The Courtship Ritual Begins: Prelude To MotoGP's Silly Season, Part 2

This is the second part of our two-part series on how the silly season for next year's MotoGP rider line up may play out. If you missed the first part, you can catch up with the situation in the Honda and Yamaha factory teams here.

Up until late in the 2013 season, change in the rider line up for Yamaha and Honda's MotoGP squads looked to be limited. Though all four riders will technically be on the open market at the end of 2014, the most likely scenarios for 2015 and beyond looked fairly settled. Either the line ups of the Repsol Honda and Movistar Yamaha teams would remain identical, or Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa might swap seats. The biggest question mark, it appeared, hung over whether Valentino Rossi would continue racing after 2014.

Two major shake ups changed all that. For Valentino Rossi, the replacement of Jeremy Burgess with Silvano Galbusera – and the increased role for electronics engineer Matteo Flamigni – has helped him find at least some of the time he was losing to the three Spaniards who dominated MotoGP last year, making it more likely he will stay on at Yamaha for another couple of seasons. That leaves the situation at Yamaha look more stable than before.

The biggest change, though, came at Ducati. The top of the entire Ducati Corse department underwent radical change. Gigi Dall'Igna was brought in to replace Bernhard Gobmeier as head of Ducati Corse, while Davide Tardozzi joined Paolo Ciabatti and Ernesto Marinelli to help manage the MotoGP and World Superbike teams. The arrival of Dall'Igna and Tardozzi has had a major impact, and will likely become even more significant as the season progresses. Dall'Igna has greatly improved communications between staff at Ducati's Bologna headquarters and the race teams at the track, making for a much more efficient organization.

That has combined with design improvements made over the winter to create a more competitive Desmosedici. Those design changes were for the most part made under the direction of former Ducati Corse director Gobmeier, but have greatly improved front-end feel on corner entry, and given a bit more grip on corner exit. Major problems remain – the engine is still too aggressive and the bike still suffers badly with understeer – but Dall'Igna has said he hopes to start to address those problems after the first four races.

All these changes have made Ducati a completely different proposition. When Valentino Rossi left Ducati at the end of 2012, a seat in the factory Ducati team looked like the kiss of death for a MotoGP racer's career. Over a year later, with the palace revolution at Ducati complete, the Italian factory is suddenly looking like a shrewd gamble. The bike is already looking much more competitive, with the promise of much, much more to come.

When Cal Crutchlow announced his switch to Ducati for 2014, many fans bemoaned his lack of judgment. As the situation at Ducati continues to improve, his move looks less and less like a risky gamble, and more like a canny investment in the future. It is typical of Crutchlow's career: the Englishman has repeatedly made career moves which many felt were unwise at the time he made them, but which paid off in the long term. Though he has made a modest start at Ducati, the progress shown by teammate Andrea Dovizioso shows that the bike can be competitive, and it is only likely to get better.

The improvement of the Ducati has transformed their position in the rider market. By the end of his first season with Ducati, Andrea Dovizioso looked worn down, tired of waiting for results and resigned to sitting out his contract. After the first test at Sepang, the Italian looked happier and more motivated than he had for a whole year. Like the riders at Yamaha and Honda, Dovizioso's contract runs out at the end of this season, but remaining where he is is now a viable option. Cal Crutchlow is signed through 2015, but the Englishman has an option to leave at the end of this year, a safety measure put in place just in case Ducati didn't make the progress he had hoped for.

So while Ducati is looking a more attractive option for their two current riders, they are also better placed to attract both existing and fresh talent. Gigi Dall'Igna is rumored to be making a strong push to sign Jorge Lorenzo, as having a world champion on the bike would help speed up both development and competitiveness of the Desmosedici. Though getting Lorenzo to switch to Ducati could prove to be impossible, there are other young talents who could be persuaded to make the switch. If Aleix Espargaro continues to show his current form, the Spaniard could also be a strong option for the Italian factory. And then there's Andrea Iannone: already signed to race for Ducati with Pramac, if his strong form continues in 2014, he could also be an option for the factory Ducati team.

In the past, Ducati has also shown an interest in Stefan Bradl. The German is in his third season with the LCR Honda team, where he has built up a strong bond with team owner Lucio Cecchinello. Bradl scored his first pole and podium in 2013, yet HRC felt he had not fully lived up to expectations. The pressure is on Bradl to become a more regular podium finisher in 2014 if he is to retain his seat with LCR. Success with LCR could also increase his appeal to Ducati, however, leaving LCR in turn with a vacancy to fill. Whether Ducati would prefer Bradl over either of their two current riders is open to question.

