A Prelude to MotoGP’s Silly Season, Part 1

04/07/2014 @ 10:23 am, by David Emmett19 COMMENTS

A Prelude to MotoGPs Silly Season, Part 1 2014 MotoGP Wednesday Qatar Scott Jones 04 635x423

It is going to be a busy – and lucrative – year for the managers of MotoGP riders. With almost everyone out of contract at the end of 2014, and with Suzuki coming back in 2015, top riders will be in high demand. The signs that competition will be intense for both riders and teams are already there, with the first shots already being fired.

Silly season for the 2015 championship kicked off very early. At the end of last year, HRC Vice President Shuhei Nakamoto made a few casual remarks expressing an interesting in persuading Jorge Lorenzo to come to Honda. He repeated those comments at the Sepang tests, making no secret of his desire to see Lorenzo signed to an HRC contract.

Lorenzo has so far been cautious, ruling nothing out while reiterating his commitment to Yamaha. He is aware of the role Yamaha have played in his career, signing the Spaniard up while he was still in 250’s, and bringing him straight into the factory team alongside Valentino Rossi in 2008, against some very vigorous protests from the multiple world champion.

Yamaha have stuck with Lorenzo since then, refusing to bow to pressure to the extent of letting Rossi leave for Ducati, and in turn, Lorenzo has repaid their support by bringing them two world titles, 31 victories, and 43 other podium finishes.

Yamaha, in turn, have already expressed their determination to retain Lorenzo, as well as Movistar Yamaha teammate Rossi. Speaking to Motorcycle News, Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis said that it was a “very important year” in terms of contracts and that renewal discussions would start with both riders very soon.

With Movistar stepping in as title sponsor, the Spanish telecommunication giant is said to keen to retain both Rossi and Lorenzo, the Italian for his unrivaled marketing power, the Spaniard as the face of Movistar in his native Spain.

But can Yamaha do it? If they do, it will come at a very heavy price. Honda made a play for Lorenzo the last time his contract was up in 2012, driving up his salary to around 9 million euros.

Though he denied it at the time, Honda’s offer is rumored to have been the reason he split with his then manager Marcos Hirsch. Hirsch, the rumor said, had not told Lorenzo of Honda’s latest offer, thought to be in the region of 12 million euros. By that time, Lorenzo had already signed with Yamaha for less than that.

Honda will be looking to pull the same tactic in 2014, offering Lorenzo more money to make the switch. For HRC, it is a situation where they cannot lose: either Lorenzo accepts their deal and switches to the Repsol Honda team, or Lorenzo stays with Yamaha, but at an inflated salary, driving costs up and potentially using money which the Japanese firm could otherwise spend on developing the YZR-M1.

Throwing a second spanner into the works is Ducati. There were rumors earlier this year that Ducati had offered Lorenzo 15 million euros to sign for 2015. Lorenzo dismissed such rumors out of hand, but they do not appear to be completely without foundation.

Lorenzo has a good relationship with Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall’Igna, having ridden for the him when the Italian was head of Aprilia in 250’s. Progress at Ducati has been good, with Dall’Igna appearing to have finally succeeded in bringing the needed change to Ducati Corse, succeeding where others have failed.

If Honda and Ducati enter a bidding war for Lorenzo’s services, that would drive Yamaha to the very limits of their budget. They would need Movistar to come forward to extend financial support for the team to help pay for keeping the Spaniard on board.

But there are also risks for Lorenzo in leaving Yamaha. The Spaniard is surrounded by a tight-knit group, with at its center crew chief Ramon Forcada and team manager Wilco Zeelenberg.

Forcada is the technical genius who has helped Lorenzo utilize every ounce of performance from the Yamaha M1, while Zeelenberg has been the mediating force between the two temperamental Spaniards, guiding Lorenzo’s riding, providing key input on bike set up, and helping to filter the data Lorenzo is providing.

It was Zeelenberg who carefully guided Lorenzo through the collarbone operation at Assen, walking him through the process one step at a time, from deciding to have surgery immediately, to flying to Barcelona and back, to racing to an astonishing 5th place on the Saturday.

Forcada could be persuaded to leave Yamaha, and go with Lorenzo to either Honda or Ducati. The experienced crew chief has no particular loyalty to one factory or another, though he is very happy to be working within Yamaha. Zeelenberg, on the other hand, would not leave Yamaha.

He has a long association with the factory, having worked with them as a rider, then a team manager in World Supersport, and now with Lorenzo. When I asked Zeelenberg if he would leave Yamaha to follow Lorenzo, Zeelenberg dismissed the suggestion out of hand.

For Lorenzo, the decision will come down not just to money, but to where he believes he has the best chance of winning another title. The Yamaha struggled against the Honda RC213V last season, only becoming competitive again once the seamless gearbox made its appearance on the bike.

In 2014, the M1 is struggling to cope with the new Bridgestone tires, which have less edge grip than the 2013 versions. What’s more, there are questions over how the reduced fuel allowance will affect the Yamaha, though after the first race at Qatar, the M1 seemed to manage better than expected.

