Suzuki Top Brass Visit Sepang: Will They or Won't They Make a Return?
When Suzuki left MotoGP at the end of 2011, it was with a promise to return in 2014. Since then, there have been a string of news stories pointing to an imminent return, with reports gaining a massive boost once (clearly leaked) 'spy shots' of the brand new inline four MotoGP bike Suzuki is working on emerged.
But bringing Suzuki back into the fold has not proved to be easy. Hamamatsu bigwigs visited the Brno round of MotoGP in August last year to talk to Dorna boss Carmelo Ezpeleta about a possible return, and also to clear up confusion which then existed about the rules. The outcome of those talks was not as Suzuki had hoped: Suzuki had told Ezpeleta that they were only interested in signing a one-year contract, Ezpeleta refused, saying Suzuki must sign up for a minimum of three years, to ensure some kind of continuity; the Japanese factory also stated categorically that they would not make a return if a spec ECU with spec software were to be implemented, Ezpeleta reiterated his position that the Grand Prix Commission would implement rules as they saw fit, regardless of what Suzuki felt about it. The spec ECU - at least in terms of software - was later dropped, removing one obstacle, but Suzuki have still to commit to a return to MotoGP.
Suzuki bosses were in the MotoGP paddock once again on Wednesday, holding meetings with senior Dorna executives about testing through 2014. Dorna once again told Suzuki they were welcome to join in any of the tests organized for the MotoGP teams throughout the year. Dorna Events Managing Director Javier Alonso told the (Dorna-owned and run) MotoGP.com website that "the doors are open for them".
There are, however, conditions. Suzuki is only welcome if they enter the championship using an existing team. In practice, that would mean using the infrastructure of one of the teams already on the grid - the Aspar team is the hot favorite, given their past talks with the factory, and the fact that Aspar rider Randy de Puniet is close to signing a testing deal with the factory - rather than creating a team structure from the ground up for their MotoGP effort. Suzuki would prefer the latter - owning and managing your own team allows for a lot more control - but Dorna is siding clearly with the teams. "We commit with the teams that are here with us today," Alonso told MotoGP.com, "they will keep the right to continue to be here."
Suzuki has not committed to plans to test - though reports from Japanese journalists such as Akira Nishimura are promising - and part of this ambivalence is one of the reasons for the conditions being put in place. Suzuki have a history of falling short of their commitments to the series, and Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta is believed to have felt betrayed by Suzuki, after the factory reneged on a number of previous agreements. When the Rookie Rule was introduced in 2009, Suzuki asked for and were given an exemption, allowing them to sign Alvaro Bautista for the 2010 season. When it became clear that Suzuki were struggling with engine durability in 2010, the first year of the durability rules, Suzuki asked for and were granted an increase in their allocation, from 6 engines to 9 engines. The following year, despite promises that they would field a two-man team, they cut back to just a single rider, leaving the 2011 grid at just 17 men.
Dorna is keen to avoid future instability caused by factories such as Suzuki - or Kawasaki, when the factory withdrew at the end of the 2008 season - and is therefore looking to consolidate the grid using the existing teams, and offering the infrastructure of those teams to factories who may wish to enter the series. The same system works well in World Superbikes, where six factories participate, but only one through its own team structure. Both BMW and Honda have made further moves towards the factory-supported private team system in WSBK this year, BMW withdrawing their factory team, and now funding and preparing their WSBK effort through the BMW Goldbet Italia team, while HRC has stepped up backing for Ten Kate, turning the Pata Honda into a fully factory-supported effort through the Dutch Ten Kate organization.
Will Suzuki acquiesce to Dorna's demands and enter MotoGP in 2014 on the terms issued by the series organizer? Official statements are hard to come by, the Japanese factory playing their cards close to their chest. But given the ongoing talks with teams about managing an effort in 2014, and the likelihood of Randy de Puniet signing up with Suzuki as test rider in the next few weeks, it seems almost inevitable.