He said he would wait until the Qatar tests to make a decision, and that's exactly what he's done. According to MCN's Matthew Birt, Marco Melandri has decided to sign to ride the Kawasaki / Dornasaki / Hayate in 2009. Melandri's manager Alberto Vergani told MCN that riding the bike under the lights at Qatar had convinced Melandri that the better option would be to ride, and hope to secure a better seat for 2010, rather than sit out a year, and risk being overlooked for 2010.
The conundrum Melandri finds himself facing concerns whether it is better to ride round at the back on an obviously inferior bike, or hope that people remember what he was capable of when he was on competitive machinery. His fear is that what people - and more importantly, team managers and factory bosses - will regard the 2008 Ducati Desmosedici GP8 as competitive machinery, a bike which Melandri deeply feared, and which he had a miserable season on. And so he would appear to be pinning his hopes on the Hayate team being able to fix the Kawasaki enough to at least allow him to score points regularly, and compete for top 10 finishes.
The portents for such an outcome are not good, however. It is clear that the Kawasaki will receive little or no upgrades during the season, which would not be so bad if the Kawasaki was a competently handling motorcycle. The trouble is, the Kawasaki is something very far from that, and its problems have a very familiar ring to them. Melandri was complaining of a lack of rear grip on the bike, and Vergani told MCN that the Italian felt the bike could be competitive if they could just fix this issue.
The last time Kawasaki tried to do that was at the end of 2007, when they had exactly the same problem. But in trying to fix it, by altering the balance of the bike, they ended up with the 2008 Kawasaki ZXRR, a bike that lacked both rear end grip and front end feel. This was not so much out of the frying pan and into the fire, as a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire, bringing the frying pan tumbling down on your head and getting trapped beneath it in the process. Fixing the lack of rear grip is not impossible, but it is most likely going to require a complete redesign of the chassis from the ground up. And in the current situation, and with the team's likely budget, that's just not going to happen.
Melandri is likely to start the season a couple of seconds off the pace. At the end of the year, he could end even further back. What that means for his job prospects in 2010 is anyone's guess, but the only thing we are going to be admiring this season is Marco Melandri's courage.
While we have been expecting Marco Melandri to be riding this year for a while now, John Hopkins looked like being being sidelined for 2009 for certain. But things might actually be looking up for the Anglo-American rider. Alongside the Melandri story, MCN is also reporting that Hopper is close to agreeing a contract settlement with Kawasaki.
Hopkins' problem was bigger than Melandri's. Almost as soon as Kawasaki announced they were pulling out, rumors surfaced that a ride would be found for Melandri. On the subject of John Hopkins' future, there was only a deafening silence. The difference is understandable from the point of view of Dorna - Marco Melandri enjoys a huge personal following in Italy, a key market for MotoGP, while Hopper is just another American, and probably the least popular among the fans. Dorna needed to keep Melandri in MotoGP, while Hopkins was, if not surplus to requirements, then at least expendable.
Left out in the cold, there was some speculation Hopkins could go to World Superbikes or the AMA, although Hopper denied most vociferously any talk of a return to racing the US. Hopkins' options were limited, however, by his contract with Kawasaki: any options with other manufacturers would be ruled out as long as Kawasaki held the reigns.
If Hopper is released from his 2009 contract, he could now be free to pursue some of the other options he was rumored to be offered. The most prominent was to take Roberto Rolfo's ride at Stiggy Motorsports Honda in World Superbikes, a move Rolfo vehemently denied would happen. But after the Italian scored just three points in two races, while his team mate got a podium and a sixth place, Rolfo's place must be considered to be in danger, especially as he is still recovering from a shoulder injury that is affecting his riding.
The other destination Hopkins could be heading for is Paul Bird's Kawasaki team in World Superbikes. Neither Makoto Tamada nor Broc Parkes could make much of an impression on the field at Phillip Island, and Kawasaki need a top level rider to develop the bike. Whispers from inside the paddock say that the team would like to replace Tamada with Hopkins, but that Tamada has been imposed on them by the factory. That could leave Parkes vulnerable, forcing him into the situation where he has to completely outclass his team mate if he is to keep his ride. Parkes has yet to show signs of doing that, and as the Kawasaki Superbike looks little better than their MotoGP bike, that could be a very difficult task indeed.