Even more than usual, there will be lots of rider and team changes in Moto GP in 2009. Things have pretty much settled out, and the initial test sessions have already taken place, mostly to let riders start to get familiar with their new teams, although there have been some startlingly quick times as well.
The big change there is with the factory Repsol Honda team, where American Nicky Hayden, the 2006 world champion, is leaving for Ducati. He’ll be partnering with ’07 champ Casey Stoner on the beastly Ducati Desmosedici that so far, nobody but Stoner has been able to make work at all.
Hayden (like Stoner) has a dirt track background and likes a "loose" bike that moves around and likes to be muscled, so that bodes well for the Kentucky Kid’s chances. He rode the bike the day after the final race at Valencia, and was turning competitive times the first day (and was fastest in the rain on day two).
It’s ironic in a way that Stoner and Hayden will be together, as Ducati only hired Stoner after their attempts to get Hayden fell through two years ago. Despite the crappy way Hayden has been treated by Honda in the past two seasons, he (as ever) took the high road on the way out, saying, "I have to [say] thanks to my team, to Honda, to Michelin and to everybody here. They made me a world champ, I’m grateful to them all."
Hayden’s replacement on the factory team is 22-year-old Andrea
Dovizioso, who had an excellent first year in Moto GP on a "customer"
Honda, and managed a podium (third) at the end of the season. His style
is more like that of Dani Pedrosa who returns to the team, as both are
graduates of the 125/250 cc GP classes.
The Alice-sponsored satellite Ducati team is dropping both its ’08 riders, Sylvain Guintoli and Tony Elias, and has signed Mika Kallio from the KTM 250 cc GP squad and Niccolo Canepa, who was an official Ducati test rider in 2008.
There will also be a new satellite Ducati team sponsored by Onde (a big Spanish land development company), featuring none other than Sete Gibernau, who retired after the 2006 season. Gibernau did some testing for Ducati during 2008, but hasn’t raced in two years.
The Yamaha team will stand pat with ’08 champion Valentino Rossi returning on the Fiat-sponsored squad along with Jorge Lorenzo, who had an up-and-down season – literally. Lorenzo was blindingly fast but also had some of the most incredible highside crashes seen since the 500 cc two-stroke days.
The Tech 3 satellite team also returns unchanged with ex-World Superbike title winners James Toseland and Colin Edwards back. There was some talk about Edwards moving back to the U.S., then about going back to World Superbike, but that seems to have fallen through.
Suzuki is also standing pat, having re-signed both Loris Capirossi and Chris Vermeulen. Neither rider has really shone the last couple of seasons (mind you, neither has the bike), and it was a bit of a surprise when Suzuki decided to keep them both. That was particularly true in that three-time U.S. superbike champion Ben Spies was desperate for a Moto GP ride and had done extremely well in three wild-card outings in 2008.
Over at Kawasaki, Anthony West is out (he’s returning to World Supersport 600s) and is being replaced by Marco Melandri. Melandri was being chased by Kawasaki last season, but made an ill-starred decision to join the Ducati squad instead. He had a horrible season, just couldn’t get on with the bike, and was so embarrassed by his performance he says he was on the verge of quitting racing completely. But mid-season Kawasaki had already decided to let West go, and when Ducati and Melandri decided to amicably part ways despite his two-year contract, the Green Team snapped him up.
American John Hopkins returns as team leader, after a truly awful year battling injuries and a bike that clearly was nowhere near the rest of the field. He’ll be praying for a big jump forward.
Shinya Nakano, who had a good season to finish ninth overall, didn’t land a Moto GP ride for ’09 and will be leaving for World Superbike, where he’s joining the brand-new Aprilia team.
The biggest single change for 2009 will be having one tire supplier – Bridgestone. Riders have been complaining about tires for decades, of course, but the last two seasons it’s gotten out of hand, with teams even switching suppliers mid-season. The Moto GP brass asked for tenders for a spec tire (which is pretty much the way most top-level series in both cars and bikes are these days), and only Bridgestone made an offer, as Michelin walked away. If you think the deal was fixed beforehand, you wouldn’t be alone.
Riders are no doubt going to be unpleasantly surprised when the reality of fewer available tires, let alone compounds, hits them. Still, the concept has worked well in World Superbike with Pirelli, so who knows?