A variety of sources are reporting that Max Neukirchner will make a shocking jump to ride alongside Jonny Rea on the Ten Kate Honda team in 2010. Although the young German rider had a contract with Alstare Suzuki for 2010, it is believed that the pact was terminated as early as the first of October by the team due to fitness concerns based on injuries incurred at the mid-summer Imola test. Rumor has it that Alstare owner Frankie Batta used the fitness issue to clear the decks so that a French ex-MotoGP rider (although who that could be is kind of hazy with Sylvain Guintoli already signed to the BSB Worx team for next year) could come aboard the sinking Alstare ship bearing a bucketload of Francs to rescue the cash-strapped team.
Ten Kate had been thought to be on the verge of re-signing current rider Carlos Checa after former riders James Toseland and Chris Vermeulen inked deals with different teams. The Neukirchner/Ten Kate agreement will reportedly be sealed sometime next week.
Astare Suzuki, on a post on the team's website, has expressed surprise that Max Neukirchner, who incurred grave injuries to his back at the mid-summer Imola WSBK test, would be available for the apres-season test at Portimao, Portugal. Citing a recent physical exam at Imola, the team claims that "...doctors Costa, Corbascio and neuro-surgeon Professor Bollini all declared that they would not take responsibility for allowing Max to ride a bike again this year. "
The usually well informed Italian site GPone.com is reporting that Stiggy Honda will release rising British star Leon Haslam from whatever contractual relationship they have with the Pocket Rocket immediately after the final round at Portimao. It has been widely rumored for weeks that Haslam will sign (if he hasn't already) with Frankie Batta's Alstare Suzuki team. This release would allow Haslam to test with the team immediately following the Portugese round. Stiggy, whose financial problems have forced the team to cut their involvement in WSBK and WSS to one rider per series for the last three races of 2009 and forced a dissolution of their partnership with S2 Racing, will reportedly divulge which direction the team will take in 2010 at Portimao.
The Estoril MotoGP round saw the long-awaited announcement of the list of teams whose entries for Moto2 have been accepted. Among the expected candidates was a name which raised one or two eyebrows in the press room: The Hayate team, formerly the factory Kawasaki team, had been granted not one but two entries for the Moto2 class next season.
Despite the fact that the rationale for the Moto2 class is to make racing affordable again, the expense of running two riders in the class alongside a MotoGP entry would seem to be the Hayate team extending themselves beyond their current means. The team has gone almost entirely unsponsored, apart from the funds provided by Dorna and Kawasaki as part of the agreement to allow Kawasaki to leave the series before the end of their contract, which was due to expire at the end of 2011. The chances of Hayate procuring the necessary 5-6 million euros in sponsorship the team would require to run a MotoGP team next season, in addition to the extra million or so euros a two-rider Moto2 team would cost, seem fairly remote.
Phillip Island will kick off the year with Portimao to follow in the former Qatar slot. Magny Cours will regain the season-ending race it had from 2003-2007.
The 2009 MotoGP season has seen the advent of a remarkable period in motorcycle road racing. For the first time in perhaps twenty years, there are not one or two riders dominating the championship, but a grand total of four. On any given day, at any given racetrack, any one of Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa or Casey Stoner can win, sometimes by a few hundredths, sometimes by a few seconds.
What is even more remarkable is the gap these four have over the rest of the field. Check each rider's fastest lap of the race at a particular circuit and the fifth fastest man is inevitably well over half a second slower than the leaders. While the leaders finish within seconds of each other, the race for fifth usually takes place half a minute or more behind the winner.
So dominant have Stoner, Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Rossi become that they have spawned a veritable avalanche of nicknames: the Aliens, the Untouchables, the Fantastic Four, the list goes on and on. And because there are four of them operating at such a peak of performance in terms of talent, application and fitness, each must push himself to the limit not to get left behind by the other three, and come sailing back down to Earth with mere mortals such as double World Superbike Champion Colin Edwards or former 125cc World Champion Andrea Dovizioso.
Then There Were Three
The stress of having to push to the limit and beyond just to keep up was what was blamed by many, both inside and outside the paddock, when the Fantastic Four lost one of its number. After suffering stomach cramps, vomiting and extreme fatigue at Barcelona and at subsequent races, and after initial medical tests failed to yield a conclusive diagnosis, Casey Stoner returned to Australia to sit out the races at Brno, Indianapolis and Misano, and try to pinpoint an exact cause.