The real wild card in the 2015 silly season is Suzuki. The Japanese factory is continuing to work on their return to MotoGP next year, with development stepping up pace. Question marks remain over their progress, however. The XRH-1, as the inline four machine is known, is still well over a second off the pace of the front runners. Part of that deficit is down to porting the software from their proprietary Mitsubishi electronics systems across to the spec Magneti Marelli system. Given how quickly HRC managed the same task, that casts doubt over the resources Suzuki is investing in their project. With spec software to be imposed for 2016 and beyond, that should make things easier for Suzuki, and allow them to concentrate their resources on improving the motorcycle.

The Suzuki MotoGP bike will be the real gamble for next season. Randy De Puniet has already bet his future career on being a Suzuki test rider, working to help develop the bike ready for its return. He is hoping that Suzuki will reward him for the work he has already put in by promoting him to a full factory ride in 2015. Others will also have their eye on Suzuki. If the bike proves to be faster than the Ducatis as the year progresses, Dovizioso or Crutchlow may want to make the leap. Alvaro Bautista is set to lose his ride to Scott Redding at the end of 2014, and Bautista's history with Suzuki would also make him a strong candidate. Then there's Bradley Smith or Aleix Espargaro, or perhaps even Stefan Bradl.

Some of the top World Superbike riders also have their sights on the factory Suzuki ride. Eugene Laverty is set to test the bike later in the year, the Irishman having made it clear that he would welcome a return to the Grand Prix paddock, but only on a competitive bike. Jonathan Rea has also expressed an interest in a switch to MotoGP, though again, his condition is that he is only interested in a move on a competitive bike. Suzuki could be an option for Rea, but the Pata Honda rider could also be angling for Stefan Bradl's ride, if the LCR Honda seat becomes vacant.

What Suzuki really needs is a proven champion, but that looks an impossible dream for the Japanese factory. In its current state, they stand no chance of attracting Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa or Marc Marquez. Though the Suzuki team is being run by Davide Brivio, long-time friend and confidant of Valentino Rossi, Rossi will not make the switch either. At this stage in his career, Rossi has no interest in another gamble, and the long-term relationship he has built with Yamaha will surely prove more lucrative than any switch to another manufacturer.

Right now, everything in MotoGP is wide open, with nothing signed and talks only at the stage where riders, factories and teams are expressing an interest in each other. But with so much at stake, and so much up for grabs, negotiations will start early, and will carry on for a long time. Despite silly season kicking off so very early this year, finalizing the 2015 rider line up could take much longer. With so many options open, the permutations are many and varied. This one could run and run.

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I really hope Ducati does indeed prove to be a genuine player in MotoGP this year, but I'm a little more cautious than David seems to be. It might be difficult to know, as we observe the coming races, whether we are seeing Open Class benefits (more fuel, softer tires at least for qualifying) or true underlying competitiveness. By 2016, Open Class benefits will be gone. After so many years of disappointment, I think we are eager to see a quick improvement, but maybe Gigi Dall'Igna is merely a really good human rather than a managerial/technical alien. Anyway, I hope he is an alien and Ducati returns to being fully competitive.

Regardless of all that, Lorenzo's contract is the main lynchpin. That needs to get resolved before much else happens, IMO.

there will be a lot of courting going on this season for the Duc and Suzuki seats. From the comfort of my armchair it looks like it is going to be a total gamble for anyone looking at Suzuki whereas the Duc will either end up being race proven or a mill stone by the time the serious talking starts. It certainly doesn't hurt to have the broad spread of riders that they have as well. The total opposite is true for Suzuki and as such their options are likely to be limited to who is the best rider left without a seat when the music stops. I am not holding my breath expecting them to show any sort of loyalty to Randy if they think they can do better.

I assume that Suzuki are not an official full team this year, as such is there likely to be any problem for a current contracted rider (MotoGP or WSB) trying the Suzuki in a private test? Tyres might be an issue but I'm assuming that Suzuki has reasonable access to the correct tyres. It might at least let some of the riders assess the current status compared to their own rides. Even that feedback might be benificial to Suzuki.

I hope this is the ushering of a new era. I hope that in a few years we see some mixups at the front with Suzuki, Aprilia, Ducati, maybe even BMW? Would be great.

For the earliest start to silly season ever ROFL 1 race in and the drama and intrigue has started. Great read as usual but 1 thing I feel you overlooked.. would Yamaha keep Rossi if they had the chance to snap up Pedrosa alongside Lorenzo or graduate Pol Espargaro to the Movistar team counter the Marc Marquez phenomenon with their own young gun....?

I believe Rossi is invaluable to Yamaha, with more "pull" than anyone with current/prospective sponsors as well as potential buyers of Yamaha bikes. And Pedrosa doesn't look like an upgrade to me, or only marginally so IMO.

