Kawasaki Fallout: Hopper vs Edwards, Melandri vs De Angelis?
The withdrawal of Kawasaki from MotoGP - which Ian Wheeler, the team's press officer has told Motorsport-Total.com that he knows nothing about - is likely to blow the MotoGP riders market completely open once again. With the MotoGP merry-go-round seemingly all done and dusted before the end of the season, the sudden availability of two big name riders is likely to have satellite team managers consulting their lawyers.
Of the Kawasaki pairing of John Hopkins and Marco Melandri, Hopper is likely to be the name most in demand. Hopkins is the rider carrying the Monster Energy sponsorship, and with Kawasaki out, Monster's budget is likely to go to whoever signs the American. And in a time of hardship, that money will be very welcome indeed.
The most probable casualty of the Hopkins / Monster duo is Colin Edwards. The Texan's position in the Tech 3 Yamaha squad had already become less certain after Bridgestone were awarded the single tire contract for MotoGP. Edwards has been closely associated with Michelin for a very long time, and was their lead development rider in MotoGP until their forced withdrawal. With the tire development role gone, along with the Michelin money which was said to be funding Tech 3, Herve Poncharal may feel that Hopkins and his Monster millions are a far more attractive proposition.
The problem for Poncharal is that Edwards is not in the employ of the Tech 3 Yamaha team, but has a contract with Yamaha directly. Consequently, Poncharal has less control over the hiring and firing of the Texan than he may wish. And with Yamaha seats in the other major racing series all filled, it may prove difficult to convince Edwards to move elsewhere.
Another possibility is of course that Yamaha supply a bike to a new satellite team, set up especially for Hopkins. There are plenty of experienced team managers available, and men such as Sito Pons have made no secret of their desire to return to the premier class in one form or another. Though Monster Energy's sponsorship was nowhere near enough to cover all of Kawasaki's costs, it is likely enough to fund a satellite team with relative ease.
The one thing blocking such a move would be Yamaha's policy of keeping the satellite bikes and the factory machines as close in spec as possible. Paradoxically, this helps to keep costs down, as the engineers in Yamaha's racing department can focus on a single bike, and not have to support multiple specs of machine for extended periods. Adding a fifth bike would make this policy more difficult to maintain, and was one of the reasons Yamaha spurned the advances of Jorge Martinez when he came looking for a bike to field Alvaro Bautista on earlier in the year.
As for Marco Melandri, the rider likely to be losing the most sleep at the moment will be Alex de Angelis. The San Marinese rider had a commendable, if not exactly explosive, rookie season, but did enough to secure his seat for this year. However, Fausto Gresini, boss of the eponymous Honda satellite squad, made no secret of his desire to have Melandri back riding for him, and it looked for a long time that the Italian would end up back in the team he'd left a year previously. In the end, though, Melandri decided that the best way of ensuring full support from a factory is by riding for the factory team, leading him to finally sign for Kawasaki instead.
Melandri must surely regret that decision now, but Gresini will not. Melandri is still a much bigger draw in Italy than de Angelis, and Gresini's sponsors - an Italian snack company - would have no compunction in welcoming Melandri back.
But it would not be all good news for Gresini. Signing Melandri would open up for discussion the question of who will get the factory support from HRC. When Toni Elias signed for Gresini, he stipulated that he would only ride the satellite Honda if he was given factory-level equipment, a promise honored by Gresini and HRC. But with Melandri back, both Gresini and HRC may feel that Melandri should be getting the hot HRC parts rather than Elias, and the situation could easily descend into internal strife, and sure to erupt into the pages of the Spanish and Italian press.
But neither of these proposals are anywhere near being a foregone conclusion. There are already rumors emerging that Kawasaki's withdrawal saw Jorge Martinez immediately on the phone to Kawasaki and Carmelo Ezpeleta at Dorna. Martinez is almost certain to try and resurrect his Aspar MotoGP project, which saw him trying to get Alvaro Bautista into MotoGP in 2009. Bautista is now tied up in 250, and set on trying to win the world championship he missed out on in 2008, but Martinez may instead try and secure the services of John Hopkins instead.
With the money from Monster Energy, and the return of their prodigal son, Hopper having ridden for the marque between 2003 and 2007, Suzuki could well be persuaded to field a third bike for Hopper. What's more, the Monster millions could also help fund Suzuki's own ailing MotoGP effort, with contract discussions still ongoing with Rizla about a sponsorship extension for 2009.
But if attempts to keep either or both men in MotoGP fail, the big winner in all of this could well be World Superbikes. Both men would be welcomed with open arms into the rival series, where fielding extra machines for riders can be done at a fraction of the cost of MotoGP equipment. MotoGP is already in some trouble, with Kawasaki's withdrawal leaving just 4 manufacturers in the series. World Superbikes, on the other hand, will see 7 manufacturers field factory or near-factory teams, with an 8th (KTM) waiting in the wings for its RC8R project to start yielding results. In the battle between Dorna and Infront Motor Sports, Dorna's position is looking weaker and weaker.