilliams (though still one of the older riders in the paddock), and spent a year developing the Kawasaki when they first returned to MotoGP. He has shown that he can be competitive, after putting in a good season in World Superbikes aboard the Yamaha YZF-R1, even winning a race.
This leaves poor Garry McCoy out in the cold. The press release does not mention him, but reading between the lines, it seems that Ilmor believed that he did not have the development skills which they require. I'm sure it won't come as a huge shock, however, as McCoy was not involved in the Jerez tests at all.
The full text of the press release is shown below:
Northampton 18.12.06: Ending months of speculation, Mario Illien, Ilmor GP Team Owner today announced that Jeremy McWilliams and Andrew Pitt will make up the Ilmor 2007 MotoGP line up.
Despite his crash in Jerez back in November where he suffered a fractured left femur McWilliams is well on the way to recovery, both he and ex-Kawasaki rider Pitt spent time today at the teams engineering facility in Northampton discussing plans for 2007.
Both riders are familiar with the Ilmor XÂ³ SRT having tested the bike in Jerez and in Valencia after the final of the MotoGP World Championship. The riders were selected for not only their proven riding skills but the invaluable experience they will bring to the team.
At 42 Irishman McWilliams is one of the sports most experienced riders and his team mate 30 year old Australian Pitt has clocked up a decent amount of miles with Kawasaki back in 2004. At this early stage in the XÂ³'s development, the team believe it's essential to have riders who have the ability to assist with perfecting the ultimate race set-up of the bike.
Jeremy McWilliams: "I'm very pleased to be part of a new team and obviously I'm delighted to be back in MotoGP. Now, with Mario and Ilmor it's a very different situation - having spent some time with him and the team his passion and dedication is evident everywhere, especially at the facility in Northampton - you can see that he's not a man who's used to coming second. He takes his racing incredibly seriously, he's a legend and whilst I know his expectations in terms of hard work are high he's realistic about what we can achieve over the next year.
"We have a brand new bike and very little testing time - I think we have a very good product to work with but there is a lot of developing that needs to be done. It's going to take time and it's going to be hard but I'm really looking forward to it, at the end of the day, that's what MotoGP is all about - it's hard work - if it was easy, everyone would be doing it!"
Andrew Pitt: "I'm delighted that everything is confirmed now - I can't wait to get back out on the track - I really feel like I wasn't able to reach my potential before and now I'm lucky enough to get another opportunity with a new team on what promises to be a great bike. You only need to take a quick look around the Ilmor headquarters to see how seriously these guys take things, it dwarves everything I've ever seen before."
Mario Illien, Team Owner: "As a fledgling team, the main reason behind signing McWilliams and Pitt was for their skills in further developing the overall bike package and making us more competitive as a team. Both riders come well equipped with a huge amount of experience to bring to the team as we start out. I've said since the beginning of this project that we are on a steep learning curve and I believe that McWilliams and Pitt will really help us begin to make our mark on the grid."
Steve Miller, Ilmor, Managing Director: "Both riders are team players which is vital to us as a relatively new team - everyone needs to work together if we are to achieve our goals. I'm glad that they're both on board and I'm looking forward to working with them - I think they both realise the potential of the project and they're very keen to get back out there and find some more speed from the bike."
As the dust settles on a long and arduous MotoGP season, you would think that the teams and riders would be ready for a long and well-deserved break. But there is no such luck for the paddock: the riders had the grand total of two days to get away from the bike, while the mechanics and engineers were back hard at work the day after the race, fettling the 2006 bikes to get ready for a procession of journalists, sponsors, camp followers, and even Valentino Rossi's assistant Uccio, who reportedly put in the slowest lap ever achieved on a MotoGP bike. On the Wednesday, they were joined once again by the riders, and the 2007 season started in earnest.
And the return to testing has not been so keenly anticipated since the return of the four-strokes to the premier class in 2001. The motorcycle racing world held its collective breath, awaiting the first formal outing of the 800s, eager to see what the future holds for MotoGP. But their tension and curiosity was to be only partly relieved and assuaged over the days and weeks that were to come. For the winter testing schedule is a complicated and intricate affair. What it is not is a straight contest of strength, with all the teams turning up with their best bikes and their best riders, running head-to-head with the competition, with transponders recording and publishing official times for each and every lap. What testing entails is an ever-changing mixture of teams and riders, fielding racing motorcycles in unknown states of development, on a range of tires, in a drive to go faster. At each event, times are released, but sometimes there is a full timesheet available, while at others the teams themselves choose to release lap times for their riders, which may or may not include their fastest lap, and may or may not even be accurate (if the rumors about Biaggi's fastest World Superbike test time at Valencia are to be believed), and may have been set on either race tires or qualifiers.
