Here's an interesting question: If you had to guess which country had the most MotoGP fans, which one would you choose? The first countries that spring to mind in association with motorcycle racing are always Spain and Italy, and as Italy is the bigger country, and what's more, MotoGP is more popular than even soccer, a sport which drives the Italians into a frenzy, then the answer must be Italy, right?
Wrong. Though the Italians and Spanish are clearly MotoGP-mad, they're not the biggest fans. According to Google Trends, which maps searches and news items from Google searches from around the world, the country with the most MotoGP maniacs is Indonesia.
In its advantage, the population of the Southeast Asian republic is around 240 million, as opposed to 40 million in Spain and 60 million in Italy, but as these statistics are based on searches on Google, what is important is not population, but internet penetration. According to the Internet World Stats website, Indonesia has 25 million internet users, the same number as Spain, while Italy has some 33 million internet users. And according to the Google Trends statistics, Indonesians search for "motogp" approximately 3 times as often as Italians, and search for "moto gp" some 40% more often than Italians.
Italy finished second in the MotoGP search stakes, ahead of their eternal rivals Spain, while Hungary was the country with the fourth largest number of MotoGP-related searches - possibly a reflection of the growing popularity of the sport there and the success of former 125 champion Gabor Talmasci.
Australians were the biggest English-speaking MotoGP fans, coming in seventh ahead of the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The United States doesn't appear in the top 10, despite having a staggering 220 million internet users, so clearly, there's a lot of work to do for Dorna to popularize the sport.
MotoGP's huge popularity in Indonesia may help explain why Dorna is so keen to keep staging rounds in Asia, which would seem to suggest that the Sepang round is safe for the time being. But a return to Sentul, the track some 20 miles south of the Indonesian capital Jakarta which hosted races in 1996 and 1997 may yet be a profitable option.
Since the global financial crisis struck home in MotoGP, and indeed all forms of motor racing, the dominant theme of all and any news about MotoGP has been about the need for the series to cut costs. There has been no shortage of ideas from team owners, journalists and Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, all of which have included various proposals for rule changes, some more radical than the next.
The one group we hadn't heard from is perhaps the most important group, the engineers and bike designers. Fortunately, Motorcycle News' Matthew Birt had the bright idea of talking to Filippo Preziosi, the technical genius behind the Ducati Desmosedici bike which carried Casey Stoner to a championship in 2007 and 2nd place in 2008.
Preziosi's responses make absolutely clear the problems faced by anyone attempting to use the rulebook to cut costs: "Every modification to the rules pushed us to spend more money," he told MCN. He points out that every change to the rules forced the engineers to find ways to exploit the new rules as efficiently as possible, and try and get the most out of the new situation. All that R&D costs large amounts of money, and drastically pushes up costs.
The same holds true for any attempt to limit electronics, according to Preziosi. More money would be spent examining how to take advantage of a new rules package, and costs would go up. What's more, the Italian engineering genius points out, the rules would be almost impossible to police.
Preziosi's comments are interesting to us here at MotoGPMatters.com, because they fall in line with things we've been saying for several weeks now. As we pointed out in our series of articles on cost in MotoGP, the proposals being put forward by various commentators around the world would be more likely to increase costs rather than cut them.
And Preziosi's answer to controlling costs in MotoGP? Simple: "If we want to keep the costs under control the best thing to do is try and freeze the rules and have some stability," he told MCN. Rule changes are what got MotoGP into the parlous state it is in. More rule changes are only going to make things worse.
The Kawasaki story isn't the only drama that is playing itself out in MotoGP at the moment. Though the factory Ducati team is able to raise extra money almost at will, the Pramac team has been suffering since the withdrawal of its title sponsor, the Italian telecoms company Alice.
Things were thought to be so bad that speculation mounted that Pramac would only be able to field a single bike for Mika Kallio. It was rumored that Niccolo Canepa would take the other bike to Sete Gibernau's Grupo Francisco Hernando team, as the Spanish property magnate has spoken openly of his willingness to pour money into the MotoGP team.
Now, the well-connected Ducati fan site DucatiCorseFriends.com is carrying a statement that this is not the case. Members of the Pramac team told DCF that Canepa would be staying with Pramac.
