Ben Spies will be leaving Yamaha at the end of this season. The American made the shock announcement via email to the US racing website Superbikeplanet.com earlier on Tuesday, stating that he would be leaving Yamaha "for a litany of reasons", though unwilling to list them until a more "appropriate" moment. Spies made no announcement on where he would be racing, saying only that he was discussing his situation with his sponsors.
Spies' announcement has shocked the MotoGP paddock, taking even seasoned US journalists who know the Texan well by surprise. Spies was believed to still be in the frame for the second factory Yamaha seat in MotoGP, despite suffering through a miserable second year in the factory team. A series of problems - a broken subframe at Qatar, setup problems at Jerez, as well as a string of costly errors on Spies' own part - have seen the Texan score poorly all season, despite often showing well during qualifying. It was believed that Yamaha was waiting for a good result from Spies before making a decision on his future, but such a decision would have had to be made either at Laguna Seca or Indianapolis, the next two MotoGP rounds.
The timing of Spies' announcement is at best curious. The Laguna Seca event is one of the biggest events of the year for Yamaha, with the Japanese factory hosting several high-profile events featuring Yamaha's former and current stars. It was precisely for that reason that an announcement by Yamaha on Spies' future was not expected at Laguna, the Japanese firm not wishing to upset the distributor in one of their most important markets. By announcing now, Spies appears to be hoping to achieve the maximum impact, the news likely to have a negative effect on Yamaha's PR efforts over the next few days.
It is a sign that the relationship between Spies and the factory has grown strained over the past months. It was Yamaha that first brought Ben Spies to Europe, tempting him to leave the AMA where he was a multiple champion to join Yamaha's World Superbike squad. After an impressive year - Spies won the title in his very first year - the Texan made the jump to MotoGP, spending a strong year in the Tech 3 team, winning the Rookie of the Year title, before moving up to the factory Yamaha team. Last season, Spies became the first rider to win a dry race during the 800cc era other than MotoGP's Fearsome Foursome of Casey Stoner, Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa.
Since the beginning of this season, relations have grown steadily worse. Spies was expected - and expected himself - to be regularly on the podium, and taking regular wins. Yet tensions have been growing, with reports of a general feeling that 'something was wrong' in Spies' side of the garage. The tension was doubtless fueled by speculation about Spies' future. One source close to Yamaha told me at Assen that Yamaha had planned to move Spies out of the factory team and back into the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team, his seat in the factory squad being taken either by Valentino Rossi or one of the two current Tech 3 riders, Cal Crutchlow or Andrea Dovizioso, both of whom have outperformed Spies so far this year. Spies may have decided to leave the factory team before being pushed, or he may have decided to leave due to a perceived lack of support. Another source reports that the control that Spies and his crew had over the setup of their bike was limited, with Yamaha asking the Texan to help test parts for Lorenzo's title chase. Whether these reports are true or not, Spies' real reasons for leaving will only come out once the Texan has left the team, and once his contract expires at the end of 2012.
Where Spies goes now is more of a mystery. His announcement talks of "leaving Yamaha", which would rule out a return to Tech 3. The LCR Honda seat is already taken by Stefan Bradl, and the Gresini team have continued to push for an Italian rider to help with their sponsor, Italian snack manufacturer San Carlo. Spies' name has not been mentioned in connection with Ducati, which would appear to mean that Spies is set to quit MotoGP altogether. A return to World Superbikes is a possibility: the Texan is currently being linked with a ride with BMW in the Goldbet BMW Italia team for next season. This could also open the way for a return to MotoGP in the future, with BMW believed to be currently working on entering the series and merely waiting for a stable set of rules to be announced for them to make their decision. The Suzuki squad is also an option, with Spies possibly returning to the AMA for a year and helping to develop Suzuki's MotoGP bike, slated for a return to the series in 2014. With Suzuki's new MotoGP machine an inline four, the experience Spies gained at Yamaha - also an inline four - would be invaluable.
With Spies' seat now officially vacant at the Factory Yamaha squad, speculation is intensifying on who will take the Texan's place. Much is being made of recent rumors of an imminent return to Yamaha by Valentino Rossi - as discussed here just yesterday - but the question is whether having Rossi alongside Jorge Lorenzo would help Yamaha win a title or would see the two riders taking points from each other and allowing Dani Pedrosa to sneak away with the title. Rossi is clearly the first option, with the two Monster Tech 3 Yamaha riders the alternative if Rossi stays at Ducati. So far, Andrea Dovizioso has outperformed Cal Crutchlow this season, taking four podiums where Crutchlow has fallen short. But Crutchlow has been a much bigger hit in the media than Dovizioso, generating a lot more publicity and column inches in the press for the factory.
Whatever the decision, the initial plan was to announce the second rider at Yamaha after Laguna Seca, with either Indianapolis or Brno being the prime candidates for the announcement to be made. Spies' decision may have forced Yamaha's hand, however, and we could learn who is to replace the Texan sooner than Yamaha had hoped.