So, while the excitement was great at Valencia, it was colored by frustration. Valentino Rossi was first to ruin the party, by spending part of the first day of testing riding the 990cc Yamaha M1, in an attempt to try and identify where the team had gone wrong on race day. Other 990s joined him, most of them not by choice, but by lack of available 800s. Marco Melandri, Toni Elias and Alex Barros were all out on old bikes on new tires, able at least to get some data on the Bridgestones both teams are switching to.
The team most conspicuous by their absence was Kawasaki. The Team Green bike was the only 800 yet to make a public appearance, but Valencia was not the stage which Kawasaki had chosen to make its debut. Of course, this absence did nothing to staunch the flow of rumors that the Kawasaki 800 was a long way from being either competitive or reliable, or possibly both. We would have to wait until Sepang to learn the truth.
What we did learn at Valencia was that the 800s were very, very fast. The only 800 we'd seen at Valencia so far was the Ilmor X3, which was running a couple of seconds a lap behind the 990s. On the first day of testing, Valentino Rossi demonstrated just how far behind Ilmor is, by lapping the track faster on the 800 than he had during the race on the 990, setting a stunning time of 1:32.7, fast enough to beat Loris Capirossi's lap record set on Sunday. The only people capable of following Rossi's time were the Gresini men on their Bridgestone-shod 990 cc Hondas, both Elias and Melandri setting times faster than Capirossi's race lap. Behind the 990s, Hopkins and Vermeulen on the Suzukis, Capirossi on the Ducati, and Pedrosa on the Honda 800 all finished within 0.1 seconds of each other. Freshly crowned MotoGP World Champion Nicky Hayden was a couple of tenths behind, but the reason for this would only appear later.
The next day, Pedrosa set an even faster time, shaving a couple of hundredths off Rossi's time from Wednesday. Vermeulen and Hopkins followed close behind again, with Casey Stoner quickly getting accustomed to the Ducati just behind the Suzuki men, and fractionally ahead of team mate Loris Capirossi. The Doctor could not match his time from the previous day, the changes to the bike he tried out not working to plan.
Two weeks later, the circus transferred to Sepang. The Malaysian race weekend in September had been full of meteorological surprises, and it put on a repeat performance during the tests. In case we had forgotten about the rain canceling qualifying in September, the first day of testing ended with a downpour to remind us. In the tropics, when it rains, it really, really rains, and the track flooded within minutes, staying wet long enough to curtail the second day's testing as well. And though the third and final day started dry, the rains returned to finish up the last session, not hard enough to flood the track again, but enough to chase off everyone except Nicky Hayden and Toni Elias, who seized the opportunity to run a few wet weather tests. A choice which may pay off next year, if the 2006 run of rainy race weekends is anything to go by.
The patchwork principle was at work again in Sepang, with Ducati absent in all their guises, Marco Melandri and Dani Pedrosa missing due to surgery for arm pump, and Valentino Rossi competing on four wheels instead of two in the WRC New Zealand rally. In their place, Kawasaki turned up with their test rider-turned-racer Olivier Jacque, though his first outing was aboard the old 990, rather than the 800.
Of those present, it was the Suzuki's turn to take the speed honors: Though Colin Edwards finished the first day with the fastest time, the Suzukis were close behind, split only by OJ on the 990 Kawasaki. But over the next two days, the Suzukis dominated, with Hopkins and Vermeulen consistently faster than everyone else at the track. Jacque's appearance at Sepang was brief, trading the Kawasaki 990 in for the 800 on the second day, before retiring with mechanical problems, and going home early. But Kawasaki weren't the only team with problems. Throughout the test, the Hondas seemed to struggle, never really getting on the pace. After the test was over, both Hayden and Elias complained of a lack of power from the RC212V, which helped to explain their deficit of nearly 1.3 seconds to the Suzukis, which had broken the lap record, and come within a second of the pole record at the Malaysian track.
After the tropical Malay heat, it was time to return to the more temperate climes of southern Spain, for the final test session before the official winter testing ban set in on December 1st. At Jerez the patchwork changed again, with Kawasaki disappearing, preferring to test in Japan, away from the prying eyes of the international press, Ducati and Ilmor returning to the fray, and Nicky Hayden taking his turn on the injury list, taking time off to have surgery on a shoulder injury exacerbated by the torpedoing administered at the hands of his team mate Dani Pedrosa in Estoril, and which had caused him problems in previous tests.
