After weeks of argument, the question of the third Kawasaki has finally been settled. Sadly, it's been settled in the worst possible way, as Motorcycle News is reporting that the project has been shelved due to problems over who would ride the machine.
The problems boil down to a question of money: Jorge "Aspar" Martinez had enough sponsorship to run the team, but his Spanish sponsors demanded that he field a Spanish rider. This is not an unusual request, as sponsors need riders they can use to help sell their product in their target markets. Unfortunately for Martinez, Kawasaki would only provide the bike to the Aspar team on condition that Shinya Nakano be given the ride, as the Japanese rider is former Kawasaki rider and could help develop the bike. And if Nakano were to get the ride, Aspar's sponsors weren't prepared to provide the same level of funding.
And so it looks as if the project is finally off the cards. This is a tragedy in many different ways: After many years of success in the smaller classes, Aspar was ready to make the step up into MotoGP, a step which the team looked easily able to cope with; Kawasaki would have another rider to help develop the bike, something they badly need considering the dismal form they've shown this year; The MotoGP grid could once again have started to grow, rather than shrink, which would help to make a much more positive impression on potential sponsors; And last but not least, this was Shinya Nakano's final chance to stay in MotoGP for another year.
Trying to apportion blame for this exercise is both futile and unfair, as nobody comes out smelling of roses, even though all parties did what they could. Aspar is very well connected inside the Spanish sports scene, and has been superb at raising sponsorship, but so far, only within Spain. Kawasaki recognized the need to develop the bike, and the benefits that a third bike would bring, but wanted to be sure of the technical feedback they would be getting. And both parties took too long to reach agreement over the deal, by which time, all the good Spanish riders had already been snapped up.
So Kawasaki will have to rely on the setup skills of John Hopkins and Marco Melandri for 2008, neither of whom have stellar records in developing racing motorcycles. And unless the 5th Ducati with Sete Gibernau actually arrives, the MotoGP grid will stay at just 18 bikes. Everyone's a loser in this deal.