The past few days have been a veritable whirlwind of news, or more accurately, rumor and speculation, about the future of Jorge Lorenzo. The Spaniard has been holding up the MotoGP transfer market since early July, when he held off on signing a new contract with Yamaha over the conditions of the deal, and explored the options on offer to him from the other manufacturers. He had, as he took pleasure in pointing out, received offers from all the other manufacturers, and was using those offers as leverage with Yamaha, to try and extract promises of equal treatment from the team. The kind of promises that Lorenzo believed he had from the factory when he signed with them the first time around, for the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
At Brno, the market started to show some signs of movement, with Marco Melandri going to Gresini Honda, Alvaro Bautista moving up to the Rizla Suzuki ride, strong indications that Hector Barbera would take the Aspar Ducati, and a statement by the head of HRC that they had reached basic agreements with Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso. At the same time, HRC boss Tetsuo Suzuki also indicated that they would not be signing Jorge Lorenzo. Two different stories are in circulation about the reasons for this: One says that the deal failed because Honda was unwilling to meet Lorenzo's salary demands; the other reports that Suzuki-san's statement was a face saving operation, after Lorenzo had already turned Honda down.
It looked like Lorenzo's role was played out. But Casey Stoner's absence due to illness, the presence of Philip Morris head of marketing Francesco Calvo at Brno despite Stoner's absence, and a series of late night meetings in the Ducati hospitality unit soon gave rise to speculation that Ducati were closing in on signing a deal with Jorge Lorenzo, to take over development of the troublesome Desmosedici, and become the new face of the team. The sums involved were reported to be astronomical, somewhere between 4 and 8 million euros a year, for a two-year deal.
The saga, which reported on on Saturday, Tuesday and Wednesday night, seems to be coming to a head. For Spanish website Motocuatro is reporting that Lorenzo has reached an agreement in principle with Ducati, and will be riding with the Bologna-based factory for the next two seasons. Concrete salary numbers were not reported, but according to Motocuatro, the deal would make Lorenzo the second highest paid motorcycle racer in the world, behind only - you guessed it - his team mate Valentino Rossi. That would put the deal in the upper end of the 4 to 8 million euro range being bandied about.
In any exciting story, there comes a point where the author is tempted to push the action up another notch, in the hope of making it more exciting still. The danger is that by pushing the envelope, you push the audience from suspending their disbelief into outright incredulity at the improbability of the storyline, and lose them altogether. As an example, think of the sequence in the first Mission Impossible movie, where the scene in which a helicopter is chasing a high-speed train transitions from the exciting to the ridiculous, as the helicopter continues its pursuit by flying into the Channel Tunnel, and does so without crashing due to the incredible turbulence a train generates in a tunnel.
That's just about where we are with the Jorge Lorenzo-to-Ducati story. Rumors started to arise that Ducati had upped their pursuit of Lorenzo during the early part of the Brno MotoGP weekend, and at the time sounded entirely reasonable. With Casey Stoner's health situation unknown, and his return to racing and full fitness for next season uncertain, it made a lot of sense to renew the approach that Ducati had made to Lorenzo earlier in the season. Obviously, to coax him away from both Yamaha and Honda, the early reports of salary offers between 3 and 5 million seemed entirely plausible.
After Mattia Pasini was drafted in to test the Pramac Ducati MotoGP bike, on the official one-day test after the Brno MotoGP round, speculation grew that the Italian 250cc star would be given the nod to race the Pramac bike for the next two MotoGP rounds, at Indianapolis and Misano. To many people's surprise, once he gave the Desmosedici GP9 back to the Pramac mechanics, he thanked them nicely and then told everyone that he had learned what he wanted to know, and that he had no intention of racing the bike. Instead, Pasini said, he would return to the 250cc championship where he is still theoretically in with a shot at the title.
This left Pramac casting about for a replacement. With the 250cc season also coming to a head and the Misano race clashing with the next round of World Superbikes at the Nurburgring, the list of possible substitutes was looking pretty threadbare. But within a couple of days of testing finishing at Brno, the Pramac squad have found a suitable replacement: For the next two rounds, the Ducati left vacant by Mika Kallio's temporary elevation to the factory Marlboro Ducati team will be filled by former 250cc star Aleix Espargaro. According to GPOne.com, Espargaro was offered the ride after former Suzuki rider John Hopkins declined, when the team refused to offer him a contract for 2010 on top of the two wild card rides at Indy and Misano.
The MotoGP paddock resembles a battlefield in many ways, but perhaps its most striking resemblance is that the truth is a very hard commodity to come by. The fog of war envelops the paddock, and stories which emerge always come out spun in one way or another, depending on which party is leaking a story, and which side of the argument a journalist is on.
