2012 MotoGP Silly Season: Are We Facing Another Tiny Grid?
The two-year contracts that all four of the MotoGP Aliens signed during 2010 have made for a very quiet silly season, with speculation on who will be riding where next season taking a very long time to get started. There are a number of reasons for this - talks about contracts have been lost in the general commotion surrounding the two big topics of 2011: Rossi's struggle with the Ducati Desmosedici and the controversy over whether to race at Motegi or not, and the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami has badly hit motorcycle racing budgets as well - but as we approach the final few races of the 2011 MotoGP season, some movement is starting to be visible on the riders market. So let's take a stroll through what we know for certain, have a look what we think is likely and glance into the crystal ball of MotoGP's future, which comes in the shape of the Claiming Rule Teams.
What We Know
There are a few things we know for certain in 2012: the three major factory squads will remain unchanged for next season, as all six riders are in the second year of a two-year contract. Karel Abraham has a Ducati for 2012, the Tech 3 line-up has been finalized, and Simoncelli is back with Gresini with HRC support again for another year. Colin Edwards has taken the plunge as the first official rider for a CRT entry, but beyond that, it is mostly speculation. Here's what we know for sure:
|Marlboro Ducati||With both men signed to a two-year contract, the focus of the factory Ducati is simple: get as much data from the GP11.1 to use on the GP12. The Ducati has gone backwards this year, and with a nine-time World Champion on the books, they simply cannot afford to continue in the same vein. There's a mountain of work to do for Ducati, and they have already moved mountains of work just to get where they are.|
|Valentino Rossi||2012||Despite the wildly inaccurate and wildy entertaining rumors, Valentino Rossi is staying at Ducati for next season, and will not be racing on a personal factory-backed Honda for 2012. There are clear signs of progress on the Ducati, but there is still a long way to go. What happens in 2013 is another matter, but if progress continues at the current rate, he may decide to add another year to his contract at the end of next season.|
|Nicky Hayden||2012||Nicky Hayden is the perfect teammate: he works hard, he never complains - though this season has been the first time he has verged on making public criticism of Ducati, the frustration clearly visible on his face - and he never gives up. Hayden is also very good for Ducati's sales in North America, and so is high up on the list to be retained beyond 2012. That, though, may depend on what Marco Simoncelli decides to do, as the Bologna factory is known to be very keen on signing the Italian once his contract with HRC expires.|
|Repsol Honda||The earthquake and tsunami hit Honda hard. Not so much in terms of damage to the company itself - though there was some - but in terms of its supply chain: a lack of parts has seen Honda forced to cut back production by 30%, and this has had a huge impact on its MotoGP budget. Despite a lot of hard bargaining, there will probably be just four or five Hondas on the grid in 2012, with HRC supporting three full-factory machines themselves, for Dani Pedrosa, Casey Stoner and Marco Simoncelli. This means that the three-rider team is history, unsurprisingly, given that the situation only came about because of some canny bargaining and strong results by Andrea Dovizioso in 2010. While Stoner and Pedrosa stay on, Dovizioso is moving elsewhere for next season.|
|Casey Stoner||2012||Casey Stoner has continually spoken of his admiration for Mick Doohan, and his desire to emulate the Aussie 5-time World Champion. Stoner is well-ensconced in Honda, with a lot of backing inside the company, his only blemish the doubts he had expressed concerning Motegi. A world championship on an 800cc MotoGP bike - the capacity that Honda forced through after Dajiro Katoh's death - would make Honda look very kindly indeed on Stoner, though.|
|Dani Pedrosa||2012||Dani Pedrosa's position at Honda has weakened since the arrival of Casey Stoner. While Pedrosa's manager Alberto Puig retains strong links with Spanish petroleum giant and title sponsor Repsol, his handling of the fallout from the Simoncelli affair has not been well-received. But Pedrosa is clearly still fast, as he proved by winning at the Sachsenring, his second race back from injury. Much will depend on how Pedrosa adapts to the 1000s, though his form on a 990 Honda left little to be desired. Pedrosa's biggest threat is Marc Marquez, Repsol's other golden boy, who is ripping up the Moto2 class. Marquez is looking increasingly to move to MotoGP in 2012, and if he moves to MotoGP, the Rookie Rule (preventing rookies from going straight to a factory team in MotoGP) will see him housed in a satellite team, though with factory support. Pedrosa's position is safe for the moment, but even once his contract expires, the Spaniard has a strong claim to a seat in the Honda garage. What he really needs, though, is a season free of injury.|
Yamaha was less badly affected by the earthquake in Japan than Honda was, but the Japanese manufacturer is still suffering. And as a smaller factory than Honda, Yamaha has also suffered more from the economic slowdown, with sales falling heavily. The shift in Europe from sports bikes to naked and adventure bikes has even led Yamaha Motor Europe to withdraw from the World Superbike series, as it failed to achieve the marketing goals set by the factory. So budgets are tight, and without a title sponsor to help bear the load, things are hard at Yamaha too. No sponsor has lined up to fill the space vacated by Fiat at the end of 2010 just yet, but talks with a few parties are still ongoing.
