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Upshifting and Downshifting

World Championship Riders Angle For Top Equipment

Marco Melandri Photo by LAT PhotographicThis off-season will see big changes on the grid in both the FIM MotoGP World Championship and the FIM World Superbike Championship. Of course, there are many reasons for this volatility—new rules, new teams, new riders seeking better jobs, old riders looking to extend their careers and the economic malaise that continues to plague key markets around the world.

As with many things in this world, one change begets another in quick succession and the top echelon of motorcycle road racing is no different. In one of the more surprising announcements of the late summer, Yamaha announced that they were withdrawing their factory team from World Superbike competition—this despite the fact that riders Marco Melandri and Eugene Laverty were in second and fourth position in the championship standings, respectively, after 10 of 13 rounds.

Although there’s every indication that Yamaha will pick a satellite team to run its R1 superbike program (the ParkinGO team currently dominating the World Supersport Championship is a possible candidate) and they may provide equipment and technical support, they certainly won’t provide any funding. The prospect of riding machinery that may not get developed over the course of the season has sent Melandri and Laverty in search of a more competitive situation.

Eugene Laverty Photo by LAT PhotographicWhile Melandri is performing well in his maiden WSBK season, he’s unlikely to land a second chance with a MotoGP very soon after some wildly inconsistent performances in the series in 2008 and 2010. On the other hand, Irish rider Laverty is very much on the rise, winning twice in his rookie season. His target is the Tech 3 Yamaha ride in MotoGP.

Currently, those seats are occupied by Colin Edwards and Cal Crutchlow. Soon after the Yamaha WSBK announcement, word started to emerge that the manufacturer was applying some pressure on Edwards to retire. At 37 years of age, the Texan is no spring chicken, but he’s also been far more competitive than Crutchlow this season and he didn’t embarrass himself when compared to then-teammate Ben Spies last year. But the hype machine began suggesting that his Tech 3 ride was up for grabs and a long list of riders, Laverty included, were in the running.

Soon after that, Edwards either jumped ship or was pushed from Tech 3 Yamaha to join Forward Racing, a new Claiming Rule Team (CRT) in MotoGP for 2012. A CRT is a privateer constructor that must run a prototype chassis and a modified superbike engine. The Forward Racing bike will likely use a Yamaha R1 engine and may employ a chassis prepared by Tech 3.

The switch to the 1,000cc engine regulations for next season, combined with the perilously thin starting grids over the past few seasons, prompted this change to encourage new teams to enter the series. This season has proven that only two bikes are capable of winning—the Honda and the Yamaha—so steps need to be taken to bring more show to the show, as it were.

Colin Edwards Photo by LAT PhotographicThe Tech 3 Yamaha ride is a decent gig—it won’t take a rider to the top step of the podium, but it could provide an opportunity to showcase one’s talents. Last season, Spies used the seat to good effect, launching himself into the factory Yamaha team. But the word on the street is that Honda is cutting down their factory-supported effort as well—in MotoGP this time, editing their four-rider effort down to three.

The odd man out in this scenario just may be Andrea Dovizioso, who has been the model of consistency for Repsol Honda this season and has a solid chance of finishing in the top-three in the title chase. Two of the other factory Honda riders, Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa, seem a lock to stay on at least one more season, while Marco Simoncelli may crash a lot, but he also has great natural talent and a huge fan base.

If Dovizioso is let go by Honda, Tech 3 would be wise to snap him up. After all, Crutchlow is new to MotoGP this season and picking another newcomer to partner him in 2012 doesn’t seem like the smartest play. Another possible venue for Dovizioso is to replace countryman Loris Capirossi, who has called time on his career after 22 consecutive seasons in grand prix racing.

This season, riding for the satellite Pramac Ducati team, Capirossi has had a fairly grim time of it—not enough pace, too much bruising. Given that even a factory Ducati GP11 in the hands of Valentino Rossi can’t win a MotoGP race, Capirossi might be convinced to continue on another season or switch to WSBK, but he’s made the correct choice by bowing out gracefully.

Cal Crutchlow Photo by LAT PhotographicAnother rider who seems almost certain to make a move is Capirossi’s teammate, Randy de Puniet. Although the Frenchman has shown flashes of brilliance in MotoGP, a satellite Ducati ride is not the proper vehicle to showcase talent in this day and age. Toni Elias, a rider whose inconsistent performances are a near-match for Melandri, seems out of his depth on the LCR Honda and may well return to Moto2 or jump to superbike competition before long.

On the positive side of the ledger, the efforts of Alvaro Bautista and the Rizla Suzuki MotoGP team may convince the manufacturer to return to a two-rider set-up for 2012. If this proves to be the case, look for former rider John Hopkins, who replaced the injured Bautista at the Spanish Grand Prix.

If Hopkins doesn’t return to MotoGP, he’s a strong bet to slide back into WSBK, where he raced for part of last season. The American also grabbed pole position at the World Superbike round at Silverstone in a one-off guest appearance and currently stands second in the British Superbike title chase.

While there are still many decisions yet to be made up and down the MotoGP and WSBK grids, one thing’s for sure: There will be changes because there are only so many premier rides available and plenty of ambitious riders. We’ll see a few shifts at the sharp end of the MotoGP grid as the manufacturers prepare for the new engine regulations. And we’ll see the continued emergence of satellite teams in World Superbike as the economy remains unsettled.

In addition, as more MotoGP riders become frustrated with being shunned by the main factory teams, they’ll continue to jump to WSBK in the hopes of jumpstarting their careers.

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