Yet more repercussions from Kawasaki's shock withdrawal from MotoGP. The Italian site GPOne.com is reporting that a meeting is being arranged for all of the manufacturers involved in MotoGP to discuss the crisis in the series. The meeting is due to be held early next week, with the date of January 7th being mentioned, and will include Ducati and Kawasaki, despite Kawasaki's intention to withdraw from the series.
The main business of the meeting will of course be cutting costs. GPOne says that a salary cap is one proposal which could be discussed, despite the measure having little or no success in other sports where it has been tried. The problem for 2009 is of course that budgets have already been committed and spending is already well underway: GPOne reports that despite their plans to pull out of MotoGP, Kawasaki have already spent some 6 million dollars on the 2009 season, money they will not see again.
Part of the problem is the fact that MotoGP is a prototype series, and there is no way to defray the costs. Though many have pointed to the World Superbike series as a much cheaper form of racing, they are conveniently neglecting the fact that the race teams pay only a fraction of the R&D costs which go into the bikes which race in the series. It is the buyers of the latest versions of liter sportsbikes who bear the brunt of the development costs, with race teams only left to shoulder the costs for tuning and developing the bikes within the narrow framework set out by the FIM rules.
FIM President Vito Ippolito has already suggested a way of addressing this problem. The Venezuelan FIM boss proposed a return to the policies of the 1970s and 80s, when factories produced "production prototypes", race bikes which they then sold to privateer teams, rather than the leasing arrangements which are the current vogue. The main obstacle to this proposal would be IMS, the body than runs World Superbikes. IMS, in the persons of the Flammini brothers, have a contract with the FIM for the sole rights to production motorcycle racing. Any blurring of the line between those two series would see a lot of expensive wrangling between IMS and Dorna about who is allowed to do what.
Whether the meeting of MotoGP manufacturers can come up with proposals to help solve the current financial crisis remains to be seen. The need for action to limit costs is clear. The question is, how do you do that without the measures you take either ruining racing, or even worse, backfiring and actually forcing up costs through something unforeseen?
In the hectic period since news of Kawasaki's withdrawal from MotoGP leaked out, speculation on the future of Team Green's riders has been widespread. Initial reports suggested that Marco Melandri would return to Gresini Honda, though there has also been talk of Melandri seriously considering World Superbikes as a viable alternative, while John Hopkins is widely predicted to either switch to the Tech 3 Yamaha squad, or else go back to Suzuki.
But now, the Italian site RacerGP.com is reporting another possible option for Melandri: It seems that Lucio Cecchinello of the LCR Honda team has already been in touch with Melandri to try and persuade the Italian to ride for him next year. Cecchinello's problem - and it is a considerable one - is that he would not be able to obtain two more bikes from Honda to support the usual team structure, where each team member has two machines, nor would he be able to afford the costs of running four bikes even if he could get the equipment from Honda.
Instead, Cecchinello has come up with an ingenious cost-cutting scheme whereby both Randy de Puniet and Marco Melandri would have one bike each. This would remove the expense of leasing extra equipment from Honda, as well as reducing the number of mechanics needed for each rider. Costs would further be cut by only attending test in Europe, saving the expense of the flyaway tests in Sepang, Qatar and Australia.
The disadvantages of such a scheme are obvious: If a rider crashes during practice, he would potentially face a long wait before he could get back out on track, as the bike would have to be returned to the pits, then repaired, instead of the rider just hopping on a scooter back to the pits and then leaping on his second bike. With Randy de Puniet's track record, that's a lot of lost track time. It would also mean more time spent sitting in the pits while the mechanics make changes to the bike, instead of having a second bike standing ready with revised settings - though as this is Casey Stoner's preferred method of working, it need not necessarily be unsuccessful. Finally, it would also leave both riders out of contention in flag-to-flag races. Instead of coming in and leaping on a different bike with rain tires, the wheels would have to be swapped and suspension altered, a time-consuming operation.
The other fact which has been heavily remarked upon is the silence of the MotoGP.com website on the Kawasaki situation. Part of this is down to the fact that all this has happened during the holiday season, which probably sees the Dorna offices at the very least seriously understaffed. But unverified reports from Spain indicate that, in an interview with a local radio station, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta said that he has been desperately trying to get through to Kawasaki in Japan to find out more about the situation. Ezpeleta told the radio station that they had not yet been informed officially, which is why he was trying to contact Japan.
