The 800cc MotoGP era has been a terrible one for satellite teams. Since the drop in capacity at the start of the 2007 season, a satellite rider has not won a single race, and even podiums have been scored only very sparingly. The smaller capacity has placed a greater emphasis on technology; technology costs money, and money is a commodity that is (still) in short supply among the satellite squads.
The technology wars have had another deleterious effect on the satellite teams. As the technology of the MotoGP machines has become more important, the factories have taken away more and more control over the bikes. Each satellite MotoGP bike comes with at least one factory engineer, leaving the satellite pit crew with less and less to do. The mechanics are becoming exactly that, mechanics, and not allowed the heart of a modern MotoGP machine, the electronics.
But 2011 could be the year that we finally see a satellite rider take a win in the class. After four years of not winning a championship in the capacity class that came about because they asked for it, Honda have pulled out all of the stops for the class' final year. And although their efforts are aimed mainly at securing a title for Casey Stoner or Dani Pedrosa, the repercussions of their hard work should also pay off for the Honda satellite riders as well.
The Fabulous Furry Freak Brother
The one satellite team rider that everyone expects to cash in on Honda's progress is San Carlo Gresini's Marco Simoncelli. Simoncelli made an immediate impact when he joined MotoGP, and seems ready, like Ben Spies, to make the next step towards racing with the front group. During preseason testing, Simoncelli looked like he had taken that step, posting times that put him in the top four, and even leaving the first Sepang test as the fastest rider.
While it would be foolish to cast doubt on Simoncelli's talent and speed, it would be a misnomer to call him a satellite rider. Simoncelli is under contract to HRC, he has HRC engineers in his garage including two electronics guys, and if Casey Stoner hadn't joined the Repsol Honda team, Simoncelli would have been the first in line to take that spot. Simoncelli is, to all intents and purposes, a factory rider.
With the blisteringly fast RC212V underneath him, Sideshow Bob (as he has been affectionately nicknamed, after the wild-haired character in The Simpsons cartoon) is a prime candidate to be the first satellite rider to win an 800cc MotoGP race. He is unlikely to win the championship, though: HRC simply will not stand for Simoncelli getting in the way of their plan to win this final 800cc title, and with Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa on the books, Simoncelli will have to wait his turn. Which may well come in the not too distant future.
The Quiet One
Like Simoncelli, Hiroshi Aoyama has also been boosted by the pace of the Honda RC212V. Unlike Simoncelli, Aoyama does not have the same backing from Honda, though the Japanese firm is helping him to stay in MotoGP, as they want a Japanese rider in the series. Aoyama has shown an excellent turn of pace during testing, justifying the backing that HRC and Dorna have given to the last ever 250cc champion.
His success follows a very tough rookie year. At Silverstone, just the fifth round of last season, Aoyama suffered a huge crash on cold tires, in which he fractured a vertebra and missed the next six races, only returning at Indianapolis. Even that was rather early, Aoyama still suffering with some stiffness in his back, but in the end he found some of the speed he had lost, though being on the least supported satellite Honda on the grid did his performance no good.
On a much better machine, and with a much richer team - though Fausto Gresini would protest at such a claim - Aoyama has gained a lot of pace. He has a year of experience with the bike and the electronics, and a year's knowledge of setup. His modus operandi as a 250 rider was to work quietly and methodically, almost sneaking up on podiums and wins without being noticed. Off track, Aoyama is the politest young man in the paddock; on track, he could throw up a few surprises this year. A podium is not beyond the bounds of possibility.
Blowin' Down The House
One man who has already had a podium on a satellite machine is Monster Tech 3 Yamaha's Colin Edwards. Every season, Edwards threatens to retire, and every season, he hangs on for just one more year. His longevity is remarkable, though his consistency is rather less so. The Texan's fortunes swing like a pendulum, back one year, forth the next, scoring podiums one season, and finishing invisibly mid-pack the following year.
Fortunately for Edwards, 2010 was a mediocre year, ending up just 11th in the championship. He is due a revival, and given that the 2011 Yamaha M1 is a pretty solid package, there is every chance to expect he will do well. Edwards' biggest challenge for this season is the rest of the competition: while in previous years, he has finished inside the top 5, there are 6 or even 7 riders capable of winning a race this year, and likely to finish ahead of him in the championship.
