MotoGP silly season….an early look at how the grid could lineup in 2012

The MotoGP season silly is in full swing at the minute with the majority of riders out of contract at the end of the season.

Even so there looks set to be fluidity in the rider market with little changes taking place throughout the grid. The news that Casey Stoner will retire has rightly dominated the headlines in recent months and it will obviously play a crucial role in what pans out over the course of the next six months.

Jorge Lorenzo’s Silverstone announcement of extending his stay at Yamaha by a further two years was as much an indication in his confidence with the YZR-M1 as it was an implication of his lack of confidence in Honda rectifying the chatter issues that are present in the RCV213.

With Stoner out of the equation Lorenzo was the hottest ticket in town but having spent five seasons on the Yamaha he has moulded the bike to his requirements and is riding superbly. For Yamaha the deal made perfect sense.

Lorenzo is well placed to dominate the sport for the coming years and having joined Yamaha in 2008 as a 250cc champion his basic wage was quite low compared to his rivals.

Even when Valentino Rossi left the team at the end of 2010 Lorenzo’s contract, while much improved, was not in the ballparkofRossi’s. Yamaha has availed of a cheap contract for five year’s with Lorenzo and the Spaniard has comprehensively outperformed his pay scale.

With the Spaniard also a tireless marketing worker it is clear the value that he offers Yamaha at the minute. His new deal will offer him much improved wages and should reflect his position as the leading rider on the MotoGP grid.

With so many riders out of contract there are few certainties within the paddock for 2013 but with the rookie rule looking set to be abolished it is now all but certain that Marc Marquez will sign with the Repsol Honda team as Stoner’s replacement.

The former 125cc champion has not been as dominant as expected in Moto2 this year but his talent in unquestionable and having raced with Repsol support in recent years there is now nothing standing in his way of continuing that alliance.

How well he adapts to racing in premier class remains to be seen but he can take heart from his likely teammate, Dani Pedrosa. The pair will form one of the smallest tandems of riders ever in the premier class but it has not stopped Pedrosa from being a perennial contender.

Injuries have held him back but there is no doubt that he can still be a champion. With Marquez coming on board at Repsol Pedrosa will know that he has only one or two years in which to clinch the crown before the team lose patience with him.

If Stoner had remained in the class it is likely that Pedrosa would have been the odd man out and forced to look elsewhere for his ride. As it is he will now be the focus of development work for improving the ill handling RCV and as shown in the past he is a very proficient test rider.

With the Repsol Honda’s line-ups all but certain to be confirmed in the coming weeks the focus will shift towards who Yamaha look to pair with Lorenzo.

Ben Spies form in 2012 has been abysmal and there is little reason to contemplate a scenario where the Texan remains in a factory ride at present. He needs to sharply improve his form if he is to even begin justifying being involved in the conversation.

With Andrea Dovizioso having stood on the rostrum as a satellite rider and having past experience riding for a factory squad the Italian is well placed to jump to the factory seat.

Dovizioso brings with him an established record as a leading rider but one that will not be able to maintain his form over the full season.

With Yamaha set to pay Lorenzo big-bucks in 2013 they are expecting for the Spaniard to win the title. If they can pair him with an affordable Dovizioso it makes a lot of sense for the manufacturer.

Dovizioso is unlikely to take points off Lorenzo at more than a handful of races but his speed will allow him to consistently finish on the podium, as he did last year. In doing so he is likely to take points away from the likes of Pedrosa and allow Lorenzo to have races where he can easily outscore his expected championship rival.

Having two lead riders did not work for Yamaha with Lorenzo and Rossi. The infighting within the squad was immense and it is unlikely that Lin Jarvis would be willing to take such a risk again in the future.

If Dovizioso does move to the factory Yamaha squad it leaves a space available with Tech3. The team announced last year that Bradley Smith would be racing for them in the premier class from 2013 onwards but with the Englishman struggling in Moto2 the question has to be asked as to whether Tech3 will honour the contract or not

Lin Jarvis is an intelligent man and with the Tech3 ride now one of the most prized on the grid it is of little value to have a midfield Moto2 runner on the bike.

Smith is a talented rider but his time in Moto2 has made some things abundantly clear. He is not capable of racing at his best in a tightly contested race. On a clear track he is immensely fast but when racing in a pack he all too frequently falls to the pace of the group and is unable to move through the pack.

With Cal Crutchlow racing so well there is also little commercial reason to promote Smith from the Moto2 team.Englandand theUKis a valuable market for MotoGP but having both riders from the region offers little value to the sponsors of Tech3 and in that instance there is little reason to replace Crutchlow.

