The three hot properties all tipped to make the jump up to MotoGP next season are making the established riders nervous. Most of the worry has so far been concentrated in the Tech 3 Yamaha garage, with both the American World Superbike rider Ben Spies and the Italian 250 champion Marco Simoncelli being expected to be filling seats there next year. But at least one of either Colin Edwards and James Toseland may be able to sleep a little easier this weekend, as the competition may not be as fierce as they had feared.
The Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport is reporting that far from going to Yamaha, Marco Simoncelli has signed a two-year contract with Honda to ride in MotoGP. With the new rule preventing rookies from going straight to a factory team, Simoncelli would have to spend 2010 with the Gresini Honda team, presumably as the recipient of Toni Elias' factory-spec RC212V. For 2011, Simoncelli could then make the step up to the full factory Repsol Honda team, if his results are good enough.
Such a move seems to be entirely logical, but it remains a risk. Since the switch to the 800cc formula, Honda has failed to dominate, as they did with the 990s and the 500cc bikes before that. The victims of these problems have been the riders on the satellite teams, with HRC understandably concentrating all their efforts on the factory teams to the detriment of the satellite riders. This year, Toni Elias has suffered exactly the same fate, with the Gresini team yet to receive updated parts for his ostensibly factory-spec Honda. If Honda finds itself in the same position again next year, there are no guarantees that Simoncelli coud suffer exactly the same fate.
There are also questions about what guarantees Simoncelli could be given about a factory ride in 2011. The contracts of both Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso expire at the end of this season, and so far, both look likely to return. Paddock rumor suggests that after Honda have taken the blame for the RC212V's poor performance, Repsol is inclined to have Pedrosa back in the factory Honda team it sponsors. Meanwhile, team mate Andrea Dovizioso has continued to live up to expectations, and is clearly capable of winning races on the right machinery. Unless one or both of the current riders come up seriously short in 2010, the chances of there being room in the Repsol Honda garage in 2011 look fairly slim.
But perhaps they look better at Honda than at Yamaha. Valentino Rossi's contract expires at the end of 2010, but the rumblings coming from the Italian press suggest he could stay in the paddock for a while after that. Meanwhile, Jorge Lorenzo looks certain to sign another contract with Yamaha fairly soon, and is leaving no doubt about his ability to win a World Championship in the future, and maybe even this year. If Lorenzo believes his long-term future is with Yamaha, something he has continually hinted at, then the only vacancy at Yamaha will come is when Valentino Rossi decides to retire.
Suzuki is a risk, as the factory keeps managing to drop the ball every time the start closing the gap to the competition, and are looking more and more like eternal bridesmaids. And as for Ducati, the Bologna Beast continues to look like a career killer for anyone not born in Southport, Australia, and promising rookies are now actively turning down approaches from the Italian manufacturer.
If the report is true, and Simoncelli has signed a two-year contract with Honda, it points the way to how the rookie rule is likely to work out in practice. Though Gresini may get the use of Simoncelli for a year, a prospect which will help to attract sponsors in the short term, if the Italian is as successful as Honda hopes, he will be whisked off to ride for the factory team at the end of the year, with no guarantees of who will take Simoncelli's place. With Gresini never knowing what caliber of riders they will have from year to year, it will be very hard to build long-term, multi-year relationships with major sponsors, who are more interested in long-term marketing campaigns to help build their brands.
And though Simoncelli will nominally be riding for Gresini, Honda is much more likely to want to protect its investment, especially if they are paying Simoncelli's salary. Honda will want to have key personnel in place in the team, putting the position of the current team members under threat. Though in theory, the Gresini Honda team would still be a satellite squad, in practice, it would be half a satellite team, plus a de facto factory squad sharing the same garage.