NOYES: Sponsorship Crisis Looms in Glittering MotoGP Championship
Written by: Dennis Noyes
Borrego Springs, Calif. – 10/3/2005
The Suzuki Grand Prix factory team has been un-sponsored since the end of the 2001 season when Sete Gibernau left the team taking Telefonica-Movistar sponsorship with him to the Gresini Honda team.
A lot has changed since then, but now there seems to be growing chance that Camel, currently sponsoring the Honda Pons team with Troy Bayliss and Alex Barros, will move to Suzuki where John Hopkins has signed for two more years. The other rider could be Max Biaggi who has Camel personal sponsorship but who might be asking for more money than Suzuki and Camel can afford. The other possibility is Carlos Checa who was told this weekend in Qatar that Ducati would not take up his option for 2006. According to a spokesman for Camel Spain present in Qatar, Camel sponsorship of the Suzuki team would not necessarily be based upon Biaggi entering the team and that Camel Spain is interested in having a Spanish rider.
If Camel stays with Pons, Camel Spain will push for Checa entering that team in place of Alex Barros.
Very reliable sources in the Qatar paddock for this weekend’s MotoGP race report that after meetings with Suzuki team director Paul Denning, Camel representatives were interested in the prospect of moving from a satellite Honda team to a full works Suzuki team, and that the sponsorship fee offered to Suzuki is much less than that currently paid to the Pons team.
Everything is very much in the air at the moment, but a quick rundown of the situation of three of the top teams of the premier class leaves no doubt that the situation in the MotoGP championship is worrying and uncertain:
Factory Yamaha, Tech3 Yamaha Gresini Honda
Factory Yamaha: Yamaha has signed Rossi and Edwards, but has no sponsor for 2006. In spite of winning the title for two years in a row, an extraordinary tangle caused by owing so much to Rossi that his conditions were accepted at the expense of the factory team’s major sponsor. Unless Rossi agrees to ride under Gauloises colors, Altadis will withdraw both Gauloises and Fortuna sponsorship from the premier class and may take legal action against Yamaha. Altadis believes that having Rossi listed as a rider on a “satellite team” in 2006 outside the Gauloises-Yamaha sponsorship agreement constitutes a violation of the spirit of the Altadis-Yamaha contract for Gauloises sponsorship for 2006. Altadis signed at the end of 2004 a two-year contract with Yamaha with the understanding, they say, that if Rossi renewed his agreement with Yamaha for 2006 he would be included in the factory team. Rossi did sign, but demanded the right to run a parallel team without tobacco sponsorship. At present there is no sponsor for this “satellite team” while Altadis and Yamaha hold urgent meetings to avert a lawsuit with an uncertain but potentially expensive (for Yamaha) outcome.
Tech3 (Fortuna) Yamaha: If there is no friendly resolution to the Yamaha-Altadis situation, Fortuna sponsorship would also be withdrawn from the Tech3 team directed by Herve Poncheral. Poncheral is currently talking with Dunlop for 2006 and will probably run a one-rider team. Randy de Puniet is a strong possibility, although the strong qualifying in Qatar by Toni Elias might have helped his chances if Yamaha decide they want to keep the young Spaniard in their system.
Honda Gresini: Telefonica-Movistar executives say they are leaving MotoGP to increase their involvement in Formula 1 with newly crowned Spanish World Champion Fernando Alonso. In part, in large part, this withdrawal by the Spanish telecommunications giant seems to be due to the signing by HRC of reigning 250 World Champion Dani Pedrosa. Pedrosa will ride in 2006 with the Repsol Honda team, a move that angered Telefonica-Movistar. Sete Gibernau seems very close to signing with Marlboro Ducati, taking away what little motivation Telefonica-Movistar might still have, though he may be signing because Telefonica have warned him that they are pulling out. Fausto Gresini has talked to Camel and Fortuna. In the case of Camel sponsorship, Biaggi would be likely to replace Gibernau, although Camel Spain would push for Checa. The possibility of Fortuna stepping up to sponsor the Gresini team would depend upon the resolution of the Yamaha-Altadis stand-off, but, if they happened it would mean that Rossi had decided to return to Yamaha and, in case of such a major breakthrough, it would be logical to assume that Altadis would want Fortuna to stay put with Tech3 Yamaha. The fact that there was no news from the Altadis-Yamaha meetings in France over the weekend is an indication that, so far anyway, Rossi is standing firm and insisting that he be allowed to run without tobacco sponsorship in 2006.
