Two unrelated themes dominated the 2009 MotoGP season: Cost-cutting and the Rise of the Aliens. Drastic reductions in testing, a limited number of engines and the dropping of Friday morning practice were all aimed at turning the Niagara Falls of cash the series consumes into a more manageable torrent. Meanwhile Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi and Casey Stoner took a near whitewash of podiums, cleaning up 44 of the 51 rostrum spots available during the year.
2010 is likely to continue where 2009 left off, but these two different aspects are on a collision course, due for impact around midsummer this year. For though the manufacturers and teams continue to meet in the Grand Prix Commission, to discuss further ways of trimming the costs of racing, the fact that the contracts of the four finest riders of their generation all expire at the end of the season will unleash a bidding war unlike anything ever seen in MotoGP.
The Aliens, as Loris Capirossi has dubbed them, already command the lion's share of rider salaries in the series. Numbers are hard - if not impossible - to come by, but Valentino Rossi alone probably earns more than all of the riders except the Aliens combined, and Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Stoner will each earn many times the salary of any of the other Mortals. It may not be fair, but given that the Aliens won every race but one and hogged 86% of podiums this year, it is the only guarantee of getting your bike and your sponsors onto TV. Success sells, and without an Alien on your bike, success is a very scarce commodity indeed.
So sometime around June, hostilities in the Great Contract War of 2010 will start in earnest. A four-way fencing match will commence with a few carefully-placed feints from the Fiat Yamaha garage, as Valentino Rossi considers the various - highly lucrative - options available to him. These maneuvers will come in the guise of an innocent comment in a pre-event press conference, but they will trigger a frenzy of speculation and rumor as the pundits rush to interpret what the man who moves MotoGP meant. Was it a prelude to retirement? Did Rossi hint at a switch to Formula One? Could it herald the move that all of Italy has been praying for, that Rossi will finally do his name justice, and switch to Ducati for 2011?
On the other side of the Fiat Yamaha garage, Jorge Lorenzo will be working on Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis, angling for control and a lead role in the development of the M1, under threat of defection. The Spaniard will resume the open flirting with both Honda and Ducati he suspended in August last year, bought off with the promises of equal treatment with Rossi he had wanted from Yamaha management.
At Ducati, Casey Stoner will continue to blitz the competition on the GP10, while keeping an eye on the machinations at Yamaha. Over at Repsol Honda, if Dani Pedrosa isn't within a handful of points of the championship lead, both HRC and Pedrosa will be studying other options. Honda will be busy courting Jorge Lorenzo, while Livio Suppo argues the case for Casey Stoner to his new bosses at HRC. Dani Pedrosa will be watching the situation at Yamaha, and wondering whether replacing Lorenzo at Yamaha will be easier than replacing Stoner at Ducati.
Despite their public pronouncements that they will not be drawn into a bidding war, the factory teams will start offering larger and larger sums to attract a rider capable of winning a championship, using the 8 million euros a year Phillip Morris offered Jorge Lorenzo last year as their guide. More significant, though, is Livio Suppo's move to Honda: The Italian, who as one insider put every sticker on the Ducati, has been hired by Honda to do the same trick for them. Repsol may be a loyal supporter of HRC, but they are hardly a generous one, and Honda will need the extra income from sponsorship if it is to outbid Ducati for the services of Jorge Lorenzo or Casey Stoner. Let alone attract Valentino Rossi back into the fold.
By early September, when the paddock returns from Indianapolis, the war should be largely over. Lorenzo will have been tempted away to HRC by promises of lead rider status; Pedrosa will have given up on Honda and be headed to Ducati; and Suppo will have failed to tempt Stoner away from Bologna, as the Australian gets close to securing his second world championship. Rossi will be happy to see the back of his Spanish teammate, though less so about his Texan replacement, and delighted with the extra salary he leveraged out of Yamaha to convince him to stay.
When the smoke clears, and the balance is drawn up, the cost of competing in MotoGP will have risen yet again. Despite the endless search for ways to cut costs, the wage bill for the top four riders will have nearly doubled, completely dwarfing the few paltry million the factories will have saved with previous measures. For it is not just the talent of Rossi, Lorenzo, Stoner and Pedrosa that is out of this world. Their salaries are just as astronomical, but that is the price of success.