MotoGP: Silly season or stupid season?


So, the silly season started early this year; in mid-January to be precise. Next year it’ll start this year, if you see what I mean.

HRC say they may try to grab Jorge Lorenzo for 2015 and other rumours have the twice MotoGP world champ negotiating with Ducati.

No surprise about Honda. First, why wouldn’t HRC try to buy the man who’s their only serious threat to world domination? It’s the oldest trick in the book: by stealing your greatest rival’s top player you boost your own hopes, while dismantling those of your opposition.

No surprise about Ducati either. That’s the other oldest trick in the book: you start negotiations with a rival team, or at least spread rumours that you are talking with a rival team, to hike up your salary. Both Lorenzo and Yamaha have denied the Ducati talks, but the paddock whispers alone will help to get Yamaha digging deeper into their pockets for 2015.

In other words, there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors going on here with those involved being very economical with the truth and very generous with untruths. So always read between the lines and hear that noise – it’s the sound of people furiously grinding axes.

Honda team-mates Eddie Lawson, Wayne Gardner and Mick Doohan in 1989

Many decades ago – those days of innocence and wonder – the silly season started once all the racing was done. Then a decade or so ago the talking began during the August summer break. In recent seasons it has retreated month by month, until here we are in January 2014, talking about 2015 before anyone’s even started testing, let alone racing. Perhaps we should start calling it the ridiculously stupid season.

Discord at Honda, 1988

Back in December 1988, reigning 500 World Champion Eddie Lawson created the biggest-ever contract shock when he switched from Yamaha – where he had won three 500 world titles in just six years – to Honda. The first I knew of it was when I read the press release faxed over to us by Rothmans, who were bankrolling Lawson’s new venture for the 1989 season with Japanese-American engineer Erv Kanemoto. Perhaps I was being useless at my job – perhaps I should have found about Steady Eddie’s defection sooner.

In fact everyone not in on the deal was caught unawares by the news. At that time 1987 500 world champ Wayne Gardner was number one rider at Rothmans Honda and the first he knew of Lawson’s arrival was when he was back home in Sydney reading a daily newspaper. Unsurprisingly, Gardner wasn’t impressed – his employers and his sponsors had spent the last few months working behind his back to secure Lawson, with whom he had an, er, difficult relationship.

Lawson in 1989

It is difficult to imagine anyone maintaining that level of secrecy in these days of mass media hype, Twitter and the rest of the internet. At the very least, the NSA would know all about it.

I was so fascinated by the intrigue surrounding Lawson’s move that I wrote a big story about it, interviewing various insiders, including Niall Mackenzie, who was riding for Kanemoto Honda in 1988 when Lawson started his Honda negotiations. Lawson didn’t like what I wrote and during a press debrief with various other journalists he publicly threatened to set his attorney on me. Ah, happy days.

Doohan plays the game

During the mid-1990s Mick Doohan became the first bike racer on an eight-figure salary, earning around $10 million a year from Honda. There was no doubt that he was worth the money, because he was head and shoulders better than anyone else racing at that time.

But even Mighty Mick wasn’t above making sure that Honda occasionally knew he was negotiating with Yamaha, who would obviously have to better Honda’s offer to lure him away, which in turn would force Honda to up their offer. In 1998 his HRC contract fee increased 40 per cent following the factories’ chequebook duel for his signature.

Doohan had some interesting negotiations even before he started racing 500s. The year before his 1989 GP debut, when he was a relatively unknown Aussie superbike rider, he had signed a letter of intent with Suzuki, to whom he’d been introduced by Barry Sheene.

As the year wore on, Honda and Yamaha also became interested in signing him for GP duties and it didn’t take Doohan long to realise that he would be much better off joining Honda than Suzuki: better bike, more money and a better long-term future. But how to wriggle out of the letter of intent that bore his signature?

The ever-resourceful Sheene came up with a plan. “Barry told the Japanese that I’d got a load of superstitions about riding Suzukis,” Doohan recalls. “They must’ve been shaking their heads, going ‘this guy’s weird, best get rid of him’.”

I wonder if Lorenzo will decide that, after all, once he’s negotiated a worthwhile pay rise from his current employers, that he’s got loads of superstitions about riding Ducatis. Who wouldn’t? For the record, this isn’t the first time Lorenzo has used Ducati’s interest in him to raise his stake at Yamaha – he did exactly the same in 2009 when Casey Stoner was ill.

With every top rider out of contract at the end of this season, you can expect endless silly season headlines from now until the ink has dried on all the top riders’ contracts. As a journalist, the secret to being proven correct in your theories regarding who goes where is really very simple.

As the year drags on, you make sure that you write headlines that cover each and every eventuality for each and every rider: Lorenzo goes to Ducati, Lorenzo stays at Yamaha, Lorenzo moves to Honda, Lorenzo switches to Suzuki and so on. So when riders finally make up their minds, you can proudly point to whichever story turned out to be true and amaze everyone with your insider knowledge.

Me, I find the whole silly season thing rather tiresome. Wake me up when the ink has dried, then let’s go racing.

More from Mat Oxley
Inside the mind of Casey Stoner
2013 MotoGP season review, part one
2013 MotoGP season review, part two

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