Secrets are hard to keep in the MotoGP paddock. When it comes to contracts, usually someone around a rider or team has let something slip to a friendly journalist – more often than not, the manager of another rider who was hoping to get a particular seat, but lost out. It is not often that real bombshells drop in MotoGP.
So the report by Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport that Repsol Honda were in talks to sign Jorge Lorenzo came as a huge shock.
The assumptions that almost everyone in the paddock had been making – that Lorenzo would be riding a full factory Yamaha M1 in a Petronas-funded satellite team operated by the Sepang International circuit – turned out to have been nothing more than a useful smokescreen.
Instead, Lorenzo has signed a two-year deal with HRC to partner Marc Márquez. The announcement was originally due at Barcelona, but the publication by La Gazzetta forced Honda to make a hasty and brief announcement..
The Petronas rumors had plenty of fire to provide the smoke. In an interview with Crash.net, Sepang International Circuit CEO Dato’ Razlan Razali openly discussed the possibility of running Yamahas with Lorenzo and Franco Morbidelli.
Everyone I spoke to – including other team managers, rider managers, riders, journalists – believed that Jorge Lorenzo would be riding a Yamaha in 2019.
The appointment of Puig did not come as a surprise. Puig has a long and storied history with Honda, having raced for them in 500GPs, then moving on to a variety of management roles associated with Honda.
Puig was instrumental in the Movistar Cup, the series from which a vast array of talent came, including Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa, Toni Elias, and much more.
He went on to become Dani Pedrosa’s personal manager, before moving on to run the Honda Asia Talent Cup and work with the British Talent Team in recent seasons.
But this appointment also marks a break with recent history. Alberto Puig is a very different character to Livio Suppo, who he nominally replaces.
The first half of 2016 has seen a long and intense period of speculation, gossip and conjecture over which rider ends up where in MotoGP.
Big names have jumped from one factory to another, the entry of KTM has opened up opportunities for established satellite riders, and there has been much talk of the rookies entering MotoGP from Moto2 – Sam Lowes to Aprilia, Alex Rins to Suzuki, and Johann Zarco to Tech 3 (though the latter is still to be announced).
What there has been much less talk of is who is to fill their seats. Traditionally, Silly Season for Moto2 and Moto3 starts much later than for MotoGP, speculation and negotiations commencing in the run up to the flyaways, and often only being finalized at Valencia.
But with three of the strongest teams in Moto2 having seats to fill, team managers are looking ahead a little earlier than usual.
The 2016 MotoGP season hasn’t even got underway yet, and there is already so much to talk about. New bikes, new tires, new electronics: viewed from this point in the season, the championship is both wide open and highly unpredictable.
Testing has given us a guide, but it was clear from the three preseason tests that much will change throughout 2016, with the balance of power changing from track to track, and as Michelin bring different tires to different circuits.
All of this will also play in to what is likely to become the biggest talking point of the 2016. At the end of this year, the contracts of all but two of the 21 MotoGP riders are up, with only the riders Jack Miller and Maverick Viñales having deals which extend through 2017.
Even Viñales and Miller are not certain to stay where they are, with Viñales having an option to leave, and Miller so far failing to impress HRC. With KTM coming in to MotoGP in 2017, there could be up to 22 seats available.
That has and will generate a veritable tsunami of speculation and rumor surrounding who will be riding where in 2017. There are so many unknowns that anything is possible, from a total overhaul and general shuffling to just minor tweaking, with most of the protagonists staying where they are.
The most likely scenario, of course, lies somewhere in the middle, with a few big names moving around, and plenty of shuffling among the satellite squads.
Seven days ago, we were talking about how the 2015 MotoGP season will go down in history as one of the greatest of all time, with the Australian Grand Prix as its glittering highlight. A week later, we saw its low point.
There were some truly remarkable and admirable performances in all three classes. Dani Pedrosa confirmed his return to form with a formidable victory, his second of the season. The arm pump surgery has been a huge success, and if Honda can resist the temptation to build an unrideably powerful engine, Pedrosa will be back in title contention again next year.
Johann Zarco proved once again he is the class of the Moto2 field, stalking Tom Luthi all race and riding to the very limit of physical endurance to snatch victory from what seemed like a foregone conclusion.
And Miguel Oliveira demonstrated that he is capable of dominating the second half of the Moto3 season the way that Danny Kent dominated the first half, denying the Englishman the title and taking the championship to Valencia.
The trouble is, those stunning performances were overshadowed by one of the ugliest weekends of racing we have seen in a very long time. The tragedy may not have been physical this time, but it was tragic nonetheless.
