To say that Ben Spies has caused a few surprises in 2012 is one of the larger understatements of the year. Sadly for the Texan, though, those surprises have not come in the form of podiums and race wins, as he himself may have hoped. Rather the opposite, and often through no fault of his own, Spies' 2012 season has been dogged by bad luck, unusual mechanical failures and mistakes.
The surprises reached their apogee the week before the Red Bull US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca, when Spies announced he would be leaving Yamaha at the end of the 2012 season. That he should be leaving Yamaha was unusual enough - the factory Yamaha ride is probably the most desirable seat in the MotoGP paddock, as the M1 has proven to be the most competitive bike this season - but his choice of media was extraordinary: a post on his Twitter feed, followed by a more conventional (if unusually timed) phone call to Superbikeplanet to explain his decision in a little more detail.
Since that stunning revelation, Spies has stayed almost silent. He has continually played down rumors about where he could be headed for next season, leaving much room for speculation, conjecture and rumor, some reliable, others much less so. So where will Ben Spies be racing in 2013? MotoGP, World Superbikes, or will he even be racing at all?
To answer the last question first, the Texan is almost certain to be racing somewhere - with one small caveat. Early reports suggested Spies was thinking of retiring, but the American was quick to quash such thoughts. The first reports to emerge from outside the Spies camp linked him to a ride in World Superbikes with the BMW Italia team, who will be running BMW's factory effort for 2013. Initially, BMW Italia's team manager Serafino Foti rated the chances of Spies riding for the team at 99%, but by the time the World Superbike paddock alighted in Silverstone, those odds had dropped to "70 to 80%", Foti told Bikesportnews.com.
At Indianapolis, Spies had left American reporters with the impression that he had had enough of the MotoGP paddock, and wanted out. At Brno, he was much less resolute in his rejection of MotoGP. "There is a possibility [of staying in MotoGP] but it is slim," Spies said. "For me, World Superbikes is something I am looking at very strongly and now I am looking as some GP offers but I can assure you nothing is done yet." The key factor would come down to having the right offer: the right support in the right team is what Spies was after. "I don't want to look back in ten years and say maybe I left too soon but to stay is has to be the right scenario, the right package and that's what I am working on right now."
Spies' change of heart seems to have been brought about by talks with Fausto Gresini, owner of the San Carlo Gresini Honda team. Gresini was rumored to have offered Spies a Honda RC213V with factory support, an offer which Spies acknowledged existed. Then on Monday, rumors started emerging of an offer to Spies from Ducati, of a factory Desmosedici inside the Pramac team alongside Andrea Iannone. Ducati are looking at creating a satellite team with factory support, something similar to the situation that existed at Gresini Honda with Marco Simoncelli and Marco Melandri in the past. The "Ducati Junior Team", as the project has been dubbed, would see a team - probably Pramac - run two bikes with factory support and very close to the spec of the bikes used by Nicky Hayden and Andrea Dovizioso in the factory team.
But Spies has another option as well, one that would put him in a more difficult situation for 2013, with the promise of a full-factory ride and almost certainly #1 rider status in 2014. Spies has been in talks with Suzuki since Indianapolis over a return to the factory, to help develop the brand new inline four that Suzuki is working on for their return to MotoGP in 2014. Several sources have reported that Suzuki is looking for "a top level rider" to help develop the bike, the problem being that the factory has little to offer for next season. The initial plan was to have wildcards in 2014, but Suzuki bosses visiting Brno for talks with Dorna about their plans played down any chances of wildcards for next year. That would leave Spies racing a Suzuki in World Superbikes for a season - a tough proposition, for the long-in-the-tooth GSX-R1000 has been far from competitive in WSBK this year - while developing the bike at the same time.
So where will Spies finally end up? Leaving the MotoGP paddock is a risk, as he acknowledged himself at Brno. "Honestly, I think if I left there isn't much of a possibility I would be coming back, so it's more looking at the packages we have here now, seeing if it is good enough to fight up front," Spies told reporters. On the other hand, the rides on offer in World Superbikes would put him in a position to be immediately competitive for the championship. What's more if Spies went with either the Suzuki or the BMW WSBK rides, those would be his best chances of making the step back to MotoGP in the near future.
Spies' problem is that time is starting to run short. The World Superbike grid is slowly but surely filling up, and the last few rides in MotoGP are also being taken. It is looking increasingly likely that Scott Redding will end up on the Gresini Honda, with just the details over sponsorship and funding to be filled in - a much simpler proposition, as the money that Redding would have to find to take the ride is probably a tenth of what Spies would want to race the Gresini Honda - and that is if Spies would be willing to accept using Showa suspension, reported to be a stumbling block for the Texan. The Ducati Junior team / Pramac satellite squad looks like Ben Spies' best option for staying in MotoGP for 2013, but as the saga surrounding Cal Crutchlow demonstrated, Ducati take a long time to make a decision, and when they do, the outcome may be very different from what was expected. At Mugello in July, Ducati boss Alessandro Cicognani told MotoMatters.com that he expected to have the Ducati junior team sorted out in two to four weeks: that was now more than six weeks' ago.
While Spies has stayed silent on his deliberations, the biggest hint that he gave came in a (now deleted) tweet on his Twitter feed, saying he would be going 'back where I belong'. That would suggest to most that his preference would be Suzuki, a preference supported by other comments the Texan has made. But that is a very big risk indeed, given that is impossible to judge where the Suzuki MotoGP bike stands in terms of competitiveness, as well as what Spies would do to fill in the season without racing.
Whatever Ben Spies decides to do, he will have to make a decision soon. If he does not, then he could find himself in more trouble than he intended. And that would be a waste of a prodigious talent indeed.