If Yamaha haven’t given Lorenzo a bike he feels competitive on, he is much more likely to defect. And as his main rival for the future will be Marc Marquez, Lorenzo may feel his best chance of beating him is to be on the same bike, negating any advantage which could come from machinery.

If retaining Lorenzo could be a struggle, keeping Valentino Rossi on board should be a much more straightforward task. Rossi has said that he will make a decision on his future after the first five or six races of 2014, only willing to continue if he is still competitive. His season has started well so far, proving to be much closer during testing than he was in 2013, and finishing 2nd to Marc Marquez at Qatar.

But Qatar was one of Rossi’s strongest races in 2013, and the Italian will be hoping it isn’t another false dawn. Austin – if it stays dry – will be a better measure of Rossi’s progress, and the likelihood of him staying. Rossi retains his passion for racing, he recently told Italian broadcaster Sky Sport, and is keen to renew.

The chances of him staying in MotoGP for another two years are looking better with each race, and Rossi appears to be done with gambling on switching factories. Both Valentino Rossi and Yamaha know that they have a long and lucrative post-career relationship ahead of them, with Rossi acting as brand ambassador, along the lines of Giacomo Agostini.

At Honda, the situation is simple: retaining Marc Marquez is the highest priority for HRC, with Marquez showing no desire to jump ship. First, he has some winning to do, with the challenge of switching to another factory still a very theoretical one for the far future.

Dani Pedrosa’s seat is also relatively safe, despite the Spaniard’s failure to secure a title for Honda in his eight seasons with the factory. Despite the lack of championships, his record speaks for itself: Pedrosa has racked up 25 wins for the Repsol Honda team, and leads Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey, and Kevin Schwantz in the all-time standings.

At Sepang, Livio Suppo emphasized once again Honda’s support for Pedrosa, pointing out that bad luck has played a big part in the lack of titles for the Spaniard.

Pedrosa’s seat is safe unless Honda manages to sign Jorge Lorenzo. If HRC secures Lorenzo’s signature, then it is Pedrosa who will make way for the double world champion. But that would open up a vacancy at Yamaha, and though Yamaha have signed Pol Espargaro to a factory contract in the Monster Tech 3 satellite team, Pedrosa would find a warm welcome in Yamaha’s factory squad.

Pedrosa has a long history with Telefonica – they left MotoGP after a long period because of Pedrosa, when the Spaniard was signed to the Repsol Honda team, rather than a separate team, which Telefonica and Pedrosa’s management had wanted – and so Movistar (a subsidiary of Telefonica) would wecome the Spaniard back to the brand. Movistar will want a Spanish rider in the factory Yamaha team, and with Pedrosa the only proven winner available, he would be the obvious choice.

Honda and Yamaha are only half the story, however. Tomorrow, we will take a look at Ducati, and how the return of Suzuki will impact the riders market.

Photo: © 2014 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.

Comment:

  1. L2C says:

    I hope Pedro stays with Honda. And I’m pretty sure that’s the team he hopes to retire with. Very important season indeed.

  2. L2C says:

    And the best thing about Factory Honda is that it allows full competition between its riders. Equal machinery, equal support. Pedrosa has the best chance of winning a title – and winning many more races – with Honda than with any other team. All of the other teams still subscribe to that Number 1, Number 2 nonsense to some extent. This is not a feature of Honda where competition between both sides of the garage are encouraged, if not demanded.

    Yes, the best place for Pedrosa is with Honda.

  3. Gutterslob says:

    One race down and there’s already speculation. We armchair racers rock!!

    Still a lot of possibilities.. Will Rossi be competitive throughout the year? How well will Aleix Espargaro do? How competitive will the Open class bikes be by year’s end? How many more loopholes will Ducati find? How long before Crutchlow starts throwing a PR fit?

    Well, at least no one’s arguing about the bikes not being loud enough.

  4. Mr.X says:

    The Qatar round was great and Lorenzo wasn’t even there for long. Yes, this season has the potential to be the best in a while.

  5. paulus says:

    Great. Higher riders salaries (again)
    All whilst talking of cost control and the actions of capping the technical suppliers (Brembo, Ohlins etc).
    Ever wonder where the money comes from for the extra… It’s not a racing slush fund.
    It is from the operations costs of the brands themselves. How do they pay for it?
    – The motorcycle end users (higher priced motorcycles)
    – The parts manufacturers (being squeezed for saving whilst also being requested to improve quality)

    … capping rider salaries is the single best cost control.
    They make their additional millions from their merchandise and sponsorship side deals.

  6. MotoGP Fan says:

    “Progress at Ducati has been good, with Dall’Igna appearing to have finally succeeded in bringing the needed change to Ducati Corse, succeeding where others have failed.”

    Is that statement a bit premature after one race…especially being Qatar?

  7. L2C says:

    Well, at least no one’s arguing about the bikes not being loud enough.

