Since the official announcement that Kawasaki has decided to pull out of MotoGP, a number of people - most notably, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta - have been working furiously on finding a way of keeping the bikes on the grid. The phone lines between Kawasaki's Akashi base, Dorna's Barcelona headquarters, the Kawasaki MotoGP team's base in Heerlen in the Netherlands, and Jorge Martinez in Spain have been positively humming.
Rain continues along the Algarve coast, and as in the Supersport field, a number of riders have elected to stay dry and relatively warm in the Portimao circuit's capacious and comfortable garages. Of the brave souls who have ventured out, reigning British Superbike champion Shane Byrne is fastest, ahead of Ulsterman Johnny Rea, confirming every prejudice about the British weather. Michel Fabrizio is third fastest, on the factory Ducati.
Testing continues this afternoon.
The first results are starting to come through from the first test of the season, and it was the World Supersport riders who had the dubious privilege of kicking off the year in sodden conditions. British rookie Cal Crutchlow is fastest of the bunch so far, but it's clear the conditions are wreaking havoc on the times.
Honda's withdrawal from Formula 1 earlier this year unleashed a wave of bad news - and a tsunami of speculation - about the fates of the teams in all forms of motorcycle racing. Despite all the speculation, the only real casualty - so far - has been Kawasaki. But after the Honda announcement of it's F1 exit, there were even stories that the Japanese motoring giant could pull out of MotoGP. The world awaited breathlessly as Honda CEO Takeo Fukui's press conference came and went, and gave a sigh of relief when no mention was made of MotoGP. Motorcyle racing was safe.
Or so it seemed. Yesterday, a Honda spokeswoman announced that they would be cutting back on their motorcycle racing program, including withdrawing their factory team from the prestigious Suzuka 8 Hour race. This news is in itself remarkable, as this event is the high point of the Japanese motorcycle racing season, and a race at which the rivalry between the Japanese factories reaches its zenith. Winning the Suzuka 8 Hours is an absolute necessity, to all of the Japanese Big Four.
So important is the race that the factories always draft in their major stars from around the world to participate, often as a "reward" for outstanding performance. The riders don't always see racing at Suzuka as a reward - the race takes place in July, in the middle of the summer break for the world championship series, right after the busiest period of the year - but they take it as an honor to be invited. Most of the big names have raced their over the years, and the 2008 race was won by Carlos Checa and Ryuichi Kiyonari.
Honda's withdrawal does not mean that there will be no Hondas on the grid. Only the factory team won't race this year, but the Honda spokeswoman told the press that they would still help the remaining teams on Hondas: "We are continuing to supply machines to other teams," she told the press.
If 2008 went into the history books as a rain-hit motorcycle racing season, 2009 looks like starting off in much the same vein. The full World Superbike paddock is gathering at Portugal's magnificent Portimao circuit, ready for a three-day test, but so far, it looks like they could be disappointed. A number of Formula 1 teams have been testing there for the past few days, and not much testing has been done, as torrential rain, mist and even hail dogged the sessions.
The weather forecast for the next three days only looks a little better. Rain is predicted for Friday and Sunday, with Saturday likely to be the only day with weather good enough to produce meaningful results.
Which is a terrible shame. For all seven factory teams are present in Portugal, and the first chance to see where the complex combinations of new and old riders aboard new and old bikes all stand relative to one another. But there is one minor upside to the dismal weather: conditions during the final round of the 2008 World Superbike championship at Portimao were similarly difficult, and so there is a good chance that the times from qualifying there may prove a decent guide to just how fast the new teams all are.
Both World Superbike and World Supersport classes are due to be testing this weekend, but as well as testing, the riders will also be trying out the new "knock out qualifying" superpole format. At the end of each day, the fastest 20 riders will try out the new qualifying format, to allow the InFront Motor Sports group - the renamed FGSport organization - to test how that format will be run.
But whatever the weather, the Portimao test marks a bright day in the life of motorcycle racing fans around the world. Racing motorcycles are about to take to the track in anger once again, and that means that competitive racing is not far behind.
Here's an interesting question: If you had to guess which country had the most MotoGP fans, which one would you choose? The first countries that spring to mind in association with motorcycle racing are always Spain and Italy, and as Italy is the bigger country, and what's more, MotoGP is more popular than even soccer, a sport which drives the Italians into a frenzy, then the answer must be Italy, right?
Wrong. Though the Italians and Spanish are clearly MotoGP-mad, they're not the biggest fans. According to Google Trends, which maps searches and news items from Google searches from around the world, the country with the most MotoGP maniacs is Indonesia.
