With silly season in MotoGP nearly over, here is my take on the riders for next year. I’ve had to make a few guesses, since some teams (D’Antin, Proton, WCM) haven’t finalized their line-ups yet.
- First, Yamaha, the reigning champions with the Rossi-revised M1 and Michelin tires:
1a) Valentino Rossi - Jeez, what really can be said. The guy is so freakin’ amazing. However, for the good of the sport, all the other riders should take up a collection and sponsor Rossi with an F1 car. Nothing short of him leaving will prevent another MotoGP title in 2005.
1b) Colin Edwards - I really want Colin to “come good” this year. 2005 was basically a disaster, made doubly so by the successes of his Movistar team-mate. The guy has got talent but with three other Hondas finishing ahead of him in the points, his complaints of defective bike design were wearing thin. Does he have the talent to race at the MotoGP level? Maybe the Yamaha can help him answer that question. I don’t see him fighting for the championship in 2005, unless he becomes less picky about setup or the Yamaha becomes much faster. Where Yamaha has scored is they’ve hired one of the best development riders away from Honda at a time when Honda desperately needs development focus for the RCV.
2a) Tony Elias - This will prove very interesting. Tony hasn’t won championships at the 125 or 250 level yet gets a coveted MotoGP ride for 2005. He’s young, very fast, knows all the tracks and he’s Spanish. All strong qualifications. He’s also big enough to fight a big 4-stroke, something his 250 rival Pedrosa may not have. I don’t see him being a factor in 2005 but he is a possible bright star for the future.
2b) Ruben Xaus - I think Ruben being released from his D’Antin contract and signing with Yamaha may be a desperate move by Ducati to keep Rossi from dominating in 2005. After all, with all the money Yamaha will now be spending on body work, they will be unable to develop the M1 further to Rossi’s liking. Having Xaus on track makes for good crash scenes but I don’t see him being a factor in the championship.
- Second, Honda, now second stringers for the first time since 2000 with the once all-conquering RC211V and the seemingly less dominant Michelins, need their riders to step up:
1a) Max Biaggi - I can’t say I’m a fan of Biaggi but I really do feel sorry for the guy. I mean Max really is a phenomenal rider. He won *four* 250cc GP championships and has finished second in 500/MotoGP something like four times. That is an incredible record. But you have to feel sorry for the guy. He was born in the era of dominant champions, having a premier class career that started in the Doohan era and is now dwarfed by the brilliance of Rossi. Still, the guy makes such a spectacle of himself that he is hard to pity. I think Biaggi will have another bridesmaids year and the FIM will eventually retire the number “2″ in his honor.
1b) Nicky Hayden - I’ve rubbed rabbit’s feet, I’ve tossed pennies in the wishing pond, I’ve burned incense and I’ve lit candles. I’m afraid there is nothing else I can do, so in 2005 It’ll be all up to him. I think he’s got the talent, the drive and the team to do it. I think he’s still learning every time he goes around a track and that is fantastic. But 2005 will be his shot. If he can’t do it in 2005, I’m afraid he’ll have reached his high water mark and will have the legacy of an “almost” champion. Sadly, he’ll be up against Rossi and I don’t see it happening, though secretly I hope he proves me an idiot. However, he does have a shot at ruining Biaggi’s bridesmaid streak. In the meantime, has he thought about donating money to the Rossi Ferrari fund?
2a) Sete Gibernau - Sete has been the revelation of 2003 and 2004. Coming from relative obscurity on the Suzuki to become Honda’s great hope. He was at his peak last year, so the question is can he maintain it? I think that 2004 was a crushing defeat for him and it will be particularly hard to come back from that, especially given the psychological whipping Rossi was giving him the last few races. Unless he can beat Rossi straight-up, early in the season, I think the fire will fade. Fourth in 2005?
2b) Marco Melandri - Melandri proved inconsistent and, at times, reckless aboard the Yamaha. I was a big fan when he raced to so many wins while injured in 250s but now that its a habit, its less gritty or brave and more stupid. His immense talent is being destroyed by bone fractures and torn ligaments. I think he’ll continue to ride (and crash) with his heart in 2005 rather than take top tens with his head. Melandri coming to Honda, after Xaus left Ducati for Yamaha shows just how devious Ducati’s plan to force bodywork expenditure among their competitors really is!
