MotoGP silly season this year is expected to be pretty frenetic, with just about all of the riders either out of contract or with escape clauses written into their contracts allowing them to leave at the end of 2014. But even by those standards, the first shot in the battle sounds like madness. According to a report on the Spanish radio station Onda Cero, Ducati have tempted Jorge Lorenzo into agreeing to a precontract to race for the Italian factory from 2015 onwards.
According to the report, Ducati Corse's new boss Gigi Dall'Igna phoned Jorge Lorenzo personally to persuade him to sign for the Italian factory. The contract on offer is reported to be tempting: Onda Cero claim that Ducati offered Lorenzo 15 million euros a season to race for them. Lorenzo is reported to be racing for 9 million a year with Yamaha, plus a 2 million euro bonus if he wins the championship. Both Honda and Yamaha are also chasing Lorenzo's signature for 2015, both claimed to have offered him 12 million euros a year.
How much stock should be placed in this report? It is hard to say. The interest in Jorge Lorenzo comes as no surprise, given that he is one of only three men capable of challenging for the championship. Lorenzo was the only rider to match the pace of Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa, on what is widely acknowledged to be a lesser bike. HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto has made no secret of his desire to sign Jorge Lorenzo, having already made a major play for Lorenzo the last time his contract was up, at the end of the 2012 season. Likewise, Ducati have also previously made moves for Jorge Lorenzo, having offered the Spaniard some 8 million euros to join Ducati during Casey Stoner's absence through illness in 2009. That move proved at the time to be the catalyst for Stoner's departure to Honda.
What is surprising is the timing of this report. Jorge Lorenzo has only just landed in Jakarta, Indonesia, where he and Valentino Rossi are due to present the 2014 livery of the Yamaha MotoGP team tomorrow. Allowing such news to leak ahead of such an important occasion would not be well received in the Yamaha camp, though it would provide a very useful way of putting pressure on the factory. Yamaha are already struggling to pay the salary currently demanded by Lorenzo, and stretching it much further could put him out of reach of the Japanese factory. Yet Yamaha know they have no choice, as Lorenzo has proven to be the only Yamaha rider currently capable of challenging for the title. If leaking the news is a negotiating tactic, it is a very crude instrument.
The biggest question mark remains what reason Lorenzo would have to go to Ducati, beyond the simple question of money. At the moment, Ducati is a far from promising prospect, the bike still a long way from being competitive. In fact, so far off is the current bike that Ducati look set to switch to becoming an Open entry, racing with the spec Dorna software on the Magneti Marelli ECU. Though the great raft of changes currently being pushed through at Ducati by Gigi Dall'Igna are widely regarded as necessary steps to a return to competitiveness, they will still take a long time to take effect. The Desmosedici will surely be better by the first race of 2015, but whether it is championship material remains to be seen.
The fear must be that Ducati is trying to fix their problems in the same way they did last time: by signing a rider of exceptional talent to ride a bike beset by problems. Such a move could come at the behest of Ducati's main benefactor Philip Morris, who are demanding results after three years of mediocrity following the departure of Casey Stoner. Whether Lorenzo could overcome the problems the current bike has, as Stoner did in the past, is open to question. Lorenzo has a radically different riding style to Stoner, thriving on smoothness and his ability to carry corner speed, rather than bully the bike into doing what he wants, as Stoner did. Corner speed is very much the weakness of the Ducati, as its vicious power delivery, all of which run totally counter to Lorenzo's strongest point, his fluid smoothness.
If anyone can persuade Lorenzo, then it is surely Gigi Dall'Igna. The pair had a strong relationship during Lorenzo's 250cc period, when he won two championships for Aprilia, where Dall'Igna was head of the racing department. Lorenzo knows what Dall'Igna is capable of, but he also knows the challenges which he would face there. All he needs to do is look across at the other side of the garage, at teammate Valentino Rossi. The prospect of spending two years in the wilderness as Rossi did cannot be an attractive one for a man so clearly addicted to winning. Choosing to ride for Ducati would require a massive leap of faith.
~~~ Update ~~~
As might be expected, Ducati has already denied the rumors they have reached an agreement with Jorge Lorenzo. Speaking to GPOne.com, Ducati boss Claudio Domenicali joked sarcastically 'yes, and we've signed Marquez too, it's cheaper than developing the bike.' The focus, Paolo Ciabatti reaffirmed, was on developing the Desmosedici. 'Our riders are not the problem,' Ciabatti told GPOne.com.