Even before the 2010 MotoGP season began, it was clear that with the contracts of Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa, Jorge Lorenzo and Casey Stoner all coming to an end at the end of 2010, this year's silly season - the insanity of speculation, rumor and intrigue surrounding which rider will be going where from 2011 onwards - was going to be one of the most fevered in years. The background hum of rumors had already started last year, but now, the opening salvo has been fired in the Great Rider War of 2010.
At least, according to the excitable Italian press, that is. The Italian broadcaster Sportmediaset is reporting that Casey Stoner is the first domino to fall, having reportedly signed a contract with Honda for next season at Jerez. According to Sportmediaset, the move came about as a result of Stoner's close relationship with Livio Suppo, the former Ducati manager who moved over to HRC at the start of the 2010 season, to help Honda raise its sponsorship.
As plausible as the story is, there are a great many reasons to treat this report with healthy dose of scepticism. It is certainly true that Stoner's father and manager Colin was present at Jerez, and Stoner senior made no secret of the fact that he spoke to both Honda and Ducati at the Spanish MotoGP round. With all four of MotoGP's Fantastic Four available for next season, paddock consensus is that - as one insider put it - "you don't want to be the last one to jump." And Honda have made no secret of their interest in reviewing their current line up of Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso, and examining the other options available. In an interview to be published later this week, Yamaha Racing boss Lin Jarvis told MotoMatters.com that he expected Honda to make "early and aggressive" moves on the transfer market, which the swoop for Stoner would certainly fulfil.
However, earlier reports in the British press suggested that no deal had been done at Jerez. "We all know that [...] everbody will speak with everyone," Livio Suppo told Motorcycle News' Matt Birt last week. When contacted, Honda declined to comment on the situation, merely repeating Suppo's point that all of the top four riders would be out of contract at the end of the year. Ducati has also made it extremely clear that they are very keen to hang on to Casey Stoner, and making a decision after just two races would seem to be extremely premature.
Perhaps the clearest reason for treating the story on Sportmediaset with a couple of bushels of salt is that the report seems merely to be a vehicle for planting yet another Rossi-to-Ducati rumor. Though the headline is all about Casey Stoner's move to Honda, at least half of the story goes on to discuss a possible switch to Ducati by Valentino Rossi. According to Sportmediaset, Ducati have offered the 9 time world champion a two-year deal full of guarantees about both technical support and of Ducati's philosophical approach, which was the reason that Rossi turned down the Italian factory back in 2003, feeling that the focus was too much on the technology and not on the rider, an attitude which had persuaded him to leave Honda in the first place. Rossi would provide Ducati with a response by Mugello, on the first weekend of June.
Whether Casey Stoner really has signed with Honda remains to be seen, and will no doubt become clear in 10 days time when the MotoGP paddock reconvenes at Le Mans. The reports, though plausible, still seem just a little too much driven by Italian wishful thinking, rather than sober fact. As one paddock insider put it, "This is the problem with having two weeks between races. It leaves journalists with too much time on their hands..."