Further unconfirmed reports also stated that the Nietos - who run the GFH team with Sete Gibernau - were trying to organize a third Ducati, to expand their team to 3 riders, including Niccolo Canepa, as we reported yesterday. The GFH team had originally wanted to field Fonsi Nieto on the second Ducati, but pressure from the Bologna factory left them with no option but to accept Canepa. However, a third bike would allow them to give Fonsi a ride after all. The problem, as ever, remains in persuading Ducati to provide the extra equipment. The smallest manufacturer is already providing the second highest number of machines, and making 6 bikes available would put them level with the mighty Honda.
Of course, as reader Jim Race pointed out, with John Hopkins available, and along with him a big pile of energy drink sponsorship, the question of why Ducati hasn't jumped all over the perfect marketing opportunity arises. After all, how could they refuse to support Monster Ducati?
More good news on the racing front, after Kawasaki's shock withdrawal from MotoGP. Team Green's pullout saw a wave of speculation in the media about who would follow. Among the names most mentioned were Suzuki's MotoGP team and Yamaha's World Supersport effort. There have been denials from Suzuki that they are under threat, but so far, no word had been forthcoming about Yamaha and their World Supersport program.
The team was considered vulnerable because of their conspicuous failure to win a world championship since 2000, despite having factory support, competitive equipment and proven riders. To make things worse, the team, based in Holland, were being regularly beaten by their compatriots Ten Kate Honda, a relatively modest effort only partially - and rather begrudgingly - supported by Honda in Japan.
But word has come today that Yamaha will be remaining in the World Supersport championship after all. The Dutch racing site Racesport.nl is reporting that Yamaha's WSS team boss and former racer Wilco Zeelenberg has denied rumors of a withdrawal. "It seems to me that as the team manager, I would be the first to be told that kind of news, but I haven't heard anything. We're signed up to race next season, though admittedly with a lower budget," Zeelenberg told Racesport. The Dutch website also contacted Yamaha's head of racing Laurens Klein Koerkamp, who also denied the reports of a withdrawal.
It's hard to underestimate the impact of the shocking news yesterday that Kawasaki will be pulling out of MotoGP. And today, more bad news about teams arrives, only this time, accompanied by good news.
The bad news is that, according to Spanish sports daily AS.com, the Pramac Ducati team will only field 1 rider next year, the Finn Mika Kallio. The move has been forced as a result of Alice, the Italian telecoms sponsor, withdrawing its sponsorship from the Pramac team, leaving the satellite Ducati squad short of cash.
The good news is that this will not leave Niccolo Canepa, Ducati's promising young test rider, out of a job. The same paper is also reporting that the young Italian will be a team mate to Sete Gibernau in the Grupo Francisco Hernando team, better known as Onde 2000 in the 125 and 250 classes, run by the Nieto cousins. Despite the global recession, money is still no object for the GFH team, the personal project of Francisco "El Pocero" Hernando, a Spanish property tycoon whose career has been surrounded by allegations of corruption: From the very beginning of the project, "Paco" Hernando had wanted to field a two-bike team, stating that he was willing to make the budget available.
At first turned down by Ducati, now, Hernando will get his way. With both Canepa and Gibernau, the GFH team now has both a seasoned veteran and a talented youngster, and Canepa could well profit from Gibernau's experience.
Though the saving of Canepa by Francisco Hernando is good for MotoGP, it's not quite so good for Africa. Part of the sponsorship for the GFH team involves promoting a project being built by Hernando in Equatorial Guinea, one of Africa's most corrupt countries, coming 151st out of 163 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index in 2006. Hernando is building a luxury vacation complex in the country for the Spanish tourist market, and as a former Spanish colony, and a country where most of the population speak Spanish, Equatorial Guinea would seem like an ideal location. Of course, just how profitable it is to do business with a corrupt regime, run by a man who a prominent US journalist described as "Africa's worst dictator, worse than Robert Mugabe" remains to be seen. Money may be tight in MotoGP, but sometimes you have to wonder if there are some things which are more important than motorcycle racing.
The withdrawal of Kawasaki from MotoGP - which Ian Wheeler, the team's press officer has told Motorsport-Total.com that he knows nothing about - is likely to blow the MotoGP riders market completely open once again. With the MotoGP merry-go-round seemingly all done and dusted before the end of the season, the sudden availability of two big name riders is likely to have satellite team managers consulting their lawyers.
