MotoGP faces the 2009 season assailed from all sides. On the sporting front, they face a rejuvenated and growing World Superbike series, as well as a Formula One season full of intrigue and - gasp - overtaking; On the financial front, budgets are shrinking as sponsors tighten their purse strings to deal with the global economic crisis; On the technical front, rule changes are being hastily introduced in the hope of cutting costs, to loud protest from fans and press alike; And on the manufacturing front, the series lost a major manufacturer and gained a private team, after Kawasaki decided that spending over 50 million euros a year to circulate at the back of the pack was not a wise investment. With criticism rising at emptying grids and a lack of overtaking, and the prospect of MotoGP's Sun King retiring in the not too distant future, the sense of crisis that pervades the series is almost palpable.
And yet there is so much to be optimistic about this year. The series fields arguably the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, still at the height of his powers and being pushed to the limits of his exceptional talent by the fastest motorcycle racer on the planet. It features a brace of Spaniards with the talent to usurp the two men who dominated the series last year. A veteran star returns to the grid bringing the promise of excitement, to add to the improved chances of series veterans switching to more competitive equipment. In their third year, development on the 800cc machines is starting to plateau, the performance differences between the machines now less painfully obvious. The single tire rule introduced for this season looks like confounding the naysayers - including your humble correspondent - by proving to be perfectly workable and as fair as can be expected.
So despite the crisis, and the complaints that MotoGP is growing boring, there is every reason to hope that the racing will be closer this year, and some of the excitement that has been mostly absent for the past two seasons could make a welcome return to the series. For as much as the series looks familiar this season, there have been some radical changes since the teams last packed away their bikes at the end of the Valencia Grand Prix in October.
First and foremost of these is the switch to a single tire supplier. The move was made in an attempt to cut costs and reign in the relentless pace of tire development, to stop the bikes from smashing lap records year on year, and to level the playing field. Drawing up the balance of preseason testing, it has only been partially successful.
Costs have definitely been cut, but only for the teams. With Bridgestone now paying for development and production out of its own pocket, the series now acting more as a marketing opportunity rather than a development test bed. So far, lap times have been anything but cut, with lap records falling over the winter on the new tires, but this is hardly a surprise, given the strength of Bridgestone's tires at the end of last season.
An unintended consequence of having everyone on the same tires is that the level playing field only accentuates the differences in rider skill, meaning Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi are leading the rest by an even bigger margin than before. Ironically, the more you emphasize rider skill, the bigger the gaps between the great riders and the merely good, and the less close the racing gets.
If there is one lesson that could be taken from the history of single tire rules, it is that the rules are only really successful in making the racing closer when a new entrant or a weak competitor is awarded the contract. When Pirelli was given the World Superbike deal, they were the worst of the tire manufacturers providing tires to the series, and being comprehensively beaten by Dunlop and Michelin. It took many years for the lap records from before the rule change to be beaten, and development has been slow indeed, making luck and tire management important factors, and keeping the racing exciting. Perhaps Dunlop should have been awarded MotoGP contract after all...
Not On Track
The most visible change will be the reduction of practice time, and the loss of Friday morning. A boon to the fans - who will be given better access to the previously hermetically sealed MotoGP paddock and a chance to get up close and personal with their heroes and idols. But the loss of an hour of track time makes it harder for rookies to get up to speed in the class, and is likely to be used by potential sponsors as an argument for reducing the sums they pay, in proportion to the amount of possible exposure available to them. In reality, the amount of exposure lost will be fairly minimal, as the morning practices were never televised anyway. Unfortunately, business deals - and especially sponsorship deals - rarely reflect reality, but rather the ability of one side to outmaneuver the other. Just ask Rizla Suzuki.
So in this Brave New World, who can we expect to prosper, and who will end up as the Epsilon Minuses? Who will adapt to the new rules, and who will find themselves swept aside by the tide of history, to linger forgotten like a child's toy in a drawer? Let us review the prospects for each rider, and how the manufacturers will cope.
Hayate - The Fallen Hero
After it was announced that the moribund Kawasaki would return as the Hayate team, the bike was expected to be more like Frankenstein's monster, rather than a Phoenix rising from the flames, an impression reinforced at the dismal Qatar test in March. But at the IRTA test at Jerez, Marco Melandri put the Hai-Karate bike, as wags have labeled it, firmly mid-pack. Solutions had been found to the lack of rear traction which had troubled the bike at Qatar and all last season, and suddenly, Melandri was 12th fastest on the weekend, instead of 18th.