He has outperformed expectations this year and shown himself to be a genuine leading runner in the class. Losing him to another factory would be a mistake for Yamaha and while he would not be on a factory bike there are little options that would give Crutchlow a more competitive ride in 2013.

The only factory that would be willing to hire Crutchlow would be Ducati but with Bologna having proved a graveyard of racers in recent years there is little value for Cal to risk moving to the squad.

Ducati will confirm Nicky Hayden in the near future with the American having ridden very well for the factory and playing a key role in their attempts to conquer the American market.

The other side of the Ducati garage however has ever increasing question marks hanging over it.

Rossi has endured a miserable two seasons with the team and it is now only in the wet that fans catch a glimpse of his talents. Once the track surface dries Rossi is a midfield runner unable to cure the chronic handling issues affecting the Ducati.

Having joined the team under the mantra that he would rectify the handling problems and make the Ducati rideable for everyone he now looks more and more impatient and simply wants to win races again.

With it perfectly clear that he cannot do so on a Ducati the nine times world champion faces a difficult decision. Does he, for the first time in his career, admit defeat and look to move to a team that can supply him with a more competitive bike or does he remain at Ducati?

With Ducati and Rossi having tried numerous solutions to the problems that have besieged the factory in the last two years-including dropping the carbon chassis and no longer having the chassis as a stressed member of the chassis-it is clear that neither party is able to solve the problems.

Maybe five years ago Rossi would have been inclined to stay with the team and try and solve the problems but he has clearly realised that his time at the top is nearing an end and he needs to be on a bike that will allow him to win races.

The only likely thing that would keep Rossi at Ducati is money. The Italian firm is the only team that has the resources and willingness to pay Rossi the kind of wage that he has grown accustomed to.

For Ducati it is crucial that they win races with Rossi otherwise their two year relationship will be remembered as far more than an on track failure. It will also be remembered as having one of the biggest knock on effects for a factory with the new superbike, the Panigale, having also suffered as a result of their tenure together.

The bike has sold well but its reputation took a battering with the decision not to use it in World Superbikes this season.

With Carlos Checa continuing to race the 1198 it is clear that the Spaniard, and the Althea team, no longer had the confidence to try and develop the bike. Using numerous features derived from the MotoGP bike it was clear that Checa felt that he would also be unable to do justice to the theory behind the machine.

Althea’s decision showed a lack of confidence in racing a bike that had the engine as a stressed member of the chassis, it is possible that this is a decision not directly related to Rossi’s failure aboard the MotoGP bike, but with Carlos not regarded as a development rider it would be of little surprise if he thought he would be unable to solve the problems.

Superbikes are made to “race on Sunday and sell on Monday” but the factories inability to race the Panigale has to have had a negative impact on their reputation and sales. If Rossi leaves it is likely that this reputation would fall even further.

As a result Ducati are motivated to retain the Italian and give him a bike that he can win races but over two year’s it seems quite clear that Rossi has lost confidence in the team’s ability to get the job done.

His wet weather riding shows that he can still compete at the front but only if he has a bike to match his talent.

What bike could that be? It seems that only a Honda or Yamaha would fit the bill. With Rossi having firmly burnt his bridges with both factories and left them in a cloud of acrimony there is little chance of a reunion with the factory team but both Japanese manufacturers would be foolish to underestimate the value that having Valentino race a “factory supported” bike would offer.

He is still the biggest draw in the sport and the only rider who has transcended MotoGP in decades. With his next contract likely to be his last having him finish his career aboard one of your bikes would leave a lasting impression.

It is similar to Yamaha’s current MotoGP ambassador, Giacomo Agostini. Ago spent only three years on Yamaha machinery yet for many current fans it is easily forgotten that he raced the majority of his career aboard the MV Augusta. Finishing his career on a Yamaha left a much greater impression over the last fourty years.

With both manufacturers unwilling to hire him to their factory team they might be inclined to lease machinery to a single bike team featuring Rossi. That way the positive publicity of Rossi can still be had without the complication of having him as one of their riders.

With rumours having abounded that Rossi’s ever present companion, Alessio “Uccio” Salucci, was to form a Moto2 team in the past it is clear that Rossi has toyed with the idea of team management in the past. Would he be willing to do so again?

Necessity may force his hand in the coming months and a team may need to be formed. It would also allow Rossi to retain the services of his crew of mechanics and perhaps offer some of them a more prominent role within teams than would be possible within a factory squad.

If Rossi did set up his own squad it is clear that they would have little issue raising the necessary funding for a single bike entry, or indeed a two bike team. The Italian was crucial to FIAT sponsorship at the factory Yamaha squad and companies would line up at the door to be related to the nine times world champion.