This does not necessarily mean that both Kallio and Canepa would be wearing the same colors. Team manager Paolo Campinoti has suggested on several occasions that the two riders could bear the logos of different sponsors. And there has been a good deal of speculation that Grupo Francisco Hernando could be one of the sponsors interested in appearing on a Pramac Ducati. The deal would allow GFH to get greater coverage for the African dictatorship where it is building the vacation resort the sponsorship is aimed at promoting, at a much reduced investment.
The Kawasaski saga rumbles on, and it seems to be drawing closer to a conclusion. And sadly for MotoGP and Kawasaki fans, it's looking more and more like the conclusion will be both literal and figurative.
Today, Michael Bartholemy is in Japan for talks with Kawasaki bosses about the level of support they can provide should the Belgian decide to try and run the Kawasaki ZX-RR Ninja MotoGP machines inside a private team structure. Previously, Kawasaki told Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta that they only had enough parts to see out 25% of the season, and would not be able to handle engine development or maintenance. But Bartholemy has stated that he has found a French company which could handle at least some of that work, though no specific companies have been mentioned. If he can persuade Kawasaki to hand over the entire MotoGP operation to this French company, then there is a possibility that the team could be saved.
But it is also clear that this is the final hope for seeing Kawasakis - or whatever they might end up being called - on the grid. Originally, Jorge Martinez, boss of the Aspar team, was linked with taking over the Kawasaki bikes. This would have been a viable option, as Martinez has proven time and time again that he is capable of raising sponsorship to cover the costs. His price, however, is that he runs a Spanish rider, as his sponsorship is almost invariably aimed at the Spanish domestic market.
Now though Carmelo Ezpeleta has confirmed to Motorcycle News what had been circulating for a while: the fact that Aspar was not interested in a deal with Kawasaki under the terms that Kawasaki was offering. The Spaniard had previously stated that he was only interested in a three-year deal which included guarantees that the bike would continue to be developed. But Ezpeleta today confirmed to MCN that that deal was off the table, and that Martinez was not interested in the deal as it stands.
Marco Melandri told the press earlier this week that he expected to hear the final outcome of the talks by January 31st. The chances of Melandri spending a year on the sidelines, watching a 17-bike grid are increasing almost daily.
Since Kawasaki announced that they were pulling out of MotoGP, many gigabytes of online storage have been used up on speculating about the future of John Hopkins and Marco Melandri. But for the most part, it has been nothing but speculation, with little or nothing heard from the protagonists themselves. Hopkins posted a brief statement on his personal website on New Year's Eve, stating that he was as much in the dark as everyone else, but his erstwhile team mate, Marco Melandri remained silent.
Until today: At an impromptu press conference in a cafe in Milan, Marco Melandri finally spoke to the Italian press about his future, and what he expects to be doing next year. The Italian told the assembled journalists that he would know more about exactly what is happening next week. "I'll be getting a phone call from Michael Bartholemy next Wednesday," Melandri said, "to tell us whether he expects to run the Kawasakis in a private team next year. Then on the 31st, I'll get a proposal from Kawasaki in Japan, about whether I will get my full salary, a golden handshake or nothing. I'm hoping the proposal isn't to go work in a shop in Japan," he joked.
As for his future in motorcycle racing, Melandri said it was all still up in the air. He discounted a return to Gresini: "I contacted them after reading about it in the press, but they don't have the funds to provide an extra bike," Melandri said. But the Italian was emphatic about only accepting a competitive ride. "What's for sure is that I won't race on an uncompetitive bike (the 2008 Kawasaki, Ed.) nor am I thinking about other series such as Superbikes. Maybe I'll sit out a year and return in 2010."
Whatever his plans, Melandri's year has gone from bad to worse. "This was supposed to be a year of redemption, but it started out badly, and has gone downhill from there..."
The story we reported earlier, about Valentino Rossi obtaining Monster Energy sponsorship is better news than at first thought. The stories appearing in the Italian press all claimed that the money for Rossi's contract would be coming from the terminated contract of John Hopkins. But SpeedTV's Dennis Noyes is citing anonymous sources in Europe stating categorically that this is new money, and has nothing to do with Hopper's Monster Millions.
Of course, if there is one rider in the paddock who is swimming in personal sponsorship, it's Valentino Rossi, but nevertheless, more money coming into MotoGP is an important move. It is a sign that under the right conditions, there is enough money to invest in MotoGP, despite the general economic downturn.
