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The 2010 MotoGP season is set to be a bumper year for rookies, with a grand total of 6 newcomers entering the class. Hiroshi Aoyama, Hector Barbera, Alvaro Bautista, Aleix Espargaro and Marco Simoncelli are all moving up to MotoGP from the 250cc class, while Ben Spies is parachuting in from World Superbikes. The influx of new blood into the class - including some of the most eagerly-awaited names for a couple of years - should add an extra level of excitement to MotoGP, with the new riders rated very highly indeed.
But this influx of fresh talent also faces the biggest challenge ever to confront MotoGP rookies: The cost-cutting measures put in place at the beginning of the year including huge reductions in testing, cutting the number of test days by half. This leaves the 6 rookies entering the class facing a new season, on a new bike and new tires, with just 8 days of testing behind them.
To remedy this situation, the MSMA, the association of manufacturers, is lobbying the Grand Prix Commission to schedule a special test just for the rookies at Sepang in November. The idea is to allow the newcomers a couple of extra days on the bike to allow them to start the year on a slightly more equal footing with the regular riders.
Putting together the calendar for any motorcycle racing series is always a puzzle, depending on a huge number of factors such as circuit availability, travel distance, expense and a host of others. Alongside all of these more obvious factors, the MotoGP calendar also takes into account the scheduling of Formula One. An informal agreement exists between the bosses of Formula One and MotoGP to avoid direct calendar clashes wherever possible, in order to ensure the highest possible TV audiences for both series.
During the last round of changes to the Formula One calendar, the FIA appear to have forgotten about this gentlemen's agreement, as the revised dates have caused three clashes with the provisional 2010 MotoGP calendar announced earlier this summer. The three events that will fall on the same weekend are the Le Mans MotoGP round and the Monaco F1 Grand Prix; the Mugello MotoGP round and the Turkish F1 race; and perhaps most worrying of all, the Misano MotoGP race and the F1 race at Monza, just a few hundred kilometers up the A14 highway in Milan.
A downpour between the end of the 250cc race and the start of the MotoGP race has caused the race to be delayed. The rain has now ceased and the riders are heading out onto the track for the start, which has been delayed by 35 minutes. The track at Sepang dries very quickly in the tropical heat, but we are set for a flag-to-flag race at Sepang.
It is no secret that Valentino Rossi is uncomfortable having Jorge Lorenzo as a team mate. The young Spaniard has raced with and even beaten Rossi on a number of occasions this year, and has pushed Rossi hard for the title. The fact that Lorenzo is doing this on exactly the same equipment as Rossi - a bike that Rossi has spent the last five years developing - merely makes the situation even worse.
At Sepang, Italian and Spanish journalists quizzed Rossi about Lorenzo. "He is very strong, consistent and younger than me," Rossi said. "He is going to be difficult to beat in the next two races, but also in the future." Rossi acknowledged that he expected Lorenzo to be a World Champion one day. "He will be a World Champion," Rossi said, "But I hope he won't win as many as me."
Both MotoGP and World Superbikes are in action this weekend, and a grand total of four titles could be wrapped up on Sunday. At Sepang, Valentino Rossi could secure his 7th MotoGP title on Sunday, while Hiroshi Aoyama could clinch the last ever 250cc world title. Several hours later, at the last WSBK round at Portimao in Portugal, the World Superbike title is likely to go down to the wire, with little to choose between Noriyuki Haga and Ben Spies. Between the two World Superbike races, Cal Crutchlow looks likely to secure the World Supersport championship.
Of course, it's not quite as simple as all that, and so below is a guide to who needs to finish where in which races to wrap up the championship. The 125cc class already has a champion, with Julian Simon clinching the title after beating Aspar team mate Bradley Smith at Phillip Island last weekend.
Despite his first-corner pile-up at Phillip Island, an incident which he later described as a "junior's mistake", Jorge Lorenzo is still in with a chance of the MotoGP crown. However, 38 points down to Valentino Rossi with two races to go, Lorenzo needs Rossi to make a mistake. Rossi needs just 12 points to secure the title, which a 4th place, which scores 13 points, would provide.
Uncertainty continues as to who will fill the final seat on the 2010 MotoGP grid. In the early hours of today, several sections of the Spanish media were reporting that the Scot Honda ride had gone to Alex de Angelis, leaving Toni Elias riding for the Pons team in Moto2. But news is emerging that the deal is not yet completely finalized.