In its advantage, the population of the Southeast Asian republic is around 240 million, as opposed to 40 million in Spain and 60 million in Italy, but as these statistics are based on searches on Google, what is important is not population, but internet penetration. According to the Internet World Stats website, Indonesia has 25 million internet users, the same number as Spain, while Italy has some 33 million internet users. And according to the Google Trends statistics, Indonesians search for "motogp" approximately 3 times as often as Italians, and search for "moto gp" some 40% more often than Italians.
Italy finished second in the MotoGP search stakes, ahead of their eternal rivals Spain, while Hungary was the country with the fourth largest number of MotoGP-related searches - possibly a reflection of the growing popularity of the sport there and the success of former 125 champion Gabor Talmasci.
Since the global financial crisis struck home in MotoGP, and indeed all forms of motor racing, the dominant theme of all and any news about MotoGP has been about the need for the series to cut costs. There has been no shortage of ideas from team owners, journalists and Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, all of which have included various proposals for rule changes, some more radical than the next.
The one group we hadn't heard from is perhaps the most important group, the engineers and bike designers. Fortunately, Motorcycle News' Matthew Birt had the bright idea of talking to Filippo Preziosi, the technical genius behind the Ducati Desmosedici bike which carried Casey Stoner to a championship in 2007 and 2nd place in 2008.
Preziosi's responses make absolutely clear the problems faced by anyone attempting to use the rulebook to cut costs: "Every modification to the rules pushed us to spend more money," he told MCN. He points out that every change to the rules forced the engineers to find ways to exploit the new rules as efficiently as possible, and try and get the most out of the new situation. All that R&D costs large amounts of money, and drastically pushes up costs.
The same holds true for any attempt to limit electronics, according to Preziosi. More money would be spent examining how to take advantage of a new rules package, and costs would go up. What's more, the Italian engineering genius points out, the rules would be almost impossible to police.
The Kawasaki story isn't the only drama that is playing itself out in MotoGP at the moment. Though the factory Ducati team is able to raise extra money almost at will, the Pramac team has been suffering since the withdrawal of its title sponsor, the Italian telecoms company Alice.
Things were thought to be so bad that speculation mounted that Pramac would only be able to field a single bike for Mika Kallio. It was rumored that Niccolo Canepa would take the other bike to Sete Gibernau's Grupo Francisco Hernando team, as the Spanish property magnate has spoken openly of his willingness to pour money into the MotoGP team.
Now, the well-connected Ducati fan site DucatiCorseFriends.com is carrying a statement that this is not the case. Members of the Pramac team told DCF that Canepa would be staying with Pramac.
This does not necessarily mean that both Kallio and Canepa would be wearing the same colors. Team manager Paolo Campinoti has suggested on several occasions that the two riders could bear the logos of different sponsors. And there has been a good deal of speculation that Grupo Francisco Hernando could be one of the sponsors interested in appearing on a Pramac Ducati. The deal would allow GFH to get greater coverage for the African dictatorship where it is building the vacation resort the sponsorship is aimed at promoting, at a much reduced investment.
The Kawasaski saga rumbles on, and it seems to be drawing closer to a conclusion. And sadly for MotoGP and Kawasaki fans, it's looking more and more like the conclusion will be both literal and figurative.
Today, Michael Bartholemy is in Japan for talks with Kawasaki bosses about the level of support they can provide should the Belgian decide to try and run the Kawasaki ZX-RR Ninja MotoGP machines inside a private team structure. Previously, Kawasaki told Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta that they only had enough parts to see out 25% of the season, and would not be able to handle engine development or maintenance. But Bartholemy has stated that he has found a French company which could handle at least some of that work, though no specific companies have been mentioned. If he can persuade Kawasaki to hand over the entire MotoGP operation to this French company, then there is a possibility that the team could be saved.
But it is also clear that this is the final hope for seeing Kawasakis - or whatever they might end up being called - on the grid. Originally, Jorge Martinez, boss of the Aspar team, was linked with taking over the Kawasaki bikes. This would have been a viable option, as Martinez has proven time and time again that he is capable of raising sponsorship to cover the costs. His price, however, is that he runs a Spanish rider, as his sponsorship is almost invariably aimed at the Spanish domestic market.
Since Kawasaki announced that they were pulling out of MotoGP, many gigabytes of online storage have been used up on speculating about the future of John Hopkins and Marco Melandri. But for the most part, it has been nothing but speculation, with little or nothing heard from the protagonists themselves. Hopkins posted a brief statement on his personal website on New Year's Eve, stating that he was as much in the dark as everyone else, but his erstwhile team mate, Marco Melandri remained silent.
Until today: At an impromptu press conference in a cafe in Milan, Marco Melandri finally spoke to the Italian press about his future, and what he expects to be doing next year. The Italian told the assembled journalists that he would know more about exactly what is happening next week. "I'll be getting a phone call from Michael Bartholemy next Wednesday," Melandri said, "to tell us whether he expects to run the Kawasakis in a private team next year. Then on the 31st, I'll get a proposal from Kawasaki in Japan, about whether I will get my full salary, a golden handshake or nothing. I'm hoping the proposal isn't to go work in a shop in Japan," he joked.