Of the Kawasaki pairing of John Hopkins and Marco Melandri, Hopper is likely to be the name most in demand. Hopkins is the rider carrying the Monster Energy sponsorship, and with Kawasaki out, Monster's budget is likely to go to whoever signs the American. And in a time of hardship, that money will be very welcome indeed.
The most probable casualty of the Hopkins / Monster duo is Colin Edwards. The Texan's position in the Tech 3 Yamaha squad had already become less certain after Bridgestone were awarded the single tire contract for MotoGP. Edwards has been closely associated with Michelin for a very long time, and was their lead development rider in MotoGP until their forced withdrawal. With the tire development role gone, along with the Michelin money which was said to be funding Tech 3, Herve Poncharal may feel that Hopkins and his Monster millions are a far more attractive proposition.
The problem for Poncharal is that Edwards is not in the employ of the Tech 3 Yamaha team, but has a contract with Yamaha directly. Consequently, Poncharal has less control over the hiring and firing of the Texan than he may wish. And with Yamaha seats in the other major racing series all filled, it may prove difficult to convince Edwards to move elsewhere.
Another possibility is of course that Yamaha supply a bike to a new satellite team, set up especially for Hopkins. There are plenty of experienced team managers available, and men such as Sito Pons have made no secret of their desire to return to the premier class in one form or another. Though Monster Energy's sponsorship was nowhere near enough to cover all of Kawasaki's costs, it is likely enough to fund a satellite team with relative ease.
The one thing blocking such a move would be Yamaha's policy of keeping the satellite bikes and the factory machines as close in spec as possible. Paradoxically, this helps to keep costs down, as the engineers in Yamaha's racing department can focus on a single bike, and not have to support multiple specs of machine for extended periods. Adding a fifth bike would make this policy more difficult to maintain, and was one of the reasons Yamaha spurned the advances of Jorge Martinez when he came looking for a bike to field Alvaro Bautista on earlier in the year.
As for Marco Melandri, the rider likely to be losing the most sleep at the moment will be Alex de Angelis. The San Marinese rider had a commendable, if not exactly explosive, rookie season, but did enough to secure his seat for this year. However, Fausto Gresini, boss of the eponymous Honda satellite squad, made no secret of his desire to have Melandri back riding for him, and it looked for a long time that the Italian would end up back in the team he'd left a year previously. In the end, though, Melandri decided that the best way of ensuring full support from a factory is by riding for the factory team, leading him to finally sign for Kawasaki instead.
Melandri must surely regret that decision now, but Gresini will not. Melandri is still a much bigger draw in Italy than de Angelis, and Gresini's sponsors - an Italian snack company - would have no compunction in welcoming Melandri back.
But it would not be all good news for Gresini. Signing Melandri would open up for discussion the question of who will get the factory support from HRC. When Toni Elias signed for Gresini, he stipulated that he would only ride the satellite Honda if he was given factory-level equipment, a promise honored by Gresini and HRC. But with Melandri back, both Gresini and HRC may feel that Melandri should be getting the hot HRC parts rather than Elias, and the situation could easily descend into internal strife, and sure to erupt into the pages of the Spanish and Italian press.
But neither of these proposals are anywhere near being a foregone conclusion. There are already rumors emerging that Kawasaki's withdrawal saw Jorge Martinez immediately on the phone to Kawasaki and Carmelo Ezpeleta at Dorna. Martinez is almost certain to try and resurrect his Aspar MotoGP project, which saw him trying to get Alvaro Bautista into MotoGP in 2009. Bautista is now tied up in 250, and set on trying to win the world championship he missed out on in 2008, but Martinez may instead try and secure the services of John Hopkins instead.
With the money from Monster Energy, and the return of their prodigal son, Hopper having ridden for the marque between 2003 and 2007, Suzuki could well be persuaded to field a third bike for Hopper. What's more, the Monster millions could also help fund Suzuki's own ailing MotoGP effort, with contract discussions still ongoing with Rizla about a sponsorship extension for 2009.