3a) Alex Barros - This guy is a sponsors dream. How else can he still be on a GP bike? He crashed more in 2004 than Xaus or Melandri but still gets an “A” seat ride. He’s been around GP since they chipped the bodywork from granite with stone axes and he’s taught every whippersnapper for three generations how to late brake. His reputation as a great rider is set in cement. But unless he’s sponsored by Geritol and the AARP, I don’t see why he’s back for another season. Money is the name of the game and the Repsol South American bankroll can buy a lot!
3b) Troy Bayliss - I’m openly thrilled to see Bayliss still in the MotoGP game but I think, like Sete, the wind in Bayliss’ sails died in 2004. The uncompetitive Ducati GP bike sucked the life out of Troy’s championship drive. I think he’ll ride well in 2005 but he made enough deposits into the gravel trap confidence piggy bank that he won’t have enough left to pay for winning rides in 2005.
4a) Makoto Tamada - Tamada has the drive but then again so have a long line of talented Japanese riders like Katoh, Ukawa and Ito. Honda will desperately want a Japanese MotoGP champion but, assuming they can find a grid spot, his “B team” status (thanks to the Repsol contract) will hold him back.
- Ducati was 9th in 2004, their Desmosedici the first of the “others” but now with Bridgestone tires in ‘05, have:
1a) Loris Capirossi - I’m not a Capirossi fan and haven’t been since the ugly 250 incident with Harada in 1998. In fact, I didn’t like Capirossi in 1997 due to some questionable accidents, so ‘98 just sealed the deal. I know how exciting it is to have an Italian on an Italian bike but I still cringe when I hear his name. Maybe he can spend 2005 changing tires on his buddy Rossi’s Ferrari?
1b) Carlos Checa - Checa brings lots of Spanish sponsorship money to the table. That’s it. He’s there to buy tires for Capirossi’s Ducati (and help repay the 2004 debt from Xaus’ bodywork purchases). He’ll sit in the track hospitality suite on Sunday night with Barros and talk about how nice it is to have friends in high places.
2a) Fonsi Nieto - Spanish? Check. Connection to historic Spanish motorcycle hero? Check. Lots of sponsorship money? Check. Okay, so we know how Mr. D’Antin is financing his 2005 racing effort, since he probably isn’t getting much money based on the ‘04 results. Fonsi showed flashes of brilliance but ultimately fell apart like a cheap paper sack to be beaten by Melandri in the 2002 250GP season. That defeat was apparently so crushing that he’s sucked for two straight years afterwards. Given his 2004 season, I’m amazed he got a MotoGP ride.
2b) Randy DePuniet - It seems D’Antin is going after either Roberto Rolfo or Randy DePuniet but I’m guessing the Frenchman will get the nod, based on their respective 2004 250GP results. Rolfo had an uncharacteristic crap year, while DePuniet was challenging for race wins nearly all season. I don’t think either is really ready for MotoGP but Randy showed he rides with a lot of heart last season. Now he has to get his head around riding the MotoGP monsters and get his heart around riding an uncompetitive, year-old Ducati.
- Kawasaki, their ZX-RR and their ‘Stones had an fantastic 2004 with a top ten finish, and for 2005 will again have:
1a) Shinya Nakano - Checa and Xaus get Yamaha rides. Barros and Melandri get Honda rides. Nakano has to serve another year at Kawasaki despite having a more memorable season in 2004 than any of them. Jeez, this guy should get another shot at Yamaha just as a reward from walking away from his Mugello crash last year. The kid is amazing and is the best thing to happen to Kawasaki since, well, people push started their Grand Prix bikes. Another top ten in 2005?
1b) Alex Hoffman - Someone has to race with the Suzuki and Aprilia boys. Seems like a talented guy and he put in some nice rides in 2005. More importantly, he crashed less in the season than the D’Antin bikes did in one practice session. Good on ‘ya.
- Suzuki wallowed in 2004 but comes back the same GSV-R, the same Bridgestone tires and same riders with:
1a) Kenny Roberts Jr. - KRJr showed he still has fast laps in him with strong qualifying runs in 2004 but I don’t think he’s got the fire, even if he had the bike. Like Biaggi, his bright light has been dwarfed by the brilliance of Doohan and Rossi, then snuffed by the under performing Suzuki. Its sad, really, because his talent deserved to shine longer than just the 2000 season.