As for his future in motorcycle racing, Melandri said it was all still up in the air. He discounted a return to Gresini: "I contacted them after reading about it in the press, but they don't have the funds to provide an extra bike," Melandri said. But the Italian was emphatic about only accepting a competitive ride. "What's for sure is that I won't race on an uncompetitive bike (the 2008 Kawasaki, Ed.) nor am I thinking about other series such as Superbikes. Maybe I'll sit out a year and return in 2010."
The story we reported earlier, about Valentino Rossi obtaining Monster Energy sponsorship is better news than at first thought. The stories appearing in the Italian press all claimed that the money for Rossi's contract would be coming from the terminated contract of John Hopkins. But SpeedTV's Dennis Noyes is citing anonymous sources in Europe stating categorically that this is new money, and has nothing to do with Hopper's Monster Millions.
Of course, if there is one rider in the paddock who is swimming in personal sponsorship, it's Valentino Rossi, but nevertheless, more money coming into MotoGP is an important move. It is a sign that under the right conditions, there is enough money to invest in MotoGP, despite the general economic downturn.
Noyes also reports an interesting stumbling block: the biggest problem for Monster was Valentino Rossi's penchant for changing his helmet paint schemes. Monster needed guarantees that their green claw logo would remain clearly visible on the helmet, however The Doctor decided to paint it on any given week. With these guarantees now in place, the deal is ready to be announced this week.
Amidst the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the cost of MotoGP, there is still the odd bright light shining the way forward. Last week, we reported on two sponsorship deals for Ducati, boosting the income for the Italian factory, and now, another substantial MotoGP sponsorship deal has been done.
For the Italian sports paper Tuttosport is reporting that Monster Energy will be paying Valentino Rossi 2.5 million euros for the next two years to wear the green claw M on his helmet and on the caps he wears, with another half a million available as a performance bonus for winning another championship.
That was the good news. The bad news is that this is probably not new money. Instead, it looks like this could be the result of Monster dropping the currently unemployed John Hopkins (who was on a multi-million dollar deal with Monster), and switching to a man with a proven record of winning. And of course, sponsoring Valentino Rossi is a no-brainer. Thanks to his sponsorship by Italian beer maker Nastro Azzurro, millions of Northern Europeans are now aware of the brand and buying the beer.
The switch by Monster may also point to further bad news for Kawasaki. MotoGP is now the second sport where Monster has backed Yamaha, with the Rinaldi World MX1 team featuring David Philippaerts and Joshua Coppins also racing Yamahas in Monster colors. The original Monster deal with Kawasaki had a clause allowing Monster to move up to being title sponsor of the MotoGP team in 2009, and that deal will obviously have fallen through.
Uncertainty continues to cloud Kawasaki's future in MotoGP. Despite the official announcement on January 9th that Kawasaki would be withdrawing factory support from MotoGP, rumors continue to rumble on that there will be Kawasakis on the grid when the season starts, with some sort of private team structure running the bikes.
So far this year, the news from MotoGP has been almost uniformly terrible. Kawasaki announced their pullout, the satellite teams managers have all chimed in on the need to cut costs, and the MSMA has met to discuss rule changes meant to reduce the expense of MotoGP. The air is full of doom and gloom, and and MotoGP commentators sound almost uniformly like Cassandra, predicting the imminent demise of the series.
So the announcement by Ducati that two of their sponsors have extended their deals comes as a breath of fresh air, a moment of cheer in these otherwise dark times. Italian energy giant Enel will continue the deal with Ducati which sees its logos displayed on the bikes, riders, and riders helmets of the factory team. Even better news is that Riello UPS, an Italian maker of UPS equipment, will be expanding its sponsorship of Ducati, in a program which has seen its investment in the team grow over the past three years.
Securing extra funding for a MotoGP team is always good news, but what makes it better is the fact that these are two companies from outside the motorcycle industry. If MotoGP is to survive in its current form, it is clear that what is required is more of this kind of outside sponsorship. Indeed, Claudio Domenicali, CEO of Ducati Corse, pointed out as much in his statement at Ducati's annual MotoGP press introduction at Madonna di Campiglio in Italy. "There are also lots of other companies who promote their products through motorcycle racing with the Ducati Marlboro Team such as Alfa Romeo, Gatorade and Puma. Of course these are tough times but there are still plenty of ways to make sure that the MotoGP World Championship remains a leading promotional vehicle," he told the press there. If Ducati can seize these opportunities, then maybe the other teams can too.
FIM Superbike World Championship Provisional list