    Ha! But you gotta admit, Sunday’s Bahrain GP was the best F1 we have seen in a long, long time. It was a fantastic race.

  8. L2C says:

    “… capping rider salaries is the single best cost control.”

    Yeah, for like two/three riders. Two/three star riders at that. Meaning Yamaha would be the only team duly affected. When the entire grid of 23/24 riders are make MLB salaries, then maybe talks can begin about salary caps. Not before then.

    It’s ludicrous to even suggest such a thing right now, when the vast majority of MotoGP riders should be getting paid substantially more than they are now.

  9. L2C says:

    “… capping rider salaries is the single best cost control.”

    Yeah, for like two/three riders. Two/three star riders at that. Meaning Yamaha would be the only team duly affected. When the entire grid of 23/24 riders are making MLB salaries, then maybe talks can begin about salary caps. Not before then.

    It’s ludicrous to even suggest such a thing right now, when the vast majority of MotoGP riders should be getting paid substantially more than they are now.

  10. paulus says:

    No more ludicrous than capping a technology or supplier.
    Costs are costs.

    You can’t be selective. unless you are Ducati… then you probably can ;)

  11. Jw says:

    After the last debacle over 12 million euros to come ride a Honda, I bet Lorenzo is offered 15 million from Honda this time around, so it may be goodbye Pedrosa. Surely Lorenzo cannot be happy with the 2014 Yamaha and 46 coming back.

  12. TexusTim says:

    it’s like “storage wars” if one side cant get the locker drive the price up on the one that does.
    isnt there a big push in moto gp to drive down cost ? me things they need a salary cap on riders or all the “cash” saved with all these rules goes out the window when rider contracts are up. driving down cost on motogp is an oxymoron..it just cant be done.

  13. Sparkie says:

    Lorenzo will not join Marques in the same MotoGP team. If he loses to Marques in the same team all will know Marques is the better rider. If he loses on a different bike he can always blame the bike. Staying with Yamaha is his best bet.

  14. smiler says:

    Pedro is there as much for marketing purposes as for his riding. Having been severely bitten by the bad publicity from Stoner, I would bet that the only rider to inhabit Pedro’s spot is Spanish. If they do not get Lorenzo then Pedro stays even though he is over the hill.
    Yamahaha and Rossi is a done deal unless Rossi falls way off the pace.

    It is however again MotoGP and esopecially Hinda throwing money at the series. So as usual the series is for Honda to lose, which is really not exciting at all. Yam are the only thret to Hinda and is Hinda bleed them dry then it becomes the Spanish Honda cup. Off to WSBK, unless Rossi puts on another show like last time.

  15. L2C says:

    “…Pedro stays even though he is over the hill.”

    LOL! And just what does that mean exactly?

  16. Westward says:

    The only reason Repsol HRC seems like both garages are equal, is because they keep placing faith in Pedrosa, who keeps failing to materialise a championship. Every teammate Pedrosa has had is a World Champion save for Dovizioso. Even Hayden has a title and that’s one of three.

  17. Westward says:

    As for capping salaries, what are you daft? Rossi and Lorenzo are the only ones making what they are. No one else commands that amount not even Marquez at this point. Even Stoner wasn’t making more than Rossi. Anyone else would be lucky to make close to 5 million if that. Most pilots are well below the million mark, probably closer to less than 100K or if they are lucky 250K.

  18. Jimbo says:

    Great article as always David. I think those four riders are the best in MotoGP and so are likely to be the four Yamaha/Honda riders in one combination or another. I think someone like Pedrosa would be a dream rider for the new Suzuki team. He is so experienced and so consistent he is ideal to develop a bike around. They are stuck with randy de puniet on one slot so Pedrosa would be great to be their number one.

  19. L2C says:

    @ Westward

    “The only reason Repsol HRC seems like both garages are equal, is because they keep placing faith in Pedrosa, who keeps failing to materialise a championship.”

    Not only are you wrong about that, but even if you were right about it — you say that like there’s something wrong with Honda for having faith in both of its riders. As opposed to, you know, Yamaha losing faith in Rossi when he was replaced by Lorenzo.

    By your reasoning, Lorenzo was immediately promoted to Number 1 status because Yamaha had more faith in him than Rossi. Pissed Rossi off enough that he defected to Ducati to regain his Number 1 cache in the garage. No illusions, nay, delusions there.

    You say the dumbest sh-t sometimes, Westward. And that completely denigrating comment about Hayden that you made? Nicely done. What a way to bring down a former World Champion for actually winning a World Championship.

    “Even Hayden…”

    According to you, Dani Pedrosa – a top three performer, year after year after year – is a failure because he has yet to secure that fleeting fantasy that is known as the *World Title*. And also according to you, Nicky Hayden is not a great rider, even though he managed to fumble his way forward to *One* that year by beating everybody who was supposedly better than him.

    Completely screwball.

    Stick to Rossi and Stoner, dude. The only two riders whose careers are laid out in a way that you can understand.