1b) John Hopkins - What’s a guy got to do? Like Nakano, Hopkins regularly showed his stuff in 2004 but is still stuck in the purgatory that is the Suzuki GP team. Sure, there is lots of talk about the engine finally coming good in 2005 but that could just be echos from when they said that last year…or the year before. Hopkins has more experience dicing (thanks to a bike that consistently puts him in the 6th through 12th place gaggle instead of up front mano-a-mano with Rossi and can flat bust a move on qualifying tires. He doesn’t even crash the way he did in 2002 and 2003. Pity this guy’s parents were British and not Spanish…
1c) Nobuatsu Aoki - Suzuki hired Aoki as a test rider which was an ace decision and he’ll also get in a few wild card rides. The guy deserves the keys to the corporate wash room in Banbury after the dedication he’d shown Proton and that development experience should help him give Suzuki valuable input. Maybe Suzuki can contract him out to WCM to help develop their Blata engine, because after riding the Proton V5 Nobu should be able to diagnose every possible type of engine failure from the seat and probably has the fastest clutch hand in racing. However, like Proton, the Suzuki desperately needs more power so I doubt Aoki’s wild card rides will amount to much.
- Aprilia and their Cube may not be back at all. Or the under-performing Cube may be back but as a Pramac, not an Aprilia. If either are back, they’ll likely have the cheaper Dunlops and have:
1a) Shane Byrne - He either burned bridges with Ducati after his 2003 British Superbike championship or couldn’t get out of his Aprilia contract to go beg a ride on a D’Antin Ducati for 2005. Oh well, even if he isn’t getting a chance to learn all the tracks, he is learning about all their gravel traps…and may qualify for a pilot’s license if Aprilia folds their team.
1b) I doubt they’ll have second rider….
- KR Proton has their new KTM engine and new riders but probably no other option except soldiering on with the Dunlops:
1a) Jeremy McWilliams - This isn’t decided yet but what choice do either party have in the matter, unless Proton folds their team all together. Jeremy, like Barros, is considered ancient in racing circles and probably doesn’t have teams knocking down his door. KR can’t hire anyone without a budget in place, so he can’t really be picky. They’ve worked together in the past and McWilliams can probably help with continued development of the bike. That said, he doesn’t deal well with bike problems and having problems seems to be a real strength for the Proton. If Jeremy picks up where he left off in 2002, expect to hear the announcers saying “McWilliams into the pits” a lot this year. Still, I really hope the KTM engine is the silver bullet TeamKR has needed for the past, oh, nine years.
1b) Kurtis Roberts - Despite the persistent rumors of Kurtis returning to the US, I think he’ll sign for another year. The new KTM engine seems better, his Dad probably doesn’t care who his management firm is or isn’t and its better to play second string in the big game than try to be big fish in the AMA pond. Besides, the longer Kurtis stays in MotoGP and the more he learns, the better the chance he’ll move to an E ticket ride in the future.
- and WCM keeps Proton off the last row of the grid with an interesting Blata V-6 engine and something round and black, probably Dunlops. Their riders are:
1a) James Ellison - Dude, I think the World Superbike TV announcing gig was a better deal. WCM won’t likely have a new bike (tested or otherwise) until the mid-point of 2005 and won’t have any money for the whole year. You’ll split your time between a bike that was horribly uncompetitive in 2005 and a bizarre development mule made of cylinders from a toy bike. Trust me, not all press is good press…
1b) - Does it even matter? Maybe it will be Chris Burns. Maybe Michel Fabrizio. Maybe a shot for any number of ex-GP ghosts or a chance in the big circus for some national champion. The fact is the bike, not the rider, will determine the results. Personally, I’m glad WCM (and Proton and maybe Pramac/Aprilia) are around, since they are the privateer teams that keep bringing new blood into the series. If any of these guys (like Fabrizio in 2004) have great rides, maybe the bigger teams with better bikes will pay attention.
- Finally, Moriwaki won’t have their first full season but will run a few select races again in 2005 with their Honda V-5, probably on Michelins, and will have fill-in riders like:
1a) Olivier Jacque - Jacque never did it for me, even when he won the 250GP championship in 2000. I thought Nakano was the stronger racer that year and the best race Jacque road the whole season was the final race at Phillip Island. Anyway, whatever his skill as a 250 rider, he wasn’t able to translate that into success on the larger 500s. I don’t think he’ll adapt well to the MotoGP bikes either, even if he was riding a competitive bike. He isn’t and thus will be rubbing shoulders with Aprilia and Proton, hoping to make it into the tail end of the points.
1b) Syougo Moriwaki - Other than having a famous last name and blood ties to the team owner, I’ve never heard of him. Then again, with Rossi, Nieto, Gibernau and two Roberts on the grid, having a family tree that includes motorcycle racers can account for a lot. He’ll probably only race one or two races this year (Motegi, for example) and will probably struggle more than Jacque.