Alanf’s blog…
Scattered thoughts

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Who is humping who…

Author: site admin
Category: MotoGP

The past few weeks have really pulled back the curtains on the ugly inner workings of the MotoGP paddock. There has been a shake up in the bizarre love triangle that is the factory-rider-sponsor relationship and the fall out has given us a glimpse at exactly who calls the shots when it comes to racing at the highest level of the sport.

I’m going to use three different examples to illuminate this situation:

Max when he still had a Honda ride

First up is a tale of riches to rags with one Max Biaggi as the star of the show. One year ago the word came down from the people on high at Honda that Biaggi was finally being given the opportunity of his lifetime. A ride on the factory Repsol RC211V with famed tuner Erv Kanemoto at his side. All of Honda’s development effort would be resting squarely on the shoulders of the veteran Italian rider and he was expected to wrest the MotoGP title away from rival Valentino Rossi and his Yamaha. That dreamy state lasted until the first race at Jerez and then quickly slipped into a nightmare season for the Roman.

As the races wound down Biaggi started making more and more negative comments to the press about the state of the bike and support he felt he was (or perhaps more accurately wasn’t) receiving from Honda. When the big bosses back in Tokyo heard about this they were less than impressed. In fact, they tried to keep him from racing at the final race at Valencia and promptly thereafter sent out a mandate to all the Honda teams saying that Biaggi would not be given a Honda for 2006. When Camel, Biaggi’s personal sponsor, heard this they threatened to pull their millions from Sito Pons satellite team. This set up a show down between Honda, Sito Pons, Biaggi and Camel. If there was ever a situation that would show who calls the shots in MotoGP, this would be it. And the result? Biaggi won’t be riding red next year and Pons won’t be getting any financial support from Camel for this team. Clearly Honda has shown that for next year they intend to be completely in charge of their MotoGP teams, even at the risk of ruining a faithful partner’s funding and maybe even threatening the team’s ability to exist. It also shows that Honda has no problem telling a major backer to go stuff themselves if the sponsor disagrees with corporate policy. Interesting.

Next up, is the state of affairs just down pit row in the factory Yamaha pits. There is a huge lawsuit brewing between Yamaha and Altadis who was their primary sponsor for the past year. Altadis signed a contract with Yamaha to sponsor the factory team under the Gauloises banner for the upcoming season. At the time the contract was signed there was not commitment from Rossi to ride the factory bikes and once that contract was signed it was with the understanding that Rossi would not run branding from a cigarette company on his bike, presumably to clear the way for future work with Ferrari and their primary sponsor Marlboro. (Why, exactly, Rossi didn’t sign with the Ducati team for 2006 since they already have Marlboro sponsorship is unknown).

When Yamaha told Altadis that Rossi would not be on the factory team Altadis deemed this a breech of the sponsorship agreement. As a warning shot Altadis pulled their Fortuna sponsorship from the Tech 3 satellite team for next season which has put them in a serious money crunch. However, Yamaha hasn’t backed down and now look likely to run without Altadis sponsorship in ‘06. What is surprising is that Yamaha approached Telefonica Movistar with an offer of having Rossi run under their colors but were turned down. In this case, Rossi laid down the law about the terms of having him ride with a tuning fork on his tank and the factory followed suit even at the risk of having to pay the full tab for both their factory and satellite team’s costs next year. In this case, the seven time world champ is the one in the cat bird seat and both the team and the sponsor have to play by his rules.

Finally, there is another conflict which also involves Honda but in this case it is with the Gresini satellite team. Gresini’s primary sponsor for 2005 was the Spanish telecom giant Telefonica Movistar. In addition to putting huge amounts of money into the Honda team they also had 250GP star Dani Pedrosa under personal contract and had brought up the Spanish youngster through the GP ranks. In fact, the company spends huge amounts of money in GP sponsoring not only individual teams but also paying for title sponsorship of some rounds of the series and also to sponsor some European feeder classes which development future talent. Telefonica is the dream partner for both the MotoGP series and the Honda teams.

At the end of this last season Dani Pedrosa’s contract with Telefonica expired and before it could be renewed Honda offered the 250 World Champion a direct contract and a chance to ride on the factory Repsol team as replacement for the departing Max Biaggi. Telefonica was furious that their star rider had been scooped out from under them and that he was put on the Repsol sponsored team rather than the Telefonica sponsored Gresini team. As reprisal, the telecom giant pulled their money from MotoGP altogether (even refusing the Yamaha/Rossi offer…something any other company would have begged to get) and brought their big fat check book to the Formula One cage racing series instead. Fortunately for Honda, they were able to sign Spanish star Toni Elias to Team Gresini and Altadis decided to spend their Fortuna backed support to the Honda team after pulling it away from the Tech 3 Yamaha squad. Honda set the tune and both Gresini, Pedrosa and Telefonica had to dance to it.

So what does all this mean? Well, I think it means that ultimately the entire GP paddock is following the lead of Valentino Rossi. Yamaha needs Rossi and had very little say in the terms. Honda has gone into desperation mode and will do whatever is necessary to build a rider line-up capable of challenging Rossi even if it means losing long time sponsors or pissing off faithful team owners. It seems clear that the factories have become tired of sponsors, particularly cigarette companies, being the ones that call the shots and have completely reshuffled the power pyramid in MotoGP. Whether the riders or the factories are in contol depends on the rider’s last name but there is no doubt that both are playing alpha dog over the sponsors right now.

[image from Moto Forum web page.]

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