The Racing Capital
of the World
December 08, 2010 | By Paul Kelly
Last summer, the American sports landscape was abuzz about the destination of NBA superstar LeBron James. Would he stay in Cleveland or go elsewhere? James eventually “took his talents” to Miami during a one-hour special on ESPN that invited more derision than praise.
Imagine if Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose joined King James as free agents last summer. That’s exactly what happened in MotoGP, triggering one of the wildest Silly Seasons in recent memory.
The four best riders in the world, considered by most fans and media, were in the final year of their contracts in 2010: Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner. 2006 World Champion Nicky Hayden also was at the end of his deal.
A whole lot of moving and shaking was anticipated. And while reality wasn’t quite as seismic, there still were enough moves to significantly reshape the rider lineup for the 2011 MotoGP World Championship, which includes the Red Bull Indianapolis GP on Aug. 26-28 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
A look at what we know so far about the lineup that will race around the world in 2011, including at Indy:
•Yamaha: Lorenzo turned down overtures from Ducati and Honda to stay with the twin tuning forks, with which he won the 2010 World Championship in dominant fashion. He probably earned a significant pay raise to stay, too.
2010 Rookie of the Year Ben Spies was promoted from the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 satellite team to the factory team as Lorenzo’s teammate. It’s a significant step up for Spies, who earned his first career MotoGP pole in August at Indianapolis. But everyone in the MotoGP paddock, including Rossi, thinks Spies can push Lorenzo quite hard in 2011.
•Honda: Honda increased its technical support to its satellite teams in 2010, as Marco Simoncelli at Gresini Honda and Randy De Puniet at LCR Honda enjoyed strong seasons.
Now Honda is going all-in with its factory team in 2011, expanding to three bikes. Pedrosa and 2010 teammate Andrea Dovizioso remain and will be joined by 2007 World Champion Casey Stoner, who moves from Ducati.
Stoner’s move to Honda was all but sealed when team manager Livio Suppo left Ducati for Honda after the 2009 season. Suppo and Stoner are tight.
It will be very interesting to see how the no-B.S. style of straight-talking Aussie Stoner mixes into the Latin and Italian culture engrained at the Honda factory team, with Italian Suppo as manager, Spaniard Pedrosa and his domineering manager Alberto Puig and Italian Dovizioso. Drama seems to follow Pedrosa everywhere, so there could be a real clash between Dani and Stoner.
•Ducati: The match made in MotoGP heaven finally was consummated for 2011: The ultimate Italian rider, Rossi, on the ultimate Italian bike, Ducati.
This announcement, although expected, detonated like a neutron bomb when it was made in August.
Rossi will bring his sublime talent and complete crew led by wizard Jerry Burgess to Ducati, which hasn’t won a world title since 2007 with Stoner. Rossi jumped from Honda to Yamaha in 2004 and immediately led the Big Y to respectability that season.
The Doctor also will attract plenty of sponsorship to Ducati, which will allow the team to spend more to develop the bike to his liking.
Ducati isn’t as far behind as Yamaha was in 2004, so the pressure is immense on Rossi to deliver.
Hayden re-signed with Ducati for two years after a resurgent 2010 season. It will be very tough for The Kentucky Kid to keep pace with Rossi even if he has spent the last two years on Ducati’s notoriously finicky bike.
But Hayden knows the drill of being a teammate with supernova Rossi. They were together in the Honda factory garage during Hayden’s rookie MotoGP season in 2003.
•Suzuki: It was rumored that Suzuki might be the next Japanese manufacturer to leave MotoGP, following Kawasaki after the 2008 season. But Suzuki is staying in for 2011 with one bike for Alvaro Bautista, a rookie on a two-year deal in 2010. Veteran Loris Capirossi was jettisoned.
Bautista rode well on the Suzuki, especially during the second half of the season. But don’t expect much from this team in 2011, as it doesn’t have the resources or talent to compete with the other three factory teams and the best satellite teams.
•Yamaha Tech 3: The Yamaha Tech 3 team has established itself as the best satellite team in MotoGP over the last three years, thanks to the steady racing ability and setup skills of American veteran Colin Edwards.
“The Texas Tornado” will stay at the team for 2011 after signing a one-year deal near the end of the 2010 season.
Rookie phenom and fellow Texan Spies was promoted to the Yamaha factory team alongside World Champion Lorenzo in 2011, so Tech 3 boss Herve Poncharal reached again into the World Superbike ranks – from which Edwards and Spies came – to snare British rider Cal Crutchlow for the team’s second bike.
•Honda Gresini: Honda’s top factory team again will feature the fastest ‘fro in worldwide motorsports, as the hirsute Marco Simoncelli returns after a promising rookie season with the team.
Japanese rider Hiroshi Aoyama replaces Italian veteran Marco Melandri in 2011. Aoyama produced some solid rides in 2010 on the underfunded Interwetten MotoGP team, which folded after the season.
This is a promising lineup featuring a pair of 250cc World Champions.
•Pramac Ducati: It’s all change for Ducati’s leading factory team, as Italian veteran Capirossi and French veteran Randy De Puniet replace the underachieving and inexperienced Mika Kallio and Aleix Espargaro.
Capirossi is a consistent, smart rider who will keep the bike upright and help develop setups. De Puniet used to be the king of road rash with LCR Honda until a breakthrough 2010 season in which he stayed upright more often than not and earned some strong results.
This will be another improved satellite team. The battle for top satellite outfit should be fierce between Tech 3, Gresini and Pramac.
•LCR Honda: LCR will continue to field just one bike, with Spanish veteran Toni Elias replacing De Puniet.
Elias is a very good rider who got a raw deal when he was jettisoned from MotoGP after the 2009 season. He dropped to the new Moto2 category and dominated, winning the championship. It was the MotoGP equivalent of a hitter returning to Triple-A baseball to find his swing.
LCR always has provided solid machinery, so the underrated Elias could be a consistent top-10 finisher next season.
•Aspar: Spaniard Hector Barbera returns to this Spanish team after a solid rookie season. Any finishes inside the top 10 would be a bonus on this satellite Ducati.
•Cardion AB: There’s really no sense in sugar-coating it: Czech Karel Abraham is climbing from Moto2 to MotoGP in 2011 thanks to some decent test times and daddy’s money. But mainly daddy's money.
Abraham showed some ability in Moto2 in 2010, but he’s not a MotoGP-caliber rider. Anything other than the back of the grid will be a surprise on this satellite Ducati.