Honda Pons: The most successful satellite team in MotoGP is fighting to retain sponsorship from Camel or obtain it from Fortuna. Nothing is settled as far as riders are concerned either, except that Bayliss, injured now, will not continue. A successful wildcard ride at the Australian GP by Chris Vermuelen (who rides for Winston, like Camel an R. J. Reynolds brand), could help Pons keep Camel onboard, or introduce Winston, if the former World Supersport Champion and current World Superbike star and title contender were to ride for Pons Honda in 2006. Team Pons has brought several new sponsors into the MotoGP paddock, among them Emerson Electronics, West and Camel. Team Pons also ran with Campsa and Fortuna in the past, but being a satellite team and unable to guarantee full factory support from Honda has made it difficult to keep sponsors on board and that seems to be happening again as Camel seem to be looking for a team with direct factory support.
A look at the rest of the field
Repsol Honda and Marboro Ducati are solid for 2006. Repsol has an agreement for 2007 as well and options for longer renewals, but Marlboro’s future, as indeed all tobacco advertising in MotoGP, will be influenced by the ability of Dorna to schedule races in markets that tolerate tobacco advertising and, especially in the case of Philip Morris’ flagship brand, the future legislation in Europe regarding “subliminal advertising,” as European legislators refer to “un-branded” livery which preserves colors and designs which suggest the branded livery of the team sponsor.
HRC continues to maintain that rider assignments to the Repsol team are not yet decided but, barring some extra developments, the Repsol Honda riders will be Nicky Hayden and Dani Pedrosa.
Marlboro Ducati has renewed Capirossi and released Checa. Gibernau may have already agreed to sign, but he hasn’t done so yet and probably won’t announce his decision until the end of the season. The Spaniard is expected to replace his fellow countryman Carlos Checa unless some last-hour and very unlikely agreement is reached with Repsol to include Gibernau in a three-man Repsol Honda team. That possibility now seems dead.
Factory Suzuki: With Hopkins signed they have offers from several riders, both in MotoGP, 250 and World Superbike. Key candidates are Max Biaggi, Carlos Checa and Alex Hofmann. If a sponsorship agreement is reached with Camel, the new sponsor will have a lot to say about rider choice, tipping the scale in favor of Checa or Biaggi over Hofmann,
Factory Kawasaki: Hofmann seems to be on the way out. Nakano says he is “99% decided to continue” and may not have any other options since Japanese teams have a kind of unwritten taboo on lifting Japanese riders from other Japanese teams. Nakano was “left unprotected” by Yamaha at the end of 2003 and picked up by Kawasaki, but Kawasaki definitely want to retain him. The other seat seemed likely to go to Olivier Jacque, who was Nakano’s team mate in 2000 when the Nakano and Jacque finished first and second in the world 250 Championship for Yamaha. Jacque’s injury in practice at Qatar may cause Kawasaki to look at other options. There were talks with Biaggi, but Max wanted to switch to Michelin and Kawasaki seems likely and probably even committed by contract to continue with Bridgestone. The Kawasaki has looked very good a few times, especially in Malaysia until Sete knocked Nakano down. Kawasaki does not seem too bothered about running without a sponsor since the green fairing actually advertises the product Kawasaki races to promote…Kawasaki motorcycles. Kawasaki Heavy Industries has deep pockets and their initial reason for building motorcycles was no create brand awareness for the huge Kawasaki group of companies. The old story tells of Kawasaki executives back in the late sixties realizing on a trip to the US that Honda, a small company compared to mighty Kawasaki Heavy Industries, was a more recognized brand in America because of all the Honda motorcycles about. If that old chestnut is true then Kawasaki built motorcycles for brand awareness. And if that is the case, the last thing they need is a sponsor with other colors and a different name on the side of the fairing.