According to the Catalonian sports daily Sport.es, the Scot Honda team have asked Toni Elias to delay his decision for 48 hours. The Spaniard has reportedly penciled a deal with the Pons team to ride their Kalex Moto2 bike, his hand forced once it looked like the government of San Marino would step in to support Alex de Angelis.
But in recent days, the negotiations seem to have stalled. Speaking on San Marino television, Fabio Berardi, the San Marino Secretary of Sport and Tourism made the point that riders need sponsorship to obtain a ride these days, and that the government of the city state would very much like to see De Angelis, who was born in the Republic, on a bike in San Marino colors. At the same time, Berardi emphasized that in the current economic climate, it would be very difficult to justify hugely increasing their financial commitments to motorcycle racing, and that help would be needed to raise the extra sponsorship needed.
Jorge Lorenzo's record of front row starts this season has been incredibly impressive. He has qualified on the front row of the grid at every race this year except for Phillip Island, a fact that sorely disappointed the Spanish prodigy. But despite his impressive qualification record, Lorenzo's starts are still one of his weakest points. Lorenzo has had trouble getting off the line, and often found himself having to battle his way past other, faster starting riders before he was in a position to battle for the lead.
According to the leading Italian website GPOne.com, Lorenzo has been working to solve the problem, but with testing limited, he has been forced to turn to other means. Reportedly, Lorenzo visited the Circuit de Catalunya track at Barcelona twice, specifically to work on his starts. The Spaniard used a modified version of Yamaha's R1 streetbike, which raised problems of its own. According to GPOne.com, differences in the clutch, power delivery and suspension are such that it (unsurprisingly) behaves completely differently to his Yamaha M1 MotoGP bike. However, Lorenzo has persevered, feeling that any practice is better than no practice, despite the differences.
Niccolo Canepa's weekend at Phillip Island got off to a bad start. The Pramac Ducati rider crashed during the first session of free practice on Friday, going down at the - literally - scorching Doohan corner at around 200 km/h. The Italian slid a long way on the tarmac, burning a hole through his leathers and removing a big chunk of skin from his right arm and elbow. His injuries were sufficiently serious to require a skin transplant at a Melbourne hospital, and his participation at this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang was put in doubt.
The rumors that Valentino Rossi is contemplating a switch to Ducati have been brewing for some time now. We wrote about the background to the story earlier, and at Phillip Island, MCN's Matt Birt took the opportunity to ask both Valentino Rossi and his crew chief Jeremy Burgess about the rumors.
Valentino Rossi was short and to the point, giving the same answer he'd given to Spanish and Italian journalists previously. He pointed to the fact that he already had a contract with Yamaha for next season, and repeated that he will only make a decision next year. Burgess was typically more forthright, denying the rumors outright, and putting them down to "dickhead Italian journalists". At the time he was supposed to be entering the Ducati factory, Burgess said, he was sitting at home in Australia. Read the full report over on MCN.
The weather at Phillip Island for the MotoGP qualifying session was exactly as you would expect in the South Atlantic spring - cool and blustery, the Antipodean sun breaking through the clouds and warming the track, chasing off the morning rain. But Phillip Island's fickle weather has made it supremely difficult to find a race setup so far this weekend, and so when the bikes hit the track for qualifying, the focus was at first on weighing up the tire options, most teams still undecided on whether to run the softer or harder option for the race on Sunday, especially at the rear.
Grip or no grip, Casey Stoner was the first and fastest out of the blocks, the Australian - sporting a special helmet paint scheme today, to match a special livery due to be run tomorrow - heading into the 1'30s and the top of the timesheets in the first six minutes of practice. Valentino Rossi was soon approaching Stoner's pace, but still over half a second off the Australian's time as he gradually lowered his lap times towards that 1'30 marker.
For almost as long as Valentino Rossi has been racing in the premier class, there have been rumors that the Italian would one day make the switch to Ducati. For the most part, they have been based on little more than wishful thinking - the marriage of Italy's most famous motorcycle racer and Italy's most famous racing motorcycle is one which is surely made in heaven - yet over the past few weeks, those rumors seem to have been gaining some substance.
The new wave of speculation was generated by Rossi's public expressions of displeasure at his team mate Jorge Lorenzo being offered a one-year contract, an option which has never been offered to Rossi even when he requested it. To make things worse, Lorenzo was allowed to hold out before signing until after the Brno round of MotoGP, traditionally Yamaha's cut-off point for contracts, and a deadline which Rossi again always had imposed on him.