More significantly, Melandri looked happier than he ever did at Ducati, and for a rider as sensitive as Macio is, this is a big deal. After the tests, the Italian told the press that his situation was totally different than it had been at Ducati, that he understood the limited support the team would get from Kawasaki, and that he felt more comfortable on the bike than he had for years. In the right frame of mind, Melandri is capable of working wonders, even on inferior equipment, and we just might get to see that Melandri once again this year.
The question mark over the entire project is the support that Kawasaki will provide over the season. Development of the bike stopped after the tests at Jerez, as the factory had previously announced. But it is still uncertain for how long they will continue to provide parts. When the Kawasaki pullout was announced, Michel Bartholemy said that the factory had enough parts to run a two-bike team for 4 - 6 races, which would leave Hayate just short of enough engines to last the year fielding just a single rider. With the reduction in practice times, and a little help from the factory, Hayate should just be able to see out the season. Though with no development on the bike, Melandri is likely to find himself slipping back through the field as the season progresses. He can only hope that he impresses someone enough to get another chance at a seat for 2010.
Suzuki - The Dragon Awakes
Over at Suzuki, the team are back in pendulum mode. Suzuki seem to have a strange internal biorhythm which sees them improving one year, only to fall back again the next. 2009 finds Suzuki back on the upswing again, the team showing very strongly in preseason testing. Most notable of all, though, is where Suzuki have been strong: Everywhere. In previous years, Suzuki showed well at Qatar, only to be well down the field at Phillip Island. This preseason, though, Suzuki have been in or close to the top 5 at every track they've visited, including the bogey Phillip Island, where they have never been able to perform. The Suzuki looks like a genuine threat this season.
Which will come as a relief to their riders. No longer the veteran of the paddock, Loris Capirossi is still capable of competing. Though winless last year, Capirex is a podium regular, even on inferior equipment. The Italian was hampered last year by an under-performing Suzuki, but still managed to take a third at Brno. Capirossi has also managed to avoid injury, traditionally his weak spot, and a healthy Capirex on competitive equipment is a force to be reckoned with, as he showed in 2006, before the big crash at Catalunya ended his title chances. The Italian won't be winning the championship this year, but he should feature regularly on the podium.
He could be joined there by team mate Chris Vermeulen. The Australian is a proven winner in the wet, though he loathes the label, and if it rains, Vermeulen automatically becomes a candidate for victory. But it's not just in the wet that Vermeulen is capable. His record at Laguna Seca, for example, is outstanding, a podium regular and unlucky to have coolant problems ruin his chances of a win in 2006. But at Misano, too, Vermeulen is extremely capable, and at a number of tracks, the Australian is going to be the man to watch.
Yamaha - The New Boss
As strong as Suzuki are, they still have a long way to go to match the might of Yamaha. Since the beginning of last season, the Yamaha has become what the Honda used to be: Fast, reliable, and the bike that anyone can ride quickly. Three of Yamaha's four riders got on the box last year, and the M1 won ten of the eighteen MotoGP rounds. Though the bike is still down a little on top speed, its previous weakness on drive out of corners has been addressed, and the M1 now loses little or nothing to the Ducati and Honda on corner exit. This year, like last year, the Yamaha is going to be the bike to beat.
And that's not just because of the riders Yamaha has. Of course, put Valentino Rossi on anything, and he will be competitive, at the very least. But on an improved version of the bike he took the championship with last year, Rossi will be almost impossible to beat. It's not just the bike, though: Valentino Rossi just seems to go from strength to strength, getting better almost every year, gaining maturity and racecraft to more than compensate for any loss of youthful reflexes.
The one question hanging over Rossi is his motivation. Rossi lost his first championship to Nicky Hayden after losing his focus in the off season of 2006, and only recovered the title in 2008 after seething at the loss of two titles in a row. Having regained his crown, Rossi has openly spoken of his need to find new goals to help him keep his focus, and has mentioned both the possibility of a wildcard in World Superbikes and his regret at not having joined Ferrari in Formula One, indicating that his mind could well once again be wandering. If Rossi is beaten in 2009, there have to be doubts over whether he will hang around for the second year of his contract.