And rubbing salt into Hayden's surgical wounds, it was Pedrosa who set the pace at Jerez, breaking into the 1:39s on a qualifier on the last day of the test. Earlier, it had been Valentino Rossi who had led the way, leading on a cold and damp first day, and holding onto that advantage during the much better weather on day two. But on the last day, Rossi could only get within a quarter of a second of Pedrosa, with Marco Melandri 4/10ths behind Rossi. Judged solely by the timesheet, the Suzukis seemed to have lost their edge, finishing in 4th and 5th at Jerez. But the times set by Hopkins and Vermeulen were set on race tires, not qualifiers, unlike the three ahead of them, and put them in front of Shinya Nakano on the Michelin-shod Konica Minolta Honda, Colin Edwards on the other Yamaha, and Alex Barros on the d'Antin Ducati, transformed by the Bridgestones from grid filler to competitive tool. Behind Barros, it was the factory Ducati team's turn to struggle, as both Stoner and Capirossi battled with engine management software problems on the Ducati GP7.
So, now that testing has ended, what conclusions can we draw, most tentatively, from what we have seen so far?
The most striking thing has been the instant speed of the Suzukis. The GSV-R's handling has always been exceptional, but it seemed that Suzuki just couldn't make the 990's engine competitive. Like Aprilia, they started off on the wrong foot, throwing technology at the engine, instead of trying to make it ridable first and foremost, then worrying about power. With this history, few people were expecting Suzuki's 800 to be competitive from the off, if at all, Suzuki's prior approach being to make their solution overly complex, and then spend years trying to fix the problems they had built for themselves. So what many feared would be another season of midfield grind is starting to look like a year of genuine contention. Both Hopkins and Vermeulen are highly rated as riders, both have excellent corner speed, thought to be the key to 800 cc success, and both will be hungry. On current form, Suzuki looks like a real threat.
The other big surprise is that the Honda is looking pretty mediocre. It was Honda who pushed hardest for the switch to 800 cc, which the conspiracy theorists claimed was a plot by HRC, for all they had to do was lose a cylinder, and continue to race the bike they already had. But the times set so far have mostly put the Honda riders firmly in mid-pack, and Hayden, Elias and Melandri have all complained of a lack of power. Nicky Hayden, starting on the defense of his title, will really needs more out of the Honda if he is to retain his crown, but the bike just doesn't seem to want to work for him. Hayden's injured shoulder hasn't helped, but he is not setting the times on the RC212V he was hoping for.
To add yet more grist to the tinfoil hat brigade, there has been only one exception to the massed ranks of midfield Hondas, and that's the man said to be HRC's favorite son: Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa has been impressively fast on the RC212V from the word go, heading the timesheets at both Valencia and Jerez, the only two sessions he's attended this winter. From the moment an eager public first laid eyes on the Honda 800, vicious tongues were whispering that the pint-sized bike had been designed solely and specifically for the equally pint-sized Pedrosa. The RC212V's 990cc predecessor was hardly the largest bike in the world, but the 800 looks as if it's been shoehorned into a 250 chassis. Pedrosa, at 5'3" and 112 lbs, sits perfectly aboard the RC212V, the tank fitting sweetly between his knees, where he seemed slightly dwarfed, having to stretch on the old 990. And with so little weight to carry, the extra drive Pedrosa gets out of corners is paying dividends. Already, both Rossi and Hayden have pronounced that the tiny Spaniard will be their main obstacle in the title race. Some of it is mind games, putting pressure on Pedrosa early, but the testing so far has demonstrated that they may need to use anything and everything they can to try and stop little Dani.
Of course, Honda isn't the only team which has failed to live up to expectations. MotoGP followers all thought that the Ducati 800cc GP7 bike's early appearance meant that Ducati could give them a serious advantage heading in to 2007. However, after starting the postseason in good form at Valencia, the Bologna-based team seem to have headed off in the wrong direction, with the software updates applied in Jerez turning out to be what are known in programming as "bug-for-bug releases", where the solution for a particular problem causes 15 other problems to spring up in its stead, like dragon's teeth. Based on the sound of the engine and the design of the exhaust system, Ducati seems to have switched back to a "screamer" engine configuration from a "big bang".