Noyes also reports an interesting stumbling block: the biggest problem for Monster was Valentino Rossi's penchant for changing his helmet paint schemes. Monster needed guarantees that their green claw logo would remain clearly visible on the helmet, however The Doctor decided to paint it on any given week. With these guarantees now in place, the deal is ready to be announced this week.
Where this leaves John Hopkins is still a mystery. No news is forthcoming of where Hopkins might be racing in 2009, but his future in MotoGP is looking bleak. The BBC's Matt Roberts is reporting that if the Kawasakis are handed over to a private team, that team would be run by current Kawasaki team boss Michael Bartholemy and and Aspar boss Jorge Martinez. Martinez would supply a sponsor, and as a consequence, would get to run a Spanish rider - either Alex Debon, or according to some Spanish sources, Fonsi Nieto - alongside Marco Melandri, who is more saleable to Southern European sponsors. This would leave Hopper out of a Kawasaki ride, and most likely, out of MotoGP. Hopkins may get to hang on to his Monster Millions, but he wouldn't have anywhere to display them.
Amidst the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the cost of MotoGP, there is still the odd bright light shining the way forward. Last week, we reported on two sponsorship deals for Ducati, boosting the income for the Italian factory, and now, another substantial MotoGP sponsorship deal has been done.
For the Italian sports paper Tuttosport is reporting that Monster Energy will be paying Valentino Rossi 2.5 million euros for the next two years to wear the green claw M on his helmet and on the caps he wears, with another half a million available as a performance bonus for winning another championship.
That was the good news. The bad news is that this is probably not new money. Instead, it looks like this could be the result of Monster dropping the currently unemployed John Hopkins (who was on a multi-million dollar deal with Monster), and switching to a man with a proven record of winning. And of course, sponsoring Valentino Rossi is a no-brainer. Thanks to his sponsorship by Italian beer maker Nastro Azzurro, millions of Northern Europeans are now aware of the brand and buying the beer.
The switch by Monster may also point to further bad news for Kawasaki. MotoGP is now the second sport where Monster has backed Yamaha, with the Rinaldi World MX1 team featuring David Philippaerts and Joshua Coppins also racing Yamahas in Monster colors. The original Monster deal with Kawasaki had a clause allowing Monster to move up to being title sponsor of the MotoGP team in 2009, and that deal will obviously have fallen through.
With Yamaha cozying up to Monster, there is a possibility that that sponsorship could go to Yamaha instead. The most likely destination for such money would be the Tech 3 Yamaha team, which is still without major funding, and for who a big sponsor would be welcome. And as Colin Edwards finished on the podium twice last year, and James Toseland entering his second year in MotoGP after a fairly successful debut, the chances of results look promising.
An official announcement of the deal is expected soon, possibly as early as later this week.
Uncertainty continues to cloud Kawasaki's future in MotoGP. Despite the official announcement on January 9th that Kawasaki would be withdrawing factory support from MotoGP, rumors continue to rumble on that there will be Kawasakis on the grid when the season starts, with some sort of private team structure running the bikes.
These rumors have been fueled by the private test currently underway at Eastern Creek in Australia. Test riders Olivier Jacque and Tamaki Serizawa are continuing work on the 2009 version of Kawasaki's ZX-RR Ninja MotoGP bike, lapping the track on Friday and Saturday. The official MotoGP.com website has video of the bike being tested, and is adamant that the bike will be run by a private team in the coming season.
Indeed, this is what Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta is working towards. In an interview with the Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport, Ezpeleta stated that a private team structure was almost ready to go, the only problem being the question of building new engines and developing the bike. Kawasaki told Dorna that they only have enough engines for a quarter of the season, and no money to develop the bike. But the Spaniard had a solution for that to: Ezpeleta had found an engineering facility in France that is willing to take on the work from Kawasaki, build engines and continue development of the ZX-RR.
The only stumbling block is that Kawasaki have to accept these conditions and agree to turn the bikes over to the French firm. In exchange for this, and allowing the bikes to run during 2009, Ezpeleta told Gazzetta dello Sport, Dorna would be willing to allow Kawasaki to withdraw from the contract they have with the MSMA to run bikes through 2011.
The alternative is to sort the case out in the courts. Ezpeleta made it perfectly clear: "If they don't run the bikes, I'll take them to court." A court case - most likely to be held in the Spanish courts, as the country where Dorna is based - would be both expensive and raise unwelcome publicity for Kawasaki, but it is potentially even more dangerous for Dorna.