Fortunately for racing fans, Rossi could find just the motivation he needs facing Casey Stoner, the only man realistically capable of taking the title from Rossi. There is nothing Rossi responds to like a challenge, and the challenge from Stoner is likely to be stronger than ever this year. The Doctor has work cut out for him.
We'll get to the challenge posed by Stoner later, but Rossi could face a threat from much closer to home as well. Jorge Lorenzo, Rossi's Fiat Yamaha team mate, took a little time to adapt to the Bridgestone tires, but at Jerez, it appeared his apprenticeship was complete. The Spaniard set the fastest time on the first day of the Irta test, and was consistently among the front runners. With a win, a string of poles and a handful of podiums last season, Lorenzo's talent is undeniable.
What was more interesting was his attitude at Jerez. Whenever he was asked by journalists what his chances for the championship were in 2009, he always demurred, saying he could hope at best to finish third. But his modesty was purposeful, if not quite contrived, and he never failed to mention that the pressure was on Rossi, Stoner and Dani Pedrosa, rather than himself. "They have to win," he kept repeating, "not me." The look in his eyes, however, said that though he didn't have to win, he surely wanted to. Lorenzo is content to serve as a good team mate to Valentino Rossi, knowing he is Yamaha's future, while Rossi is their present. His chance of a title will come later, but if he gets a whiff of a win, he will take it.
Over in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha garage, the team mate situation is reversed. Last year they were one big happy family, but after the crew chief affair - one is tempted to call it Reyndersgate, as the -gate suffix seems to be back in vogue in racing again - turned the cozy atmosphere sour. In a spat worthy of a preschool playground, Colin Edwards has had a wall put up in the Tech 3 garage, to underline his indignation with James Toseland, after Toseland "kidnapped" his crew chief Garry Reynders at the end of last season. The situation has gotten so far out of hand that Tech 3 boss Herve Poncharal has stepped in, taking Colin aside for a quiet word to ask him to tone down the personal attacks.
The spat seems to have invigorated Edwards. The Texan has quickly adapted to the Bridgestones, the outstanding front tire suiting his 250 style perfectly. As a consequence, Edwards has been strong all throughout testing, and looking competitive. Though we say this every year, this could be the year that Colin Edwards finally gets his first win in MotoGP. But if Edwards leaves Le Mans, Assen and Laguna Seca empty handed, we will have to wait for 2010 to make the same prediction once again.
While Edwards prospers, James Toseland has suffered. The Briton, who started the season so promisingly at Qatar last year, has not coped with the switch to Bridgestones well at all. His times have been mediocre at best during testing, but worse than that, he has suffered a couple of huge crashes, breaking bones and denting his confidence. At Jerez, Toseland was just starting to regain the confidence he lost after his crash at Sepang, when another huge highside saw him knocked briefly unconscious, and broke a bone in his foot. Toseland's contract is up at the end of this year, and unless he gets the podium he probably deserved last year, he could find himself a candidate to return to World Superbikes in 2010. Which may be no bad thing.
Ducati - The Fickle Mistress
While the Yamaha has been the bike to suit any rider, the Ducati continues to be incredibly fast for those who master its idiosyncrasies, and utterly terrifying for those who don't. Though the new carbon-fiber swing arm seems to have cured the rear-wheel pumping the Ducati suffers from, making it marginally less intimidating on corner exit, the electronics and the sensitivity to setup changes provide a set of challenges all of their own. The use of specific fuel mapping for different parts of the track means that the bike responds differently at different corners, making it a confusing and difficult bike to ride to the limit.
Difficult for everyone except one man, that is. The 2007 World Champion Casey Stoner has mastered the Ducati Desmosedici like no one else, and can bend the GP9 to his will, exploiting its incredible power and fantastic drive out of corners to completely slay the field. Stoner is fast from the moment the bike rolls off the truck and onto the track, to the moment he enters parc ferme at the end of the race, all too often to stand on the top step of the podium. There truly is no faster man on the face of the planet.