But Edwards has been strong during preseason testing, often getting close to the pace of the factory Yamahas, though still a little way behind the Hondas. Edwards was often the first of the chasing group during 2009 and 2010, and he should be able to secure that spot again in 2011. He could be fighting off a few more riders for that position this season - the names of Hiroshi Aoyama, Randy de Puniet, and Alvaro Bautista spring to mind, but there's still a good chance he'll come out on top of that battle.
Edwards is joined in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha garage by another British rider. Former World Supersport champion Cal Crutchlow has made the switch to MotoGP after a year in World Superbikes in which he put on a strong showing, winning three races along the way. Crutchlow had wanted to move to the MotoGP paddock in 2010, spending time talking to a number of Moto2 teams. But contractual obligations with Yamaha finally brought him back into the fold, and he ran the year in World Superbikes he had agreed with the Japanese factory.
Now, Yamaha have brought him across to MotoGP, slotting him alongside Edwards at Tech 3. The last time Edwards had a British teammate, things did not go well, the relationship between Edwards and James Toseland turning acrimonious after Toseland poached Edwards' crew chief. Crutchlow, though, is a different kettle of fish, a much tougher, cannier youngster more focused on his own job rather than worrying about anyone else.
So far, Crutchlow has not set the world on fire in testing, but the Englishman has a much tougher hill to climb than most other transferees from World Superbikes, especially as Crutchlow is still recovering from shoulder surgery. The transition from Pirellis to Bridgestones is the biggest change, the tires requiring a completely different riding style. The Bridgestones require loading to get them to work properly, but at Qatar, Crutchlow told the press that he'd spent his time on a Superbike trying to avoid loading the tire at all costs. Add in the difference between steel and carbon brakes, and you have a very tough hill to climb.
Crutchlow's transition will not be helped by comparisons with the man whose seat he takes inside the Tech 3 team. Crutchlow takes the ride vacated by Ben Spies, who moves up to the factory Yamaha team. Spies success in MotoGP says more about Ben Spies than any failure by Crutchlow to be an instant hit. Crutchlow faces a very tough first half of the year on the Yamaha M1, but he should be aiming for top tens by the end of the year.
Never Give Up
If fans wonder at the longevity of Colin Edwards in MotoGP, they are positively astounded at the career of Loris Capirossi. A former 250cc champion, Capirossi is entering his 22nd season of Grand Prix racing at the tender age of 37. If Colin Edwards is MotoGP's Energizer Bunny, Loris Capirossi is surely its Terminator T1000.
After three years at Suzuki, Capirossi finally makes a return to Ducati, signing with the Pramac satellite team. A rather ironic move, as this is the ride that Ducati offered Capirossi in the summer of 2007, after signing Marco Melandri for what would prove to be a disastrous year. Capirossi declined, went to Suzuki, but leaves disillusioned after three years of waiting for development that never came.
The question of how long Capirossi will stay with Ducati is likely to be answered by the middle of this year. So far, Capirossi has shown little affinity for the Ducati, posting times in testing putting him well outside the top 10. Rumors persist that Capirossi was brought in at the behest of Valentino Rossi to act as a test mule, but if that is true, it is questionable as to how much value Rossi has had from Capirossi. This season is likely to be the Italian veteran's swansong, with Capirossi fading away, rather than going out with a bang.
By contrast, his teammate has been pretty impressive, Randy de Puniet being the fastest Ducati during testing on a number of occasions. The Frenchman's style seems rather suited to the Ducati, De Puniet being known for the kind of spectacular riding that helps load the front tire and allows it to grip.
De Puniet's arrival on a Ducati was more accidental than the consequence of strategy, the Frenchman holding out for a pay rise from Suzuki which never materialized once the factory decided to run just a single bike. Having burned his bridges with the LCR Honda team he had spent the last three years with, the Pramac Ducati team was the only place left.