Motorcycle racers, journalists and fans tend to talk about the sport in terms of a physical struggle. Riders and teams are always fighting or battling for the lead, championship or what have you. To be sure, there are parallells between the sweet science and racing; fighters and racers both spend endless hours training to be in top condition and both have to ply their trade hurting as often as not. Strategy is important too, as the combatants look to defend their position or deliver a knock-out blow that will defeat their opponent. The two men that are left in the ring in the 2009 World Superbike series championship, Ben Spies and Noriyuki Haga, came into the next to last round at Magny Cours, nearly too close to call on points, each looking for the advantage that would KO their rival or serve to let them live to fight another day.
Race 1: Don't Look Back, Something Might be Gaining on You
British site Visordown.com is reporting that the last two British Superbike champions, Leon Camier and Shane "Shakey" Byrne, will reunite on a team that will campaign the Aprilia RSV4. Speculation has been rife that the Italian manufacturer would increase their presence in the series in 2010 and Aprilia PR flack Alain Roger stated as much recently in an interview with Caradisiac.com. Byrne and Camier were teammates on the Airwaves Ducati team in 2008, the year that Byrne won the BSB championship. That championship paved the way for Byrne's current ride with Sterilgarda Ducati, a relationship that hasn't gone exactly as planned. Byrne, speaking on Onthethrottle.com has said that he has two offers in 2010 and it has been assumed that he would sign with Paul Bird Kawaski. However, with PBM's recent signing of soon to be ex-Rizla Suzuki rider Chris Vermuelen, it would appear that the postion of lead rider has been filled on the green team.
There have been a host of riders who have tried to ride the Ducati Desmosedici, and apart from Casey Stoner, they have been at best only moderately successful. This struggle, combined with Casey Stoner's unexpected illness, has prompted Ducati to mount a search for someone - anyone - else who showed any aptitude at all for riding the GP9.
So when Aleix Espargaro was given the opportunity to replace Mika Kallio at Pramac Ducati, who had in turn been promoted to the factory Ducati team to take the place of Casey Stoner, nothing much was expected. Espargaro had been given the ride mostly because he was available, the Spaniard and brother of 125cc star Pol finding himself out of a 250 ride and forced to take a ride in the Spanish CEV championship while waiting on better times. But Espargaro impressed immediately. With no experience of MotoGP, the Spaniard finished 13th at Indianapolis and 11th at Misano, and surprised the paddock even more by setting the 5th fastest race lap behind Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso.
Casey Stoner returned to the MotoGP paddock at Estoril amidst a blaze of the publicity he so obviously loathes. The eyes of the motorcycle racing world were upon him, and the question was just how would he hold up once he got back on the bike?
The answer was emphatic: remarkably well, actually. The 2007 MotoGP World Champion taking a podium at his first attempt, comfortably beating both Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa, and only a broken footpeg preventing him from running with Jorge Lorenzo and challenging for victory. After the race, Stoner spoke to the press about the race, his time away, and some of the criticism he has faced, and as so often, he had some fairly pithy things to say about the press and his critics. A transcript of what he said follows below:
Q: You said yesterday after practice, you knew the problem was gone. Was there no point in the race that you worried?
Casey Stoner: No, because this morning in warmup I went out and did some laps, and because it had been so consistent over the past five races, in my head I knew that I was going to get to that point and go, OK that's it, I'm buggered again, I have to come in. And then I felt just that little bit of tiredness come on, but it didn't increase. So I was just like, that's it, it's gone, it's finished, and so we continued through the warm up competitively, and still set my quickest lap at the end and we knew we were rid of it then.
Pol Espargaro won the 125cc race at Estoril, after a race-long battle with Bradley Smith and Sandro Cortese. Julian Simon had led from early on, after Bradley Smith had nudged Nicolas Terol into the gravel, but a costly mistake by the Spaniard saw him run off and rejoin the race down in 13th, the position he would finish in. Espargaro won the last lap battle for victory, coming home ahead of Cortese and Smith. Smith's 3rd place helped Simon's hopes of wrapping up the title early greatly, the Spaniard now 50.5 points ahead of Smith, and Simon should clinch the 125cc World Championship at the next race at Phillip Island.