Though Dorna is a relatively wealthy organization, its financial resources - and therefore its legal recourse - is dwarfed in comparison with the multi-billion dollar giant that is Kawasaki Heavy Industries. The Japanese firm is likely to attempt to crush Dorna, and spend its way, if not to victory, then at least to a stalemate.
But even if Dorna were to win such an action, the damage could prove potentially fatal. The immediate problem would be that Kawasaki would simply refuse to participate in any Dorna-organized racing series again, seriously weakening those series. But it would also make the other manufacturers think twice about their contracts and relationship with Dorna. If the manufacturers believe that their freedom to act is too severely restrained - and therefore potentially very expensive - more of them may choose simply not to play along.
MotoGP cannot afford to lose another manufacturer. Court cases against factories that leave the series are likely to make them think long and hard about racing with an organization that saddles them with huge legal fees. Ironically, the steps with Dorna is taking to protect MotoGP in the short term may end up fatally wounding it in the long term. When contracts come up for renewal in 2011, the factories will be a good deal less willing to play along with Dorna.
So far this year, the news from MotoGP has been almost uniformly terrible. Kawasaki announced their pullout, the satellite teams managers have all chimed in on the need to cut costs, and the MSMA has met to discuss rule changes meant to reduce the expense of MotoGP. The air is full of doom and gloom, and and MotoGP commentators sound almost uniformly like Cassandra, predicting the imminent demise of the series.
So the announcement by Ducati that two of their sponsors have extended their deals comes as a breath of fresh air, a moment of cheer in these otherwise dark times. Italian energy giant Enel will continue the deal with Ducati which sees its logos displayed on the bikes, riders, and riders helmets of the factory team. Even better news is that Riello UPS, an Italian maker of UPS equipment, will be expanding its sponsorship of Ducati, in a program which has seen its investment in the team grow over the past three years.
Securing extra funding for a MotoGP team is always good news, but what makes it better is the fact that these are two companies from outside the motorcycle industry. If MotoGP is to survive in its current form, it is clear that what is required is more of this kind of outside sponsorship. Indeed, Claudio Domenicali, CEO of Ducati Corse, pointed out as much in his statement at Ducati's annual MotoGP press introduction at Madonna di Campiglio in Italy. "There are also lots of other companies who promote their products through motorcycle racing with the Ducati Marlboro Team such as Alfa Romeo, Gatorade and Puma. Of course these are tough times but there are still plenty of ways to make sure that the MotoGP World Championship remains a leading promotional vehicle," he told the press there. If Ducati can seize these opportunities, then maybe the other teams can too.
FIM Superbike World Championship Provisional list
|41||Noriyuki Haga||JPN||Ducati 1098R||Ducati Xerox Team|
|84||Michel Fabrizio||ITA||Ducati 1098R||Ducati Xerox Team|
|19||Ben Spies||USA||Yamaha YZF R1||Yamaha World Superbike|
|66||Tom Sykes||GBR||Yamaha YZF R1||Yamaha World Superbike|
|7||Carlos Checa||ESP||Honda CBR1000RR||HANNspree Ten Kate Honda|
|65||Jonathan Rea||GBR||Honda CBR1000RR||HANNspree Ten Kate Honda|
