As a MotoGP rider, dealing with the press can be a lot like boxing against a stronger opponent: put in a quick attack, and then grab on and defend for dear life. At Laguna Seca, Ben Spies showed he had mastered the art perfectly. After dropping the bombshell that he would be leaving Yamaha on Tuesday, on Thursday Spies was in full defensive mode, deflecting questions and saying that he would not be discussing the situation and what had motivated his decision "until I'm ready to talk about the future." To carry that off and persist in your position in a room full of journalists hell-bent on wheedling the truth out of you is quite an achievement.
Fortunately for Spies, his announcement had given the assembled media hordes - well, not quite a horde, as dwindling print sales, economic stagnation in the key markets of Spain and Italy and a few border issues with journalists traveling on tourist visas meant that press corps numbers at Laguna are down - plenty of other issues to sink their teeth into. Spies leaving Yamaha opens up another seat, and with the Texan looking almost certain to switch back to the World Superbike series with the BMW Italia squad next season, an extra factory prototype, something of increasing scarcity in these days of dwindling factory involvement. Naturally, with Spies out of the equation, the media and fans have joined in an epic game of fill-in-the-blanks to try to slot all the surplus of talented riders into the limited available rides.
Prime candidate to take Spies' ride is, unsurprisingly, one Valentino Rossi. With Spies out of Yamaha, his seat in the factory team is now officially open for a return by Valentino Rossi. Yamaha's prodigal son admitted on Thursday that he had "other options" alongside remaining at Ducati, but he also made it clear that he had not yet made up his mind what he was going to do. A decision would come only during the summer break - the period between Laguna Sec and Indianapolis - Rossi said, and he would spend his holiday time weighing up his options. "There are pluses and minuses which have to be weighed up," Rossi told the Italian press.
A return to Yamaha would be a guarantee of having a competitive bike in the short term, but he would face "the rider currently in the best shape" Jorge Lorenzo. It would be a difficult decision, for on it hangs Rossi's final years in MotoGP. The fact that Audi want to keep Rossi at Ducati was "an honor" and the Italian was seriously considering the offer he had from the Italian factory. If it was just a question of money, he said, the decision would have been made a long time ago. But before he would sign with Ducati again, "there are still a few technical details to clear up," Rossi said. The Italian was careful to heap praise on Ducati Corse head Filippo Preziosi, and denied that the factory had had any contact with Masao Furusawa, former head of Yamaha's MotoGP program. "I never spoke directly with him, and everyone at Ducati says the news is not true," Rossi told the Italian press.
Rossi will have some updates at Laguna, but not as much as he had hoped for. The setback at the Mugello test, where a "component failure" had caused Rossi to crash and prevented him from testing all of the new rideability package he had hoped to use at Laguna. There will be some updates available - Nicky Hayden spoke of some parts for the throttle bodies, hinting at some modifications to the butterfly valves and some electronics to manage them. But there is still a large part of the rideability package to come, and the negative aspect for Rossi is that the parts are simply not ready yet. In an earlier interview with GPOne.com, Jeremy Burgess had said that part of keeping Rossi happy was giving him the impression that things were moving along. Having new parts to test each weekend would help keep Rossi motivated, Burgess said.
While Rossi's future is uncertain, that of Nicky Hayden looks very close to being settled. Hayden told reporters at Laguna that negotiations with Ducati had been moving briskly since Mugello. Sources inside Ducati suggest that the deal is likely to be concluded and announced this weekend, though they remain tight-lipped on the record. The contract looks to be for a single year, and the news that Hayden will be back at Ducati is being picked over for significance by everyone inside the paddock. Does selecting Hayden to stay mean that Ducati has moved to ensure at least one stable factor for 2013, expecting Rossi to move to Yamaha? Or is Hayden's contract a sop to keep Rossi at Ducati, giving the Italian a reliable partner to test the Desmosedici with and help him develop the bike?
