With MotoGP grid sizes currently shrinking almost on a daily basis, judging by the news from Sepang, it was clear that something would have to be done to stem the losses. The latest count was just 15 bikes on the grid in 2011, with Pramac and Suzuki down to one bike each, and Interwetten Honda out altogether.
The latest paddock rumors from Sepang - assembled by our friends over at GPOne.com - suggest that Dorna is stepping in to shore up grid numbers for next year, by providing support in a couple of key situations. The first move is to help get Toni Elias back into MotoGP. The way that Elias has dominated the brand new Moto2 championship, culminating in the 2010 title he secured at Sepang, has generated a huge call for the popular Spaniard to be given a ride in MotoGP. Elias' options looked very good, either taking the second bike at Suzuki, replacing the departing Loris Capirossi, or else taking over Randy de Puniet's seat at LCR Honda, should the Frenchman have plumped for the Suzuki seat before Elias. Once the second bike at Suzuki disappeared - looking more like a racing certainty with every passing day - that plan fell through, leaving Elias to look for a ride in Moto2.
Rumor now has it that Dorna have intervened, promising support to the Pramac Ducati squad for 2011, in exchange for giving Toni Elias a ride in MotoGP for next season. Elias, who spent a year with Pramac (then Alice) Ducati back in 2008, would take the second machine alongside Loris Capirossi, who has already been all but confirmed for 2011, with Dorna footing much of the bill for Elias' promotion. Current Pramac rider Aleix Espargaro would be forced out of the Pramac squad and helped to find a seat in Moto2. The elder of the Flying Espargaro Brothers is already in demand in Moto2, with rumors linking Aleix to both the Aspar and Pons squads.
The other rider Dorna are keen to keep inside the fold is Hiroshi Aoyama. The last ever 250cc World Champion has slipped under the radar a little, after a difficult and injury-ridden start to the year. Aoyama started the year with wrist problems related to RSI, and at Silverstone, suffered a fractured vertebra after a huge cold-tire highside in the chilly English morning air. That accident ruled Aoyama out for six races in the middle of the season, returning at Indianapolis before he was still fully fit. Since his return, Aoyama has continued his quiet progress, only occasionally showing his true potential.
Aoyama is also Japanese, a vital factor for both Dorna and for Honda, who have always supported Japanese riders on the grid. Both parties want to keep Aoyama in the premier class, though neither party wants to foot the entire bill. And so a compromise could be reached by placing the Japanese rider inside the San Carlo Gresini Honda team, with support from both Honda and Dorna.
This solution appears to have been made possible by negotiations within HRC about the factory team. The current state of play is that Andrea Dovizioso will not be farmed out to Gresini, but will remain inside the factory Repsol Honda team. To make this possible, Casey Stoner is to be run in a separate one-man factory Honda team, with separate sponsorship. Red Bull is the name most commonly dropped in this context, but as Red Bull have so far managed to avoid the temptation to take on the title sponsorship of a team, there is reasonable doubt that it will happen now.
The three-man factory team lineup would also diffuse the power struggle going on inside HRC, which pits Pedrosa's manager Alberto Puig against Stoner's former team boss, Livio Suppo. Puig has been pushing HRC to get rid of Suppo, and has been using his leverage with Repsol to encourage the sponsorship deal to be linked to Suppo's position. HRC, meanwhile, hired Suppo to raise sponsorship for the factory Honda team, and end their reliance on Repsol. Two separate teams with Puig and Suppo at the helm of each would create a situation that was acceptable to all, without losing valuable sponsorship. And with Dovi in Repsol, Aoyama can slot into Gresini, with the blessing and support of Honda and Dorna.
With Elias at Pramac and Aoyama at Gresini, the grid would be back up to 17 again. Hardly a well-stocked field, but at least it would be no worse than the current situation. Dorna buys another year of scratching and scraping and kowtowing to the manufacturers, while awaiting the coming of the CRT teams in 2012. With at least 6 extra entries expected in 2012, grids will start to look respectable again.