|53||Alessandro Polita||ITA||Ducati 1098R||Sterilgarda|
|67||Shane Byrne||GBR||Ducati 1098R||Sterilgarda|
|71||Yukio Kagayama||JPN||Suzuki GSX-R 1000 K9||Suzuki Alstare|
|76||Max Neukirchner||GER||Suzuki GSX-R 1000 K9||Suzuki Alstare|
|23||Broc Parkes||AUS||Kawasaki ZX 10R||Kawasaki Superbike Racing Team|
|100||Makoto Tamada||JPN||Kawasaki ZX 10R||Kawasaki Superbike Racing Team|
|24||Brendan Roberts||AUS||Ducati 1098R||Guandalini Racing|
|96||Jakub Smrz||CZE||Ducati 1098R||Guandalini Racing|
|15||Matteo Baiocco||ITA||Kawasaki ZX 10R||PSG-1 Corse|
|86||Ayrton Badovini||ITA||Kawasaki ZX 10R||PSG-1 Corse|
|55||Regis Laconi||FRA||Ducati 1098R||DFX Corse|
|9||Ryuichi Kiyonari||JPN||Honda CBR1000RR||Ten Kate Honda Racing|
|33||Tommy Hill||GBR||Honda CBR1000RR||HANNspree Honda Althea|
|94||David Checa||ESP||Yamaha YZF R1||Yamaha France GMT 94 IPONE|
|25||David Salom||ESP||Kawasaki ZX 10R||Team Pedercini|
|99||Luca Scassa||ITA||Kawasaki ZX 10R||Team Pedercini|
|36||Gregorio Lavilla||ESP||Honda CBR1000RR||Pro Ride World Superbike|
|3||Max Biaggi||ITA||Aprilia RSV4||Aprilia Racing|
|56||Shinya Nakano||JPN||Aprilia RSV4||Aprilia Racing|
|11||Troy Corser||AUS||BMW S1000 RR||BMW Motorrad Team Alpha Racing|
|111||Ruben Xaus||ESP||BMW S1000 RR||BMW Motorrad Team Alpha Racing|
|31||Karl Muggeridge||AUS||Suzuki GSX-R 1000 K9||Celani Race|
|77||Vittorio Iannuzzo||ITA||Honda CBR1000RR||Squadra Corse Italia|
|44||Roberto Rolfo||ITA||Honda CBR1000RR||Stiggy Motorsport AB|
|91||Leon Haslam||GBR||Honda CBR1000RR||Stiggy Motorsport AB|
|88||Roland Resch||AUT||Suzuki GSX-R 1000 K9||TKR Suzuki Switzerland|
FIM Supersport World Championship Provisional list
|1||Andrew Pitt||AUS||Honda CBR600RR||HANNspree Ten Kate Honda|
|54||Kenan Sofuoglu||TUR||Honda CBR600RR||HANNspree Ten Kate Honda|
|35||Cal Crutchlow||GBR||Yamaha YZF R6||Yamaha World Supersport Team|
|99||Fabien Foret||FRA||Yamaha YZF R6||Yamaha World Supersport Team|
|13||Anthony West||AUS||Honda CBR600RR||Stiggy Motorsport AB|
|105||Gianluca Vizziello||ITA||Honda CBR600RR||Stiggy Motorsport AB|
|50||Eugene Laverty||IRL||Honda CBR600RR||Parkalgar Honda|
|117||Miguel Praia||POR||Honda CBR600RR||Parkalgar Honda|
|77||Barry Veneman||NED||Suzuki GSX-R 600||Hoegee Suzuki Team|
|TBA||TBA||Suzuki GSX-R 600||Hoegee Suzuki Team|
|21||Katsuaki Fujiwara||JPN||Kawasaki ZX-6R||Kawasaki Provec Motocard.com|
|26||Joan Lascorz||ESP||Kawasaki ZX-6R||Kawasaki Provec Motocard.com|
|8||Mark Aitchison||AUS||Honda CBR600RR||HANNspree Honda Althea|
|14||Matthieu Lagrive||FRA||Honda CBR600RR||HANNspree Honda Althea|
|24||Garry McCoy||AUS||Triumph 675||Triumph BE1 Racing|
|69||Gianluca Nannelli||ITA||Triumph 675||Triumph BE1 Racing|
|7||Patrick Vostarek||CZE||Honda CBR600RR||Intermoto Czech|
|55||Massimo Roccoli||ITA||Honda CBR600RR||Intermoto Czech|
|51||Michele Pirro||ITA||Yamaha YZF R6||Yamaha Lorenzini by Leoni|
|28||Arie Vos||NED||Honda CBR600RR||Veidec Racing RES Software|
|127||Robbin Harms||DEN||Honda CBR600RR||Veidec Racing RES Software|
|32||Fabrizio Lai||ITA||Honda CBR600RR||ECHO CRS Grand Prix|
|83||Russell Holland||AUS||Honda CBR600RR||ECHO CRS Grand Prix|
|19||Pawel Szkopek||POL||Triumph 675||Factory Racing|
|96||Matej Smrz||CZE||Triumph 675||Factory Racing|
|71||Jose Carlos Morillas Cuenca||ESP||Yamaha YZF R6||Holiday Gym Racing|
|88||Yannick Guerra||ESP||Yamaha YZF R6||Holiday Gym Racing|
|9||Danilo Dell'Omo||ITA||Honda CBR600RR||Kuja Racing|
|30||Jesco Günther||GER||Honda CBR600RR||RES Software Veidec Racing|
|5||Doni Tata Pradita||INA||Yamaha YZF R6||YZF Yamaha|