That may prove to be rather serendipitous. De Puniet was often spectacular, sometimes outstanding on the Honda, and his transition to the Ducati has been almost seamless. The Frenchman's reputation as a crasher is likely to remain intact, as all of the Ducatis have displayed the same front end problem. But if you're looking for a dark horse to bag the occasional podium, and finish ahead of the factory bikes from time to time, then Randy de Puniet is your man.
Much the same could be said of Hector Barbera. Formerly the craziest man in 250s, the Mapfre Aspar rider has been the very model of restraint since moving to MotoGP - at least by Hector Barbera standards. That craziness has stood him in good stead on the Ducati, for like Randy de Puniet, Barbera can load the front end to get the tire to work.
Last season, Barbera put in a solid rookie year, learning his way around the bike and the electronics. Over the course of testing, Barbera has shown some progression since 2010, finishing among the faster of the Ducati riders. The trouble is, the faster of the Ducati riders is still some way down the field, and the Spaniard is in for a year of battling on the edge of the top 10. But as a Valencian rider on a Valencian team, that will probably be good enough.
The last of the Ducati satellite riders is also the rider who has had the most criticism leveled at him. Karel Abraham, the critics say, only got his Ducati ride because his father bought it for him, Abraham Sr owning the Cardion medical equipment firm which sponsors both the team and the Czech Grand Prix at Brno. There were many other riders who deserved the ride ahead of Abraham, the critics say.
There is some truth in the accusation that Abraham's father is paying for his ride, but it is untrue that the 21-year-old Czech is undeserving. Abraham won the final Moto2 race of the year in 2010, as well as scoring a podium and a 4th to add to his tally. Look beyond the rich father, and you see a rider who has enough talent to at least deserve a shot at the premier class.
Abraham is not about to set the world on fire, however. During testing, the young Czech has made solid progress, gradually closing in on the riders ahead of him, such as Loris Capirossi and Alvaro Bautista. He has regularly beaten Toni Elias, and is on the pace with the battle for the final few points. As the rookie makes progress in the class, he could end up with a sniff of the top 10.
New Dawn Fades
The last of the satellite riders is perhaps the biggest anomaly on the grid. Anyone who remembers the 2006 season remember just how well Toni Elias can ride. And anyone who watched the Moto2 class was convinced of the class of the Spaniard. But his return to MotoGP during testing has been nothing short of a disaster. Elias has been lapping 2 to 3 seconds off the pace of the fast guys, and resolutely committed to last place.
Elias' dismal performance so far in MotoGP begs two questions. The first is the obvious one, why can't the man they used to call Tiger Toni get the LCR Honda to work, especially given the rest of the Hondas are well towards the front? The answer is the combination of Elias' peculiar riding style and the Bridgestone tires, which are a complete mismatch. The spec Bridgestone has a very stiff carcass, which needs loading to get heat into the rubber. Elias' weird hanging-right-off-the-side style simply doesn't do that, and so without any grip, Elias simply can't get the tires to work for him.
The second question that you would have to ask is what Elias is doing in MotoGP. Given his dominance in Moto2, he would have been favorite for a repeat of his championship in 2011 had he stayed in the class. Ambition plays a part, of course; every rider believes that given the proper equipment, he too could be world champion, and they head into the premier class hoping that a strong showing on an inferior bike will give them a shot at a factory ride later on.
But Elias was pushed just as much as he jumped. For the prestige of the Moto2 class, it was imperative that the first Moto2 champion gain promotion to MotoGP, both to series organizer Dorna and to single engine supplier Honda. Once Elias was crowned Moto2 champion, negotiations began to find him a ride in the premier class. A seat with LCR Honda seemed a safe bet, after Elias turned down the offer to return at Pramac Ducati, a team he does not harbor fond memories of.
The problem is that Elias' promotion to MotoGP has backfired rather badly. His performance so far has shown both Moto2 and MotoGP in a bad light. There is some hope that Elias might find some speed again on the Honda, after all, he finished 7th in the championship aboard an RC212V in 2009. But it would not be wise to hold out any hope of a quick fix; though Bridgestone and Ohlins work to get Elias tires to work properly, it will take some time to figure out. Until then, meet the backmarker.