With the GP9's carbon fiber frame providing another step up in performance, Casey Stoner could well turn out to be as unstoppable in 2009 as he was in 2007. Though Stoner has many detractors - his simple, straightforward demeanor rubs fans of the flamboyant Rossi up the wrong way - his return to form sets up the most mouthwatering clash in motorcycle racing. Stoner's incredible pace will push Valentino Rossi to the very limit if Rossi wants to be the immovable object blocking the Australian's unstoppable force, and the season offers the prospect of the breathtaking knife fight of Laguna Seca '08 being played out several more times this season. It will take every weapon in Valentino Rossi has in his armory to beat Casey Stoner, and even then, victory is far from assured. This year, the two best motorcycle racers on the planet will face each other on comparable equipment, both with their sights set on victory. It's going to be a spectacle worth waiting for.
If we had a foretaste of the racing that we could be seeing at the Laguna Seca round last year, two rounds later, we had a foretaste of the thing that could ruin any chance of seeing a repeat. Casey Stoner reopened an old scaphoid fracture at Misano, and rode the rest of the season in pain, before having an operation to fix the problem in November.
Since Stoner has returned to testing, all eyes have been eagerly examining the timesheets, to gauge whether the Australian is capable of running race distance yet. So far, Stoner has been very cagey about the subject, retorting to any questions on the subject with the phrase "I don't need an endurance test." For the sake of the series, MotoGP needs Casey Stoner to be racing with a healthy wrist. For if he is fit, then the epic match-up between the 2007 and 2008 World Champions will be on.
As for the 2006 World Champion, he is at least glad to be out of the hornet's nest that is the Repsol Honda garage. But that doesn't make the Marlboro Ducati garage a much easier place. At least the atmosphere is more to Nicky Hayden's liking, a family environment suiting the family man that Hayden is at heart.
It's not the team that is the problem, though. Like almost every other mortal on the planet, Nicky Hayden is finding the Ducati GP9 a hard beast to tame. At Jerez, Hayden looked downcast, as he struggled to understand how to get the best out of the machine, but he keeps scratching away at the problem, trying to get some leverage on the issues he has. Though Hayden may not be able to ride the bike like Stoner does, he will find a way to at least make a decent stab at it. He won't be winning the title this year, but he should be closer to the pointy end than he has been for the past couple of years.
The Pramac Ducati team - in reality, more of a junior factory team than a satellite operation - faces exactly the same issues. Apart from a single fast lap during the dash for the car at Jerez, Mika Kallio has struggled with the Ducati as much, if not more, than Nicky Hayden. A lot has been made of that single fast lap, but so far, the rest of Kallio's times have not been anywhere near the rest of the field. The step up from 250s may still be bigger leap than we think, especially if you are leaping on to the Ducati.
His team mate Niccolo Canepa at least has had plenty of time on the bike. Employed as one of Ducati's test riders last year, the 20 year-old Italian has not so much struggled with the bike, as with the transition from part-time student to full-time MotoGP rider. Ducati have said that only Canepa, Stoner and test rider Vito Guareschi are capable of riding the GP9 the way that its designer, Filippo Preziosi meant it to be ridden. So far, Canepa has not shown much sign of that in testing, but the year is still young yet.
The same cannot be said of Sete Gibernau. The 36 year-old Spaniard makes a return to racing after two years away from MotoGP, after a shoulder injury forced him into retirement. But a divorce and enough time for his injury to heal has seen Gibernau make a return to MotoGP, much to the excitement of the Spanish press and Gibernau's still large fan base.
Testing has shown that Gibernau is still capable of riding fast - though more mid-pack rather than podium pace - but two questions hang over the Spaniard. The first is whether his shoulder will hold up to a full season of racing. Problems have already emerged, and Gibernau said during testing that it wasn't yet strong enough to run a full race. Even a relatively minor crash could damage Gibernau's shoulder enough to rule him out for a number of races, and a big crash could end his career. Given Gibernau's history of taking a tumble - ironically, often through no fault of his own - there are very good odds that he won't see out the season.
The other question for the Spaniard is why he would want to be associated with a brutal dictator. After the bikes were unveiled at Jerez, all mention of Equatorial Guinea (a country run by Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, one of the most corrupt dictators in Africa and a man with a reputation for murdering any opposition he faces) had been removed, the bike instead bearing a rather fetching color scheme. Many - including this commentator - were fooled, until someone pointed out that the paint scheme neatly matched the flag of Equatorial Guinea, the country where Francisco Hernando - of the eponymous Grupo, and a man with a reputation for dubious business practice himself - is building a luxury resort for unwitting Spanish tourists. Gibernau needs neither the money nor the stain on his character which comes from being associated with such misdeeds.