So it has been hard to make sense of the stories emerging from the paddock recently of the offer Ducati has made to Jorge Lorenzo. Depending on which source you believe, the amount involved is either a suspiciously precise 3.52 million euros a year, 6.5 million euros a year rising to 8 million, or 7 million euros a year, and by the time you read this, doubtless a new figure will have emerged from somewhere. The numbers being given smell of a mixture of propaganda, sensationalism and guesswork, and all parties involved planting stories in the press to serve their own ends. Riders' salaries are always swathed in secrecy, and contract offers are far worse, with a healthy dose of subterfuge and misdirection thrown in for good measure.
However reliable - or more likely, unreliable - the numbers, they reveal an underlying truth: Casey Stoner's absence has opened a can of worms that his previous success had kept firmly shut. For the stories doing the rounds speak of Ducati offering Lorenzo extremely generous terms, but in truth, it isn't Ducati but their sponsor, Marlboro which is behind the move. Marlboro provide a sizable chunk of Ducati Corse's MotoGP budget, and have both the money and the influence to decide on rider choice.
With one extremely successful rider already at Ducati, why would Marlboro want to secure the services of another, and risk upsetting the only man who has so far brought them a world title? The answer is simple: Casey Stoner may appear on the podium regularly, but as far as appearances off the bike, he is extremely unwilling to play ball. Rider appearances, corporate entertaining, all the boring stuff that persuades sponsors to keep paying the bills, Stoner loathes it and keeps his commitments to a minimum. Even something as simple as a publicity shot is impossible to organize, with body doubles in leathers posing for glamour shots while Stoner's face is photoshopped in afterwards.
Probably the best-known aphorism in motorcycle racing - or racing of any sort, for that matter - is that the first person you have to beat is your team mate. Your team mate, after all, is on exactly the same equipment with the same support, and so there are no excuses. If you beat him you're the better rider, if he beats you, he is. No argument.
Reality is always a little more complicated than a simple aphorism, of course. Just because you're in the same team doesn't necessarily mean that your bike is the same as your team mate's; development parts filter through at different rates. You may be on the same team, but like riders, not all team members are equal; your crew chief might be a genius or he might be just very, very smart, which can be the difference between finding three tenths of a second during the warm up on Sunday and losing the race because you're a tenth a lap too slow.
All the more reason to beat your team mate, then. After all, if you do so regularly, then it is you who will get the pick of the development parts, use of the genius crew chief and hopefully, a serious chunk of the team budget. You get the glory, but more importantly, you get the power. The bike is developed to your tastes rather than anyone else's, so that the bike naturally suits your style. This in turn allows you to get the most out of the bike, more than anyone else, increasing your advantage over your competition - and especially your team mate - and further tipping the balance of power in your favor.
It is this goal which has been driving Jorge Lorenzo since being beaten by Valentino Rossi at his home race in Barcelona. His contract with the Fiat Yamaha team comes to an end this season and talks on its renewal are in full swing. There are a lot of reasons for Lorenzo to stay with the squad - the bike is clearly the best on the grid, the team is probably the best run team in the paddock, and Yamaha's R&D department are dedicated to building a motorcycle that riders can win on, rather than a winning motorcycle - but there is one major downside: At Yamaha, Jorge Lorenzo is the number two rider, not the number one.
For a young man as ambitious as he is talented, that is not good enough. Lorenzo wants to be number one, and the drawn out negotiations, the posturing, the flirtations with other manufacturers, all are aimed at securing that undisputed number one status, preferably with Yamaha. The one minor obstacle in his way is that at Yamaha he shares a garage with a rider who has 101 victories, 8 world titles and 6 MotoGP championships under his belt. Receiving preferential treatment over the man widely reckoned to be the greatest motorcycle racer ever is a very serious, and rather presumptuous, demand to make. There is only one way to ensure that such a demand is heeded: by beating your team mate, and beating him regularly.
Over the past few races, Jorge Lorenzo's intention to do just this has been increasingly clear. The young Spaniard has gone out at every practice and laid down a ferocious pace, challenging Rossi - and anyone else - to follow. He has demonstrated emphatically that Jorge Lorenzo is the fastest man on the track, and as such, is the man to beat.
The rain brought proceedings to an early end at the final day of testing for the MotoGP class for this season. It started to rain shortly after lunchtime, and though it rained only briefly, by the time the track had started to dry out a fresh shower arrived to drench the track again. Only in the final hour did the riders venture back out onto the track again, and then, it was only Valentino Rossi who managed to improve his time.