As far as riders are concerned, Yamaha has no reason to look beyond its current line up for the moment. Both Spies and Lorenzo are contracted through 2012, but Yamaha could have options after that. Lorenzo looks closely tied in to Yamaha, but Spies needs to back up his win at Assen with a couple more victories and more regular podiums to secure his seat for the future.
|Jorge Lorenzo||2012||Jorge Lorenzo has had a tough year defending his title. Where everything went almost perfectly in 2010, things have been much tougher in 2011. Jorge Lorenzo was off the podium twice last year, this year he's missed out on the podium 5 times in 12 races. Yet Lorenzo is still fully committed to Yamaha, and the Spaniard was visibly buoyed by the strong performance of the 2012 Yamaha 1000c bike at Brno in August. If the bike is already competitive with the Honda (Lorenzo was just 0.085 seconds slower than Stoner on the Honda 1000 at the Brno test), then Lorenzo is in with a chance next year.|
|Ben Spies||2012||Ben Spies' move to the factory Yamaha team has been very similar to last year's switch from MotoGP from WSBK. While early results were promising, the weight of expectation has been perhaps a little too high for the Texan. Yet Spies has had a win, two more podiums, and has only finished outside the top 6 when he has not finished. If Spies can learn to start a little faster - still his Achilles heel - his future at Yamaha would look brighter.|
|Cardion AB||The Cardion AB team of Karel Abraham will continue in MotoGP, and they will continue with Ducati. The contract extension was confirmed at Assen, with Karel Abraham Sr, the team owner, owner of the Brno circuit and the medical equipment manufacturer which sponsors the team, keen to continue in MotoGP for the foreseeable future.|
|Karel Abraham||2012||Karel Abraham received a lot of criticism when he moved into the MotoGP class: the young Czech rider had won just a single race in the lower classes - the final race at Valencia in 2010 - and many both inside and outside the paddock were saying he only had his seat because his rich father was paying for it. Whoever is footing the bills, they've had their money's worth. It's been a tough learning year for Abraham, despite that - and a few rookie mistakes, including crumbling under pressure at his home GP at Brno - the young Czech has surprised a lot of people. Abraham is 4th of the Ducati riders in the championship, ahead of the proven veterans Randy de Puniet and Loris Capirossi. The theory that Abraham is fast on the Ducati because he doesn't know what a proper MotoGP bike is supposed to feel like may or may not hold water, but Abraham has certainly proved he deserves to be in the premier class.|
|Tech 3 Yamaha||The second seat at Tech 3 was one of the most desirable and hotly contested in the paddock. The first seat was already occupied, with Cal Crutchlow in his first year of a two-year contract, and though the ardor between team boss Herve Poncharal and Crutchlow has cooled, the pair are stuck with each other for 2012. In the end, it was Andrea Dovizioso who bagged the second seat at Tech 3, the Italian the first to sign the contract on offer from Poncharal, after Alvaro Bautista turned the ride down. Though Eugene Laverty was in the running early on for the position, Poncharal favored experience over unknown potential. After all, he already has one former WSS and WSBK rider in the team, and he is losing a MotoGP veteran in the shape of Colin Edwards.|
After an impressive start to the season, Crutchlow has been through something of a dip recently. His tendency to crash has not endeared him to his team boss Herve Poncharal, though nobody can fault the Englishman for trying. His biggest problem has been mysterious headshake in the front wheel that his team have never been able to track down and fix. This has rather sapped his confidence in the front end, though his results have improved of late.
