Sunday, July 11

WHO TAKES STONER'S PLACE AT DUCATI?

By MICHAEL ESDAILE

WITH Casey Stoner's departure from the factory Ducati team at the end of this season (see separate story) who will replace him in the Italian team?

Speculation has been swirling for some time that the team wants Valentino Rossi, and with Phillip Morris cigarette money (Marlboro), there is reputed to be a 15 million Euro ($NZ 27 million) offer on the table for the convalescing Italian.

Rossi has never been happy having a team-mate capable of matching him, which was said to be one of the reasons Casey Stoner never got a look-in at Yamaha when he was looking for a ride at the end of the 2006 season. Now with Jorge Lorenzo becoming the dominant force on the Yamaha YZF-M1, Rossi is even less happy with the situation at Yamaha.

Add to this the traditional Italian desire to have a top level Italian rider on a winning Italian brand and there seems every chance that Rossi will go to Ducati.

It is most unlikely Yamaha would even think of matching the Marlboro Ducati offer at a time when it has been forced to close some of its factories and put others on part-time work. As much as they love having Rossi on their bikes, the top executives at Yamaha will ultimately ask one simple question: "how many bikes do we need to sell to pay Valentino's salary?"

Indeed, laid-off Yamaha workers have protested at several events where Rossi has appeared.

Right now we can expect Yamaha to be doing its utmost to re-sign Lorenzo, perhaps to a multi-year contract, rather than enter a biding war for Rossi's continued services.

Lorenzo, like Rossi, Stoner and Dani Pedrosa, is coming off contract at the end of this season. Marlboro Ducati reputedly offered him seven million Euro last season, and he admitted to being sorely tempted by the bid. By mid-August last year there was a report in Spanish publication Motocuatro reporting that the deal between Lorenzo and Marlboro has been agreed to in principle, with the finer details to be sorted. At that time, seven million Euro was said to be more than twice what Yamaha was paying Lorenzo.

However, after a lot of thought, Lorenzo decided that the Yamaha was the best bike on the grid and that would give him the best chance of winning a MotoGP championship - a wise choice for the 23-year-old Spaniard.

Still, it is logical that if Marlboro Ducati wanted Lorenzo last year, they would be no less keen to have his services in 2011, but would probably pay more for Rossi because of his huge global following.

Indeed, less than a month after it was announced that Lorenzo had turned down the Marlboro Ducati deal to stay with Yamaha, the Italian newspaper La Republica reported that that Valentino Rossi was talking to Ducati. The claim was that at 6.30 pm on September 14, 2009 an Audi S6 driven by Uccio Saluzzi, Rossi’s childhood friend and confidant, with Jeremy Burgess, sitting in the passenger seat, was seen entering Via Antonio Cavalieri Ducati at Borgo Panigale, the home of Ducati Motor Holding and that Rossi may have been sitting in the back seat.

The article also claimed there was a pre-contract with Ducati and that Fiat wanted to keep the Italian superstar. (Fiat is the title sponsor of the factory Yamaha MotoGP team).

However, when Rossi's Australian crew chief Jeremy Burgess was asked about the story, he was pretty forthright, describing it as "laughable."

"Lets break it down to what it is. It's a bunch of dickhead Italian journalists trying to out-scandal each other," he said. "Apparently I was seen in a car with Uccio and it had blacked out windows at the back, so the assumption was made that Valentino was in the back. But to be in Bologna the week when I was at home in Australia is laughable. I've got my plane ticket to prove it," Burgess said.

And commenting on the official MotoGP web site, MotoGP.com last September, Rossi had this to say about the Ducati rumours: “I haven’t decided yet about my future, I will decide in the next year (2010). I have a contract signed already with Yamaha (for 2010). For sure it is a great dream for everybody, to see Valentino with Ducati. We will see, I don’t know.”

However, in June this year, GPweek.com was claiming that according to an "undercover whisper" Casey Stoner's Ducati mechanics “have been warned that they may have to seek new employment for next season.”

That would imply that not only was Stoner leaving the team (since confirmed) but also that Rossi and his group of mechanics, led by Burgess, were being lined up to take his place. Rossi took Burgess and his mechanics with him from Honda to Yamaha at the end of 2003. Indeed, the Italian has never raced in the premier-class without Burgess and his crew, and they are considered an essential part of any 2011 Rossi deal. It was only after Rossi had managed to persaude Burgess to leave Honda that Rossi signed with Yamaha.

With Casey Stoner confirmed to be going to Honda in 2011, the only other rider of the top four who would be available to either Yamaha or Ducati is Dani Pedrosa.