Let's take a look at the 2011 seasons of Hiroshi Aoyama, Colin Edwards, Nicky Hayden and Valentino Rossi.
For Honda, having a Japanese rider in the premier class has always been important. It's an unspoken rule that had a lot to do with prolonging the presence in MotoGP of Shinya Nakano and Makoto Tamada, brought Yuki Takahashi up to the premier class and kept some satellite teams as two-rider outfits with Honda providing most — if not all — the Hiroshi Aoyama and his 2011 bikemoney for wages.
Aoyama was undoubtedly the best man to represent Japan in 2011, considering that he brought the final 250cc title back to HRC two years previously and that the injuries/bog standard bike combination from his debut season had hindered his adaptation to the 800ccs. The support of the experienced Gresini team and an almost clean bill of health — problems from a fractured vertebra still bother Aoyama — allowed him to finish consistently if unspectacularly and there just wasn't enough room for him at the end of the season. Fourth place at Jerez will most likely remain his best ever MotoGP result.
What happens next?
Aoyama is off to World Superbikes with Castrol Honda. Early tests have been difficult, so the jury is still out as to whether he will fade out a la Nakano or find a career renaissance in production bike racing like 'Nitro' Noriyuki Haga.
As the seasons go on for the Texas Tornado, there is always speculation that the present campaign will be his last. 2011 was no exception, but it was also a year in which we saw Edwards's character defined in the space of two race weekends and remembered why it is so good to have him on the grid.
Break your collarbone in Friday free practice and you aren't going to be in any shape to do much at all on Sunday, bar having a look at your new metal plate and asking the nurse for aColin Edwards isn't going anywhere morphine top-up. Not if you are 141 races not-out in MotoGP, though. All right, Edwards only planned to take the start at Montmelo and then come into the pits — even he knew that racing itself was out of the question — but he wanted to keep that race appearance run going at all costs. The medical team refused to clear the American, he said it was "because I'm not Valentino Rossi", and he sat out a first premier class race since 2003.
If the season had ended after the following race, then it would have been fairytale stuff: Wet conditions at Silverstone helped him nurse his injury, ride around his limited movement and take a first podium since 2008.
What happens next?
Edwards won't be off home to the ranch for at least another season and there is little point in trying to stop him riding. He was the first big name to sign up for a CRT ride and will kick off 2012 with Forward Racing. Sadly involved and injured in the crash that took Marco Simoncelli's life, the man from the Lone Star State's first race back after the incident will come at the Qatar season-opener. His goal will be to keep on going for a possible Texan GP in 2013.
One has to feel for Nicky Hayden. A former world champion made to play second fiddle in every team for whom he has raced in MotoGP, news of Valentino Rossi's signing for Ducati must have raised all sorts of concern for 'The Kentucky Kid'. If any more proof of where he stands with the Bologna factory was needed, watch the footage from Ducati's team launch/freebie fest this past week: Hayden rides pillion to Rossi on the slopes of Madonna di Campiglio. He was all smiles, but that's got to smart.
"Numbers don't lie," as Hayden famously had printed on his leathers in 2007. You wouldn't think it from the disparity in coverage between the American's season and that of his team-mate, but he only trailed Rossi in the overall standings by seven points come the end of the year. On a bike that was being modified to find solutions for both riders' problems, but with Rossi as the focus.
Getting back on the podium at race two in Spain was the highlight of Hayden's season. Having to make a quick turnaround from Japan to Kentucky to Jerez in October, after Rossi injured his finger and was pulled from GP12 testing, cannot have been as enjoyable.
What happens next?
He has said that 2012 is a big year for him, which is right on the money. Thirty years old with a contract for this season only, it is decision time and a season in which results really will count. The last 990cc world champion is on the back foot with 1000cc preparations though: his broken scapula makes him a doubt for testing in Malaysia and further reduces his acclimatisation to the new Desmosedici.
What more can be said about Valentino Rossi's 2011? A first year without a win since his debut season, more false dawns than a gradual light alarm clock and a new adventure that hasn't gone according to plan, this has been an annus horribilis of astonishing magnitude for 'The Doctor'. The injuries that took time to heal — shoulder, little finger, leg. The changes made at his behest that were scrapped or, in the case of the winged fairing, put on display in the Ducati hospitality unit. Then there was the personal tragedy of losing one of his best friends, Simoncelli, plus the sadness of not being able to complete the Valencia race as a tribute to the much missed 'SuperSic'.Valentino Rossi is a born winner
2011 gave us a glimpse of life without Rossi in the title fight. It was a novelty, but any true racing fan wants him back in the mix for 2012.
What happens next?
Malaysia will be key. Let's see if aluminium frames, new ideas and the non-stop work of the Ducati engineers can bring the Desmosedici GP12 closer to the Hondas and Yamahas on the timesheets. Rossi and his crew can build from there. If not, he will potentially be a free agent by the end of the year and there are some cash-strapped factories who would love to incorporate him into their title and marketing plans. After all, the man is a born winner and isn't one to take two seasons without success.