Despite rumors that he could return to World Superbikes - rumors strenuously and colorfully denied by the Englishman - Crutchlow will have another shot at earning an extension during 2012. The 1000cc bikes and the softer Bridgestone tires should help, and the new Yamaha machine should also be a benefit.
|Andrea Dovizioso||2012||Andrea Dovizioso has been a loyal Honda man since the day he arrived in Grand Prix racing aboard a 125, and has been with Big Red through 125s, 250s and MotoGP. His problems with Honda started when Casey Stoner signed with HRC and moved into the Repsol Honda team. Dovizioso was asked politely to move to a satellite team but refused, as the terms of his contract allowed him to. When contract negotiations started for 2012, he had a mark against his name, and with Marco Simoncelli's star still rising - though only just - and Marc Marquez waiting in the wings, Dovizioso saw that his opportunities at Honda were slim, and getting slimmer. So for 2012, Dovizioso has jumped ship to ride with Tech 3, in the knowledge that all of the factory riders are out of contract at the end of next season. What Dovi needs is a strong season aboard the satellite Yamaha to demonstrate his potential to the factories. Though the odds of Dovizioso displacing either Spies or Lorenzo at the factory Yamaha team are slight, they are at least above zero.|
Gresini had a pretty cheap year in MotoGP in 2011. Marco Simoncelli was housed in the Italian team on a factory contract and with factory support, at a cost to the team of very close to zero. Hiroshi Aoyama was also housed with Gresini at Honda's expense, though very much on a satellite basis. And in 2012, Gresini would like a repeat of that situation.
Part of their wishes have already been granted, with HRC once again extending both the contract and the factory support for Simoncelli in 2012, but a question mark remains over Gresini's second seat. Simoncelli's signing is excellent for Gresini's sponsor, Italian snack manufacturer San Carlo, and the potato chip money will continue to flow into the team for the next year. But team boss Fausto Gresini protests that he does not have enough funding to afford Honda's exorbitant (said to be in the region of 4.5 million euros) lease price for a satellite RC213V, and has been exploring CRT options for next season. The Gresini squad could line up with just Simoncelli for next year, or they could have another rider on either a satellite Honda or possibly a CBR1000-based CRT machine. It could be some time before this is clear.
Marco Simoncelli has been sensational in 2011, though often for all the wrong reasons. He has 2 poles this year, as well as a podium finish. But he also crashed out of 4 races, crashed and remounted in another, and slammed into Dani Pedrosa at Le Mans, causing the Spaniard to fall and break his collarbone, and throwing away a certain podium after being given a ride-through penalty. When he has ridden carefully and thoughtfully, he has finished 6th; when he has given full rein to his undoubted speed, he has crashed, often in embarrassing ways. He crashed out at Jerez while holding a comfortable lead, he didn't make it through the first lap at Estoril, and he crashed taking out Jorge Lorenzo in the first left hander at Assen. On a single lap, as his qualifying shows, he is capable of extraordinary speed. Holding it together throughout a race is a different matter altogether, though his massive fanbase hopes he will learn to temper his enthusiasm.
Still, his performance has been good enough to secure a factory contract and a factory bike from Honda for 2012, and another chance to prove himself. This is probably his final chance, though: with Marc Marquez on his way up from Moto2 and almost certain to land at Honda, the line up at HRC is already looking pretty crowded. Simoncelli has his work cut out in 2012, but the interest from Ducati could provide a back up plan for 2013.
|NGM Forward Racing||
Forward was the first of the Claiming Rule Teams to enter the arena and announce their intentions, formally presenting the team at Misano. The presentation was made with Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta present, and the series boss was there not just to support the team, but also to demonstrate his belief that the Claiming Rule Teams are the future of the sport. No doubt that Dorna will be supporting the team, and may also have played a role in securing the services of Colin Edwards for the team, to add some prestige to the project.