But if attempts to keep either or both men in MotoGP fail, the big winner in all of this could well be World Superbikes. Both men would be welcomed with open arms into the rival series, where fielding extra machines for riders can be done at a fraction of the cost of MotoGP equipment. MotoGP is already in some trouble, with Kawasaki's withdrawal leaving just 4 manufacturers in the series. World Superbikes, on the other hand, will see 7 manufacturers field factory or near-factory teams, with an 8th (KTM) waiting in the wings for its RC8R project to start yielding results. In the battle between Dorna and Infront Motor Sports, Dorna's position is looking weaker and weaker.
The extremely well-informed Spanish magazine Motociclismo.es is reporting that Kawasaki's withdrawal from MotoGP has been made official. The factory has sent a letter to Dorna and the other factories announcing their withdrawal, and giving some explanation. The full public announcement is expect on Monday, January 5th 2009, according to Autosport.com.
More news once it becomes available.
After Honda announced its shock withdrawal from Formula One, it was feared that this was just a premonition of what could happen in other forms of motorsports. Initially, reports from Spain suggested that Honda would pull out of MotoGP as well, despite the program costing only a fraction of the costs involved in Formula One. But once Takeo Fukui's end-of-year speech as Honda CEO passed without any mention of MotoGP, the hearts of MotoGP fans were reassured: MotoGP was safe for now.
But further announcements were far from reassuring: Suzuki announced that it was pulling out of its (far from successful) World Rally Championship, a move then followed by Subaru, a brand which is inextricably linked with the sport. Days later, Toyota announced drastic cost cutting in its Formula One program, though the optimists took comfort in the fact that this was not a withdrawal.
Speculation continued around what all this would mean for MotoGP. With Honda seemingly safe, and Yamaha and Ducati positively enthusiastic about the series, attention turned to the lame ducks of MotoGP, Suzuki and Kawasaki. No word has yet been heard from Suzuki, though the extension of the sponsorship deal with Rizla is taking a worryingly long time to be confirmed, though Suzuki team bosses profess that they are unconcerned. But as a (semi-) regular visitor to the podium - including a victory for Chris Vermeulen in 2007 - the team has at least had some success over the years.
The same cannot be said for Kawasaki. The Japanese firm's fortunes have been in a downward spiral since the beginning of 2007, with last year being the absolute nadir. Ant West fought a long and hard battle for last place with Marco Melandri every race, while West's team mate John Hopkins - said to have joined Kawasaki for a multi-million dollar fee - spent all year fighting to finish in the top 10. And earlier this year, Kawasaki's technical chief Ichiro Yoda admitted to the press that he had been told by Kawasaki that he had one more year to produce a motorcycle capable of better results, or he would be looking for a job.
Now, though, press reports from one of Italy's many sports daily's Tuttosport suggest that Kawasaki have decided not to wait that long. Tuttosport is saying that Kawasaki has already decided to withdraw from MotoGP, and that the riders and team have already been informed, pending an official announcement. Yoshio Kawamura, head of Kawasaki Racing, is said to have informed Hopkins and Melandri personally.
So far, no confirmation has been forthcoming, though ominously, nobody from the team has been available for comment. The holiday season may well be a perfectly reasonable explanation for this, but then again, it may just be that the team members are under strict instructions not to speak to the press until after an official announcement has been made.
The major question mark hanging over these reports is the Monster Energy deal. The American energy drink giant is a huge supporter of motorcycle racing in various guises, and has especially close ties with Kawasaki, the two brands conveniently sharing the same corporate colors. Monster signed up to support the Kawasaki MotoGP team for two years - 2008 and 2009 - and so was expecting to support the team for at least another year.
But such contracts usually have an out-clause somewhere. And with a big name American in John Hopkins, Monster were surely not expecting to see their millions of dollars going unnoticed way down the field. But Kawasaki's failure, for whatever reason, to produce a competitive motorcycle may provide Monster with exactly the reason they had been looking for to get out of their two-year deal.
There is also the question of exactly how much money the Monster Energy deal brought to Kawasaki. Exact numbers were - as ever - not released, but it is unlikely that Monster's contribution covered Kawasaki's entire budget, as is believed to be the case with Repsol and Honda. Most likely, the deal covered John Hopkins sizable salary and some of the team's expenses, which is one of the reasons that Kawasaki looked to cheaper options for their second rider in 2007.
With the arrival of Marco Melandri alongside Hopkins, Kawasaki's wage bill will have grown substantially. Though the Italian superstar had a disastrous season aboard the factory Ducati in 2008, he is still a huge name in Italy, and a big crowd puller. Monster's sponsorship dollars may be going less far than last season towards covering the costs of racing in motorcycle's premier class.