The Miller group, who own the Peroni brand, would be a potential sponsor and one that would renew a relationship seen in Rossi’s debut 500cc season 12 years ago. Other possible link ups would be to renew the FIAT connection as well the potential for Alitalia to sponsor the Italian superstar. The airliner is currently the sponsor of the Aprilia WSBK team and clearly understands the value of motorsport sponsorship.

Finance should not be an issue and with Rossi able to use the team as a launch pad to his next career as a team manager the idea could be very appealing to him. While a single bike entry is the most likely scenario with the potential for large sponsorship deals it is clear that Valentino might be able to field a two bike team with a young Italian like Andrea Iannone a potential teammate.

The Moto2 riders speed is not in question and while Moto2 hasn’t allowed him to consistently race at the front he has clearly displayed the speed needed to race in the premier class and he would be sought after in the premier class.

With LCR Honda having a firm contract for Stefan Bradl and Bautista firmly ensconced at Gresini it is clear that for Rossi there is little alternative to Ducati or creating a new team.

The second Tech3 ride alongside Cal Crutchlow, should the Englishman decide to remain with the team, will obviously be the most sought after ride in the field.

The Yamaha is clearly the best bike at the minute and the satellite bike has been very quick this year so they will have a paddock full of suitors and should be able to pick and choose their rider.

With Tech3 having run Ben Spies in his rookie campaign, 2010, prior to his move to the factory squad they are very aware of his talent. Having claimed a pole position at Indy as a rookie he impressed immensely racing for the French team and they would view a team of Spies and Crutchlow as a very positive pairing.

It would show just how much progress the team has made in recent year and is now firmly established as one of the best in the paddock.

It would be ironic that in the same season that the so-called “Ben Spies” rookie rule is rescinded that he would lose his race seat with a factory team to return to a satellite squad but it might be the best option for the American to rebuild his reputation.

If however the team decide to look elsewhere a move for Pol Espargaro would also be wise. Next season Yamaha will look enviously at Honda with Marc Marquez on a factory ride but the progress of Espargaro this season will have made the Pons rider a highly sought after commodity.

His speed this year has been on-par with Marquez and his race craft is as good as any up and coming racer. Having battled Marquez closely for the 125cc title it is likely that a similar scenario will unfold this year in the intermediate class.

Many people view Espargaro as an aggressive racer who leaves something to be desired tactically but anyone who has paid attention to him knows that he has a fierce determination mated with an n innate understanding of how a race is developing.

A prime example of this maturity was seen two years ago atAragon. In the 125cc race Espargaro was battling with Marquez on the last lap and let his compatriot past so that he could be in a position to slipstream Marquez into the final corner. It was a classic example of rider knowing the track and understanding what position he needed to be in to win the race. Such maturity has been regularly seen this year and it is clear he is now one of the most rounded racers in the intermediate class.

If Yamaha do not sign Espargaro it might be a decision that they rue for years to come but it might also put the Spaniard into a position where he is on Ducati’s radar as a potential Rossi replacement.

They will see echoes of Casey Stoner in Espargaro and will look at him as a potential smart and hard charging racer capable of turning around the fortunes of their MotoGP entry.

For Espargaro however it would be a huge risk to sign for the team. The Ducati has long been viewed as a bike that only Stoner can win aboard and with so many world class racers having struggled aboard the bike it is clear that a move to the team is one fraught with risk.

If Espargaro is in any doubts about the dangers he should remember the likes of Marco Melandri, Mika Kallio and Toni Elias all having seen their reputations torn to shreds by the ill handling bike why would a highly sought after Espargaro risk moving to the team?

The struggles of Rossi have made the second Ducati seat alongside Nicky Hayden an unattractive proposition for most of the paddock.

With the ride being so unattractive to riders as a result of Rossi’s failures it is possible that the team might need to hire a “stop-gap” rider until they can prove their competitiveness.

If that situation does arise the team could do far worse than hire Hector Barbera. The Spaniard is no world-beater but he understands the bike well and would at least allow the team to have two riders, Hayden and Barbera, who are able to ride aggressively and at least ride the bike closer to the limit than we have seen from Rossi.

Barbera has consistently been able to match Rossi even though he is racing only a satellite bike so he has certainly earned the right to race for the factory but his chances of racing for the team will hinge on riders such as Espargaro declining the offers of theBolognafactory.

Even at a satellite level it is unclear how attractive using the Ducati is for teams. Aspar felt that the cost of running the MotoGP machine was too great for the level of return provided for their investment and instead are running a CRT bike.