So the riders did not get the testing done that they had hoped for. Jorge Lorenzo was once again the fastest rider on the track, ahead of the ever tardy Valentino Rossi, who did not roll out of the garage until after 11am, and Dani Pedrosa. The Repsol Honda riders were due to test Ohlins suspension, but as Dovizioso was scheduled to run the Swedish suspension in the morning, and Dani Pedrosa only in the afternoon, Dovi did the bulk of the testing. Pedrosa did get out on the new forks, according to GPOne.com, but certainly wouldn't have given the new suspension the kind of workout he would have hoped for.
Julian Ryder, over at Superbikeplanet.com, reports that there was cloak-and-dagger atmosphere inside the Suzuki pits, where screens were being erected around bikes every time the fairings came off. Obviously, the factory brought more than just the minor tweaks that they gave to Loris Capirossi for the race on Sunday.
The first outing for a Moto2 bike at an official MotoGP event was not a roaring success. Spanish rider David de Gea crashed during the morning while testing tires for Dunlop, and was transported to a local hospital with a broken foot. De Gea was not the only faller. Both Gabor Talmacsi and Nicky Hayden hit the gravel, though neither man was seriously hurt.
Times at the end of the day, courtesy of GPOne.com
The press conference given by HRC President Tetsuo Suzuki was remarkable in many more ways than one. The announcement that Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso had been signed to new contracts, subsequently denied by Alberto Puig, then clarified as a "basic agreement" was the most striking news to come out of that press conference, but the press conference contained more than just the rider announcement.
Buried among the big news of the basic agreement with Dovizioso and Pedrosa and the statement that HRC would not be signing Jorge Lorenzo was some potentially more significant news on the future of MotoGP. At the press conference, Mr Suzuki also discussed the proposal put forward by the MSMA a month ago at the Sachsenring to lease just engines to teams, in an echo of the Moto2 class and Kenny Roberts' Team KR effort. According to Michael Scott in the excellent online magazine GPWeek, Honda is opposed to the idea. "We prefer to lease entire machines," the HRC boss told the press conference, though he stressed he was speaking on behalf of Honda, and not for the MSMA.
The proposal to lease engines was put forward by the MSMA in response to the suggestion put forward by Dorna of using highly modified 1000cc production engines in the bikes, alongside the existing 800cc full prototype equipment. Both of these proposals are aimed at drastically cutting the cost of participating in MotoGP, something that all parties acknowledge is a problem.
The bikes are out on track at the final test of the year at Brno, and the first times are starting to appear. The field is still a little empty, as Valentino Rossi is yet to emerge from his motorhome, while the Tech 3 Yamahas of Colin Edwards and James Toseland have been crated up ready for their journey to the next Grand Prix at Indianapolis. Randy de Puniet is giving his fractured ankle a rest.
The Hondas are out testing Ohlins suspension, in a move which could mirror their switch in World Superbikes, where the factory-backed Ten Kate team has made a similar switch to Ohlins. Now that Yamaha has sold the Swedish suspension firm back to its founder, Honda feels comfortable testing the shocks as possible replacements for the Showa units which are produced by a Honda subsidiary.
As it's still early, the times are not much to write home about, though Dani Pedrosa has already dropped into the 1'56 bracket. What is interesting is that David de Gea is circulating on the Blusens Moto2 bike, putting in some important tire testing for Dunlop. At 11am, his times would have made him the 15th fastest rider during the 250 race.
More updates as the day goes on.
Times at 11am (courtesy of GPOne.com):
After much dithering and dallying, and pretending that nothing had been settled, Alvaro Bautista finally came clean after the MotoGP race at Brno and announced that he will after all be joining Suzuki in MotoGP. In a press conference, the Spaniard confirmed that he has signed a two-year deal with Suzuki, as had been widely leaked and reported in the run up to the Brno race.
Bautista's hand was forced by the new rookie rule, which prevents new entrants to the class from going straight to a factory team. As the only factory without a satellite team, Suzuki is exempt from this rule, and as Bautista was keen to be on a factory squad, this was his only option in MotoGP.
Bautista's team mate is most likely to be Loris Capirossi. The Italian veteran has been dropping hints all weekend that he is close to a deal with Suzuki for one more year, and only has a few details to tie up. This leaves Capirex' current team mate Chris Vermeulen out of the team at Suzuki, and in search of a seat elsewhere. Vermeulen is said to have offered to ride for the Tech 3 team basically for free, but there's a long line of others offering to do the same, so the competition is fierce.
Seats are starting to fill up surprisingly quickly in MotoGP, and we have gone from knowing very little to having most of the loose ends tied up in the space of just a few days. However, rumors continue to circulate about Jorge Lorenzo, and about Hiroshi Aoyama, and about Thomas Luthi's Caffe Latte team having the funds for an extra Honda in MotoGP. So though the picture is clearer, it is very far from over. There's plenty of news still to come.
Results of the MotoGP race from Brno:
Result and summary of the 250cc race at Brno:
Result and summary of the 125cc race at Brno: