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The long and winding road: About leaving Suzuki, sleepless nights and riding a Honda for the first time

SV November 14, 2011 Featured, Gossip, News No Comments

After a long, long, long wait for a confirmation about Álvaro’s future in MotoGP, he finally made the well-publicised switch from the Rizla Suzuki team to San Carlo Honda Gresini last week and will be riding a 1000cc Honda RC213V next season. As this news was coming as a surprise to quite a few fans and even some paddock insiders, we’re aiming to reconstruct how it all came about and assemble most of Bati’s quotes on the matter here to try and give you the full picture.

Following the official announcement that Suzuki and Alvaro won’t be together anymore next season, both the team and Álvaro were very emphatic to point out that there were absolutely no hard feelings on either side, Suzuki would have loved for Álvaro to stay but wishes him all the best in his future and Álvaro for his part pointed out that he felt like leaving his family and was very sad to go, but that his decision was purely based on technical reasons.

Speaking to motogp.com at the second day of testing he said:

“I left Suzuki only because of the technical side, because the people there are fantastic and I’m very happy with the work I did last year and I want to say Sorry to the team, but the technical plan for next year was not the best for me and I thought the best way to have a competitive bike was to change teams and I did that.
Thanks to Suzuki to let me test today and I hope for them the next year will be good for them as well.”

The technical side Álvaro is referring to is of course Suzuki’s plan to start the 2012 season with the same 800cc bike they’ve been competing with this season, if they continue at all. This uncertainty about Suzuki’s stay in the class and a certain disadvantage against the factory 1000cc bikes for at least half of the season – Álvaro later revealed during an interview in his hometown that the offer he got from Suzuki actually included riding the entire season with the 800cc, not just half of it – finally pushed Álvaro towards a switch from Suzuki to another brand.

It’s been no secret that Shuhei Nakamoto, vice-president of the Honda Racing Cooperation (HRC), is very fond of Álvaro and HRC’s marketing manager Livio Suppo already declared a year ago “I’d like to see Álvaro on a Honda”. When Álvaro started to show his excellent pace again this year, especially in the second part of the season, and having shouldered all the development of the bike as the sole rider for Suzuki, interest in him was again very high and peaked with offers from almost all satellite teams in the class, from Honda, Yamaha and Ducati.
Initially strongly linked to the Tech3 Yamaha ride and being on top of Herve Poncharal’s wish list together with Andrea Dovizioso, it eventually was the Italian who signed with the French squad as Álvaro was still waiting for official confirmation from Suzuki about their plans for next season and delayed his own decision in favour of them over and over again. It was clear that he believed in the potential of the bike and the team and honestly wanted to stay with the factory if at all possible. But finally he had waited enough and knowing for sure that Suzuki’s 1000cc project won’t be ready in time and he’d have to compete with the 800cc bike in the 2012 season, he made the decision to leave the team to try and get a competitive 1000cc bike instead.

With the Yamaha offer gone, this could ideally only be a Honda, which appeared to be the strongest bike this year, and Lucio Cecchinello’s LCR Honda team seemed like the most likely option for Álvaro to chose. But his hope in a swift decision by Suzuki was not yet lost and at Sepang ahead of the Malaysian Grand Prix HRC’s Shuhei Nakamoto and Rizla Suzuki’s project manager Shinichi Sahara agreed on a gentleman’s deal that Honda would not sign up any other rider for LCR before Suzuki had announced their plans, not only about their sport project, but also if they’d stay in the class at all. Honda was going to wait for Álvaro’s decision, making him the most important piece in the remaining silly season puzzle, putting all other rider decisions on hold as well.

Summarizing the long time of waiting, Álvaro told Bikesportnews:

“For me, I was waiting four months, but for sure in the last two weeks there was more pressure, because I lost the chance to go with Yamaha just to wait on Suzuki and then when it was the same situation, nothing clear, I had to find other teams that don’t remain with the 800c bike, because next year it will be quite impossible to be competitive [with 800cc]. Next year I want to ride a 1000cc bike.”

According to MCN’s Matthew Birt, Álvaro admitted in Valencia that he’d have left Suzuki even if he’d known for sure they’d stay in the class, because he didn’t want to ride an 800cc bike when everyone else was out on 1000cc machines. So by Sepang Álvaro’s decision to leave Suzuki and join LCR was almost certain with both Honda and Cecchinello eager to sign him for the team while Suzuki were still unsure about their plans and only about to make an announcement on that weekend. But then the fateful second lap happened.

Following the tragic death of Marco Simoncelli at the Malaysian Grand Prix, contract negotiations were the last thing on anyone’s mind and Suzuki delayed their decision once again and Álvaro was again back to waiting.

Yet, despite the tragic circumstances, the now empty seat in the Gresini garage added a new puzzle piece to the silly season. Honda was still eager to sign Álvaro. And Fausto Gresini now had him high on his wish list to ride one of his bikes. Even his main team sponsor, snack manufacturer San Carlo, would’ve been happy with Álvaro as the new ambassador for their chips and snacks as they are planning to expand their business to Spain.

Everything looked to be set for Álvaro to join the Gresini team as the Valencian Grand Prix came around. But the chequered flag at the track was waved and despite things seemingly being settled already, three tough days of negotiations began. First Spanish journalist Mela Chercoles reported on Monday that Suzuki was putting pressure on Álvaro to stay with them or they’d leave the class if he goes. That issue was seemingly sorted quickly when they gave Álvaro a free pass from testing on Tuesday to further negotiate with Honda while Randy De Puniet was riding the Suzuki. However, another hurdle allegedly was the LCR team, since Lucio Cecchinello was still very keen to have Álvaro join his team after he had already left the seat free for him following the Sepang agreement between Nakamoto and Sahara.

But Nakamoto and Honda rather wanted to place Álvaro with the Gresini team. On the one hand for emotional reasons, to give the team a new challenge to look forward to and bring back some joy. Dorna boss Carmelo Ezpeleta also expressed his satisfaction about the Gresini-Bautista pairing in a radio interview with Onda Cero for the same reason, saying that the team is still grieving, but that it’s a big motivation and uplift for them now, having secured Álvaro as their new rider and looking forward to the coming season again.
On the other hand HRC was eager to see Álvaro ride with Gresini for financial reasons, because the team has much better sponsor financing than LCR, which makes it possible for them to give Àlvaro a better satellite bike, almost factory-spec. Not like the factory bike Marco would have ridden, who was directly employed by Honda, but still with certain privileges.

Having “lost” Álvaro to Gresini, the deal was finally also made easier for LCR by the strong test with Stefan Bradl who now looks certain to sign a contract with them for next season and as a German rider will likely get a lot of backing from Dorna to help LCR out.

It’s been stressful negotiations in the end and Álvaro was happy when everything was over and he was finally out on the bike:

“Yesterday I was very nervous, but tonight was the best I have slept in days. It’s been some very hard days for me, the last three days. Many people and myself have worked a lot to get this chance, to come here. But in the end I can come here and I’m very happy to be here next year, with this team and this bike. I’m looking forward to start testing with the new bike and I’ll do my maximum.”

Well aware that the position in the Gresini team was only available because of the tragedy in Malaysia, Álvaro is eager to honour Marco’s memory with good results next year.

“Sure I couldn’t come to this team without the tragedy that happened to Marco and it is certainly not the best way to do this. I would like to do a good year to be happy with myself and to do a good job for the team. But more than anything I want to do a good job for Marco. I will try my best to stay in the same position he was achieving.”

In the past Álvaro had many altercations with Simoncelli on and off track, but as he also wrote in his emotional farewell letter to Marco after Malaysia, the two got closer again this year: “There were some issues between Marco and I when we raced 250’s together, but this season we became closer, often talking about whether to race in Japan or not. I discovered a really nice person. He could be tough on the track, but you could also joke with him in the paddock.”

Aside from riding to honour the memory of Marco, who he battled with until the last moments of his life, competing with a new bike and a new team next year, Álvaro’s goal is clearly marked: “To do the best I can, evolve as a rider and take a step forward.” And his team and new boss Fausto Gresini believe in his potential, with Gresini claiming: “If a rider gets on one of my Hondas, it will only be because I’m seriously interested in them.”

The first contact on Wednesday with the team and his new crew chief, Spaniard Antonio Jimenez, was very positive for both sides and Álvaro is happy with how the day of testing went.

Today was only to get the feeling, to try the new bike, to make contact with the team and I think it was very positive, because I can now understand how this bike works, it’s very different from the Suzuki. It’s good for the mind, because next time out at the Sepang test I’ll arrive with a more clear situation than today, because I’ll know how the bike is and I know more or less what I have to expect there. But today everything was new for me and I think we did well, because it was only to ride the bike, not chasing laptimes, but only getting the feeling, getting feedback and just having fun with the bike.“

Asked to compare the 800cc Honda with his Suzuki, he pointed out that it is indeed a “very, very different bike”, but that he felt comfortable on it from the first moment and is looking forward to test the 1000cc version at the Sepang test, starting on January 31st.

The crew of alvarobautista.co.uk would like to wish Álvaro and his new team all the best for the coming season and looks forward to see the number 19 back at the pointy end of the field more often.
Likewise all the very best wishes to his former Rizla Suzuki team and all its team members, who’ve worked relentlessly to make Suzuki that much more competitive in the last two years and always supported Álvaro in every situation, making even the bad times look a little brighter. They have also helped to improve Álvaro’s English by leaps and bounds, for which we are very grateful. Thanks for everything.

Update: Today it’s been reported in several media outlets, most notably GPWeek and GPOne, that Suzuki has pulled out of the 2012 MotoGP season and did in fact not miss the deadline set by Dorna. Team boss Paul Denning has contacted all team members on Friday that they would likely have to look for a new job. However, as of now there’s been no official confirmation, neither by Suzuki nor by Dorna.

Sources: Marca1, Marca2, Twitter Matthew Birt, motogp.com, GPOne, MCN, GPWeek, AS.com, Telecinco, Bikesportnews.com, Sport.es, BBC Blog Azi Farni
Photos by Ben Davies for ©Smartfotos.co.uk

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