Honda - The Crumbling Giant
Perhaps the most surprising conclusion to be drawn from the off season is that the Honda suffers from the same ailment as the Ducati. Just as at Ducati, there has been only one rider to make a dent in the timesheets. While Dani Pedrosa has been able to match the pace of Stoner and Rossi, the rest of the Honda riders, including Andrea Dovizioso and Toni Elias who are both on factory-spec RC212Vs, have been a significant chunk of time off the leaders. For the factory bikes, the problem seems to be one of power delivery: the Honda makes plenty of horsepower, but it comes in abruptly and aggressively, making it hard to control. While for the satellite machines, the rev-limited machines leave the bikes down on power compared to the rest of the field, though the softer power delivery makes it easier to keep up.
As is the case at Ducati, the Honda's aggressive power delivery doesn't seem to affect Dani Pedrosa. The diminutive Spaniard has been fast at every session he has attended. Which is not as many as he would have liked to: Pedrosa was forced to miss the IRTA Test at Jerez in March, after a huge highside at the night tests at Qatar saw him fracture his wrist and reopen a knee injury, requiring surgery to close it back up again. Though his recovery is proceeding as expected, Dani Pedrosa's condition is still far from certain. Indeed, as I write this, less than 24 hours before the first free practice session is due to start, it remains uncertain whether Pedrosa will actually ride. The Spaniard has limited motion in his knee, and even if he does race, he will be far from fully fit.
Pedrosa's crash also highlights the problems Honda are still having adapting the bike to the Bridgestones. Compared to the Michelins, the Bridgestones have a much better front but a slightly worse rear tire, meaning that the weight distribution of the bike needs to be completely reworked. Because the front tire has so much more grip, it needs less weight on it, while the rear needs more to compensate for the reduced grip of the rear Bridgestone tire. Pedrosa's highside suggests that HRC still haven't found the correct balance yet, and too little rear grip caused the bike to catapult Pedrosa out of the saddle and into the hospital.
This is exactly the kind of start that Pedrosa doesn't need. Pedrosa was recruited by Repsol and Honda to bring a championship to Spain, and so far he has failed to deliver. He enters his fourth season under heavy rumors that this will be his last with the factory Honda team if he doesn't take the title, a very heavy burden to place on such slight shoulders. Adding insult to injury, it was in Nicky Hayden's fourth season that he won Honda's last championship. If Pedrosa should fail where the man that he and his mentor have accused of being unable to set up a bike succeeded, he will be given his marching orders.
The question of whether or not this is fair is reasonable, but irrelevant. Repsol put a very substantial amount of money into the Honda team, with the goal of maximizing exposure in their home market in Spain. Fairness and reason simply do not enter into the equation: If Pedrosa cannot get the job done, another Spanish rider will be found to tackle the task.
The main thing that Repsol refuses to take into consideration here is the competition that Pedrosa faces. Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi are the best riders of their respective generations, and as talented as Pedrosa is, on a bike that still isn't matching the pace of the Ducati and the Yamaha, the task of beating them may be too great. Pedrosa is being called upon to fight Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson with one hand tied behind his back.
In previous years, Pedrosa at least had an experienced rider at his side to help with development - leaving aside the aspersions cast by Pedrosa and his mentor Alberto Puig on Nicky Hayden's abilities in that area. This season, Pedrosa has a man who, despite his obvious talent, has never had the chance to develop a bike in a full fat factory team. So far, Andrea Dovizioso's talent has been to take an under-performing satellite bike (or in his 250 days, a bike on which development had effectively ceased) and squeeze the last drop of speed out of it to make it surprisingly competitive. He has had astounding results with this approach, giving Jorge Lorenzo a run for his money in the 250s aboard a vastly underpowered Honda, and then putting the Scot Honda on the podium at Sepang, a place where the most standard of the satellite Hondas had no business to be.