The problem is that they don't have a bike yet. Initially, the team had been linked with the Suter/BMW project, but a poor showing during the test at Mugello gave Forward's bosses cold feet. Long discussions with Yamaha USA, who have offered the support to Edwards and the project, mean that the team is likely to field a Yamaha R1 engine in a prototype chassis. Edwards' claims that Tech 3's Guy Coulon would build the chassis were vociferously denied by Tech 3 boss Herve Poncharal, the team already having more than enough on its plate. The question is, can Coulon resist the challenge of building a competitive CRT bike?
|Colin Edwards||2012||Rumors of Colin Edwards' retirement surface every year, and every year, the Texan finds the motivation to stay on for just one more year. This year, it is to ride a CRT machine, the first MotoGP veteran to take the plunge. Edwards' reasoning is fairly straightforward. He knows where he is on a satellite bike - always at least one step behind the factories, his performance restricted de facto by the electronics engineer that all factories supply with the bike to satellite teams - and a CRT machine offers a way to escape those restrictions. Edwards does not expect to be winning races on a CRT machine, indeed, at the presentation of the team, he acknowledged there would be some tracks, such as Mugello, where they would be left for dead. At others, though, tracks like the Sachsenring and Laguna Seca, Edwards believed that with the three liters of extra fuel that the CRT bikes are allowed to carry, he could well give at least the satellite bikes a run for their money. That challenge, and the challenge of actually developing a bike again, was reason enough to tempt Edwards into taking a risk. The help and encouragement from Dorna helped push Edwards over the edge.|
|BQR (FTR/Kawasaki)||The BQR team - which runs the Blusens 125cc team with Maverick Vinales and the Blusens-STX team with Tito Rabat in Moto2 - is the only Claiming Rule Team to actually have a bike ready to race. The organization has close links with Kawasaki Spain, and so it was logical that they would be fielding a machine with a ZX-10R engine. They are also using the FTR chassis in Moto2, and so enlisting FTR to build the CRT chassis for them was a similarly obvious step. FTR are very positive about the 1000cc Kawasaki lump: it is only a few kilos heavier than the CBR600RR engine being used in Moto2, and not physically much bigger. Given that it produces plenty of power in stock form, making it competitive - at least at the slower tracks that MotoGP visits - should not be too difficult.|
|Unknown||The rider is as yet unknown. Tito Rabat will be moving up to MotoGP at some point, but given that 2011 was his first year in Moto2, 2012 is probably too early. Instead, his teammate Yonny Hernandez could get the call, in part to help develop the bike. The FTR/Kawasaki is due to be completed at some point in October, and should take part in the test at Valencia along with the factory MotoGP bikes. They should provide a yardstick for the BQR machine to measure itself against.|
What We Don't Know
There are a lot of things we don't know about 2012, but we can still take an educated guess at them. LCR Honda will be back on the grid, as will Aspar, though whether Aspar has a Ducati or not remains to be confirmed. Gresini could be cut to a single bike, or they could run a second bike as a CRT entry. Pramac, like Gresini, looks to be reduced to just one bike, while Suzuki's future in MotoGP is up in the air entirely. One of the biggest question is whether Marc Marquez will stay in Moto2 for another year or move up to MotoGP. And then there's the rest of the CRT entries. A lot of questions remain to be answered.
|LCR Honda||LCR Honda is keen to forget the nightmare of 2011 as quickly as possible. Taking on Toni Elias - to no small extent, at the behest of Dorna, Elias being the first ever Moto2 champion - turned out to be a much bigger gamble than they had anticipated, Elias failing miserably to get to grips with the Bridgestone tires. Riders are in two minds about the team: Elias raised doubts about the way the crew handled his feedback, but they will have at least one RC213V bike at their disposal, with rumors earlier in the season of a second bike also being available. Given the exorbitant lease prices Honda is charging (nearly twice last year's lease price), the chances of a second bike appearing in the LCR garage disappeared when Andrea Dovizioso, Lucio Cecchinello's first choice, decided to abandon Honda for Yamaha.|
|Alvaro Bautista / Randy de Puniet / John Hopkins||tbc||
With Dovizioso out of the picture, top of Cecchinello's wishlist at the moment is Alvaro Bautista. The Spaniard is awaiting Suzuki's decision on their MotoGP project, but some HRC personnel look very kindly on Bautista, and believe he would go well on a Honda. The LCR bike is probably Bautista's best option if Suzuki do pull out.
