October 10, 2007 This year's World Champion Casey Stoner, as well as Rossi, Vermeulen and the Honda team are staying where they are for season 2008 – but beyond that, MotoGP has been a huge game of musical chairs as riders jump from team to team hoping to secure the best bikes for next year. With teams finally settling, here’s what we know.
Take a clean sheet of paper, a set of coloured pencils, and draw a map of the London Underground. Substitute team names for stations – and you get the picture of a much-changed MotoGP rider line-up in 2008!
Actually, a man who is staying right where he is kick-started the jockeying for position that has gone on all year in the MotoGP ranks. As early as the first day of February we learned that Valentino Rossi would not be buying any tickets to ride: the maestro had renewed his Yamaha deal through to the end of 2008.
“The atmosphere in our garage is always relaxed and happy,” said Rossi, “and I think that this is something very special and very difficult to find.” For Yamaha team boss Davide Brivio it was all a matter of trust: “To extend the contract for a further year at the end of a difficult season like the last one (2006) is the greatest demonstration of the trust Valentino has placed in this team,” said Brivio. The five-time premier-class World Champion then became the still point in a rapidly turning world as riders assessed their options for the years ahead.
While one Italian master’s world view was stable, another’s was about to undergo rapid change. If you had felt, before the 2007 season began, that Loris Capirossi would be playing the lead role for Ducati and passing on the accumulated wisdom of 18 years in Grand Prix racing to new arrival Casey Stoner, you would not have been in a minority of one. By the mid-season break, ‘Capirex’, the man who flew the flag for the Italian marque in MotoGP, had seen his Ducati prospects wrecked as the young Aussie streaked towards their first MotoGP title.
So Loris hopped on the blue line: he’s joining Suzuki, an announcement made on August 16. “The moment has come for change, and to try new challenges,” said Capirossi – although that was after his Ducati outfit had confirmed that Marco Melandri was already on the red line – headed for Ducati alongside Stoner in 2008.
So we have two thrilling Italian-Australian partnerships to look forward to as Chris Vermeulen joins forces with Capirossi in the drive to develop the GSV-R into a title-winning machine. Vermeulen was confirmed at Suzuki again in July, with an option for 2009 as well. “The way the development has gone since I first rode the GSV-R in 2005 is incredible,” enthused Vermeulen. “I am sure if we can continue in that direction we will be pushing up to the front every weekend.” Vermeulen’s brilliant maiden win in France this year, and Capirossi’s scintillating win at Motegi in the last round before Phillip Island, confirm there’s a lot to look forward to at the blue station.
By that stage we had already heard that Jorge Lorenzo had got on the blue-and-white line. The Spanish 250cc title-holder announced late in July that he was joining Yamaha in a two-year deal. Described by Yamaha’s Lin Jarvis as ‘a valuable asset for the future’, Lorenzo is still actively engaged in the defence of his 250 title as they head to the Island.
A month later came the news that our own Anthony West was on the green line – given a ticket for 2008 by Kawasaki, for whom he made his MotoGP debut at Donington Park in mid-year as a substitute for Olivier Jacque. “A huge weight off my shoulders,” said Westy, whose unusual tale we shall tell in a later addition to this series. The other man on the green line for next year is Anglo-American John Hopkins, who is quitting Suzuki to partner West at Kawasaki.
That’s because France’s Randy de Puniet is heading the other way. In August De Puniet announced that he is making a return journey on the multi-coloured line to LCR Honda, where he really kick-started his Grand Prix career in the 250cc ranks in 2003-04.
Looking at other main-line stations, there will be no change at the Honda works team: outgoing World Champion Nicky Hayden is contracted through 2008, while Dani Pedrosa, the man up-staged by Stoner as MotoGP’s new young gun, announced last month that he’s staying put for another two years. “Although this year things have not turned out quite as we wanted,” admitted former 125cc and 250cc World Champion Pedrosa, “Honda and I have the spirit to come back next year with renewed motivation and be stronger than ever.”
It’s when we get to the outlying stations that the picture becomes a little fuzzier. Former Superbike World Champion James Toseland has a ticket for Yamaha Tech 3, whose boss Herve Poncharal calls the Englishman’s signing ‘a major coup’. Will Colin Edwards leave the main-line Yamaha outfit to team up with Toseland at Tech 3?
Tech 3 are losing Frenchman Sylvain Guintoli to the satellite Ducati team at Pramac D’Antin. The French rider raised eyebrows with a first-day stand-out performance in Brno earlier this season. “It’s always important to do well, but especially now that contracts are being talked about,” he laughed. A Ducati ride is no joke, and Guintoli has since confirmed his growing confidence with a personal best fourth place at Motegi last time out.
But who will arrive at the satellite Ducati team to work alongside Guintoli? They didn’t wait till season’s end to start making changes: Alex Hofmann’s already gone, thrown off the train after deciding a back-of-the-pack finish wasn’t worth fighting for at Estoril, and now we wait to see if another Brit, Chaz Davies, can make the second saddle his in the last three outings of 2007.
Honda Gresini have lost Melandri to Ducati: might they also be on the brink of losing Spain’s Toni Elias? He’s also in the frame for the other Pramac D’Antin ride. On the plus side, Fausto Gresini has already announced a splendid new arrival as he continues his tradition of encouraging young Italian talent. Alex de Angelis is on his way to the Honda team for his own MotoGP debut in 2008.
Lorenzo, De Angelis – and the other man in the top three in the quarter-litre class as we speak, Andrea Dovizioso, is also moving up. Exactly what his final destination will be is unclear at the moment: ‘Dovi’ announced in mid-September that he will definitely join the elite class in 2008, with Honda backing, and possibly with the help of Gianluca Montiron of Konica Minolta Honda.
As the youngsters arrive on their express train, some old-established names may be heading for a slightly slower mode of transport. Alex Barros is not glued to his Pramac D’Antin seat, nor Carlos Checa at Honda LCR. Might the Spaniard replace Toseland on the Superbike stage? What happens to Japanese riders Makoto Tamada and Shinya Nakano? All we know is that anyone who wants one of the few remaining tickets had better get in the queue right now…
Yamaha: Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo
Yamaha Tech 3: James Toseland, ?
Ducati: Casey Stoner, Marco Melandri
Pramac D'Antin Ducati: Sylvain Guintoli, ?
Suzuki: Chris Vermeulen, Loris Capirossi
Kawasaki: Anthony West, John Hopkins
Honda: Nicky Hayden, Dani Pedrosa
LCR Honda: Randy de Puniet, ?
Konica Minolta Honda: ?, ?
Honda Gresini: Alex de Angelis, ?
Unconfirmed riders: Chaz Davies, Andrea Dovizioso, Toni Elias, Alex Barros, Carlos Checa, Makoto Tamada, Shinya Nakano, Colin Edwards, Alex Hofmann