After three weeks of enforced idleness after the thrills of Laguna Seca, the MotoGP circus goes back to work this weekend at Brno in the Czech Republic, refreshed and relaxed from their mid-season break. At least, that's the official story. Unofficially, the MotoGP circus goes back to work frazzled and frayed from three weeks of intense negotiation, speculation, contemplation and insinuation. Mobile phone bills are astronomical, keypads are worn down to the bare metal from frantic dialing, and Dr Costa's Clinica Mobile is awash with irritated ears, inflamed thumbs and chronic hoarseness, as the 2007 MotoGP season commences.
For the summer break is traditionally the start of what journalists tend to call the silly season, but if you're a rider, team owner, sponsor, mechanic, PR guru or even catering kitchen staff, it's deadly serious. With no races to interrupt, and everyone away from their teams, negotiations about who wants to be where, or even just somewhere next season are in full swing. And this year's round of rumors and speculation is just as wild and surprising as the season's races have been.
Much of the speculation has been on this year's most conspicuous absentee. In a stroke of public relations genius, Max Biaggi has been linked variously with the Ilmor / Suter project, a Ducati satellite bike in MotoGP, a works Ducati in World Superbike, and Alstare Corona Suzuki in World Superbike. The Roman Emperor has been much missed this season, as his abrupt departure left MotoGP fans without an obvious villain. Sete Gibernau has occasionally tried to step up to the plate, but has not usually progressed much beyond looking moody. Colin Edwards has been his usual colorful self, but his comments about Nicky Hayden after the race at Assen were too entertaining to turn him into Public Enemy No.1. So the return of The Man They Love To Hate would add a bit of contrast to an otherwise friendly cast of characters in the MotoGP paddock. But Max's biggest challenge is that, despite his huge following and generous personal sponsors, he has trodden on too many toes, and insulted too many manufacturers to get a shot at decent machinery. Persona non grata at Honda, and unbeloved by Michelin, his options are few, and his high profile comes with a high risk. It's too early to write him off for next year, but I wouldn't put my life savings on him making a return just yet.
There are many more riders who fear suffering the same fate as Biaggi at the end of the season. The most obvious looking candidate is Jose Luis Cardoso, who has been utterly unconvincing on the Pramac d'Antin Ducati this season. Ironically, however, he may turn out to be one of the riders who get to stay, as he reportedly pays a lot of money for his ride, money that Luis d'Antin badly needs to keep his team afloat.
Makoto Tamada, on the other hand, is unlikely to keep his ride at Konica Minolta JIR, unless he can pull off a miracle. Yet, if anyone had been brave enough to predict this at the end of 2004, they would have been laughed off the stage. That year, Tamada finished 6th in the championship, with two wins and a second place to his name, and the Japanese rider was widely predicted to be the next big threat. But in 2005, his team switched tires, from Tamada's beloved Bridgestones to Michelins, and he has never regained his form, citing a lack of confidence in the front end. He will need to turn the brilliant aberration of his Sachsenring performance into a regular spectacle if wishes to secure his future in MotoGP. Otherwise, his 2007 season could be history before it even begins.
Another rider looking to secure his MotoGP future is Tech 3 Yamaha's James Ellison. The young British rider has had a tough year, his performance constantly overshadowed by his teammate Carlos Checa, who is having a remarkably successful year, all things considered. While Checa shines on the Dunlop-shod M1, Ellison has struggled, the last rider to be still using the chatter-ridden chassis that the works Yamaha team abandoned after Shanghai. Such were his woes that his crew were reduced to cutting sections out of Ellison's chassis in an attempt to take some of the stiffness out that was thought to be the main culprit. Yet, examine Ellison's times and race after race he has ridden faster during the race than in qualifying, often putting in times on race day 1 or 2 seconds faster than the first practice session. Ellison, like Hofmann, has Dorna on his side, who are keen to see representatives from important TV markets on the grid, but this may not be enough to secure either the Englishman's or the German's future in MotoGP.
Perhaps the biggest name to be concerned about his future is Colin Edwards. The Texas Tornado has run conspicuously midfield this season, a very long way from where a works Yamaha rider is expected to finish, especially one in his second season, on the same bike as the current World Champion. On the rare occasion when Edwards ran at the front, his desperation got the better of him, and he ended up running off into the gravel at the last corner. Works teams do not take kindly to that kind of rookie mistake, especially not from a former world champion in his thirties, and so the Tornado could be looking for another employer come October. Having already had a shot on the Honda, and with a tide of talent looking to sweep into the premier class from the 250s, Colin's chances are not looking good. He may find himself being whisked back into World Superbike, which, with the coming of last year's MotoGP dropouts Barros and Bayliss, is turning into a MotoGP retirement class.
2004's Golden Boy Sete Gibernau has fallen quite a way since the season he came close to beating Rossi. After last year's disastrous season, which started in the gravel pit of the last corner at Jerez, 2006 hasn't been much kinder too him. After a reasonably encouraging start, Sete's run of bad luck got a lot worse after being flung off his bike during the first-corner chaos at Catalunya, fracturing the collarbone he already had a titanium pin in, and keeping him out of contention for two races. And now it's been announced that he won't be racing at Brno, as his shoulder is still too weak after undergoing surgery for the second time after Laguna Seca. Sete is in a difficult situation, and his future is anything but clear.
In fact, the situation at Ducati is pretty vague all round. Although Loris Capirossi is still the darling of the Italian factory, age and injury are starting to take their toll. The courageous, almost foolhardy, performances he put in at Assen and Donington after the Catalunyan catastrophe, where he battled manfully for a handful of points, have robbed Capirex of some of the joy he used to have in racing. If wants to stay, Ducati would undoubtedly give him a contract for another year, but the tiniest filaments of doubt are starting to arise about the Italian imp's motivation.