If Bautista decides to stay with Suzuki, for whatever reason, then LCR could do a lot worse than turn to Randy de Puniet, the man they parted ways with at the end of 2010. Though that parting was not entirely amicable, both parties have seen that they could do a lot worse than get back together again. If De Puniet declines, LCR could also turn to former MotoGP rider John Hopkins, but his long association with Suzuki and his close relationship with Crescent Suzuki (the people behind the Rizla Suzuki MotoGP team, and the Samsung Crescent BSB team that Hopkins rode for in 2011) makes it unlikely. Hopkins is looking more and more likely to end up in World Superbikes with a Crescent Suzuki team.
|Rizla Suzuki||The big question for Suzuki is not so much who will be riding for them in 2012 as whether they will be on the MotoGP grid at all. Suzuki's upper management has shown a distinct lack of enthusiasm for MotoGP, and in fact all forms of motorcycle racing, starting with a conspicuous absence in World Supersport, adding ever more feeble support for the Alstare Suzuki World Superbike squad, and ending in MotoGP, where their participation was halved to just a single rider in 2011. Though there are reports of a 1000cc MotoGP bike having circulated in Japan, it is still unclear what Suzuki's involvement will be. Meetings between Rizla Suzuki boss Paul Denning and Suzuki top brass were characterized as "positive" but Denning failed to get a commitment from them. The current GSV-R 800 is a fallback option, especially as it has grown increasingly competitive over the past few months, but it is far from ideal. As a factory entry, the 800cc Suzuki would still be limited to 21 liters of fuel, though they would be allowed to be 3kg lighter than the 1000s. The 800 would be rather too much like the ProtonKR triple which raced against the V4 500cc two-strokes, agile and capable of carrying much more corner speed, but finding itself outclassed out of the corners and down the straights.|
|Alvaro Bautista / John Hopkins||tba||Bautista has performed well this season, once he recovered from the awful broken femur that he suffered during practice for the Qatar season opener. He has grown in his role as Suzuki's sole rider and lead developer, and started to catch the factory Hondas and Yamahas. He remains Suzuki's first option should they stay, though they also have the option of going with John Hopkins, whose long experience in the class would be welcomed, despite a three-year hiatus. It is not entirely unthinkable that Suzuki could return to a two-man line-up (much to the joy of the other manufacturers), with both Bautista and Hopkins on the grid. The odds are very, very long indeed on that, though.|
The Aspar team is one of the best-funded in the entire Grand Prix paddock, fielding competitive teams in all three classes. Jorge Martinez has an uncanny knack of getting money out of his extensive network of business contacts in the Valencia region, which has allowed him to both spread his net wide and be extremely competitive at almost every level that they compete at. Aspar's MotoGP project started well, and Hector Barbera has adapted well to the truculent Ducati Desmosedici, finishing ahead of one or more factory riders both in practice and the race on an alarmingly regular basis. But money is tight, even in MotoGP-mad Spain, and it remains to be seen at what level Aspar can maintain his MotoGP commitment.
For the moment, it looks like Aspar will be back with a single satellite Ducati for 2012, as the team's original plans to field a second satellite Ducati have faded. But Aspar could be one of the first of the current MotoGP teams to convert to a CRT entry. Aspar already has a very strong relationship with Suter (though not quite as strong as Marquez' team, but more of him later) and switching to a BMW-powered Suter would be a logical step, especially if they are the only team using the Suter chassis, as this would ensure that Aspar obtained the preferential treatment that he desires and can influence development of the bike. With the bikes significantly cheaper than a leased Ducati Desmosedici, Aspar could field two bikes for the cost of a single satellite machine. The only question remains just how competitive a CRT machine would be, and whether Aspar's sponsors would be willing to take the risk, with the possibility that their brands are on bikes circulating at the rear of the pack.