With the global financial crisis in full swing, and motorcycle sales expected to fall - though not as badly as car sales - Kawasaki may have decided that they simply could not afford to pour tens of millions of dollars into a project which saw them so publicly humiliated. And despite the fact that Kawasaki Heavy Industries is one of the largest companies in the world, building everything from bullet trains to rockets to supertankers to earth moving equipment to, yes, motorcycles, each arm of the corporation is financially independent, with little or no cross subsidy between the various branches. So Kawasaki's racing program is entirely dependent on selling more motorcycles, a feat which their conspicuous failure in almost every branch of motorcycle sport they participate in has surely made more difficulty.
Kawasaki's possible withdrawal could also mean trouble for Dorna. With Kawasaki gone, the number of entrants would fall to 17, below the minimum said to be guaranteed in contracts with the FIM. And this late in the game, with just a few months to go to the start of the season, it would be very difficult for Dorna to persuade another manufacturer to make up the shortfall. With Honda, Ducati and Yamaha supplying 6, 5 and 4 bikes respectively, the only real room for expansion is with Suzuki. But as stated before, the future of Suzuki's participation is far from certain, so persuading the Hamamatsu factory to enter an extra machine is almost laughably unlikely.
So far, however, no official statement has been forthcoming from Kawasaki, and until it does anything could happen. Stay tuned.
~~~ UPDATE ~~~
The eternally well-informed Autosport is reporting that Marco Melandri has heard nothing from Kawasaki. This directly contradicts the reports from Tuttosport, which said that Melandri had already been told by Kawamura.
Christmas may have come and gone, but the new year hasn't started yet, and so there is still time to order the 2009 MotoGPMatters.com Motorcycle Racing Calendar. Any orders placed this weekend for shipping to the US and Europe should be received before the start of 2009, if the storms lashing parts of North America and some areas in Europe don't hold the post up too much.
Antipodean motorcycle racing fans may be enjoying the Southern Hemisphere summer, but may have to wait a little longer for orders to reach their shores. But though you may spend the first few days of 2009 without the beautiful photography of Scott Jones, you won't have missed out on a key feature of the calendar: the full schedule of MotoGP and World Superbike rounds, starting in March and finishing in November. It's a vital tool when planning vacations, trips to races and your life in general.
If you really need the calendar in a hurry, or if you live outside of North America, Australia, South Africa or Europe, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with your enquiry, and we'll answer your questions about the cost of express shipping, shipping to South America, the Middle East, etc.
Featuring a host of gorgeous photographs by Scott Jones, as well as a full listing of MotoGP and World Superbike weekends clearly marked on each month, it's the perfect schedule planner for motorcycle racing fans who don't want to miss the best racing on the planet. Printed using a four-color offset process, providing rich and beautiful photographs, the calendar measures 11" by 8.5", or 11" by 17" when folded out, with a photograph above a month grid.
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The relative fortunes of MotoGP and World Superbikes seem to swing back and forth like a pendulum over the years. As the popularity and profile of one series wanes, the other seems to grow to take its place.
Since the advent of the 990cc MotoGP bikes - or perhaps since the advent of Valentino Rossi to the premier class, two years earlier - it has been MotoGP which has taken its turn in the sun, the coming of the four strokes causing an exodus of talent from the World Superbike class. This inflow of talent into MotoGP also coincided with a number of developments in World Superbikes which added to the decline of the production-based class. Michelin dominated the series, supplying only a handful of riders, and making the racing predictable. After FGSport, the organizers of the series, decided to go to a spec tire, handing the contract to Pirelli, the Japanese factories - already only sparsely represented - withdrew their support, leaving World Superbikes to make the epithet "Ducati Cup" even more deserved.
But as the implications of an earlier rule change upping the permitted capacity for four cylinder bikes to 1000cc started to tempt the Japanese factories back to the series, the racing started to improve. Then with the return to the series of Troy Bayliss in 2006, and the coming of Max Biaggi in 2007, the popularity of World Superbikes started to wax once again, soon threatening to eclipse MotoGP. World Superbikes' rise was helped along by the dismal racing produced by the new 800cc formula in MotoGP, as a combination of smaller engine capacity, much tighter fuel restrictions, and the arrival of a new breed of rider more interested in riding with surgical precision than engaging in armed combat saw the races become increasingly processional, and lose much of the element of competition.
