Though much of the attention during this year's Silly Season will be on the Yamaha and Honda garages, which we wrote about yesterday, the more interesting stories are to be found in the rest of pit lane. With Yamaha and Honda looking likely to remain virtually unchanged, the other factories in MotoGP could see a lot more changes.
The garage likely to generate the most speculation is that of Ducati. Since the arrival of Gigi Dall'Igna as the head of Ducati Corse, the Ducati Desmosedici has been transformed from a career killer to championship contender. Or at least we believe it has: last year, the Andreas Dovizioso and Iannone grabbed eight podiums between them, and came close to a win at the first race in Qatar, Dovizioso coming up just 0.174 short of Valentino Rossi. The GP16 – or the Desmosedici GP, as Ducati have deigned to call it – is meant to be even more competitive, benefiting not only from a year of refinement, but also from experience with the spec Magneti Marelli electronics.
Last year, at the launch of the GP15, Dall'Igna said the goal of Ducati was to win a race that year. They did not, but the overall competitiveness of the bike led many to question whether the problem might be the riders the factory team have. Both Dovizioso and Iannone come with impeccable pedigrees, both having won multiple Grand Prix, Dovizioso also having won a MotoGP race and a world championship in 125. Yet neither has managed to pose a consistent threat to the established hierarchy on the Desmosedici. They have been there or thereabouts, and sometimes looked seriously dangerous, as they both did at Qatar, and Iannone did at Phillip Island. But are they the right riders to mount a campaign for the 2016 MotoGP championship?
That is the question which Ducati executives must be asking themselves. The fact that they have signed Casey Stoner as a test rider is another sign of just how seriously they are taking this challenge. Philip Morris and Audi have put a lot of money into Ducati's racing program, the changes Dall'Igna has made to Ducati Corse have turned the organization around, now it is time to deliver. With question marks over Iannone and Dovizioso, Ducati are now turning to the open market to see if they can find a genuine MotoGP Alien to bring them their first win since Casey Stoner climbed off the bike at Phillip Island in 2010.
Who will they go for? As we wrote yesterday, Jorge Lorenzo is at the very top of their target list. Gigi Dall'Igna has an excellent relationship with Lorenzo, and knows him well from having worked with him in 250s, when Dall'Igna was head of Aprilia's racing department and Lorenzo was winning championships for them. A good personal rapport is important, but not sufficient to tempt Lorenzo over. Large sums of money might help, but even they may not be sufficient. As we discussed yesterday, the one thing which drives Lorenzo above all else is ambition, and a lasting legacy at Yamaha may be a more appealing prospect than gambling on Ducati.
An additional factor in Lorenzo's choice would be that he would not be able to take his entire crew with him. Wilco Zeelenberg is a key part of Lorenzo's success, supplying pointers to Lorenzo, but also to crew chief Ramon Forcada about where Lorenzo's strengths and weaknesses lie at a particular circuit. Zeelenberg is a Yamaha employee through and through, and will not leave Yamaha to go to Ducati. Forcada, likewise, is more tied to Yamaha than to Lorenzo, and would be more likely to stay at the Movistar Yamaha team to work with a young prospect like Alex Rins than move to Ducati with Lorenzo.
In search of a hotshot
If not Lorenzo, who? There is no doubt that Ducati will approach Marc Márquez, but the Spanish youngster has many ties that bind him to Honda. Though Ducati could probably outspend HRC if it came to a bidding war, it is unlikely they could create enough of a difference to make Márquez an offer he could not afford to refuse. The most likely role for Ducati will be as a bargaining chip in Emilio Alzamora's negotiations over Márquez' salary.
Márquez' current teammate Dani Pedrosa could prove a more fruitful target for Ducati. Should the Spanish veteran be bumped from the Repsol Honda squad, he would make an excellent addition to the factory Ducati team. Pedrosa has what Ducati needs: proven talent, the ability to win races, and excellent feedback to help develop the bike. His disadvantage is his size, which on the roomiest bike on the grid would likely be exaggerated. Making a Desmosedici to fit Pedrosa could well be a deterrent for Ducati.