The question is, do those same skills translate into the ability to develop a bike in a factory team? As a satellite rider, Dovizioso has shown himself a master of tweaking a fixed set of parameters to get the best out of a bike. But in a factory role, Dovi now has the opportunity to alter the parameters themselves, before trying to tweak the new setup they provide.
So far, Dovizioso has been perhaps a little disappointing, but only because of the very high expectations he raised with his 2008 performance. Dovi has been firmly mid-pack, sometimes a little better, but he has not been running at the front, where it would be reasonable to expect to see the Repsol Hondas. And with Pedrosa injured, a lot of the development work has fallen on Dovizioso's still young shoulders.
To his credit, Dovi has remained calm and unflustered. His quiet intelligence and rather introverted nature are assets in the role he has taken upon himself as a factory Honda rider. We shall see how he copes as the season progresses.
The other rider who could help with bike development is Toni Elias at Gresini Honda. The Spaniard is undeniably fast, and has on occasion featured near the top of the timesheets during testing, but Elias faces a serious problem with the new tire rules. Because he is so small and light - only a fraction taller and heavier than the diminutive Dani Pedrosa - Elias is having enormous problems getting heat into the front Bridgestone. Before the single tire rule came out, Elias was having a special front made for him with a softer carcass, which heated more quickly by deforming more. But as all the tires are the same now - only one construction and two compounds will be available at each race - Elias no longer has that option. And as the tires being used are based on the tires developed for Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi, both of whom favor a much stiffer construction, Elias faces a problem.
Ever cheerful even in the face of adversity, Toni Elias will have to find a way to deal with these problems. The fact that he has managed to get close to the fastest riders during testing on occasion suggests that though Elias is unlikely to mount a consistent title challenge, he should be capable of getting on a few podiums this year. The man may lack consistency, but he surely has talent.
Off The Beaten Track
The same could be said of his team mate Alex de Angelis. The man from San Marino is mercurial indeed, capable of getting close to the podium one race, whilst crashing out first lap the next. The key task for De Angelis this year will be to finish more races, and only then try and improve his results. No one doubts his speed, they just doubt his ability to stay aboard the bike every race. De Angelis badly needs to improve in this area, if he is to stay in MotoGP. Fausto Gresini, manager of the Gresini team, has a great deal of faith in the young Italian, but is all too aware of de Angelis' limitations.
What Alex de Angelis can do, Randy de Puniet can do better. The Frenchman has shown both on the Kawasaki and on the LCR Honda that he is more than capable of running at the front of races, but de Puniet has two problems: Endurance and consistency. All too often, de Puniet qualifies well or finishes well up the order during practice, but examine the times, and you see that his fast time was a single fast lap, or one of just a couple. In races, too, the same pattern appears: De Puniet runs fast for the first part of a race, before fading. Whether this is a matter of fitness or of motivation is unknown, but if he could fix this problem, it would be a big step on the way to fulfilling his potential.
De Puniet's other problem is his consistency - though a cynic may say that he is all too consistent. As anyone taking part in a fantasy league which requires you to pick the first rider not to finish knows, Randy de Puniet (along with Alex de Angelis) are money in the bank. De Puniet's strike rate is improving, finishing more races this year than last, but he still manages to crash far too often. This point is illustrated by an interesting statistic: Randy de Puniet has yet to complete a single full race lap at Misano. So far, both times MotoGP has visited the track, de Puniet has crashed out on the first lap. He will have to do something about that if he is to ever be competitive.
Of course, one factor keeping de Puniet in MotoGP is his nationality - though his talent also plays an immensely greater role. For Yuki Takahashi, this is even more the case, as the Japanese factories - and especially Honda - want a Japanese rider on the MotoGP grid. Unfortunately, their record has not been good in the series, and the same looks to be true for Takahashi. While he was impressive in the 250s, he has seemed out of his depth on a MotoGP bike, and has so far been a firm fixture at the bottom of the timesheets, along with Pramac's Niccolo Canepa. Takahashi needs a lot more time to adapt to the bike, but will at least have some support from Honda while he acclimatizes.
The irony is that while the factories have struggled to find a competitive Japanese rider in MotoGP, World Superbikes seems to have plenty. Both Noriyuki Haga and Yukio Kagayama have proven to be extremely competitive in the production-based series, with Haga the hot favorite for the WSBK title this year. Meanwhile, a string of riders coming up through 125s and 250s has failed completely to make a mark in MotoGP, with Makoto Tamada the last Japanese winner in the series.
