The Orient Express
It is almost universally accepted that after the withdrawal of the tobacco companies, sponsorship in MotoGP is currently at crisis levels, the withdrawal of Ilmor being the latest and most obvious example of its parlous state. The situation is so bad that virtually everyone involved in the sport is racking their brains looking for a solution. But the big question is, how did it get this way in the first place?
British weekly Motorcycle News has an interview with International Racing Teams Assocation and Tech 3 Yamaha boss, Hervé Poncharal which sheds an interesting light on how the present situation came about. He highlights two major causes:
Over the weekend of the Assen round of World Superbikes, Dutch regional newspaper Dagblad van het Noorden spoke to Ronald ten Kate, head of the Hannspree Ten Kate Honda Superbike and Supersport team, about their plans to go to MotoGP. It's an open secret that these plans exist, but so far, Ronald ten Kate has refused to be pinned down on specifics. However, the Dutch paper was rather more successful.
The announcement the MotoGP world has been expecting since Ilmor withdrew from racing after the Qatar season opener has finally been made. Today, Mario Illien, Ilmor GP Team Principal, and Steve Miller, Managing Director, announced that the current GP team will be scaled down to a "skeleton crew", and switch the focus of the team to engine development. The pair cited problems raising sufficient sponsorship to make racing a "viable option", and announced that most of the Ilmor GP Team staff will be released from their contracts at the end of May.
Crash.net is reporting that Ilmor will make an official announcement about their future on Monday. As we reported earlier, it seems inevitable that what will be announced is a permanent withdrawal from MotoGP, at least as an official manufacturer. Ilmor was 6 million Euros short of the funds required to carry on running the factory team, but with such an obvious development deficit, that money was very hard to come by.
If there was one thing that commentators, fans and team managers alike could agree on prior to the 2007 MotoGP season, it was that this was to be the year of the former 250 riders. The season that we switched from the point-and-squirt 990s to the smooth, high corner speed 800s would be the second season for the phenomenal class of former 250 rookies, and the year that they would demonstrate exactly what they were made of. The weight of expectation lay heavily on Randy de Puniet, Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa.
With Casey Stoner having dominated practice in Istanbul this far, it was with some trepidation most riders approached this afternoon's official Qualifying Practice. The question foremost in their minds was "How do we stop the Ducatis?" And within 5 minutes of practice starting, their worst fears were confirmed, as the young Australian quickly put his Marlboro Ducati at the top of the timesheets. Their worries were compounded when a minute later, Stoner's team mate Loris Capirossi took over the top spot, becoming the first rider to break into the 1'54s.
If anyone was in any doubt that Casey Stoner means business in Istanbul, then he put them straight this morning. Stoner topped the timesheets again, taking over 1/10th of a second off his time from this afternoon. But what was far more impressive was the long run he put in the middle of the session, posting 10 fast laps, mostly in the mid 1'54s on his Marlboro Ducati. That looks like being Stoner's race pace, and it looks like being unbeatable.
After this morning's cold, damp and crash-ridden practice session, this afternoon saw better weather, a completely dry track, and a warning. The warning was aimed at the entire MotoGP field, the issuer was Ducati, and the message was that if they were scared by the Ducatis at Qatar, they should be terrified here. For perched atop the timesheets are the Marlboro Ducati team mates Casey Stoner and Loris Capirossi.
As expected, the day dawned cool and bright at Istanbul, making for a session that saw little action until the end. Because of the cold conditions, most of the riders chose to run relatively few laps, hoping to conserve tires for a bigger choice on Sunday, and because there was little they could learn from the cold morning session. Colin Edwards' fastest time was nearly 5 seconds slower than Toni Elias' record lap set during the race last year.
To those of us in the West, the Orient has always been an exotic place, shrouded in mystery. Throughout history, the East represented aromatic spices, spectacular colors and an unfathomable and alien world. Most of all, the East stood for adventure, a place where anything was possible, and reputations and riches could be made or lost.
On the eve of the Istanbul round of MotoGP, tragedy has already struck. Turkish online newspaper Today's Zaman is reporting that the Turkish Motorcycling Federation will ask the FIM to cancel its contract to host the round. The problem is money.