The advantage of the big bang is that the wider spaced power pulses allow the tire to recover and give better drive out of corners. But the big bang needs beefier crankshafts and primary gears to deal with so much power being unleashed in a fraction of a second, sapping top end power.
Enter the screamer. With power pulses more evenly spaced, power outputs can be higher, at the expense of drive. Fortunately for Ducati, engine management and traction control has come on in leaps and bounds over the past few years, meaning that electronics are getting better and better at compensating for the lost traction. With the GP7 already down 40-odd horsepower on the 990 bike, the screamer's increased top end must look very attractive to Ducati.
The problem is, they are running into the point where software theory runs into the solid brick wall of buggy practice, making finding a set-up that works an elusive and ever-shifting target. At Jerez, Alex Barros was faster on the d'Antin satellite Ducati than Stoner and Capirossi on the factory bikes, which could very well be down to Barros being on an older, less experimental bike than Stoner and Capirex. With the d'Antin bikes now on competitive Bridgestone rubber, rather than the Dunlops which left them languishing at the back of the field, and with a proven winner like Barros aboard, good times could be coming for d'Antin, and it could even get embarrassing for the factory bikes.
But pity poor Kawasaki. Where Honda and Ducati are ironing out niggles, Team Green are wandering in the wilderness. So far, slow lap times have been combined with technical problems, giving the impression of a team which is a very, very long way behind in their bike development. Possibly, Shinya Nakano had an inkling that this was happening, which is why he jumped ship to join Konica Minolta Honda, preferring a ride on a satellite Honda to a year among the back markers, fighting the Kawasaki.
At least the Kawasakis will be ahead of the Ilmor. The excitement of a new entry to MotoGP is starting to ebb, and the Ilmor SRT X3's deficit is getting more difficult to conceal. Consistently at least a second behind the nearest competition, Ilmor's woes were made worse at Jerez, with test rider Jeremy McWilliams crashing heavily and breaking a leg. And the riders have yet to be officially named, despite the list of candidates being pretty short, hinting at big problems behind the scenes. Perhaps the newly-appointed team manager, Mike Janes, will solve the problems, but observers are saying that bringing someone with experience in four wheel racing into a team coming from four wheel racing could see Ilmor falling into the trap that Aprilia and John Barnard fell into before them: Forgetting that bikes really are different.
And then, of course, there's The Doctor. So far, Valentino Rossi has run very near the front during testing, and is putting in monster numbers of laps on the new Yamaha 800. Rossi is determined not to repeat last year's mistake, where a lack of commitment during preseason testing (possibly resulting from his flirtation with Ferrari and F1) meant that Yamaha arrived at the first race of the season with major chatter problems, and spent the first half of the season trying to fix it, rather than concentrating on defending Rossi's title. That is not a mistake he would like to make again, but already rumors are rife that Rossi will switch to the WRC world rally championship at the end of the 2007 season, after he's wrapped up the MotoGP title. The rumors have some authority, as Rally racing is Rossi's second passion, and he did reasonably well in the New Zealand WRC rally. But no matter what his long term plans are, it seems unlikely that Rossi won't focus on two wheels over the winter, as he wants the title back. Badly.
To underline his determination to regain his title, Rossi has found an entertaining artistic and pseudo-historical device: Excalibur appears on the front of his Yamaha, an allusion to the legendary sword of King Arthur. Unfortunately, The Doctor is no Doctor of old English myth and legend: The image of Excalibur is a reference to the story of the young Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, and earning the title of King of the Britons. But in most versions of the tale, Excalibur is the sword given to Arthur by the Lady in the Lake, after the sword taken from the stone, the one which made Arthur king, is broken in a fight with King Pellinore. I'm sure that Valentino Rossi won't let a little literary inaccuracy get in his way, but I can't see anyone giving The Doctor anything this year. But we know his mettle; he has shown it time and again. Sword or no sword, Valentino Rossi intends to be crowned king once again.
For the fans of Bob Hayes' great motorcycle racing podcast MotoGPOD, the podcast is back again! The podcast fell into neglect earlier this year after Bob, a military reservist, was called to active service. However, thanks to the valiant efforts of Jules Cisek (the driving force behind the RideOnTwo.com blog and forum) and Liam Shubert (a member of the Pramac d'Antin team, whose adventures you can read about on http://www.motoliam.com), MotoGPOD has been resurrected and is back on the internet. Jules and Liam are hoping to get the show back on a more regular basis, and keep it running until Bob returns from service and can start making the show again.