MotoGP was already having problems raising the money to field a full grid when the economy was doing well, and the global economic crisis has left the series in a very precarious situation indeed. Looking ahead to the 2009 season, there are reasons to hope and reasons to despair, with no way yet of telling which way the dice will fall.
The reasons for despair are obvious, and have been discussed at length here and elsewhere. The change to the 800cc formula raised costs almost exponentially, whilst simultaneously ruining the racing and failing to fix the safety issues they were meant to address. The increased expense has focused minds back at the factories on the rationale for MotoGP, which basically only serves as a marketing showcase for their technological prowess. Other factories may decide, as Kawasaki has, that spending upwards of 60 million dollars a year to be lose in the must public of arenas may not represent a sensible investment of their marketing budget, and pull out of the series as well.
There is every reason to fear this could happen. Over the winter, rumors emerged that both Suzuki and Honda would withdraw from MotoGP, with both factories eventually making public statements that they decided to stay in the series because their racing heritage obliged them to be in MotoGP. With sales of motorcycles continuing to fall, and the Japanese economy in long-term trouble, the racing heritage line will start carrying less and less weight. While MotoGP could probably survive the withdrawal of Suzuki, if Honda went, the blow would be fatal.
And the omens are not good. Honda's CEO, Takeo Fukui, is due to step down in June, to make way for Takanobu Ito. Fukui worked his way up the company through years spent in HRC, and had motorcycle racing almost in his blood. Ito comes to the helm of Honda from Honda's car R&D department, and has never spent time in the motorcycle racing division. Ito's view of motorcycle racing is likely to be very, very different indeed. If Honda fails to secure a title once again this season - and with Dani Pedrosa starting the season still seriously injured, that is an entirely realistic scenario - then Honda may decide that their investment in MotoGP is not giving them the return they require, and pull out. There is a palpable fear in the MotoGP paddock that it would be all too easy for HRC to take this step, leaving the series with only 11 bikes on the grid next year, with the Hayate gone too.
In the short term, this would be disastrous for MotoGP, but in the long term, it could be the saving of the system. The more manufacturers there are in the series, the more competitive it becomes, and the more the teams have to spend to win. The more they spend, the more imperative it becomes to win, and costs spiral out of control in a vicious circle, whatever the regulator - in the shape of the FIM - tries to do. With Honda, one of the biggest spending of the factories, out of the equation, the remaining factories could slow the vertiginous pace of development, bringing the costs back under control. Out of the ashes, a new series could rise, hopefully cheaper and more stable.
Reasons To Be Cheerful
Of course, none of this is a foregone conclusion. An exciting year with close battles could once again raise the profile and the adrenaline levels in the series, and money could start flooding into MotoGP. Despite the developments of the bikes - almost every rider has described racing an 800cc MotoGP bike as like "playing a video game on fast forward" - the 2009 season shows plenty of promise.
The Yamaha has improved enough to get close to matching the pace of the Ducati, helping to level the playing field. Valentino Rossi has found the tools he needs to beat Casey Stoner, whilst showing Casey Stoner exactly what those tools are. Stoner is anticipating all of Rossi's moves, and is ready to counter them. The two men are at the height of their powers, and neither is willing to give a nanometer to the other. There is every reason to expect that this year, more races will turn into the kind of heart-stopping knife-edge battles we saw at Laguna Seca last year. Stoner is fractionally faster than Rossi, but Rossi is the marginally better racer. They will be pushing each other beyond the limits of endurance right to the end of the season. Barring accident and injury, the title chase could go down to the wire.
Though there appear to be only two genuine title candidates, there are plenty of exciting developments going on behind Rossi and Stoner as well. Jorge Lorenzo had a stellar rookie year, and this year will be even better, and could be capable of matching the title duo's pace, stealing valuable points and making the championship a complicated and tricky affair. Dani Pedrosa is a proven talent who is riding for his contract, if not for his career. And with Alvaro Bautista and Marco Simoncelli poised to enter the class next year, there are a host of riders fighting to keep their places in MotoGP.
If MotoGP is to survive, it needs a season of fireworks. There is very good reason to expect just that.