And it isn't just the fans who are showing more interest in World Superbikes: Interest is growing in the MotoGP paddock as well. The latest round of speculation was started by Valentino Rossi, who, it transpired after the event, had tried and failed to arrange a wildcard appearance at the final round of the World Superbike series at the magnificent Portimao circuit in Portugal. He repeatedly expressed his admiration for the close racing which the World Superbike series throws up - though ironically, an unleased Troy Bayliss dominated both races in Portugal - and has repeatedly stated his desire to take part in a World Superbike race at some point in the future.
Since failing to get a wildcard at Portugal, Rossi changed tack, attempting to organize a showdown with - now retired - Troy Bayliss at one of the two opening World Superbike rounds at Qatar or Phillip Island. So far, Rossi has failed to get his way, with Ducati chief Davide Tardozzi currently the main fly in the ointment. Bayliss has expressed an interest (though at an asking fee of a million pounds, one that comes at a price), but has for the most part held off the boat. Meanwhile, both Ducati's Tardozzi and Yamaha's racing chief Laurens Klein Koerkamp have played down the possibility of such a clash, as it would cast a fairly substantial spanner in their carefully laid plans for both World Superbikes and MotoGP.
But Valentino Rossi's status both inside and outside of motorcycle racing means that what Rossi wants, Rossi usually gets, with only a very few exceptions in the past. As much as Yamaha would hate Rossi to be racing in March, and risking an injury which could seriously hamper his title defence, the chances of the Japanese factory actually preventing Rossi from racing in World Superbikes are vanishingly small. That would leave the small matter of Troy Bayliss' fee, but if World Superbike organizer IMS and MotoGP promoter Dorna are smart, they would put together a special TV deal for something likely to be billed as the greatest sporting event since Muhammad Ali took on George Foreman in the legendary "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire in 1974. Such an event could help elevate motorcycle racing to the levels of Formula 1 and beyond.
Now, along with all the commotion over Rossi vs Bayliss, another star from the world of MotoGP has thrown yet more fuel on the World Superbike fire. The Italian magazine Moto Sprint carried an interview with Marco Simoncelli, in which the 250cc World Champion expressed his intention to race the first two rounds of the World Superbike series aboard the Aprilia RSV4. Simoncelli tested the RSV4 earlier at Valencia, and was up to speed very quickly indeed, proving that he could be competitive almost from the start.
Simoncelli's interest in World Superbikes is being actively encouraged by Aprilia, who stand to lose the young Italian at the end of the year if he decides to leave the 250s and move up to MotoGP. Without any current involvement in the MotoGP class, and none likely in the immediate future, Aprilia don't have a career path to offer to the young talent they keep nurturing through the 125 and 250 series. But with their new RSV4 superbike, the Italian factory can now offer riders something beyond the smaller classes in MotoGP.
Aprilia's efforts to guide Simoncelli towards World Superbikes are also likely meant as a snub to Dorna. Aprilia and KTM, the only two factories seriously involved in the 250 class, both feel extremely poorly treated over the new 600cc four-stroke class due to replace the 250s in 2011. Neither factory has a 600cc offering, and neither factory has an interest in taking on the Japanese in a format which the Japanese have dominated for over a decade. KTM expressed their dissatisfaction with the changes to the 250 class by pulling out with immediate effect at the end of the 2008 season. Aprilia's attempt to lure Simoncelli into World Superbikes could be their - more subtle, and more devious - way of expressing their unhappiness at the situation.
While Aprilia's motivation is clear, many people are still questioning Valentino Rossi's interest in the rival series. Why, they ask, would a man who looks set to dominate MotoGP again, as he did from 2001-2005, step away from motorcycle racing's premier series, and the place which consolidates his position as the best motorcycle racer in the world? There is a good deal of talk about Rossi's annoyance at not winning the coveted "Casca d'Oro" or Golden Helmet award, given by the Italian magazine Moto Sprint to the best rider of the year, the award going instead to Troy Bayliss. Rossi, they claim, wishes to point out to Moto Sprint the error of their ways, and underline his motorcycle racing supremacy.