|Hector Barbera / Alvaro Bautista||Whoever rides for Aspar, you can be sure of one thing: they will definitely be Spanish. You can safely put money on them coming from the Valencia region as well, which puts Hector Barbera very much in the position of favorite to retain the ride. And quite frankly, he deserves to, for the reasons outlined above, having shown a remarkable ability to ride the Ducati Desmosedici in the way it should be. Should Barbera be passed over for whatever reason - or should Aspar expand to a two-rider team, as they had originally planned - then Alvaro Bautista has a good chance of returning to the team that he rode for in the 250 class.|
|Gresini||With the lease price of Honda satellite machinery gone through the roof, Gresini's only realistic hope of running a second bike in MotoGP is as a CRT entry. The squad was working on a deal to field an Aprilia-engined CRT bike, but long-time partner Honda put the kibosh on that project, not least as Honda and the rest of the MSMA fear CRT could be a back door route for Aprilia to return to MotoGP under more favorable conditions. With the Aprilia powerplant vetoed, Gresini's only chance is a CBR1000RR-powered bike, but Honda's Superbike has a number of strikes against it, including a relatively narrow 76mm bore, 5mm below the 81mm maximum, limiting the bike's ability to make power by aiming for more revs. What's more, none of the current chassis builders looking at CRT have been working on a frame to house the CBR1000RR engine, putting the project at even more of a disadvantage, despite its similarities to the CBR600 that powers the Moto2 machines.|
|Hiroshi Aoyama?||The most likely destination for the last ever 250cc World Champion is with Ten Kate Honda in World Superbikes. The Japanese rider has been unlucky with injury in his two years in MotoGP, suffering with cracked vertebrae. But he has also shown potential, and given a chance to learn at his own, admittedly rather slower pace, could be an ideal candidate to develop a CRT entry.|
The Pramac team has suffered the same malaise that all of the Ducati teams have this season, a lack of front-end feel and a lot of crashes. The season has taken its toll on Pramac's riders, with both Randy de Puniet and Loris Capirossi suffering crashes and injury, Capirossi even deciding to call it a day and retire at the end of this season, though given the Italian's 22-year career in Grand Prix racing, it was getting towards that time anyway.
The difficulties have been such that Pramac looks like being reduced to a single bike next year, and even then, it is hard to find riders to put on the bike. Though the team is not exactly poor, it is mostly the plaything of Paolo Campinoti, CEO of the Pramac energy firm, and there may come a point where he feels the investment in the team is not worth it. For now, Pramac's participation remains ensured.
|Unknown||The Pramac Ducati ride looks like being MotoGP's short straw. It will most likely be filled by whoever is left standing without a ride once the remaining and more desirable seats have been filled. That leaves Randy de Puniet the most obvious candidate for the ride, though it would be the last resort for the Frenchman. If De Puniet goes elsewhere, Pramac may be forced to look further abroad, but the pickings are slim at the moment, with the top riders in WSBK and Moto2 all tied up for next year.|
|Catalunya Caixa / Repsol||Will he or won't he? That's the big question. Though they will not confirm it officially, HRC is said to have a factory-spec RC213V waiting in the wings for Marc Marquez, ready to be rolled out once Marquez and his mentor Emilio Alzamora have made a decision on their future. The Catalunya Caixa Moto2 squad - though nominally backed by the Catalan bank, the team is largely run and funded by Repsol, the Spanish petroleum giant which has backed Marquez for a while now. Though the lease price of the Honda is high, the Catalunya Caixa operation is the only team not currently in MotoGP which could afford the bike without too much pain. Should they make the switch, Marquez' team would be akin to Valentino Rossi's Nastro Azzurro team when the Italian first moved to the 500cc class: factory-backed, factory-funded but nominally a satellite squad.|
Marc Marquez is the future. The future of Repsol, the future of Honda, and the future of Spanish MotoGP. After winning the 125cc title last year - done so with remarkable coolness for a 17-year-old - he is the hot favorite to take the 2011 Moto2 title at his first attempt. It took him a couple of races to stop crashing, but since he got to grips with the class, he has been virtually unstoppable, finishing either 1st or 2nd in 10 of the last 11 races. His move to MotoGP looks equally inevitable: even if he doesn't win the title this season, he has more to lose from another year in Moto2 than he has to gain. He will be expected to win, and anything short of that will be classed as a failure. What's more 2012 offers the ideal opportunity for Marquez to make the switch: everyone will be new to the 1000s, even the riders with previous experience of the 990s, which were very different beasts. The Spaniard would have a year to learn in the class, and with all of the factory riders out of contract at the end of next season, there will be plenty of opportunities for Marquez to take a factory seat for 2013. The path of least resistance leads Marc Marquez to MotoGP.
Whatever Marquez and Alzamora decide, the youngster will be testing the Honda at Valencia, at the traditional post-race tests. That would be the ideal opportunity and the ideal venue for an announcement of Marquez' future.