Rossi made several pointed statements in the press complaining that he had developed the Yamaha M1 and Lorenzo was taking advantage of his hard work, and that having two of the very best riders in a single team was an unusual and in his eyes untenable situation. His father Graziano hinted at Rossi's willingness to leave, comparing Yamaha to a wife who had been found cuckolding her husband, and hinting that what was good for the goose might also be good for the gander.
There was a fairly hefty injury toll at the cool and dusty Phillip Island track on Friday. There were fallers in all of the categories, but the heaviest of the lot were Hector Barbera in the 250cc class and Niccolo Canepa in MotoGP. Barbera highsided, landing heavily on his back and knocking the wind out of him. As he struggled for breath, Barbera told the press afterwards, he feared the worst, the incident bringing back bad memories of his huge crash at Motegi last year. This time he got away with just some very nasty and very painful bruising, but he is currently behind held under observation, just to make sure that the cracked vertebrae he suffered last year have not been injured again.
Niccolo Canepa was not so lucky. The Italian slid a long way after crashing at Turn 1 and burning a hole in his leathers and through his arm. After examination at the Clinica Mobile, he was taken off to hospital in Melbourne for examination, where it was decided he would need a skin graft, though Canepa had suffered no nerve damage as had been feared at first. The injury means that the Italian will not be able to race on Sunday, and will miss the Australian Grand Prix.
As we wrote just yesterday, the question of the 7th Honda on the 2010 MotoGP grid is yet to be settled. That bike is currently being fielded by Scot Honda, with Gabor Talmacsi riding it, but the Hungarian has been circulating at the back now for some time. Though Talmacsi was a latecomer to the series, only making the switch from the 250cc class at Barcelona after falling out with the Balatonring 250cc team earlier in the year, Honda's patience is starting to wear thin. Talmacsi has blamed his poor performance on the lack of an official HRC technician in the garage, as Dovizioso had when he rode the bike, but suspicion has continued to mount that the leap from the 125 class (Talmacsi rode just three races on the Aprilia RSA 250 before leaving the team) to MotoGP is just too large to make in one go.
For some time now, rumors have been emerging that HRC will give the RC212V currently being fielded by Scot Honda to Team LCR instead, expanding the team's presence on the grid from one to two bikes. When asked at Estoril about who would get the 7th Honda, a spokesperson for HRC told MotoMatters.com that no decision had yet been taken, which seemed to imply that support for the Scot Honda project was slipping.
The plight of Toni Elias remains a mystery to both himself and to many in the paddock. The Spaniard with the cheeky smile has fallen out of favor with his current Gresini team, despite having been on the podium for them this season and being the last man to have won a race for the team back in 2006. What's more, his salary demands (believed to be in the region of 600,000 euros) put him well beyond the reach of the remaining cash-strapped satellite teams in the paddock, leaving Elias without a seat in MotoGP for 2010.
Though Elias will be leaving MotoGP, he won't be leaving the paddock. According to reports in the Spanish press, Elias has signed up with Sito Pons' new Moto2 team to contest the Moto2 season. According to Motoworld.es, the Pons Racing team is due to field bikes produced by Kalex, the German engineering and design geniuses Alexander Baumgärtel and Klaus Hirsekorn, though both AS.com and Motocuatro report that no choice has yet been made about which bikes the team will run. The decision to field Kalex machinery is certainly in line with the scale and ambition of Sito Pons' project: the former 250 champion told a respected US journalist at Estoril that his strategy was to buy the best equipment available, with money being no object.
If one thing has become clear since the switch to the new 800cc formula, it has been the importance of the crew chief. With set up being an increasingly vital part of racing in MotoGP (get it wrong and you're nowhere, as Valentino Rossi found out at Estoril), the role of chief engineer has come under increasing scrutiny.
This seems to have motivated Daniele Romagnoli's decision to leave Yamaha at the end of this season. The experienced engineer was Colin Edwards' crew chief at the factory Yamaha team until the arrival of Jorge Lorenzo, who brought with him his own preferred option of crew chief, Ramon Forcada. With Forcada's arrival, Romagnoli was promoted to team manager of Lorenzo's side of Fiat Yamaha's divided garage.
According to GPOne.com, Romagnoli has announced that he will be leaving the team at the end of the year. Romagnoli's passion lies in the engineering side of racing, and his duties as Lorenzo's team manager have taking him away from the technical side of things. As with so many brilliant people with technical skills, "promotion" to management often leaves them unfulfilled. So Romagnoli will be looking for a place as a crew chief elsewhere in the MotoGP paddock, returning to where his main interest lies.