Three great champions let their masks slip at Sepang, revealing the egotism, spitefulness and petty rivalries that underly their success. And the fans added insult to injury, booing at a result they did not like.
So we shall skip past the victory by Dani Pedrosa, failing to shower him with the praise which he deserves. We shall overlook the stunning ride by Jorge Lorenzo, passing riders at will and subduing everyone but Dani Pedrosa.
Instead, we must focus on the battle for third, the clash between Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez. On the breathtaking battle that went sour, after Rossi finally lost his cool at Márquez’s provocation and unwillingness to surrender, and precipitated Márquez’s crash.
Is the strain of the championship starting to take its toll on the relationship between the two Movistar Yamaha riders? It was all Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo could do to roll their eyes when they were asked this question during the press conference.
They get asked it a lot: in just about every press conference at which they are together, in their media debriefs after every day of practice, and presumably, in just about every TV and media interview.
Valentino Rossi had armed himself with a quip to deflect the question. “We are very happy about your interest,” he joked. “We have a diary about our relationship, which we will keep secret until the last race.”
It is a shame he was only joking. There is no doubt that a diary, especially a video diary, following Rossi and Lorenzo behind the scenes through this season would have made compelling reading or viewing.
Aragon was a busy time for the riders and managers in all three Grand Prix classes. Wrapping up contract negotiations before the circus heads east for the Pacific Ocean flyaways was high on the list of priorities, though not everything ended up getting sorted before the teams packed up at Aragon. Plenty of agreements were reached, however, as we shall see below.
Though most of the loose ends have been tied up in MotoGP, a few question marks remain. The Aspar team was one of those question marks, which came much closer to a conclusion at Aragon.
The original plan was to have Jack Miller join the team, bringing his crew with him, and covering most of the cost of riding, but various obstacles prevented that from happening.
Money was a major factor, in part the amount Aspar were willing to pay to have Miller in their team, but perhaps a bigger factor was being left with Hondas.
The Open class Hondas have both been a huge disappointment for all of the teams that have run them. The 2014 RCV1000R was massively underpowered, and was getting blown away by the factory bikes along the straight.
To remedy that situation, Honda offered the RC213V-RS, a cheaper version of the factory RC213V, but without the seamless transmission and using the spec electronics.
That bike has also not been competitive, perhaps in part because it is a stripped down version of the original. “This bike was designed to use a seamless gearbox,” Nicky Hayden explained last weekend. “You can’t get the best out of it without one.”
Something always happens at Le Mans. Something happens at every MotoGP race, of course, but Le Mans seems to always have more than its fair share of happenings.
Unlikely events, weird crashes, high drama. Marco Simoncelli taking out Dani Pedrosa. Casey Stoner announcing his retirement. Things that nobody had seen coming emerge from the shadows. News that was half-suspected is suddenly thrust into the limelight. Something always happens at Le Mans.
The 2013 Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island – likely to be known henceforth as ‘The Debacle Down Under’ – taught us many things. It taught us that tire companies need to find ways to test at newly surfaced tracks (especially when a newly retired world champion and now Honda test rider lives in the same country), that pit stops in dry conditions are potentially dangerous when each stint is less than 10 laps, and that hurriedly changing rules and race lengths are far from ideal when trying to organize a MotoGP race. Those were the lessons that were immediately obvious to anyone watching.
There were more subtle lessons from Phillip Island as well. Marc Marquez’s disqualification was not just a failure of either strategy or his ability to read a pit board, it was also a sign of growing tensions inside the Repsol Honda box. The reactions of the various members of Marquez’s crew after he failed to enter the pits to swap bikes at the end of lap 10 (shown in an excellent free video on the MotoGP.com website) suggests a deep-seated failure of communication among the entire crew.
Most of his crew appeared to be surprised and shocked when Marquez didn’t come in to swap bikes, but Marquez’s inner circle, Emilio Alzamora and Santi Hernandez, appear unperturbed as he races by on the lap that would lead to his disqualification. Cristian Gabarrini, formerly Casey Stoner’s crew chief and now HRC engineer assisting Marquez’s team, is immediately certain of the consequences, the cutting motion across the throat showing he knows it’s over.
After the race, Marc Marquez told reporters that it had been deliberate strategy to ride for the extra lap. The strategy had been decided by a small group. “We made the plan together, with three or four guys, with Santi [Hernandez] and with Emilio [Alzamora],” Marquez said, but the plan had backfired.
“The biggest problem was that we thought that it was possible to make that lap,” Marquez said, expressing his surprise at being black flagged. He had thought the penalty was for speeding in the pit lane or crossing the white line too early.