Never underestimate Lin Jarvis! Espargaro is his bet for the future so must be earmarked for a move up to the Movistar team in 2015 or 16 at the latest, and he has a Yamaha contract for 2015 - Rossi and Lorenzo do not.

This is pure dreaming and speculation regarding Rossi's dislike of the Fuel and electronic limits of the current regulations.... could he run his own team with a deal like forward... 24 litres, latest spec electronics, top Yamaha support with good engines and seamless, Team SKY VR46 MotoGP?

Plenty of resource for his favorite crew chief, and enough software guys, maybe even Furusawa on frame design consultancy??? As daft as it sounds, but who would have bet on Ducati (before the factory rule change) going Open six months ago?

I have to wonder if Lorenzo does leave if this makes Rossi the #1 rider again at Yamaha. If that does become the case I must also ask how his results will change as a result of development being specifically for him again.

The same question occurred to me, and I think it's a real possibility. Of course all of us Rossi fans could be eating our words in a few days time, but if Rossi has got his mojo back there'll be some tricky politics back in the Yamaha garage. Lorenzo clearly isn't happy at the moment. He looks like he isn't 100% convinced he can win the title on his bike, given where Marquez is at. Now if he gets beaten by Rossi a couple more times in the first few races, where does that put him. Whatever tantrums Rossi threw a few years back, I'm sure Lorenzo won't for one moment entertain a shift back towards equal billing. And I'm not sure Rossi would accept anything less. While his dream may be title number 10, I'll bet his aim is to beat Lorenzo, to prove to Yamaha that they called it wrong.

I think this will be one of the critical factors for decisions about seats next year.

Oh by the way, pedrosa an upgrade on Rossi? Nah, dani is a fantastic rider on his day but Rossi has a box of tricks (skills) that dani just can't quite match. The real upgrade is sat on the other repsol Honda.

Ben Spies could make a comeback with Suzuki! I know I'm dreaming, but he won 3 straight AMA Superbike Championships with the big "S" before he won the WSBK Championship with Yamaha in his first try. His shoulder might really be done for, a la Toseland, Hodgson, Gibernau etc etc.. I know I'm leaving out a lot more.. I can't wait to see the top speeds on the straight at COTA! :)

I am hoping that Yamaha have made a bike this year that is not as much tailored to just Lorenzo. His style seems very specific and Yamaha have built a bike around this! So maybe it's more if a question of could he ride the Honda that is a totally different animal and does not play to his strengths? Imo I think Rossi would probably be more suited to the Honda as he is not totally reliant on corner speed. Marques seems to ride on aggression and I don't think the Yamaha would respond to that either (although would love to se). So I think maybe the big question is will Lorenzo risk the Honda as he could well find a bike he carnt peddle as quick as marques.

After watching Lorenzo change his style last year to try and fend off Marquez, I believe Lorenzo could do pretty much whatever he wanted on a bike. And without too much effort.

He has adapted his current style for the Yamaha to exploit it's strengths, but I doubt he would have much problem adapting to the Honda. In fact, seeing how aggressive he was at the end of last year, he may find it suits him just as well.

Just look at Valencia last year, Lorenzo was throwing that Yamaha around like a scooter.

Gotta remember that in 2016 honda will be losing its greatest advantage, turn by turn programming of the ECU.

I've haven't seen it specified anywhere, but I'm assuming Suzuki will be coming in with 2 factory bikes as opposed to the single ride they left with. Right?

Please shed some light. When the hell are Harley Davidson and Norton and Triumph going to get into the ring rather than sitting on the fence? Same goes for Suzuki and Kawasaki. All potatoes and no meat, the whole bunch of them....Harley,Triumph,Norton,Suzuki & Kawasaki. I guess it all comes down to big fat butts watching and waiting for a 'RULES' miracle.
Procrastination and blah. KTM and Mahindra are in the GP game. Where the hell are Triumph/Norton/Harley and add a name. Well. Harley are a no brainer. The USA needs to divert technology into drone warfare and blah. Frankly,the only rule change the GPC need to embrace is a resumption of the heady days of the tyre wars.
In the interim, lets enjoy the efforts of the game dogs which include Honda, Yamaha, Ducati, KTM, the badged Husky and Mahindra and stuff the rest.

Apologies. Every time I see a Ducati headline, it raises hackles past, present and future. Just spewing my disgust re the likes of Triumph/Harley/Suzuki and Kawasaki. Sitting on the fence like vultures waiting for a more opportune moment to engage.
Bridgestone and 2014 and single manufacturer rule, since whenever.
Sure,it had nothing to do with your post. I had a Pit Bull moment and bit down on the first steel belted radial available.
What's the weather looking like for Austin?
Tell ya what. You get a +5 from me re your retort. Have a good one and hope we see a great race weekend.