If you don't know the show, it's an informative discussion about all the stuff that's happening in MotoGP, and elsewhere in racing, with all sorts of background info and other tidbits thrown in for good measure. The latest episode features Liam Shubert giving us the lowdown on some of the testing that's being going on, and his thoughts on the new Honda RC212V.
And if you're a fan of motorcycle racing podcasts, there are two other shows you really want to catch: Rumblestrip Radio, an entertaining ramble around the world of motorcycling brought to you by "The Duke"; and the Soupkast</>, Superbikeplanet.com's inside dirt on all things related to motorcycle racing. If you have any other motorcycle racing or motorcycle-related podcast favorites, let me know, and we'll post them here.
In an interview with German Eurosport's MotorMagazin, KTM boss Stefan Pierer has stated categorically that they won't be returning to MotoGP any time soon. KTM had been linked with the Ilmor team, with rumors saying that KTM would take over the project from Mario Illien. However, after the disappointment of KTM's involvement with the Proton KR team, KTM are a lot more cautious about participation in premier class racing, conscious as they are of the very high costs involved.
Pierer admitted that there had been a brief conversation with Ilmor, but was dismissive of Ilmor's chances of success in MotoGP: "Without factory support, Ilmor don't stand a chance." He underlined his position by referring to the Ilmor X3's performance at the last two GPs and the winter tests conducted so far. "Their performance so far has failed to convince me", he said, expressing surprise that Ilmor's efforts have received such high praise elsewhere.
Pierer emphasized his committment to the smaller capacity classes, but also hinted at participation in World Superbikes, an option which will be viable with the launch of the RC8 sports bike, due some time next year: "At the end of the day, we want to present our products to our customers in competition", the KTM chief said.
Although MotoGP followers will have to wait for the news they are awaiting most eagerly, the Ilmor SRT rider line up for next year, one more piece of the Ilmor puzzle has been put in place today, with the announcement of Mike Janes as the Ilmor SRT Team Manager. Janes has a long background in motor racing, but all of it of the four-wheeled variety, having previously worked predominantly in Formula 1, including stints with Cosworth, Williams, Jaguar and Red Bull. The move comes as a surprise, as it was widely expected that Harald Eckl, who was fired by Kawasaki last month after rumors of Eckl spending too much time advising the Ilmor team, would be first in line for the Ilmor job.
According to the press release, the Ilmor rider line up will be announced later this week. Stay tuned.
Italian site MotoGrandPrix.it is carrying an official Camel press release stating that they are withdrawing from MotoGP sponsorship, leaving the official Yamaha factory team without a name sponsor. After earlier tobacco withdrawals (such as Fortuna and Winston in World Superbikes), it seems that big tobacco is abandoning motorcycle racing as advertising bans become ever stricter around the world. The press release gives no reason for the withdrawal, merely stating their gratitude to all concerned.
This begs the question of who will be sponsoring Yamaha next year. With Valentino Rossi, one of the biggest names in professional sports, you would expect potential sponsors to be lining up in droves to fund Yamaha. But so far, few names have been thronging for the hand of Rossi, Burgess and Edwards. Should any names surface, I'll post them here.
~~~ UPDATE ~~~
Racesport.nl is reporting that Yamaha stated that there is a strong chance that Yamaha may run the factory team under their own flag, without an external sponsor.
Ilmor today issued a statement on the condition of Jeremy McWilliams, who broke his leg and possibly fractured his collarbone in a high speed tumble during the final day of MotoGP testing at Jerez. The timing of McWilliams' injury is fortunate, coming as it does on the last day of testing before the MotoGP test ban comes into effect, preventing riders from testing between December 1st and January 20th. With McWilliams due to be unable to train for 4-5 weeks, the 8 week layoff will give him time to recover in time for a possible role within the Ilmor SRT team. Ilmor is due to announce their rider lineup for 2007 after the Jerz test, which has just concluded. How McWilliams' injury will affect his chances is hard to say.
The Ilmor press release is below:
Jeremy McWilliams Update
London 01.12.06: Ilmor are pleased to report that following his unfortunate crash yesterday (Thursday 30th) test rider Jeremy McWilliams is already on the road to recovery. McWilliams suffered a fracture to his left femur and has a suspected fracture to his collarbone, however speaking from the hospital this morning he sounded upbeat and very positive.