A Tiny Grid, Unless The CRT Teams Turn Up
If you thought a 17-bike grid was bad, 2012 could be even worse. The worst-case scenario - a scenario that is both troublingly realistic and likely - is that Suzuki pulls out, Honda supplies just 4 bikes and Ducati cuts its participation to 5 bikes. That would mean a grand total of just 15 MotoGP entries, including the BQR machine, which has no rider, and Colin Edwards on the NGM Forward bike, a machine that does not even have someone to build the chassis yet. Even the most optimistic scenarios which still have some semblance of plausibility would see just 19 or 20 machines on the grid, and that would include a Suzuki, Marc Marquez, a second Pramac Ducati, a Gresini CRT machine and a second Aspar bike.
The reason is simple: the lease price of a Honda satellite machine is in the region of 4.5 million euros, a Yamaha M1 (even if you could get one) is about two-thirds of that amount, and a Ducati is in the same ballpark as the Yamaha. Add in a competent rider, two or three mechanics, a team manager, a press officer and one or two more support staff and the price rises by another half a million or so. Then there's a hospitality unit - the thick end of a million euros - and men and women to staff it at the European rounds. And all that is without flights, accommodation, car hire to move staff to and from the track, food and drink, and transport. We are talking about serious sums of money here.
MotoGP's only hope of survival - barring a massive increase in sponsorship, for example if a couple of Silicon Valley giants could be persuaded to pour money into the sport - is to at least cut the cost of participation. An Aprilia-powered FTR CRT machine would cost in the region of half a million euros a season, which would include three 230-horsepower RSV4 engines, the minimum required to keep the bikes running under the engine allocation rules. That is massively less than the amount demanded by Honda, but even that amount has potential CRT entries baulking at the asking price. But sponsors are hard to find, even for the more modest budgets required for a CRT entry, as they are wary of ending up on a bike that is circulating at the back. The great fear is that the CRT bikes will be more than three seconds off the pace, as the Suter CRT machine was at Mugello and Brno. Granted, the Suter machine made a massive step forward between Mugello and Brno, from over 6 seconds behind an 800 to under 4 seconds behind a 1000, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Ironically, the tight and twisty Valencia track could help persuade potential teams to take the plunge: Valencia is exactly the kind of track where a CRT machine might be able to keep up with the factory bikes, at least in their satellite guise.
It is still possible that the grid will be bigger than it looks now. Of the entries originally announced back in mid-June, some could still move to MotoGP. Though Marc VDS has cooled on the Suter CRT project - there is much resentment in the team at the support which Marquez is receiving, support the team feels they should have received - it has not yet been completely scrapped. Daniel Epp of the Paddock GP team, currently fielding Tom Luthi in Moto2, is known to be very keen on entering MotoGP, but Luthi's lack of results have not helped persuade sponsors to take the gamble. Kiefer has backed out, deciding instead to stay in Moto2 with Stefan Bradl and take another shot at winning the Moto2 title, while Andrea Iannone and the Speed Master team look set to follow suit and remain in Moto2. Talk by Paul Bird, whose contract to run the Kawasaki World Superbike team runs out at the end of this year, that he could enter as a CRT team is yet to bear any fruit, though his anger at the treatment he received in WSBK could be sufficient to push him over the edge. The two grid slots currently held by Norton look extremely unlikely to be filled, financial problems continuing to dog the British factory's attempts to get into MotoGP, though work on the project continues.
The only realistic chance of the grid being filled is if Dorna steps in and fills the gap left by sponsors. If Dorna were to cover the costs of CRT machinery for a couple of teams, that might persuade them to at least give the class a go, and allow some development to take place on the bikes. As Dorna believes that the Claiming Rule Teams are the long-term future of the MotoGP series, there is a good chance that they might just do that. Carmelo Ezpeleta is not known for wasting his money, but an investment in the future could be warranted, and now is the time to do it.The two-year contracts that all four of the MotoGP Aliens signed during 2010 have made for a very quiet silly season, with speculation on who will be riding where next season taking a very long time to get started. There are a number of reasons for this - talks about contracts have been lost in the general commotion surrounding the two big topics of 2011: Rossi's struggle with the Ducati Desmosedici and the controversy over whether to race at Motegi or not, and the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami has badly hit motorcycle racing budgets as well - but as we approach the final few races of the 2011 MotoGP season, some movement is starting to be visible on the riders market. So let's take a stroll through what we know for certain, have a look what we think is likely and glance into the crystal ball of MotoGP's future, which comes in the shape of the Claiming Rule Teams.What We Know