So potentially, Ducati could be without a rider next year. So who would they turn to? The answer to that (apart, that is, from Max Biaggi, whose name is automatically mentioned for every vacancy which arises) is likely to be found among the massed ranks of 250 riders. The prime candidate is surely Casey Stoner. The young Australian has caused quite a stir so far this season, coming in and taking a pole and podium on a satellite spec Honda. Stoner is very obviously a solid chunk of talent, but he has still has plenty of raw edges: so far Stoner has crashed out of 3 of the 11 races this season, all of them due to pushing too hard. The other thing that makes Stoner a less attractive proposition is his free and frank style of communication. If he is unhappy about anything, he tells people. Loudly, and in the very bluntest of terms. Sponsors, and teams, don't always appreciate that kind of frankness, and so signing the young Aussie is always going to be a risk.
But Ducati aren't alone in their courting of Casey. Camel Yamaha are also rumored to be talking to Stoner's manager, and there is no doubting that Rossi and Stoner would make a high profile pairing. What's more, with Valentino widely expected to retire at the end of 2007, Stoner at Yamaha would make a lot of sense, for several reasons. Firstly, he should find it easy to work with Rossi's crew chief, MotoGP genius and fellow Australian Jeremy Burgess. Secondly, with Dani Pedrosa very obviously being groomed as the future of HRC, having Stoner battle his arch-rival on HRC's arch-rival would make great PR sense as well. We writers would never have to search around for an angle ever again.
Among the other candidates from the smaller classes are Andrea Dovizioso and Alex de Angelis. Both are having great seasons, with Dovizioso currently the only man seemingly capable of snatching the 250 crown from Jorge Lorenzo's hands. Lorenzo looks certain to stay put in 250s for another year, despite being groomed to be MotoGP Champion from the age of 6 by his father. As both Dovizioso and de Angelis are Italians, they would be a natural choice for Ducati, and finishing so far up the 250 tables gives them a shot at the top-flight rides.
The flow from the other feeder class for MotoGP seems to have been reversed, with talent now leaving the 990s to go to World Superbikes. Just 4 years ago, everyone was assuming that, after the switch to four-stokes, Superbikes were the only logical entry point for the top class, as they key to being fast was sliding the rear. But traction control and the astonishing advances in tire technology have revolutionized MotoGP riding, and now corner speed, the touchstone of the 250s, is seen as key. And yet one name from World Superbike keeps being mentioned: the young British rider, and former world champion James Toseland's name is always in the air whenever spare seats at Honda are under discussion. He could take Tamada's ride, or possibly even Toni Elias' place at Fortuna Honda, as the Spaniard has failed to make the transition from the Yamaha to the Honda.
Chris Vermeulen's outstanding rookie year on what is generally agreed to be an underpowered bike has surely paved the way for Toseland. Vermeulen's gamble to take a factory ride, rather than a satellite Honda, seems to have paid off, with lots of teams testing the waters, despite Vermeulen's two year contract at Suzuki, which guarantees him a seat next year. Time will tell whether Vermeulen's success is down to talent, or a miscalculation by team managers about how difficult the switch actually is.
But the biggest question mark of all hangs over the head of the likely world champion, Nicky Hayden. You would think that HRC would do their utmost to hang on to the man who might manage to take back the crown which Honda feels is rightfully theirs, from the man who abandoned them. And yet throughout the year, HRC has made it abundantly clear that the future of HRC is a tiny Spaniard called Dani Pedrosa. Honda, after all, has a history of treating riders like cogs in a machine, rather than the individual artists they more closely resemble. One of the main reasons Valentino Rossi left HRC to go to Yamaha was the emphasis Honda placed on the machine, with press releases constantly praising how well the bike worked, and barely mentioning the rider.
Now Hayden is also showing signs of irritation. The Kentucky Kid has always been the consummate professional, thanked Honda kindly at every press conference, and has managed to say positive things about the bike, even after being given new, unproven parts to test while doing his best to defend his championship lead. But despite his long history with Honda, his commitment to them is starting to slip. Strong rumors emerged that Ducati is talking to Hayden about the 2007 season after the Laguna Seca GP, but doubts remain whether Hayden believes the Ducati is competitive enough for him to defend a title on.
However, the obvious move for Nicky Hayden would be a switch to Yamaha. This would benefit all parties to a huge degree. For Yamaha, it would give them an excellent basis for keeping in the race after Valentino Rossi's expected departure at the end of 2007, by having a proven winner in the pits. It would greatly increase Yamaha's chances of winning a title in 2007, with both Rossi and Hayden title contenders. And most importantly of all, it would upset Honda, especially if Hayden takes the title this year, by taking the #1 plate which Honda has just won and putting it on a Yamaha. For Hayden himself, it would give him the chance of having the team focused around him, instead of working on a bike for his team mate, HRC's intended 2007 champion.
But this remains speculation, with Hayden remaining tight-lipped about his future. Hayden has been very loyal to Honda, as Honda has given him the opportunity of racing at the very highest level, and given him a championship-winning machine. But HRC's weakness, its focus on the corporate, may yet come back to haunt it. Honda has not shown any signs of learning a lesson from Rossi's departure to Yamaha, and it may just be due for a remedial lesson.
What the future will bring is up in the air this stage in the season, and the future of many riders is in doubt. But in a few short weeks, the shape of 2007 should start to become clear. We wait with bated breath.