Maverick Viñales is a more likely target for Ducati, and along with Alex Rins, is probably the hottest prospect on the rider market. Viñales could be tempted away from Suzuki, especially with the kind of money which Ducati could afford, but the Spanish youngster could not expect to command the kind of salary a proven winner like Lorenzo or Márquez. Though Viñales has been deeply impressive during testing, he is yet to score a podium in MotoGP, and consequently still has to prove that he belongs in Alien territory with the established Big Four.
The new Schwantz?
That may change if he starts to get podiums and wins on the Suzuki, but at the same time, it would create more problems for Ducati. It would increase the already major interest which HRC has in the Spanish youngster, perhaps causing a bidding war between the two factories. But it would also make Viñales more likely to stay where he is, and put his trust in Suzuki. If the glory of being the first person to win on a Ducati since 2010 would be considerable, just think how well the first winner on a Suzuki since 2007 would be received. If Viñales starts scoring the results many believe he is capable of, the comparison with Kevin Schwantz will become inevitable. Even though Viñales' style is much more like Eddie Lawson or Wayne Rainey than is like Revvin' Kevin.
Of course, if Viñales doesn't get the results they expect, then that leaves Ducati to wonder again if it is the bike or the rider, leaving them in exactly the same place they are now. In that case, they would have to look further afield for a replacement.
Or perhaps closer to home. Both Scott Redding and Danilo Petrucci have posted strong results during testing, the Ducati GP15 working exceptionally well with the common software from Magneti Marelli. The Pramac team has for some time now been serving as the de facto Ducati Junior team, bringing on young talent ready to make the jump to the factory squad. That it works is demonstrated by Andrea Iannone, the Italian having spent his first two years in MotoGP with the Pramac squad, before moving up to the factory team in 2015.
Petrucci, who will be in 26 in October, is perhaps the least likely candidate, mainly because of his age. However, the Italian had a much stronger season in 2015 than Scott Redding did, while Petrucci was on the Ducati GP14.1 and Redding on the supposedly superior Honda RC213V. Redding will have to switch that around in 2016 to have a shot at the factory seat, and his race simulation at Qatar was extremely impressive. On the basis of that, Redding would have been in with a shot at a podium, had the race been held during the test. If he can repeat that in ten days' time, then he will put himself in the hot seat for the factory ride. At 23 years of age, he would make a strong partnership for the future with the 26-year-old Iannone.
The danger for Ducati in hiring Redding to ride alongside Iannone is that neither are known for their ability to develop a bike. Both are fast, but they rely more on bravery and talent than intellect and analysis, and it is precisely in that area where Ducati will need to retain some focus. Casey Stoner – one of the most incisive and brilliant minds in racing – can pick up the slack as a test rider, but having someone on the bike week in, week out, providing the kind of detailed feedback which can move the bike forward is extremely valuable.
Brains as well as beauty
This is where Ducati's dilemma lies. Andrea Dovizioso is capable of just this. One of the most analytical riders on the grid, and one of the best at both understanding and describing exactly what is going on with a motorcycle, the success of Ducati is due in no small part to the feedback they have received from Dovizioso. He has value as a factory rider precisely for this reason. Ducati could do a lot worse than keep him
Could Ducati persuade Casey Stoner to make a full-time return to racing? As much as they would like to, he has repeatedly told the media he has no intention of racing, and his injuries and home life are such that he has no real need to go back. He no longer has the driving ambition to go out and prove he is faster than anyone else, at least not in sufficient measure to do the physical training with the kind of dedication he knows is needed to be competitive. He has found a fulfilling role at Ducati, helping coach all of Ducati's riders, and providing valuable input on the Ducati Desmosedici (input which is actually listened to, in contrast with his time as a test rider with Honda). So he has little to gain.
Dani Pedrosa/Scott Redding
Scott Redding/Loris Baz
What of Suzuki, Aprilia and KTM? How about the satellite seats that need to be filled? More on that tomorrow, and the next few days.
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