Will Pramac Cardion be willing to continue using the bike? The value of leasing the bike in comparison to racing the CRT bike is debatable. For sponsors does finishing 11th instead of 12th really make a tremendous difference?

The cache of saying that you are racing a prototype bike only takes a team so far and with sponsorship proving ever more troublesome to raise there are serious question marks as to whether both teams should continue to use their current machinery.

Regardless of machinery it is unlikely that Pramac will look to move on from Hector Barbera if the Spaniard is not hunted by the factory Ducati squad. He has impressed the team greatly over the last year and they would have little reason to look elsewhere for a racer if it is not required. If however Barbera leaves the team would look to hire an Italian and Mattia Passini, with knowledge of CRT bikes, would be one rider on the team’s radar.

Such an eventuality would be dependant on the Speed Master squad not retaining Passini but with Iannone racing for the team in Moto2 and probably eager to move into the premier class they would view him as a more attractive proposition.

The Cardion team was created by Karel Abraham’s father and the Czech rider is assured a seat with the team. He has not proved out of his depth in MotoGP and impressed on occasion but it is clear that there is little value of running the Ducati for them and a move to CRT would be a much more cost effective solution.

It has been reported that there will be 24 bikes on the grid but it seems difficult to imagine a scenario where we will see more than eleven MotoGP bikes on the grid. Those bikes are four Yamaha’s, four Honda’s, the two satellite Ducati’s and a possible single bike team for Rossi.

This would leave 13 CRT bikes on the grid with Pramac and Cardion no longer running a prototype.

The cost savings would allow both to expand their teams to run a second bike while still costing less than they currently spend in leasing a satellite bike. If one of these teams is likely to expand it is arguably Cardion. The team are ambitious and there are some talented Czech riders that would allow theBrnocircuit to gain ever more publicity in theCzechRepublic.

If they expand Cardion would obviously look to have a second Czech rider on the grid and they could look at Jakub Smrz as a potential rider for a CRT bike. He has done exceptionally well to rebuild his reputation in WSBK but a potential return to MotoGP might be enough to attract him back to the GP fold. If not Smrz then the team would look for another rider from the region.

Elsewhere within the CRT ranks Aspar will retain Randy de Puniet and Aleix Espargaro with the duo having impressed aboard the ART bike.

Forward Racing’s decision on riders will be made by Colin Edwards. He has made clear his feelings on the CRT bike but if he decides that he wants to race on the team will retain him. Otherwise they will promote Alex de Angelis from their Moto2 squad.

Avintia has one of the paddocks biggest teams and with Ivan Silva having struggled aboard the bike while Yonny Hernandez has impressed they will look to replace the Spaniard. Promoting Julian Simon would be an interesting move with the Moto2 racer once again showing the form that made him so exciting en route to a 125cc title.

At Ioda there is little doubt that the team will retain Danniele Petrucci. The Italian has been one of the most pleasant surprises this year with a series of superb performances seeing him overcome the slowest bike on the straights.

Paul Bird has confirmed that the team will expand to a second bike next year with another British rider. This should secure James Ellison’s place on the grid and expect to see a Superbike rider join him in the garage.

The team tested Shane Byrne last month but the British Superbike champion will be however 36 years old  next season so he might not be an automatic choice.

The biggest problem facing the CRT teams is that talented riders from other series, such as WSBK and BSB, know that they will be racing at the back of the field instead of winning races but with the likes of de Puniet showing the talent level in the CRT “class” it is clear that the challenge in the lower reaches of the GP field is much greater than can be faced elsewhere.

Mattia Passini has done well aboard the Speed Master bike but for next season the team might look to bring Iannone into the premier class. The move would allow him to spend a year racing with little pressure and expectation for a team that he is clearly comfortable racing for.

The silly season is designed to make people look foolish for making predications but at this early stage I am willing to risk looking foolish and saying that this is how the grid will line up for the opening race of the year in Qatar…..

Factory Yamaha Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso
Repsol Honda Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez
Tech3 Cal Crutchlow and Ben Spies
LCR Stefan Bradl
Gresini Alvaro Bautista
Ducati Nicky Hayden and Hector Barbera
Valentino Rossi Racing (Yamaha) Valentino Rossi
Aspar Randy de Puniet and Aleix Espargaro
Aventia Jonny Hernandez and Julian Simon
Gresini Michele Pirro
Speed Master Andrea Iannone
Paul Bird James Ellison and Shane Byrne
Ioda Danniele Petrucci
Forward Racing Alex de Angelis
Pramac Mattia Passini
Cardion Karel Abraham and Jakub Smrz

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