That uncertainty is playing into the Yamaha camp as well. With Spies gone and Rossi yet to make his mind up, the Tech 3 Yamaha riders are waiting to hear where they will end up. Cal Crutchlow has an offer from Ducati, but it now appears that will only be valid if a seat is vacated at the factory by Rossi. Andrea Doviziosi, meanwhile, has offers from Gresini and from Ducati, as well as options in World Superbikes, but is bitterly disappointed that Yamaha are waiting to hear what Rossi does before giving Dovizioso the call. "On a satellite Yamaha M1," he told the Italian media, "I am scoring results which nobody expected, but this is not enough." Like Dovizioso, Crutchlow wants to be on a factory bike, regarding that as the only way to be in with a chance of a title. "With a satellite Yamaha you can be 5th or 6th, score a few podiums, and if you are very, very lucky, maybe get a win," Crutchlow said.
What is certain is that Bradley Smith will be moving up to MotoGP. Tech 3 team boss Herve Poncharal confirmed to French journalist Michel Turco that Smith would indeed be on one of the team's two Yamaha M1s in 2013, though the second rider is still to be named. Experience could be key here, and while Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso could fulfill that role if they stay, Poncharal is exploring other options as well. Randy de Puniet is one option - Poncharal could end up with two Frenchmen in his team, as current Moto3 rider Louis Rossi is also being linked to Tech 3 to race in the Moto2 team - while the other is Nicky Hayden, should the American's Ducati deal fall through. The name of Hayden is a surprise, as Poncharal was not excited by the prospect when I spoke to him about it a few races ago.
The good news for race fans is that Colin Edwards will be back in MotoGP next season. The Texan revealed that he has a two-year deal with Forward, but the real reason the fans will be glad to see him was the way that he made his announcement. When asked about the Suter he is currently riding, he called it "a piece of shit", explaining that his bike, like all the CRTs as far as he could see, was a very long way from being competitive. Where at a race weekend, they should be working on the fine details of setup, in actual fact they were still trying to figure the big picture out, he said. "We had our ass smacked and our balls tickled, but some of the things that were promised, it just hasn't happened," the Texan said colorfully. He should have an Aprilia from Indianapolis, which is not enough to race with the prototypes, but it was at least the best CRT bike, he said.
Edwards was ambivalent about the idea of CRTs, seeing the point of the rule, but saying that at the pace the bikes are currently going, it simply made no sense. "It's just kind of a bullshit rule," Edwards said. "How do you expect to fly around the world and compete when you know you can't win? It's been hard to stay motivated when you know you can maybe get 12th, maybe get 10th. But the formula's just not right yet, the CRT thing is a good idea - or a one-brand bike, or whatever that rule is - but right now when you have a bunch of prototypes out on track, it's more dangerous than anything. I feel like I'm spending more time looking behind me, trying not go get out of these guy's way." The solution was easy, according to Edwards. "The bikes all these guys are riding this year? Make them available for satellite teams next year. That way you get 24 bikes on the grid, let's go racing," Edwards said. A brilliant idea that Dorna, the FIM and IRTA have pushed for repeatedly, only to be rebuffed by the factories. They would rather send the old bikes to the crusher than have them on the grid.
Edwards' frank and entertaining replies prompted a question from Ben Spies when the floor was opened to questions: "You must have a really good press officer, don't you?" Spies joked. Edwards then went on to prove exactly why he is such a special part of MotoGP, disregarding protocol to get his son up onto the stage, taking pictures with his son halfway through the press conference, before allowing it to continue. Edwards then cracked some jokes about the silly season speculation: "Valentino's going back to Yamaha, Ben's going to race the Tour de France and Casey and me are going hunting" quipped the Texan.
With so many riders brought up to respond exactly as their PR managers demand, Edwards is a breath of fresh air. He generates a lot more interest for his team than his results command, and he is a massive favorite with the fans. The sponsors probably hate it, but the truth is, they get more bang for their buck from a witty loudmouth like Edwards than they do from the average, polite racer that populates most grids in most series nowadays. MotoGP needs characters like Edwards.