Commenting on the crash McWilliams said: "It was very fast and I took a bit of a tumble. The doctors here in Jerez have been great and they tell me that my leg fracture is really clean, it should take four to five weeks to heal - then Iâ€™ll be walking and able to take exercise again. I need to have an operation to have it pinned so Iâ€™ll be having that as soon as they have time to fit me in. Apparently I also have a broken collarbone but it doesnâ€™t feel like it to me. Oh and I will lose a part of one of my fingers but as I keep telling people, I broke that one before and it wasnâ€™t much use to me anyway!"
McWilliams went out on turn 4 at the Jerez circuit early yesterday afternoon on the third and final day of the official test. Initial data reports from the XÂ³ show nothing to suggest a mechanical error.
Team Owner Mario Illien said: "First and foremost Iâ€™m pleased that it seems there will be no lasting damage to Jeremy, of course we want to get to the nature of the cause of the incident as soon as possible and I know the team are analysing data and footage from the crash now. Prior to yesterday afternoon, both our test riders McWilliams and Pitt had done a sterling job providing us with superb feedback on the bike allowing the team to adjust the bikeâ€™s set up and improve on the overall performance. With the exception of yesterdayâ€™s accident it has been a good test for us, weâ€™re making progress. I would like to take this opportunity to wish Jeremy a very speedy recovery and Iâ€™m delighted, if a little shocked to hear him say heâ€™s looking forward to getting back out on the X3!"
Testing continues today at Jerez, where the weather gods are looking much more kindly upon MotoGP than yesterday, when much of the session was ruined by rain. Testing didn't get underway properly until lunchtime, due to parts of the track still being fairly damp from yesterday's rain, but by 2pm, everyone was out and riding. Motogp.com released the top 10 times as of 2pm, which are shown below. These times are not really representative of the state of play, with most of the riders having only put in some 10 laps or so. By the end of today, most will have put in 40 or 50, with varying set-ups and on different tires, which should give us a clearer picture of the relative standings within the paddock.
The top 10, as of 2pm:
1. Tady Okada, HRC - 1:41.857 (13 laps)
2. John Hopkins, Rizla Suzuki - 1:41.932 (10)
3. Valentino Rossi, Yamaha Factory Racing - 1:42.381 (15)
4. Dani Pedrosa, Repsol Honda - 1:42.794 (15)
5. Colin Edwards, Yamaha Factory Racing - 1:43.079 (6)
6. Loris Capirossi, Ducati Marlboro - 1:43.100 (8)
7. Casey Stoner, Ducati Marlboro - 1:43.150 (14)
8. Chris Vermeulen, Rizla Suzuki - 1:43.650 (9)
9. Marco Melandri, Gresini Honda - 1:43.861 (18)
10. Shinya Nakano, Konica Minolta Honda - 1:43.930 (14)
As widely expected, after Toni Elias appeared at Sepang with a large sticker on his screen, Gresini today announced a new sponsorship agreement with Taiwanese LCD manufacturer HANNspree. This is not HANNspree's first venture into motorcycle racing, as they earlier announced that they would be sponsoring the Ten Kate Honda team in World Superbikes, replacing another cigarette brand, Winston.
This agreement opens some interesting perspectives. First and foremost, it demonstrates that motorcycle racing is not as dependent upon tobacco sponsorship as it believes itself to be. Tobacco has always been an easy touch for motorsports in general, after being declared persona non grata by just about all other sports, and being banned from other forms of advertising. With more and more countries putting tobacco advertising bans in place for all sporting events, even motorsports are losing their attraction for tobacco sponsors. The one exception to this rule is currently Marlboro, who, because they have built a brand instantly recognizable by their colors alone, can afford to remove their brand name from sponsorship, and just carry their red and white colors.
The other noteworthy aspect of this agreement is the link with Ten Kate, the "official" Honda team in World Superbike. James Toseland's name has been linked very strongly with a move to MotoGP in the near future, and he was even in the frame for a ride with d'Antin Ducati for 2007, but he decided against moving to MotoGP for an uncompetitive ride. However, Dorna and the BBC would love to see the highly popular young Briton go to MotoGP, to enhance the series' popularity in the UK. And in lapping just over a second off MotoGP pace when he was given the opportunity to ride Dani Pedrosa's RC211V after the final Valencia MotoGP round, Toseland has shown that he is capable of being competive. With both Ten Kate and Gresini on bikes from the same manufacturer, funded by the same sponsor, a move to a competitive MotoGP ride just got a lot closer for Toseland.