But this ignores the fact that when Rossi faced Bayliss in MotoGP, Bayliss only ever beat Rossi once, at the legendary final 990cc race at Valencia in 2006, when Bayliss returned as a wildcard, and where Rossi lost the title to Nicky Hayden. Though Rossi was, for the most part, on superior machinery to Bayliss, the Italian comprehensively beat the Australian way beyond what just equipment should account for.
So if not revenge, then what? As most MotoGP fans are aware, Valentino Rossi is an avid student of the history of motorcycle racing, and keenly aware of his place in it. The records are running out for Rossi in MotoGP: another two titles and he will be level with the great Giacomo Agostini, and he is less than 30 wins away from his compatriot's total of 122 wins in all classes, a total once thought completely out of reach.
With fresh challenges drying up in MotoGP, Rossi could well be turning his attention to World Superbikes, seeing a whole new record-breaking chapter in motorcycle history beckoning. No one has yet won both titles, a record Rossi would dearly like to claim for himself. Then there's Carl Fogarty's total of 59 wins in World Superbikes: with 2 races each weekend, and 14 rounds every year, Rossi must regard that as an achievable target, given 3 or 4 years in the series. Rossi's MotoGP contract with Yamaha runs until the end of 2010, after which he has said that at 32 years of age, he will probably be too old to continue racing in MotoGP. Having seen Troy Bayliss retire at 39 years old, still at the top of his game, Rossi is likely to feel he could have a long term future in World Superbikes once he gets too old for MotoGP.
If Rossi does go to World Superbikes, this will leave Dorna with a huge problem. The promoters tasked with organizing the MotoGP series are already seriously worried about what will happen once Rossi decides to retire, but had so far comforted themselves with the thought that the sport's biggest name would most likely head off to the relative obscurity of the World Rally Championship, leaving Dorna to find and promote a new fan favorite in his absence.
But if Rossi heads off to a rival motorcycle racing series, that changes everything. If Rossi going to Formula 1 would have been bad enough, The Doctor switching to World Superbikes is the very stuff of nightmares. All those terrestrial broadcasters which Dorna has so carefully courted into covering his series at a very healthy fee could well decide that their audience figures would be best served by doing business with the Flammini brothers rather than Dorna. Carmelo Ezpeleta is likely to be losing sleep over this one for quite some time to come.
The FIM released a set of rule changes on Friday, for both the MotoGP and World Superbike series. For World Superbikes, the biggest change was the abolition - or rather, the change of format - of Superpole, switching to a Formula 1 style knock-out qualifying format. The bulk of the rule changes in MotoGP were of course the new tire regulations, but there were also a number of changes to the sporting regulations, to be applied to both series.
Perhaps the most eagerly awaited of the rule changes were the changes to the tire regulations. These have now been modified to specify exactly how the single tire supplier situation will work, and it is clear that a great deal of effort has gone into ensuring that the rule is applied as fairly as possible. The most prominent example of this effort is the fact that tires will be allocated to the riders at random, and by Race Direction's Technical Director, to avoid any favoritism either by the tire company or at the behest of a particular team or rider. Otherwise, the rules are very much as had been predicted and discussed after the single tire rule was announced.
There will now officially be a single tire supplier. The tire supplier must make sure that they can supply enough tires for everyone, and that everyone will receive the same spec and same number of tires.
Tires will be selected at random and distributed by the Technical Director.
Tires are allocated to riders individually. If a rider is replaced due to injury, the rider drafted in to replace that rider will have to use the tires supplied to the rider they replace. In other words, if you break an arm on Friday afternoon, your replacement won't get to choose any new tires, but will be left with what remains of your allocation.
Each rider will have an allocation of 20 slick tires at each race weekend. There will be 2 different specifications ("A" and "B") available (most likely one harder specification, one softer). The allocation will be divided up as follows:
- 4 "A" fronts
- 4 "B" fronts
- 6 "A" rears
- 6 "B" rears
Each rider will have an allocation of 8 wet tires for each weekend: 4 fronts and 4 rears. There will only be a single wet-weather tire specification. If it rains in every session, then the riders will get 1 extra set of wets for the race.
Although no mention was made of intermediate tires in either the old regulations or in the new rules, there is a passage in the new rules which basically rules them out. Under the new regulations, only the tires supplier can cut tires, and any alterations to tires for one rider must be made identically available for all riders. As the rule stands, intermediate tires will only be cut from the available slicks if the tire supplier decides it is necessary, and the tire supplier must supply exactly the same tires for all riders. That basically means no individual rider is able to ask for intermediate tires any more.
The testing regulations have also been amended, to limit the number of tests which will take place, as well as limit the number of tires available at each test.
Testing during the season will be limited to 5 post-race tests. These test will only last one day (previously, they were usually two days at least). Testing during the winter (i.e. after the end of one and before the start of the next season), teams and riders will be limited to participating in 5 official IRTA / Dorna tests. What's more, riders will be limited to 12 days' testing in total during the winter.
At the one-day post-race tests, each rider will have 8 slick tires and 4 wet tires available. The slicks will be available as 2 fronts and 2 rears in both A and B specs, and wets will be 2 fronts and 2 rears.
At the winter tests, tire allowances are a little more complicated. On day 1, the allowance is the same as for the post-race tests (8 slick tires). On day 2 and subsequent days, the allowance is 6 slick tires, 3 fronts and 3 rears, in any combination of specifications. Riders will be also allowed 4 wet tires per day (2 front, 2 rear), and a maximum of 8 wet tires for the entire test.
If the tire supplier wants to test new specification tires at official tests, they have to supply at least all of the factory riders with the new tires. And plenty of notice is required: The teams have to be told 2 months in advance of any such test of a new tire specification.
As previously, the tire company can continue to run tire tests using a test team. If they wish to test at a circuit due to organize a race, they can hold a 2-day test there at least 4 weeks before the event. Any riders participating in the test may not race at the event. This is worthy of note, because it would have prevented Ben Spies from competing at Indianapolis, as he tested the Suzuki during the Indy tire test prior to the inaugural Indy MotoGP round.
One other rule change is worth mentioning. Practice starts are once again allowed, after having been banned during last season. We are back to the situation where we were before the previous rule change, where practice starts are allowed off the racing line after the session has finished.
125 And 250
In addition to rule changes for the MotoGP class, there are a number of changes to the 125 and 250 classes as well. For both classes, qualifying practice will now only take place on Saturday, as is the rule for MotoGP currently. Previously, qualifying was held on both Friday and Saturday, but Friday qualifying is now officially scrapped.
There has been talk that this could be the first step on the way to scrapping the Friday altogether, in an attempt to cut costs, but as has been pointed out elsewhere, this would have very little effect. Currently, the contracts with the circuits are for all 3 days, and a single night's accommodation for the entire team would not be such a huge saving.
In addition, for the 125s, the number of bikes available to each rider has been reduced to just 1, a measure which was taken to reduce costs by reducing the number of machines a team would need. Sadly, the likelihood of this actually being effective at cutting costs is negated by the allowances made for an "irreparably damaged" bike.
If a bike is "irreparably damaged", then the team may be allowed to use a second bike, at the discretion of the Race Direction. What this will mean in practice is that teams will invariably be forced to have a second bike available at the race track, in case the first one is damaged. The net result is likely to be very small indeed: a competitive team will still have to have two bikes, it's just that only one of them will be actually being used at any particular event.
As previously announced, the big change for the World Superbike series is the introduction of a different system of qualifying. Instead of a single lap, there will be 3 sessions of 12 minutes each. At the end of the 1st session, the 4 slowest riders will be taken off the track, leaving 12 riders on track. After the 2nd session, another 4 riders will be taken off the track, leaving 8 riders to battle it out for the front two rows of the grid.
After a couple of high-profile oil incidents last year, the rules also recommend that a red oil warning light be fitted to the dash. And any rider causing practice or a race to be stopped due to an oil spill will be punished by either a fine, disqualification, withdrawal of championship points or even suspension, depending on the severity of the transgression.
The FIM also announced that a full set of technical regulations would be announced on January 1st, 2009.
There were also a couple of tweaks to the sporting rules governing both the MotoGP and the World Superbike series, to try and bring the rules governing both series more into line with one another.
The first rule is a slight alteration to the 107% qualification rule. If riders don't manage to get inside 107% during qualifying, they'll be allowed to participate in the race if they have already set a time within 107% at some time during the event.
And there was also a slight relaxation of the telemetry rules. Teams can now receive GPS data from the bikes, and they can also receive TV signals, but TV only as managed by organizer's TV crew.
Finally, there is the introduction of what should probably be called the "Simoncelli Clause". Riders must now wear a helmet all the way back to the pits, an infraction for which Marco Simoncelli was fined after he won the 250cc world title at Sepang.